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Sea Change

A history professor’s research on the world of slave ships sheds light on race relations today

It’s early morning when 20-year-old Marcus Rediker pulls his car into a DuPont factory parking lot in Richmond, Va. The air in the industrial park smells of tobacco, sulfur, and pine cones. Rediker grabs his lunch pail, then flows through the gates with hundreds of other workers. In his blue jeans and steel-toed boots, he takes his place on the assembly line, where he unloads heavy rolls of cellophane. It is backbreaking work. But a curious Rediker is never too worn out to notice the social segregation in the factory. To his left are his friends, devotees of Malcolm X. To his right are self-proclaimed Ku Klux Klan members. There are racial tensions all ’round. Sometimes, they boil over into fistfights in the plant’s cafeteria.

  Marcus Rediker (Bill Bollendorf photo)

Rediker worked at the factory during a time when the U.S. civil rights movement was a catalyst for sweeping change, pushing people to confront America’s history of racism. Violence was erupting, and Blacks were marching for justice on U.S. streets. Growing up in the South, Rediker was immersed in the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow segregation laws. But, as a champion basketball player in high school, he also made friendships across the color line through the camaraderie of sport. Along the way, he saw race-based injustice firsthand. Still, the hate and discord that Rediker encountered in the factory awakened him to the nation’s racial schism in a way that earlier lessons never could. When he was laid off at the factory, he took a day job and enrolled in night classes at a local college. He began to study history and America’s heritage of race and class—the “American adventure,” as he puts it.

Today, Rediker is professor and chair of the history department at Pitt. He sits in a comfortable red-leather chair with a view of campus from the third-floor windows of his Posvar Hall office. He is surrounded by African sculpture and Haitian paintings. Just back from giving a lecture in London, he’s gearing up for more discussion about his latest book, The Slave Ship: A Human History (Viking). The book presents a haunting account based on Rediker’s meticulous research, which combines two of his scholarly interests—1700s maritime life and the slave trade. It’s a portrait of the convergence of labor, power, economics, and race in the global industry of slavery.

The work, described by Los Angeles Times staff writer Tim Rutten as “searingly brilliant,” breaks new ground not only in illuminating the brutal dynamics of the slave trade but also in showing how the slave ships shaped race in America. When stuffed into the bowels of ships, enslaved Africans—a rich quilt of tribes and religions—were all lumped together as one undifferentiated group called “Negro,” which translates as “black” in the Spanish and Portuguese languages. Meanwhile, the ship’s crew—many of them dark-skinned Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian men—soon became identified as “White” to distinguish them from African traders and slaves. Those distinctions washed ashore in America and formed the foundation of the troubling racial categories that Americans live with today, says Rediker. Beyond that, the shared experience of being chained in the ships allowed the Africans to bond across languages and culture, which laid the foundations for African American identity in the United States.

Through the lens of history, it can seem as if that brutal passage only happened in the thick pages of even thicker books. But 12 million people were enslaved and shipped from their homelands between the late 1400s and late 1800s. Using scholarly as well as contemporary resources, Rediker brings history to life through the eyes of those who were there. He draws on a range of primary sources, including first-person accounts from captains, sailors, and slaves to render the world of the slave ship. He also recounts the long slog faced by anti-slavery advocates. Among his sources are the writings of John Newton, the abolitionist who penned the hymn “Amazing Grace” after spending years as the captain of a slave ship. In March, The Organization of American Historians awarded the book its Merle Curti Award for best work on American social, intellectual, or cultural history.

Rediker’s work gives flesh and soul to the horrid enterprise of slave ships, including those people in the holds below—the artisans, rice growers, chieftains, and children who were all stowed at the bottom of the ship. “You can’t hide the human side of the story,” he says. “There is inspiration in the stories of the people who fought back for 400 years; it can’t be suppressed.”

The text is timely: America is celebrating the 200th anniversary of its slave-trade abolition. England’s anniversary was in 2007. Coincidentally, the Pitt history department is a national leader in teaching the history of the Atlantic, which includes examining Europe, West Africa, and America—the same parts of the world most prominent in the slave trade.

Rediker’s book tour has taken him from Boston, Mass., to Bristol, England, visiting the cities that had large slave-trading ports. He reads from The Slave Ship in museums, book stores, and universities. At each stop, the history and emotion of the slave ships are relived. He’s a White man talking about Blacks who were put in chains by Whites. It’s a painful subject. He wants people to feel the pain but not to become numb to the horrors. He walks a thin line in getting people to rethink slavery. Even the word “plantation” should be revisited, he says: It conjures up a world of Scarlett O’Hara, romantic evenings, and mint juleps on grand porches. The reality is that the antebellum farms were nothing but slave labor camps. “Say that,” says Rediker, “and you get a different image. But that’s really what they were.”

It has been more than 30 years since the maritime historian worked in a Richmond, Va., factory, but for Rediker, the racial rifts that he witnessed are still fresh. He remains intrigued by the source of so much pain, generations of suffering and fracture. Last year, during one of Rediker’s lecture stops in Massachusetts, a descendant of the notorious slave-ship captain James De Wolf approached the author.

I am a De Wolf, she declared, and I agree with everything you’ve said. It’s a gruesome part of my history. Rediker believes that unearthing the past is the first step toward facing the future. —Ervin Dyer

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