CONCERNING THE 48,000: Suffering in a such smaller Detroit!


Part 3—The dead crowd out the living:
Slavery is one of the less attractive inventions of our self-glorying species.

We humans! In endless ways, we're inclined to praise [and present] ourselves as "the rational [and moral] animal." Such presentations are hard to square with such commonplace accounts such as this:
Evidence of slavery predates written records, and has existed in many cultures. Slavery is rare among hunter-gatherer populations because it requires economic surpluses and a high population density to be viable. Thus,...slavery became widespread only with the invention of agriculture during the Neolithic Revolution about 11,000 years ago.

In the earliest known records, slavery is treated as an established institution. The Code of Hammurabi (c. 1760 BC), for example, prescribed death for anyone who helped a slave escape or who sheltered a fugitive. The Bible mentions slavery as an established institution.

Slavery was known in almost every ancient civilization and society including Sumer, Ancient Egypt, Ancient China,
the Akkadian Empire, Assyria, Ancient India, Ancient Greece, Carolingian Europe, the Roman Empire, the Hebrew kingdoms of the ancient Levant, and the pre-Columbian civilizations of the Americas...
And so on. In fairness to our own Homo sapiens, until that Neolithic Revolution, it seems we were doing quite well!

Slavery has been practiced all over the world? Just this year, we saw Professor Gates make that statement to one of his guests on his PBS program, Finding Your Roots. In context, the statement seemed to be treated as something everyone knew.

In this country, the institution formed the basis for the country's economy long before the country became a country. Destructive, punishing claims about "race" were invented as a moral basis for the wonderfully low-cost practice.

We would have thought that much of this history was already well known. Similarly, we would have thought that people knew that the lives of enslaved people on this continent were "no crystal stair."

Such matters have been explored in print. Among many others, we think of Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, Professor Genovese's 1974 book, which won the Bancroft Prize for History.

Before that, we had Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America, 1619–1962, Lerone Bennett's well-known 1962 book.

It seems to us that everyone knows that innocent people suffered and died under the lash of this institution. (Along the way, America's enslaved population created one of the greatest ethical, religious and moral cultures in the whole of human history.)

It seems to us that everyone knows that innocents suffered and died. That doesn't mean that historians shouldn't possibly seek to add to our collection of knowledge. We will suggest that historians, and everyone else, should possibly stop ignoring the needs of the living in an ongoing, perhaps unattractive deference to the lives of the honored dead.

Consider what happened when Professor Miles spoke in Detroit last fall. She was appearing in a city where 48,000 living people, all of them young, attend what may be the most god-awful public school system in the entire country.

Tomorrow, we'll offer some horrible data. Today, we'll puzzle a bit about our society's balance of concern regarding the inconsequential living versus the honored dead.

You never heard a peep from corporate liberals about the 48,000. They're too busy keeping you entertained about one Donald J. Trump.

Such presentations are good for profits, salaries, careers. They also help define the actual mental and moral practices of our occasionally less than wholly impressive species.

Back to Professor Miles. As an historian, she has published a book about the enslaved people of early Detroit. Because she's an historian, there's no obvious reason why she shouldn't have done so.

That said:

When she threw the floor open to questions at a book event last fall, several questions, and several answers, dealt with the "emotional toll" exacted on the people who conduct such research. Indeed, the very first questioner, a good, decent person, said this as part of his question:
AUDIENCE MEMBER (10/6/17): First of all, let me thank you for the time and effort that you spent and put into this work...But in going over the material, and that would include your team, did it exact an emotional toll from you, and does it continue to?

Because I noticed, when you were talking about the women, I could see your eyes, and it made me wonder.
And we should feel this way when we come across this information...

Did it exact— How much of an emotional toll did it exact from you?
That was a perfectly decent question. For the full exchange, click here, move to the 35-minute mark.

Several questions, and several answers, dealt with the emotional toll on the professor and her graduate students. At the 52-minute mark, the professor somewhat oddly said that the toll had been so great that she and her students came "to feel that the river [the Detroit River] was really the only witness to this crime, the only witness still with us."

We were struck by the frequent self-reference as the professor described the search for these historical stories—stories which are, in fact, no more horrible than the many other horrible stories which have long been part of the historical record.

We were also struck by the small number of people involved in early Detroit.

How many honored dead is Professor Miles attempting to research? Yesterday, we showed you one remark which brought us up short as we watched the C-Span tape.

How many of the honored dead lived as enslaved people in Detroit? At one point, the professor said this:
MILES (10/6/17): In Detroit, the numbers were small. We're talking about 1300 people total, 2000 people total, in the early years. And so 85 enslaved people, 200 enslaved people, in the early years.
Eighty-five, or perhaps 200, enslaved people? We thought again of the 48,000 who may be attending school, this very day, in the nation's most god-awful school system.

The professor was writhing about the lives of the honored dead. That said, similar stories have been told many times, and the numbers in Detroit were quite small.

What was Detroit's overall population in the years under review? According to the leading authority on Detroit, here are a few population numbers from its early days:
Total population, Detroit
1773: 1,400
1778: 2,122
1820: 1,422
1830: 2,222
1840: 9,102
Detroit was rather small at this time. As for the state of Michigan, Michigan became a state in 1837. Here are early numbers for the Michigan Territory, which was officially formed in 1805:
Total population, Michigan Territory
1800: 3,757
1810: 4,762
1820: 7,452
1830: 28,004
Professor Miles is developing the history of a relatively small number of people. How many enslaved people lived in Detroit? This passage from the New York Times' review of the professor's (widely-praised) book provides a rough idea:
SOKOL (11/21/17): During the transition from British to American control, Detroit seemed a “mind-boggling morass of murky rules.” The Northwest Ordinance, which stated that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude” shall exist in the territory, was adopted in 1787 but did not take effect until 1796—with the American occupation. By that point, Detroit’s enslaved population had reached a peak of 298 people.
That review seems to say that the number peaked at 298, apparently in 1796. According to this Michigan site, the number began to drop after that. "Only 15 African Americans lived in Detroit in 1805, and it is unclear how many were slaves."

We can't vouch for the accuracy of that Michigan site. Professor Miles seems to have said that the number of enslaved people in Detroit peaked at 298.

As everyone has always known—as everyone has always known how to recite—that was 298 people too many. But stories of the evil of this system have long been well known in our world.

For reasons which may perhaps reflect somewhat poorly on our species, the stories of the 48,000 seem to excite a much smaller amount of interest. Within our deeply moral liberal world, the lives and interests of the 48,000 are relentlessly ignored.

Our world's indifference to these children could hardly be more clear. In our view, it's somewhat strange to denounce slaveholders so much while ignoring these modern-day children.

The 298 are the honored dead. The 48,000 are the living. We tend to weep for the smaller group, turn our backs on the massively larger.

Might this reflect our species' instincts? The way our species is wired?

Tomorrow: Some truly horrible data and facts concerning the 48,000


  1. Why can't people be interested in both the early slaves in Detroit and the education of children, 48,000 or some different number?

  2. Somerby seems to want to be critical of Dr. Miles for focusing on a small group in a past that contains many examples of slavery, but he knows such criticism will be resisted. Instead, he implies it by juxtaposing the lives of 48000 children against those 200 or so Detroit slaves. In this he makes several mistakes.

    1. He seems to misunderstand that researchers do get emotionally involved in their subjects. This would be true if slavery were not involved. If you don't care about something, why study it, especially given that academics choose their own areas of study. Somerby generalizes that emotional investment to imply that Dr. Miles and her students are displacing their feelings about current race relations onto their historical topic. That is ahistorical and they have been trained not to do so, but this is Somerby doing it for them. That is unfair.

    2. There is no requirement that any academic study something with practical value or current relevance. Basic research is done with the faith that it will be useful in some unknown way in the future, but there is no requirement that it be currently useful. Somerby thinks our energies should be devoted to living, deserving children. Of course they should, but our culture surely has a place for both concerns. Devoting energy to understanding where we came from and what has formed us is important too. But it is Somerby that imposes these demands, and that is wrong of him to do.

    Both of these misunderstandings arise because Somerby fails to appreciate what academic research is for and how it works. He has his own notions of what academics should do, and these are not the ones shared by academia. But he persists.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. As do you, and others.

      Bob seems to be emotionally invested in the idea of education, and while he’s no professional academic, I don’t doubt his sincerity. He’s not imposing demands. In all of this, he seems more concerned with the present and future of living beings rather than the known depredations of the past.

      This article is a rhetorical device as are many of his posts. Though you must admit, he backs up his rhetoric with research. He lauds the intelligence of Ms. Miles. He did not denigrate her, in fact the opposite, she made him think. Ms. Miles presentation (whom I’ve never heard of until recently) was the hook for Bob’s post. And an interesting one, in my view. Also interesting that you would invoke academics to explain the misguided writings of a simple, little-known blogger.

      Some anon below wondered why Bob wasn’t worried about Baltimore schools. First, this is actually being well covered. Second, doing so would lessen the effect of Bob’s hook. Miles talked about Detroit history, so Bob is talking about Detroit’s present, in regards to schools and the future portended for those who attend it.

      Perhaps the Detroit school system is actually in the mainstream news, like Baltimore has been lately. I have not seen any reports. One probably wouldn’t, unless locally involved. Maybe I’m wrong. Won’t bother me if I am, I can correct if I have to.


    3. That’s Dr. Miles to you, Leroy.

  3. In 100 years, those 48,000 will also be dead and the population will have increased substantially. Should we therefore not care about today's 48,000 either?

  4. So what is Somerby suggesting? That historians should go fuck themselves for caring about history? Or for being emotionally invested in their area of focus? Is he suggesting his own moral superiority? This is just ridiculous. Why in hell can't he just discuss the "48,000" without chastising someone else ( a liberal, natch) for not discussing it? He always seems to want to put someone down, and seems constitutionally unable to just discuss a topic straight, even one that he loudly proclaims he cares so much about. I charge Somerby with NOT caring about the 48,000.

  5. I agree that masturbating in public to selected historical tragedies isn't the most admirable pattern of behavior, but contrasting it with the quality of schools?

    Sure, I understand what you do here: a few unfortunate slaves in Detroit long time ago vs a lot of unfortunate students in Detroit schools today. But if we ignore the geographical location for a moment, surely there must be plenty of ongoing horrible injustices all over the world more worthy of attention than Detroit schools...

    1. Haw! You shouldn't have stopped, Caesar, you could have taken them too.


    2. Yeah, I have to concur with you. I agree with Bob on a lot but I think it's a ridiculous game to dismiss concerns for group X because group Y has it worse. I don't know why this professor is being held up as representative of anything. Is Bob saying that studies like hers shouldn't occur until we solve contemporary problems? I really don't get this approach.

      I think he's taking his usual themes to a bit of an absurd extreme, here. I fully agree that society as a general pays attention to problems out of proportion with their importance. But this is a poor example. It's weird to think that this woman shouldn't be distressed by some (presumably) horrible personal tales because there are current problems that affect many people. How shallow then are people who get emotionally attached to fictional characters? I do that all the time. The reality of the human psyche is that it's easier to relate to individuals than to large faceless groups. This is not new, nor will it change.

      Sorry, Bob, I think you're really barking up the wrong tree with this example.

  6. Last night, a hundred parents, grandparents and concerned community members showed up at a school board hearing about heating problems in Baltimore City Public Schools. They testified before the board and directed pointed questions to the superintendent and board members. These were parents, concerned about their children’s welfare and the safety of their children and their teachers. It was covered by local TV and print media.
    The Howler has been strangely silent on an ongoing crisis that affects youngsters in his community.
    An historian is expected to write history covering her area of expertise. I’m not sure why you’re criticizing her for not taking time out of her research to do public advocacy.

    1. It's all in service of his narrative, that liberals (or as he would have it, liberal "thought leaders", whatever that means (notice he exempts himself from that designation)) are hypocrites and don't care about (insert issue here: education, poor kids, sexual harassment...)

    2. They don't care as much as they think they do. I think that's the point. And, they get easily sidetracked.

  7. Hey, Bob, have you checked out the local Detroit or Michigan media, to see what their coverage of education has been? I'm going to guess "no." While national policy may help, sometimes the local communities are really the ones on the front lines of education issues. The residents there are the ones sending their children to area schools, paying taxes to fund schools, and sending reps to their state house to make state-level education policy and budgets. Why so concerned about Detroit? Why not Boston? Little Rock? Atlanta? Or all together?

  8. BTW, slaves are being bought and sold right now in Libya. This is a result of a dreadful decision by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to overthrow Khadafy. Should we not be more concerned about actual slavery today than about slavery that existed 300 years ago?

    October 2017
    A CNN team travels to Libya and witnesses a dozen men auctioned -- some for as little as $400 each. The crew is also told of auctions taking place at nine locations in the country.

    1. I don’t believe Hillary Clinton instituted slavery anywhere in the world.

    2. She foolishly endorsed the overthrow of Khadafy, which led to the slavery. Of course, she didn't mean that to happen. But, she and Obama had no plan for Libya after Khadafy was gone. Now the country is a total mess.

    3. Not their responsibility. Obama was president of the USA not Libya. Hillary was out of office.

    4. You're such a predicable little broken record prick David. Secretary Clinton was proposing increasing the number of refugees taken in which would have greatly alleviated the slave trade, while you voted for the fuckhead who proposed stopping all refugees from coming to this country. You're a predicable fucking hypocrite.

    5. Yes, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are responsible for the attack on Libya and its consequences. That's among the worst things either of them did.

    6. Have some more kool-aid, imp.

  9. Bob cares about poor children, but under plutocracy; the more poor children the better, the more uneducated children the better. Because a truly educated citizenry would instantly do away with plutocracy. Under a truly educated citizenry the toxic ideologies that inform the Republican base and reinforce plutocracy would be forever laughed off the face of the Earth. Conformity, obedience, worship of wealth; that’s what education consists of under a plutocracy such as ours.

    1. This November, we get to see if the strategy of the plutocrats is victorious, or if they are thwarted one more time. “The Great Experiment” is hanging on by a thread.