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Before cotton, sugar established American reliance on slave labor

It has been 400 years since the first African slaves arrived in what is now the U.S. In observance, The New York Times' 1619 Project spotlights lesser-known parts of American history related to slavery. Harvard University’s Khalil Gibran Muhammad has analyzed how American sugar production cemented slavery within the U.S. economy -- and how its legacy endures. He joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Four hundred years ago this month, in August 1619, the first African slaves arrived in Virginia. It is regarded by many as the beginning of America's long relationship with slavery.

    The 400th anniversary and the ways slavery has affected American history since then are being commemorated. One of the more notable efforts is The New York Times' 1619 Project, which is spotlighting parts of history that are less well-known.

    We are going to focus on some of the economic legacies, including the larger connections with modern capitalism. Specifically, we're going to look at how the production of American sugar, known as white gold, helped to fuel slavery and became ingrained in our society.

    Historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad of Harvard's Kennedy School wrote about that for The New York Times. Louisiana, he wrote, led the nation in destroying the lives of black people in the name of economic efficiency.

    And he joins me now. He joins me now.

    Professor Muhammad, thank you very much for being here.

    Help us understand how sugar is connected to the origins of American slavery.

  • Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

    Sugar was the most dominant economic incentive for European colonization of the Americas.

    No other crop was as abundant or successful in drawing Europeans to these shores, and I mean by that North America and South America, for the purpose of cultivating sugar for a worldwide market, and particularly for Europe, that had already established a taste for sugar, but would grow exponentially in terms of demand over time.

    There's no way to really understand the significance of the colonization of the Americas without understanding the role of sugar in it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And how — and explain how slavery played such an important role from the very beginning.

  • Khalil Gibran Muhammad:


    So, the origin story, of course, is that Christopher Columbus brings some cane stalks with him by way of the Spanish Canary Islands in 1493. So sugar is already part of the globe, but it has not become the commodity in bulk form that it will become once Christopher Columbus brings it to the New World.

    As such, sugar was always an incredibly difficult product to produce. First, the cane itself is heavy and unwieldy. And, secondly, to take the plant and turn it into sugar required incredible labor and often dangerous and difficult labor.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you write about how, of course, that began in the 1600s, but then it went on literally for hundreds of years. It changed shape.

    You get closer to the Civil War, and the shape of the sugar industry has changed, but, still, slaves are an essential piece of it.

  • Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

    Absolutely. So, Louisiana doesn't get into the business of sugarcane cultivation until the end of the 18th century.

    As a result of the attempt to cultivate sugar, it blossomed and bloomed, and by the top of the 19th century, Louisiana was producing about a quarter of the world's cane sugar supply. It was a pretty miraculous turnaround.

    But all of that was made possible by the enslavement of people of African descent.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I know I'm asking do you skip over a lot of history here, but you move forward to today, to the 20th and even into the 21st century, and you write about how the legacy of what happened in Louisiana and other places still plays a role in the economy, a vital role in the economy of this country.

  • Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

    Well, if we go from sugar to cotton, we basically explain two crops that, in their totality, explain much of the infrastructure of our capitalist economy to this day.

    We can explain everything, from the abundance of land that was originally held by the indigenous, and the labor of enslaved people, as America's competitive advantage.

    By the 19th century, cotton, for example, was essentially the major export of the United States. And that cotton export helped make possible the wealth not only in enslaved people, but also the wealth of banks in the North that were responsible for financing investments in this country that were often mortgaged on the basis of enslaved people.

    There's no way to really understand the economic might of America by the 19th century without understanding the role of cotton slavery and earlier sugar slavery in it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    One of the other writers for these series of articles in the Sunday New York Times, Matthew Desmond — he's a professor at Princeton — writes about how not only that today's economy has its roots in slavery, but that modern American capitalism is as severe as it is in its treatment of people, and that that too has its roots in slavery.

    Some people are going to look at that and say, is that a leap too far? How do you answer that?

  • Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

    Well, it's a good question, and I can see why people would give pause.

    But if we take a step back, and we really ask a fair question, we could ask ourselves, has our economy been built on the notion of personhood or profit? And, in that sense, from slavery to the late 19th century of immigration of Europeans from around the world, to the 20th century today, people have been ground up in our economy for the purpose of moneymaking.

    How else would you explain the great labor unrest of the late 19th and early 20th century that brought us essentially our modern social welfare system, eventually in the New Deal, but for the fact that capitalism created misery for people at the lowest end of the economic totem pole?

    That's our history, whether we like it or not. Some people prospered in that system, but it was a system that was often quite brutal to workers who were responsible for doing the heavy lifting of our economy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Finally, why is it important, Professor Muhammad, that Americans understand what you have written about?

  • Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

    Well, it's important because we don't treat our past with the same commitment to truth and honesty and accuracy as we do, say, science and technology.

    If there is a concern in this day and age about the — questioning global warming or climate change, if scientists are under attacks for making things up, that's a new phenomenon, a product of our late 20th century.

    But we have been having cultural wars about how the interpret the American past from the very beginning. And the consequences of that are what drove the editors of the 1619 Project to look closely at the work of academic historians, just like many people look at the work of scientists and say, what do academic historians tell us about the past that we have not been teaching and we have not learned as well as we should?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Khalil Gibran Muhammad, he's a professor at Harvard Kennedy School, one of the writers for this New York Times series the 1619 Project, looking at the 400th anniversary of the beginning of slavery, thank you very much.

  • Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

    Thanks so much for having me.

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