Henry Bibb, a former slave, in an 1849 narrative that is part of an exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture, describes a scene where a mother (a slave) unleashes a piercing scream as her baby is ripped from her arms during a slave auction.
“But the child was torn from the arms of its mother amid the most heart-rending shrieks from the mother and child on the one hand, and the bitter oaths and cruel lashes from the tyrants on the other.”
“The Weeping Time” exhibit documents the tragic U.S. History of enslaved children being separated from their enslaved parents. And of course, in those circumstances, the baby or child’s mother gets sold to the highest bidder, separated from their child forever, and in a few cases, if luck finds them again, they reunite once more.
It is the cruelest thing to separate a mother from a child but slavery okayed such a thing. Another slave, Charles Ball, popular for his account as a fugitive slave in “The Life and Adventures of Charles Ball” and having served in the Chesapeake Bay Flotilla of the U.S. Navy under the command of Commodore Joshua Barney in the War of 1812, shares how his mother had to painfully watch him being taken away from her.
“My poor mother, when she saw me leaving her for the last time, ran after me, took me down from the horse, clasped me in her arms, and wept loudly and bitterly over me. My master seemed to pity her and endeavored to soothe her distress by telling her that he would be a good master to me, and that I should not want anything.”
Still, his mother would not let go. She walked beside the horse, begging the slave owner to buy her and the rest of her children. That didn’t happen as he got separated from her.
Today, in the U.S., a new form of slavery has beckoned the boundaries of the country touted to be the land of the free and home of the brave yet does not show bravery in decision-making which depicts a repetition of a rather unfortunate history.
Current U.S. president, Donald Trump, although after widespread criticism reversed the policy, he allowed parents and children looking to enter the country through its Mexico border, to be separated from each other.
This law came about in April 2018 under a “zero-tolerance” immigration policy that ensured that adult undocumented migrants crossing the US-Mexico border be criminally charged and jailed. Before this time, such cases had only been treated as civil violations.
And, because the children of prosecuted migrants were not charged with any crime, they were not permitted to be jailed with their parents, which led to the situation where children were instead placed in shelters or foster care, completely separated from their families. Most of the time too, these children knew not where their parents were and for how long they wouldn’t see them.
Although the president signed an executive order in June 2018 reversing the policy with a court order sealing it, the New York Times has reported that a further 700 families have been separated in the past year because of “loopholes” in the court order.
The obvious outrage by Democrats and immigration advocates have been rife, bringing back memories of some of the ugliest chapters in American history.
On its page on Twitter on May 26, 2018, the African American Research tweeted “Official US policy: Until 1865, rip African American children from their parents. From 1870s to 1970s, rip Native American children from their parents. Now, rip children of immigrants and refugees from their parents.”
Henry Fernandez, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said he drafted the tweet based on his research into several periods in U.S. history when government officials sanctioned the separation of children from their parents, including during slavery.
A classic case was when Celia, a 19-year-old slave, who had been enduring her master’s sexual harassments leading to three pregnancies which he outrightly denied, decided to put an end to the septuagenarian’s life by crushing his head with a club, burnt his body and crushed his bones.
Another period of family cruelty, Fernandez said, began in the late 1800s and lasted well into the 1970s when indigenous children across the country were forcibly separated from their families and sent to “Indian schools.” At the boarding schools, these children were required to assimilate. They were stripped of their language and culture. Often, they were physically and sometimes sexually abused.
“Families were often forced to send their children to these schools, where they were forbidden to speak their native languages,” according to the museum.
Until the end of the Civil War, it was common for slave owners to rip families apart by selling the children or the parents to other slave owners.
“Along with ongoing rape and the use of the whip to discipline human beings, destroying families is one of the worst things done during slavery. The federal government maintained these evils through the fugitive slave laws and other rules which defined African Americans as property with which a slave owner could do whatever they wanted.”
This is the truth about what is going on in America today: each of these policies seem to support the assumption “that the idea of family is simply less important to people of color and that the people involved are less than human. To justify ripping families apart, the government must first engage in dehumanizing the targeted group, whether it is Native Americans, African Americans or immigrants from Central America fleeing murder, rape, extortion and kidnapping.”
Slave narratives reveal the heart-wrenching stories of children taken from families. According to the Maryland State Archives: “For most slave children, the separation from their parents and the siblings was the hardest aspect of being sold. Slaves went to great lengths to keep their family together, but there was often limits to what they could do.”
Meanwhile, in detention centers today, reports abound on how poorly the conditions there are for children and the adults. There have been reports of overcrowding and abuse in many of these detention centers calling for even healthcare access for disabled children.
The U.N. refugee agency and other organizations criticized detention centers in Mexico even before the current crisis saying migrants are held in substandard conditions and regularly extorted. They have called for detentions to be the exception, and to be completely eliminated for minors. Yet children continue to fill up the centers even after a girl died in Mexico City under unclear circumstances.
Slavery – selling and buying people, separating them from their families, might have been abolished but if policies such as the current immigration policies of America persist, it only gives more room to fuel the argument that the government of the day, or generally the people of America, are sanctioning a new form of slavery that only puts the country on the map of the world as being another bad reference point for being a hub of notoriety.
What is happening now is awful and deeply unfortunate and that is why America should not want to be seen to be endorsing this human rights catastrophe in any form of the term, any longer.
It didn’t come out of nowhere, though. It came right from the American playbook. America has routinely mistreated and abused people of color for hundreds of years — and has willfully separated millions of families, sometimes permanently, for sport and profit, on its soil. We must all speak out against it because this trend has deeper roots than it appears.