“It shall not be lawful for any negroe or other slave to carry or arme himself with any club, staffe, gunn, sword or any other weapon of defense or offence, nor to goe or depart from his masters ground without a certificate from his master, mistris or overseer, and such permission not to be granted but upon perticuler and necessary occasions; and every negroe or slave soe offending not having a certificate as aforesaid shalbe sent to the next constable, who is hereby enjoyned and required to give the said negroe twenty lashes on his bare back well layd on, and soe sent home to his said master, mistris or overseer…that if any negroe or other slave shall absent himself from his masters service and lye hid and lurking in obscure places, committing injuries to the inhabitants, and shall resist any person or persons that shalby any lawfull authority be imployed to apprehend and take the said negroe, that then in case of such resistance, it shalbe lawfull for such person or persons to kill the said negroe or slave soe lying out and resisting.”
- Virginia Slave Code, 1680
For over a hundred years now, the United States has fancied itself the standard bearer of freedom throughout the world, even as it maintained that illusion through military force.
At home, the land of the free—for some—was the built upon the oppression—of others.
The dichotomy between our ideals and how they’re practiced is at the core of historian Jill Lepore’s excellent article, “The Long Blue Line: Inventing the Police.” (The New Yorker, July 20, 2020).
The police’s stated objective is to protect and serve. Yet, how often they pursue that objective through violence against people—too often Black—who reside outside the dominant culture—defined by Whites.
It’s doubtful whether in protecting an elite subset of our population by inflicting violence on others, the police best serve any of us. Ms. Lepore’s article is necessary reading for anyone seeking to learn from, rather than repeat history. Because right now, events in 2020 too closely mirror Virginia’s Slave Code from 340 years ago.