What Is a Legacy of Slavery?


Because slavery is so central to the history of the United States—its origins, economic development, society, culture, politics, and law—it has left in its wake a wide array of legacies that seem ever-present yet ever-changing in our world. Sometimes the question of slavery’s legacy seems out-of-focus, inaccessible, or expressed in fuzzy language. Other times the legacy of slavery and emancipation may confront us when we least expect it. In 1961, in an essay in the New York Times titled “As Much Truth as One Can Bear,” James Baldwin observed that when Americans reflect on their history, the “words are mostly used to cover the sleeper, not to wake him up.” Indeed, the living meanings, surviving challenges, and sometimes seemingly intractable problems born of great events or vast human practices and systems from the past are what make history matter. This is why legacies matter. And that is why the Council of Independent Colleges and the Gilder Lehrman Center have launched the Legacies of American Slavery project….

What then is a legacy? A historical legacy can be an idea or an eternally recurring question at the root of a dream—for example, “Why is human equality so hard to achieve?” A legacy can be emotional, manifesting itself in habits of thought, assumptions, behaviors, and lasting psychological patterns of struggle, action, or expectation. A legacy can be political, emerging in voting tendencies and recurring public policy issues. A legacy can be economic, evolving in patterns of growth and access or lack of access to material goods, services, human capital. A legacy can exist in law, in court decisions, in government policies that change when challenged or revert to older practices in times of reaction. Legacies can be laid down and commemorated in stone, in bronze, in musical traditions, in all manner of artistic forms. Legacies can be embodied in a very literal sense, as patterns of health and disease that can be traced to past experience through medical research. A legacy might be as local as a family story passed from generation to generation, or as big as a national origin narrative. Legacies can be institutional, growing as part of organizations that exist to educate, advocate, preserve, protest, or advance a set of ideas….

PDFRead the full essay by David Blight.

David Blight headshotDavid W. Blight is Sterling Professor of History, of African American Studies, and of American Studies at Yale University, where he also directs the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition. His latest book, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, received the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2019. His previous books include Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory and American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era. Prior to joining the Yale faculty in 2003, Blight taught at Amherst College, North Central College, Harvard University, and the public high school in his home town of Flint, Michigan. Blight is the director of CIC’s Legacies of American Slavery project.