Strong: If you call a tail a leg ...

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“You remember the slave who asked his master, ‘If I should call a sheep’s tail a leg, how many legs would it have?’ ‘Five.’ ‘No, only four; for my calling the tail a leg would not make it so.’” 

— Story attributed to President Abraham Lincoln, September 1862

Abraham Lincoln was the first Republican president. His nickname was “Honest Abe.” What would he think about modern Republicans’ lies and distortions about slavery?

Slavery began in British North America when captured Africans were brought to Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. “In 1662, Virginia planters introduced the first slave law to define slave status and prevent African freedom. Between 1680 and 1705, further laws were passed to segregate and separate white and black Virginians … these measures allowed race-based slavery, with legal protection, to become the law.” (The Jamestown Settlement – First Africans in Virginia, AARP, April 27, 2021)

As slavery became established law, more justifications were created to view black people as less than human. They were treated as property, not fellow human beings.

When people were captured in Africa, they were shipped to the Americas as cargo. To maximize profit, they were packed into the holds of slave ships like sardines. One popular way of packing this “cargo” was to make them lie in alternate positions, head to feet to head, and so on.

This made it possible to carry a large number of captives in a small space. Because the captives had to lie in chains, in their own filth, and were fed the bare minimum, there was always a loss of life, but that was considered the cost of doing business.

What did Texas teach its students about this appalling situation? The Texas textbook “World Geography” described it this way: “The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.” (Los Angeles Times, Oct. 5, 2015)

Sounds nice, doesn’t it? All those “agricultural workers” coming to America to improve their lives. That’s the story Florida, Texas, and other southern states want to teach their children.

In 1976, writer Alex Haley published a book titled “Roots.” It told the story of a young man named Kunta Kinte, captured from his African village, transported to Maryland, and purchased by a Virginia planter. In the story, only 98 of the original 140 captives survived the trip.

“Roots” described many atrocities of slavery, including rape, selling children, and mutilation. Kunta Kinte had part of his foot chopped off. As property, slaves had fewer rights than livestock.

In 1977, “Roots” became a blockbuster eight-part television mini-series. Over half of the American public viewed the mini-series; many understood, for the first time, how evil slavery was. Now, Florida wants to pretend slavery wasn’t all that bad.

In 2022, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida Republicans passed new educational standards such as Standard SS.66.AA.2.3: Instruction includes how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit. DeSantis even said, “They’re probably going to show that some of the folks that eventually parlayed, you know, being a blacksmith into doing things later in life.”

Predictably, black Americans were outraged. Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson wrote on July 24: “I’ll start with my own family history. One of my great-great-grandfathers, enslaved in Charleston, S.C., was indeed compelled to learn to be a blacksmith. But he had no ability to ‘parlay’ anything, because his time and labor were not his own. They belonged to his enslaver. He belonged to his enslaver.”

“To pretend my ancestor was done some sort of favor by being taught a trade ignores the reality of race-based, chattel slavery as practiced in the United States. He was sold like a piece of livestock at least twice that I know of. To say he ‘developed skills,’ as if he had signed up for some sort of apprenticeship program, is appallingly ahistorical. As was true for the millions of other enslaved African Americans, anything he achieved was in spite of his bondage.”

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., the only black Republican in the Senate, said, “There is no silver lining in slavery. …What slavery was really about (was) separating families, about mutilating humans and even raping their wives.” Several other black Republican elected officials agreed. (Washington Post, Aug. 14)

Calling a tail a leg doesn't make it so. Claiming slavery “benefited” slaves doesn’t make it so. If Republicans want to be the “Party of Lincoln,” maybe they should try honesty. That would be refreshing.

Jeanette Strong, whose column appears every other week, is a Nevada Press Association award-winning columnist. She may be reached at


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