How the 3/5ths Live.

From an outsider’s perspective, say, from the purview of a citizen whose great-great-grandfathers were land owners, voters, arbiters of the unamended Constitution, we spend a lot of time lamenting. We deflect our own savagery by blaming it on their ancestors. Our hearing turns conveniently selective when they insist that they are not their ancestors. They know full well that, after our brief exchange — wherein they will glumly wonder, How can black people be so unforgiving? — they will go home and turn a key in the lock of a house they’ve either purchased outright or will pay off before the age of 30. They know how easily they qualified for their low-interest mortgage. They know their parents’ pristine credit, ensured by their grandfather’s investments and assets, inherited from their great-grandfathers dividends, insured by their great-great-grandfather’s land ownership, made that possible.

And they know our great-great-grandparents — both of them — and their six- and seven- and nine-year-old children worked that land with no pay. They know neither generation had anything to hand down to our grandparents. They know we inherited not assets, but in most cases, debt. They know that if our parents benefited from the Cosby-fication of a Black Middle Class, it was as recently as the late 20th century and was not achieved without the splintering of entire communities. They know our gains can often be threatened — nay, ravaged — by the strong winds of a single recession.

They know that, when we are poor, it is not often because of bad breaks, bad investments, or passing on the right kinds of plentiful opportunities. It is because we were written into the annals of this country’s history as 3/5 human and, centuries later, we are still seen by many as such.

It is because they get to deny this, even as it profits them, even as their satirical publications bandy about their particular brand of ironic hipster racism and they get to laugh, defend it, and call us (and our nine-year-old youngest-ever Best Actress Oscar nominee) oversensitive and incapable of comprehending satire — incapable, of course, because we are missing those vital two-fifths of humanity that house the white man’s funny bone, presumably.

And look at what white folks’ humor hath wrought: renderings of our president, his wife, and their daughters as apes, as Hottentots, as savages; ridicule of our athletes as animals; co-opted use of an incendiary racial slur as a synonym for friend; rampant Islamophobia; incessant hypersexualization of our men, women, and children.

Forgive us our straight faces.

From our own vantage, we are exhausted. Too often, we are winded, expending so much oxygen on explaining in detail to those who surely must already know how our humanity has been impinged and why we are deserving of verbally unmolested heroes and schools that do not subscribe to a playground-to-prison pipeline for our children. We’re positively spent, managing the endless task of finding and heralding more First Black _____s to Ever ______, spent after having to point out that, if all things were equal, we would’ve stopped “pioneering” in fields they’ve dominated and from which we’ve been historically barred, ages ago.

If we decline an opportunity to attend their “healing racism” initiatives, if we remain silent when they ask us why we don’t have to wash our hair daily, if we sigh with deep exasperation when they say they “don’t see race” — even as nooses are still being hung at schools, crosses still burned on laws, sentencing still disproportionately favors harsher penalties for minority offenders, and the few black actors we’re allowed still can’t enjoy their nominations and awards the rest of us having to wonder if they’ve only been offered them because they played criminals, slaves, pimps, or domestics — we have our reasons.

And no, if you can’t possibly imagine what they are, we’ll waste no further air elucidating them for you.

We have our own means of navigating what this country has apportioned us — and they are intricate, communal, and, at times, quite deeply flawed. But if we are to always be treated as abstractions, having the form of humanness but not the entitlements thereof, we will continue to keep our ways clandestine and our cards close to the vest. We will accept their apologies as publicly as they issue them, while being as slow to trust their sincerity in private as they are to believe we’re owed them in the first place.

It is not so difficult, overcoming. You need only have ancestors whose flesh was cracked open like melon rind and torn from their limbs by hounds. You need only have children who can continue to smile when adults, hiding behind anonymity, call them the kinds of names they are never allowed to repeat. You need only have the grace to accept “heartfelt remorse” from people whose ability to produce such was made suspect the moment they thought to offend your children, in such particularly callous ways to begin with.

We’ve grown good at it. It is the one thing privilege cannot buy.

44 responses to “How the 3/5ths Live.”

  1. Incisive, heart-breaking, informed, sharp – if only the ones who need to read this, would. Never mind. WE need to read it, too, if only to know we are not alone in our thoughts and secret feelings.

  2. One of the most profound pieces of writing I’ve read in a long time. This applies to all the Others that have suffered in the Lands of Us, the dominant cultures around the world.

  3. Excellent history of the past. We cannot keep beating up on history because none of us were there and were not accountable for this time. I only hope everything is put on the table so we can move on. We want to remember the past so it is not repeated. Please check my blog about the Silent Majority.

  4. HI Stacia, I found your piece on your blog very interesting. I love writing that comes from the heart. It will be interesting to see how world sees Quvenzhané Wallis in the new film version of Annie that she was casted in last month, don’t you think?

  5. I have duly placed a shortcut to this Post on my Desktop. I need to read it a whole bunch of times more before I twig of whom you are speaking at any given moment. I hope you do Feudalism in there somewhere; and other slavery right down the ages of civilisations; and today, including the abiding caste system in India. Or is this Anglo-Saxon / Judeo-Protestant self-slagging: “everybody is righteous at heart except us?” I honestly do not know yet. I have to read, and promise to read, your most impressive piece again, right after the Tony Paul Show on Radio Caroline in a few minutes.

    • This pink Brit (aged 72) now gets it. You are simply saying that we (pink & brown alike) still have a long way to go”. Indeed! OK, the eventual Repeal of Prohibition will reduce the excuse to imprison brown guys in bigger numbers than pink guys. Then, as the gangs lose power over the young brown guys, we can hope for advance. But it will be slow, with many disappointments.

      In 1945, low-rated pink Brits like me were freed at last, by Labour rule, from gangsters calling themselves aristocrats, only for our class to spawn financial service industry spivs as new callous toffs.

      India got free from the British Empire but the dalets are still trashed.

      China calls herself Social-ist or Commune-ist but their new toffs, risen from the Party ranks, callously screw the mass.

      In the new nations of Africa, the mass are screwed by corrupt brown rulers, brown civil servants, and brown police. Plus brown landlords and brown capitalists are just as bad as pink ones.

      However, I am butting in. I agree that it is better for pinks (even with both servants, and gangster-toffs in my ancestry, as I do have) to clam up on the subject…

      Sorry about the misplaced question mark. Correction:

      Or is this [fawning bid for acceptance merely] Anglo-Saxon / Judeo-Protestant self-slagging [as in]: “everybody is righteous at heart except us”?

      • As a pink person, innocent of slaving and exploitation, I nevertheless feel guilt because I can walk past racist rioters, safe in my pink skin. As a pink person, most of whose ancestors were serfs, aka slaves, I feel anger on their behalf against the gangsters calling themselves aristocrats who governed the British Empire in the past.

        I was ignorant of the 3/5 aspect of US history after the break from Britain.

  6. On one hand, I can understand – to a degree – the anger, but on another level, I do not and I don’t see it having anything to do with the color of my skin or my heritage, but there is confusion in my perspective. The perspective of the Cross.

    Is there still racism and inequality in this nation. Yes. Is there a “generational” aspect to it, socially and economically? Perhaps.

    But I feel no guilt nor shame for being born “white”. There’s plenty to be upset about in the past of the civilizations of my forebears, but that was then, this is now. In fact, many of my forebears did atrocious things to others of my forebears. I have British blood in me and French blood – among others. The British treated my Cajun ancestors harshly. I don’t spend my days moaning about the British.

    I don’t know how many of my ancestors were slave owners. At least a few were, but many were not. In fact, some of my ancestors were sharecroppers and Cajuns until after WWII were ostracized and maligned as stupid, backwoods, and so forth. But whatever.

    You make who you are. There’s something else that I see in all of these discussions and pushes on campuses about white privilege and black societal angst. On the one hand, that one side should be beating itself up in remorse and self-loathing for the sins of their fathers. On the other side, carrying a chip of pride, nursed with visions of allegorical cultural martyrdom. One side’s supposed to be wailing in repentance and the other side burning with righteous indignation.

    My sharecropping great-grandfather had zero affect on my credit rating. The credit card who gave me my first credit card knew only my name and basic information. I got my credit rating through sensible spending… and whatever else you rambled on about in some effort of poetic form.

    I was also born with a birth defect. A small one, but noticeable none-the-less, and one that set me apart from others. I didn’t see anyone else with the same defect until I was an adult. I was ostracized, teased and generally bullied as a child, in part I believe because of my physical difference. As a child I was angry.

    Something changed though. In me.

    What I fail to see in all of this is forgiveness and moving forward.

    Yes, I’m not black. I wasn’t born into that socio-cultural mileu, though I was born in the deep south and most of my high school graduating class was black. My best friend in high school was black, I was enamored with a few black girls – along with white girls. One of my step-sisters married a black man and they have three wonderful children together.


    I found Christ. I laid it all at His feet.

    Do I still carry regrets for things I did or did not do? Yes, but not in such a way that I beat myself daily over them. I am forgiven. I am set free… and yet, I am a slave to Christ, and for that I am happy.

    We are all slaves to something or someone. We are all in bondage. We are all maligned, slighted and wronged in this life, no matter the color of our skin, whether man or woman, American or otherwise. This is the nature and life of man as a whole.

    You were born a slave, you will die a slave. I was born a slave, I will die a slave. I was born in sin, a slave to sin. I pray I die a slave of Christs. Nothing else matters. I forgive the bullies, I forgive any business who may have intentionally slighted me for their own gain. I forgive the liberal who thinks that life is not sacred, that the unborn have no value unless we want them and can be murdered at our discretion because of legal justification.

    You, me, we all need to get off our horse and get on our knees. Our worth and value is in Him, not our ancestry, not ourselves, not our puffed up pride and ego of the hurt we caress and feed.

    • Well said. My family is from Native American heritage. I know the injustices and atrocities purported on my people, my ancestor, my famliy, if you will indulge me, yet none of that affects me today. I am a first generation immigrant as well. Stil does not define me. What defines me? Christ. Pure and simple. I hold no animosity toward the past, even though I too grew up poor. Did I choose the oclor of my skin? Did I choose my heritage? Did I choose the poverty in which I was raised? No. So, I hold no grudge. I worked hard for what I have and God has blessed me with the fruits of that labor. Do I have massive debts to get there? Absolutely. But through choice, faith, reliance on Christ, and hard work I worked out of that poverty. Let the past inform us, but let our future be our identity.

      • Yehoshua, aka Yashua, aka Jesus, aka Jesu, in my view, was not a Christ, aka Messchiach, aka saviour, other than in the sense that he was a great healer and guru, teaching Peace and Love. He was murdered by the occupying power at the behest of establish religion whom he had named as corrupt and greedy power grabbers.

        Nor will there be a such a Redeemer since, in my view, there is no Creator, and no Salvation Package Deal, and no Original Sin. There is a just a highly intelligent species of animal called humans who are, disappointingly, capable of vile cruelty and greed, as well as capable of great community co-operation and sharing. Humanity needs to be genetically improved, when it becomes possible, into the perfection which believers accord to the man from Nazareth and other profets. Fingers crossed on that.

        As to an afterlife, it would have to a natural phenomenon like all other phenomena in the cosmos. Ongoing After-Death Research (Sam Parnia) justifies offering hope of a natural afterlife to those whose physical life here on Earth is hideous. Belief in salvation via religion would be fine were it not for the fact that those wars not caused by land-grabbing greedy gangsters, are caused by religious nut-cases.

        I have been very lucky and need nor more life. Other poor souls have had hell on Earth and I support giving them hope, but not dogmatic and doctrinair theist poison.

        A salvation package deal from a guy in the sky, said to be both a hyper genius creator of the atom, and at the same time a spiteful male chauvinst caster of thorns and thistles, is, in my view, a primitive and contradictory superstition. Abandon such myth.

      • Well, I’m sorry to hear that. Just understand that the word of God records that, “One day every knee will bow and confess Jesus Christ is Lord” whether by force in Hell or by free will in Heaven. God bless.

  7. cindylu….”racial battle fatigue” is so right. I work in the education field .Recently who co-worker who quit, come back to visit my workplace. After saying hi, she looked around and asked me, “where are all the white kids?” I didn’t skip a beat, neither did I look at her when I responded, “they’re gone.” She then said to me, ‘oh, I’m just joking”. Yeh. Right.

  8. And we all understand the premise of the 3/5 Compromise, yes? Slave owners did not want slaves to be considered human so they could own them as property. But they still wanted them to count as people when it came to representation in the Government. In other words, they can’t be people, but they can be used by the owner to get more power. Most of the founders, who by the way eliminated slavery in 9 out of the 13 colonies within decades of the Constitution, did not want these racist slave owners to infuse their will upon the rest of the country by unfairly treating their slaves. Thus, the 3/5 Compromise. “We want these slaves to be considered human so that you will recognize that they should not be slaves, and You want these slave to be considered human only so you can have more power, but you refuse to recognize their humanity for any other purpose.”

    • As it pertains to representation, the North wanted to count slaves as 0/5 and the South wanted to count slaves as 5/5. The compromise made at the Constitutional Convention was 3/5. The desires of the North and the South were strictly political and geared around increasing seats in the House of Representatives. This means that the North was just as likely to exploit slaves as the South when it was politically advantageous to do so.

      • Well you are correct in part. Yes, the conversation was about representation but about having fair representation. The north, though not wholly abolishinist, did not want the south to count slaves if they weren’t going to recognize them as citizens and therefore people. Example today: illegal immigrants who are not citizens but being counted in the census. This would give an unfair distribution of representation to those areas with noncitizen/illegal immigrants thereby giving more power to the congressman from that area of the country because there would be more of them in the House of Representatives.

      • The goal of political power was implied in my comment. I reject the assertion that the North wanted to exclude slaves when determining representation as a protest of the South wanting to exclude slaves when determining the rates of taxation. If 3/5 representation equates to 3/5 humanity then the North is just as culpable as the South in denying this humanity. It is easy to grant the North a wholesale altruism and the South a wholesale antipathy, but the history of slavery in the United States is not that black and white. And this is my gripe. The 3/5 compromise was not a racist denial of humanity, but the culmination of the North and the South posturing for political power as garnered through representation.

      • “The 3/5 compromise was not a racist denial of humanity, but the culmination of the North and the South posturing for political power as garnered through representation.”

        It was both. How can slaveowners arguing over whether or not other humans should fully be represented as humans (since they are enslaved and black)… *not* be a racist denial of humanity?

        People who asserted ownership of other people — whom they considered to be mental inferiors because of their race and whom they denied every right they afforded themselves — engaged in a protracted battle over whether or not their “property” should be counted as part of the taxable population.

        Saying that the 3/5 compromise was about power is fine, but saying that it was not *also* a racist act is quite odd.

      • You are approaching this with what the black economist Thomas Sowell calls “the contemporary instrumental use of history,” equating racism with all slavery in the United States. There were racist slaveowners, but one cannot say that all slaveowners were racists just as on cannot say that all blacks were slaves. Again, the three-fifths compromises was not a racist denial of humanity, or more specifically, human nature. It was a comprise, and a poor one, of representation.

      • One *can* say that the institution itself produced racist results that have reverberated brought successive generations. On this point, I won’t further argue.

        When someone who continues to benefit from a system predicated on the assertion of white superiority/privilege and the suppression of black advancement begins to explain to me that I’m looking at it all wrong, I lose interest in further engagement.

  9. I could be misunderstanding what you are trying to convey, but your assertion that “white folks’ humor” has hypersexualized black men, women, and children is way off base, particularly pertaining to children. Do you really believe that white Americans are responsible for the hypersexualization of black Americans? Please clarify.

    • I do believe that stereotypes and representations, dating back to the slavery era, have perpetuated ideas about black men, women, and children being sexually deviant, compulsive, and (in the cases of children) precocious. I also believe those representations can be historically traced to white people — in their observational writing, in their description and treatment of blacks as chattel, in their mythologizing of black men as potential rapists of white women, and yes, in their humor.

      The Quvenzhane Wallis case at the Oscars, with both the MacFarlane and Onion jokes, is a quite recent example of this.

      • Concerning the era of slavery in the United States, what you are saying is not objectionable; but it is not relevant to my question, so to rephrase it: Do you believe whites, either knowingly or through some innate and subconscious tendency, are the primary cause of the hypersexualization of blacks living today? And to rephrase it again using one pop cultural specific: Did whites cause 2 Live Crew to usher in the era of black women exploitation within the hip-hop culture, an exploitation that continues to be a prerequisite of that culture? I only ask because the tone of your writing suggests that you believe in a white causation for all things negative concerning blacks, systemically and specifically. These questions are not meant to be flippant. What you wrote above is fascinating and I only wish to better understand the thinking behind it.

      • Originally, you asked if I thought that white people “were responsible” for the hypersexualization of black men, women, and children in this country. They are, in part. I never said they were alone in their culpability or that black culture doesn’t hypersexualize. But because I spoke primarily of the role whites have played and continue to play in that practice, you’ve decided to bring up 2 Live Crew.

        Rap culture does hypersexualize women. Rap culture also only dates back to 1979. Blacks have been hypersexualized in this country for centuries longer than that.

        I spoke of the white role in hypersexualization because I wrote this post in response to jokes made about a black child by white men in extremely public venues… just last month. She wasn’t hypersexualized by blacks or rap culture. She was taken advantage of by white males who felt well within their rights, doing so.

      • But what you wrote suggests a broader, not “in part,” implication of whites beyond some heinous jokes made at the Oscars and without a hint of black culpability for their hypersexualization, which is just one point I chose to address. And you really did not answer my original inquiry, but I can discern your thinking as, according to Shelby Steele, the refusal “to imagine blacks outside a framework of victimization.”

      • And I can discern yours as the refusal to acknowledge the enormity of the role historical racism has played in the way blacks continue to be treated in this country.

        Why does one piece of my writing have to address your need to view slave-owning as a primarily economic, non-racist enterprise and hypersexualization as an offense for which both whites and blacks share culpability? I don’t need to address black instances of hypersexualization when I’m discussing a recent white one and how it connects historically and currently to other white instances.

        When I write about black incidents of hypersexualization — and I have — I primarily examine black culpability. The conversations overlap but I needn’t say “whites do it, too!” in those pieces in order to make salient points.

  10. @ Taylor. Yes, there is a great book , All God’s Childiren, a powerful story filled with the history of the ante-bellum south. And as a black woman who lives in a white worldly… Yes. As someone who reviewed the literature, yes.

    While I was not asked the question I thought I would put my two cents in, the answer is Yes.

  11. […] How the 3/5 live: “They know that, when we are poor, it is not often because of bad breaks, bad investments, or passing on the right kinds of plentiful opportunities. It is because we were written into the annals of this country’s history as 3/5 human and, centuries later, we are still seen by many as such.” […]

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