Dehumanizing “some” dehumanizes the whole. This has been Trump’s strategy from the beginning. It has been an essential element of the most shameful episodes in American history, a list to which the Trump administration’s policy of detaining children to frighten their parents must now be added.
The Trump administration’s purposeful separation of families has roused the ghosts that haunt America. In the antebellum United States, abolitionists seized on the separation of families by slave traders to indict the institution of slavery itself. Family separation was a key part of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which so affected some readers that, the historian Heather Andrea Williams writes in Help Me to Find My People, they went to slave auctions to bear witness: “Some travelers wanted to see for themselves the scenes that Stowe described in the novel, and they likened the people they saw to her characters.”
For the enslaved, who lived lives of toil and hardship as chattel, the forced division of families was among the most agonizing experiences they ever suffered or witnessed.
Solomon Northup, who had lived his entire life as a free black man in the North before being abducted into slavery in 1841, was confined alongside a woman named Eliza and her two children, Emily and Randall. Emily was the child of Eliza’s former master, who tricked her into believing she was about to be freed, and then sold them all to a trader, whose slave pen was a short distance from the U.S. Capitol.
The four were taken to New Orleans. Randall was bought by a Baton Rouge planter. Days later, Eliza and Northup were sold together, ripping Eliza away from Emily. Northup, who himself endured 12 years of bondage, called it one of the worst things he ever witnessed.“I have seen mothers kissing for the last time the faces of their dead offspring; I have seen them looking down into the grave, as the earth fell with a dull sound upon their coffins, hiding them from their eyes forever; but never have I seen such an exhibition of intense, unmeasured, and unbounded grief, as when Eliza was parted from her child,” Northup wrote in 1853.
Eliza never saw her children again. “Day nor night, however, were they ever absent from her memory. In the cotton field, in the cabin, always and everywhere, she was talking of them—often to them, as if they were actually present,” Northup wrote. “Only when absorbed in that illusion, or asleep, did she ever have a moment’s comfort afterwards.”
Henry Brown, nicknamed “Box” because he later escaped slavery by hiding himself in a box, watched his daughter being carted off after he failed to earn enough to purchase his family’s freedom. “I looked, and beheld her familiar face; but O, reader, that glance of agony! may God spare me ever again enduring the excruciating horror of that moment!,” Brown said in an account published in 1816.
She passed, and came near to where I stood. I seized hold of her hand, intending to bid her farewell; but words failed me; the gift of utterance had fled, and I remained speechless. I followed her for some distance, with her hand grasped in mine, as if to save her from her fate, but I could not speak, and I was obliged to turn away in silence.
The children who survived such separations were marked forever. Williams recounts the story of Charles Ball, who watched his family members being sold off to different masters when he was only 4. “Young as I was, the horrors of that day sank deeply into my heart, and even at this time, though a half a century has elapsed, the terrors of the scene return with painful vividness upon my memory,” Ball would write later. Louis Hughes, a former slave from Virginia, would write, “I grieved continually about my mother … It came to me, more and more plainly, that I would never see her again. Young and lonely as I was, I could not help crying, oftentimes for hours together. It was hard to get used to being away from my mother.” The great orator and former slave Frederick Douglass was at a loss for words when describing the anguish of his early separation from his mother:
It has been a life-long, standing grief to me, that I knew so little of my mother; and that I was so early separated from her. The counsels of her love must have been beneficial to me. The side view of her face is imaged on my memory, and I take few steps in life, without feeling her presence; but the image is mute, and I have no striking words of hers treasured up.
Although defenders of slavery would argue that black people felt no pain from such separations, the slave masters themselves understood the coercive power of shattering family bonds. “Often we were reminded,” wrote Lewis Johnson, a former slave in Virginia, “that if we were not good the white people would sell us to Georgia, which place we dreaded above all others on earth.”