One word, "stole," came to be a history -- an interpretation of the past and how it shaped the present -- from Maryland to South Carolina to Texas and everywhere in between. Enslaved people recognized that the slavery they were experiencing was shaped by the ability of whites to move African Americans' bodies wherever they wanted. Forced migration created markets that allowed whites to extract profit from human beings. It brought about a kind of isolation that permitted enslavers to use torture to extract new kinds of labor. It led to disease, hunger, and other kinds of deadly privations. So as these vernacular historians tried to make a sense of their own battered lives, the word "stole" became the core of a story that explained. It revealed what feet had to undergo, and the way the violence of separation ripped hearts open and turned hands against body and soul, these were all ultimately produced by the way enslavers were able to use property claims in order to deploy people as commodities at the entrepreneurial edge of the modern world economy.
In this critique, slaveholders were not innocent heirs of history, which is what Jefferson had made them out to be. Instead, slavery's expansion was consciously chosen, a crime with intent. Years after slavery ended, former slave Charles Grandy reflected reflected on the motives of the enslavers who had shipped him from from Virginia to New Orleans for sale. After a lifetime, he had made it back to Norfolk. Now he asked his interviewer if the young man knew the significance of the statue of the Confederate soldier that loomed on a high pillar down by the harbor. Grandy himself had once passed the statue's eventual site in the hold of a slave ship. "Know what it mean?" But the question mark was rhetorical, he already had an answer ready: it meant, he told the interviewer, "Carry the nigger down south if you want to rule him."
Edward Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery And The Making Of American Capitalism (2014)