Archive for slavery
Law professor Paul Finkelman has an important commentary piece in the New York Times on two recent books on the “democratic” icon and famous founder Thomas Jefferson. Much of what most Americans believe about Jefferson’s everyday life in regard to racial matters is fictional or distorted in the direction of our “good” founders are “great liberty and equality advocates” in both thought and everyday practice.
A leading scholar of slavery and our “founding fathers,” Finkelman has much to say about this matter, especially in regard to the very interesting new book by Henry Wiencek that presents much data on Jefferson’s lifelong commitment to slavery and abuse of those he enslaved, including his sexual coercion of the young Black teenager Sally Hemings (see here). Finkelman argues that even Wiencek–who argues the younger and more egalitarian Jefferson becomes more of a hypocritical and money-oriented slaveholder as he ages — is too kind to Jefferson, especially in his early decades:
Jefferson was always deeply committed to slavery, and even more deeply hostile to the welfare of blacks, slave or free. His proslavery views . . . he tried to justify through pseudoscience. . . . when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, announcing the “self-evident” truth that all men are “created equal,” he owned some 175 slaves.
Finkelman adds that Jefferson was not the supposedly “good slaveholder,” the oxymoronic phrase often used for numerous slaveholding founders and other white slaveholders:
He sometimes punished slaves by selling them away from their families and friends, a retaliation that was incomprehensibly cruel even at the time. A proponent of humane criminal codes for whites, he advocated harsh, almost barbaric, punishments for slaves and free blacks.
And Wiencek’s book provides much more evidence of Jefferson’s brutality toward those he enslaved.
Thomas Jefferson is still a top democratic icon for a great many Americans, especially white Americans — with little critical recurring or public attention being given by whites to his everyday practice of extensive and often brutal slaveholding. Jefferson is also a founder (with intellectuals like Immanuel Kant) of early Western “race” framing that aggressively celebrates the white “race’s” superiority in most areas and puts down “inferior races” such as (enslaved) black Americans. You can see this most dramatically in his famous and only major book, Notes on the State of Virgina (see my analysis of Query 14 in that aggressively white-racist-framed chapter of his book here).
Well into the 21st century few Americans, especially few white Americans, know this bloody founding history, and remarkably few seem willing to learn it and examine its implications for our contemporary and still systemically racist society. Why is the historical truth on systemic racism so hard for most whites to accept and publicly discuss in this society?
Note: Paul Finkelman has a very good book, Slavery and the Founders, that I can recommend to you if you want to know more of the hard truths of our founding, slaveholding era and about the slavery-protecting US Constitution crafted by famous founders.
Today is Juneteenth, a celebration of the end of slavery. As you may already know, the news of the Emancipation proclamation came late two months late to Texas, and the holiday is meant to mark the arrival of that news. What began as a regional celebration in Galveston, Texas has grown to a national commemoration. Yet, that celebration is a bittersweet one given what the reality of emancipation must have been, according to a new scholarly book.
(Emancipation Day, Austin, Texas, 1900,image source)
According to a new book, Sick From Freedom (Oxford University Press), by Jim Downs (Assistant Professor, Connecticut College), emancipation from slavery was also a health crisis for those formerly enslaved. A health crisis that has been largely ignored both by whites at the time and by mostly white historians since then.
At least one quarter of the four million former slaves got sick or died between 1862 and 1870, Downs writes, including at least 60,000 (the actual number is probably two or three times higher, he argues) who perished in a smallpox epidemic that began in Washington and spread through the South as former slaves traveled in search of work — an epidemic that Downs says he is the first to reconstruct as a national event.
Downs first became interested in the health of newly liberated slaves when he was a graduate student at Columbia University with a job as a research assistant in the papers of Harriet Jacobs, the author of the 1861 autobiography “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” and a vivid chronicler of the often abysmal conditions in the “contraband camps” where escaped slaves congregated during the war and in settlements of freed people more generally after it. The papers were full of heart-wrenching encounters with sick and dying freed people — references that he noticed were strikingly absent in recent scholarship.
To do this research, Downs sorted through the little-explored records of the medical division of the Freedmen’s Bureau and other archives, he found reams of statistical and anecdotal accounts of sick and dying freed people, whose suffering was seen by even some sympathetic Northern reformers as evidence that the former slaves, as a “race,” were doomed to extinction.
And, perhaps surprisingly, this is where I see a connection to much of the research that I’ve done on racism in the digital era. One of the ways that white supremacists and others not working against racial justice frame their discourse, is to talk about “slavery as a humane institution.” Just to be clear, it would mean coming to the wrong conclusion to read Downs’ work as implying that slavery was better than emancipation. It wasn’t. Emancipation was a moral and a material victory in every sense. And yet, at the same time, it was complicated by the crushing inequality and brutal continuation of racism after the official end of slavery that guaranteed that oppression manifested itself in the bodies and under the skin of the formerly enslaved. Even when the physical shackles were removed, there were a hundred ways that people could still be oppressed by the lack of food, housing, and clean running water.
So, when I see those historical photos of early Juneteenth celebrations (like the one above), and I see how small and sober these events seem, I think what a bittersweet moment that must have been – celebrating emancipation and commemorating all those that didn’t make it, whether in the Middle Passage, or who were too sick to finally enjoy freedom.
Given the criticisms of and interest in my last post on capitalism and systemic racism (notice, as Seattle points out in a comment to that last post, this is systemic racism I am talking about not just individual racism), let me elaborate a bit by condensing some arguments I make in The White Racial Frame book.
Recall the specifics of Karl Marx’s analysis of the world-shattering significance of this European imperialism:
The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signaled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation. . . . Capital comes dripping from head to foot from every pore with blood and dirt.
Clearly, the early rise of Western capitalism on the world scene is very rooted in the global seizing of the land, resources, and labor of people of color by violent means. That is, this global oppression was soon systemic and fully racialized in a white racial framing of superior whites and inferior people of color (i.e., in systemic racism). This global theft of Native American and African labor by state-sanctioned capitalistic enterprises did not end after the first century of European wealth generation, but lasted for centuries, to the present.
From the 16th to the 19th centuries the European colonial invaders forced a political-economic and demographic reorganization of a large part of the globe at the expense of many indigenous peoples of color. The Spanish nation state was the first to plunder on a large scale indigenous societies in the Americas for land, mineral, and labor resources, but its growing wealth was soon countered by imperial expansion of English, Dutch, and French nation-states and private companies seeking wealth from overseas exploitation. European nation-states and private companies, such as English firms operating in the Caribbean and North America, discovered huge profits were to be made from overseas agricultural plantations using enslaved African labor on indigenous lands. Researchers have shown (see sources here) that by the end of the 18th century the lion’s share of profits coming into British coffers came from overseas slave plantations producing agricultural products.
In North America, English colonies were often state enterprises created under auspices of the king or state-fostered enterprises developed by entrepreneurs, plantation owners, and merchants. English joint stock companies were formed by merchants under the auspices of James I. Employees of the Southern Company settled Jamestown, the English colony that brought in the first enslaved African laborers. A principal objective of colonization was to secure land and raw materials and develop markets. Once land was taken, the Europeans’ search for labor led to the extensive use of the African slave trade, critical to exploitation of land and other resources of the Americas. The private-sector and state-sector collaborated in global exploitation and enslavement, soon rationalized in a white racial framing. (See the evidence in, for example, Eric Williams Capitalism and Slavery.)
Celebrated social scientist Max Weber wrote famously of the “Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism” in assessing the fostering conditions before and around modern capitalism. However, in this European economic expansion one sees what might more accurately be termed the “predatory ethic” of Western capitalism. Central to European colonialism and capitalism was a predatory ethic that asserted the right of Europeans to take the land and labor of others by violence for their own individual and collective gain.
We should underscore a key dimension of this European colonialism, one that critical analysts of capitalism have seldom emphasized: the highly racialized reality of this European colonization and early capitalism. Marxist analysts and numerous other critical analysts have ignored or downplayed the racist architecture of centuries of Western colonialism. Most major groups that were central to both early and later European accumulation of wealth in this global colonizing system were non-European, and each of these groups was soon denigrated (the word literally means “blackened”) in an increasingly developed Eurocentric white framing of colonialism and the colonial societies thereby created.
We should now understand the reason Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) cannot get her history straight. She claims the “founding fathers worked tirelessly to end slavery,” even though southern founding fathers, such as Thomas Jefferson, owned them.
Bachmann also believes that African American children born during slavery were better off than African American children born after the election of the President Obama. Lacking any real historical knowledge of American history and viewing black history through a white racial frame, Bachmann does not understand that black families were broken up and sold like chattel on the auction block. Marriages between a black man and black female were not legal, but took place with the blessings of the slave master. “But the wedding vows they recited promised not ‘until death do us part,’ but ‘until distance’ or, as one black minister bluntly put it, ‘the white man’ – ‘do us part.’”
Revisionist GOPer David Barton and other conservatives want to rewrite the history books by “shifting black history away from the civil rights movement.” Barton wants the Republican Party to receive credit for liberating African Americans from the atrocious treatment at the hands of white racists:
Barton, who was hired by the GOP to do outreach to black churches in the run-up to the 2004 election, has argued elsewhere that African Americans owe their civil rights almost entirely to Republicans.
Barton goes on to argue that Martin Luther King should not be given “credit for advancing the rights of minorities. As Barton put it, ‘Only majorities can expand political rights in America’s constitutional society.’” Are we to accept the position that the majority would have freely given African Americans their civil rights had they not fought for them under the leadership of Martin Luther King? It is understandable why Rep. Allen West (R-FL), an African American Tea Party darling, believes his membership with the Republican Party has given him a one-way ticket off the “21st century plantation.”
But Barton has a point. Only majorities can set the record straight, since they are in power to change laws after minority groups raise a political ruckus for their civil rights they have so long been denied. It is obvious that Barton and other conservatives are trying to rewrite American and black history and to woo African Americans to an unfriendly, racist, and obtuse Party that has ignored their economic, political, and legal woes, which is no more than “propaganda masquerading” as pretentious outreach to carry out their quest among many to destroy the Democratic political base. During his second term as president, former President Bush gave a speech before the NAACP where he
acknowledged that whatever prestige the Republican Party once had with African Americans has been squandered, telling the NAACP on July 20, 2006 that he understands why “many African Americans distrust my political party” and that he considers it “a tragedy that the party of Abraham Lincoln let go of its historic ties with the African American community. For too long my party wrote off the African American vote, and many African Americans wrote off the Republican Party.
People sometimes contend we are in a post-racial America, but you have to be pretty naïve or deceptive to really say that. It is not just colorblind racism, it is usually intentional deception when whites say “I don’t see race” or “we live in a pro-racial society.” Most know better from their daily lives as much social science data on whites’ backstage discussions reveals.
Some have asked about how our old and deep racial framing gets perpetuated, A very good example of how the 400-year-old white racial frame is perpetuated can be seen in the ongoing contemporary celebration and viewing of the old white racist movie, Gone with the Wind.
CNN has this long article on the recent celebrations of 75 years of the novel. And in “post-racial America” and world, it is still making huge amounts of money, as a book and as a film that teaches people everywhere lies and misrepresentations of the old, brutal, and bloody slaveholding South:
More than 30 million copies of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel are in print worldwide, . . . [and] Selznick’s 1939 adaptation finishes atop most reckonings of the biggest-earning films of all-time, …. Throw in sequels, licensing and merchandise, and …. “It’s making more money now than it ever did in Mitchell’s lifetime,” says John Wiley…
That means huge numbers of people are still reading the novel or watching the movie worldwide, probably many each hour of each day of each year. People still meet to really celebrate for two days the highly racist book and movie, as 100 folks did recently, including at least one person of color. They met at the Marietta Gone With the Wind Museum, not far from Mitchell’s Atlanta grave. Interestingly, they had a GWTW museum before we had a museum in Washington, D.C. to deal with our heritage of slavery. And this is about the only weak criticism in the CNN story:
Of course, the book does have political problems of its own. Its apologetic depiction of slavery and liberal use of the N-word are hard for modern audiences to overlook.
So that is the best CNN can do as a critique of the novel and the movie—“political problems”—as though GWTW’s rather rosy depictions of slavery and plantations are somehow just debatable “problems” of a political sort? Actually, GWTW as novel and movie is more like the contemporary denial histories of the European Holocaust. We, or at least many of us, are still in denial about the brutality and oppressiveness of our long racist history–and the lasting consequences.
At least as sad as the rosy celebrations of America’s slave labor camps–called plantations and slave farms—and their fictional Civil War history is the fact that CNN thought a mostly positive review of celebrations of Gone with the Wind was in order. Clearly, not even the media are ready to take on a real critique of the depth and reality of the North American racial foundation we call slavery. No mention of that reality in this story, or how the novel, movie, and celebrations get our history quite wrong.
This country, after all, is the only “Western advanced industrialized” country that is based on 246 years of slavery, more than half its history, which was followed by nearly a century of the near-slavery of Jim Crow segregation. Clearly, the fictions and denials are not gone with the wind. One sees very well here how little we have progressed as a nation, when we cannot have an honest and ongoing discussion of the enslavement of millions of human beings in slave labor camps that kidnapped them, exploited them, tortured them, killed them or shortened their lives, and built up the great wealth of the white-run nation. Even the election of an African American president has not changed this reality.
[from the RR archive]
This is an African American holiday started in Texas, for obvious reasons. Wikipedia has a nice summary of key info:
Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day or Emancipation Day, commemorates the announcement of the abolition of slavery in the U.S. State of Texas in 1865. Celebrated on June 19, the term is a portmanteau of June and nineteenth, and is recognized as a state holiday in 31 of the United States.
That is, word of President Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation of January 1863 reached Texas only in June 1865:
The holiday originated in Galveston, Texas; for more than a century, the state of Texas was the primary home of Juneteenth celebrations. Since 1980, Juneteenth has been an official state holiday in Texas. It is considered a “partial staffing holiday” meaning that state offices do not close but some employees will be using a floating holiday to take the day off. Twelve other states list it as an official holiday, including Arkansas, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Alaska and California, where Governor Schwarzenegger proclaimed the day “Juneteenth” on June 19, 2005. Connecticut, however, does not consider it a legal holiday or close government offices in observance of the occasion. Its informal observance has spread to some other states, with a few celebrations even taking place in other countries.
As of May 2009, 31 states and the District of Columbia have recognized Juneteenth as either a state holiday or state holiday observance; these include Alaska, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and Wyoming.
This is also a day to remember the 500,000 African Americans, who as soldiers and support troops, many of them formerly enslaved, volunteered for the Union Army at its low point, and who thus played a (the?) key role in winning the Civil War. This is an ironic day, too, given the very weak apology for slavery voted on this week in the mostly white US Senate. A bit late.
The New York Times Opinionator online site has a very interesting commentary by law professor Daniel j. Sharfstein (Vanderbilt) on how some relatively well-off men in the slaveholding South were able to move from being “black” under the later very common one drop of blood rule (that is, some African ancestry) to being treated as “white” because they had some property, including sometimes property in enslaved African Americans, and connections and had done well in the pre-Civil War South.
Sharfstein makes this point about the historical data he has analyzed on a Confederate officer named Randall Lee Gibson in Louisiana who strongly supported the Confederacy, secession, and slavery:
The son of a wealthy sugar planter and valedictorian of Yale’s Class of 1853, Gibson had long supported secession. Conflict was inevitable, he believed, not because of states’ rights or the propriety or necessity of slavery. Rather, a war would be fought over the inexorable gulf between whites and blacks, or what he called “the most enlightened race” and “the most degraded of all the races of men.”
The great, sad, and sick irony about Colonel Gibson’s extremely racist view of the racial hierarchy and white supremacy was that he himself was the descendant of a free black man named Gideon Gibson who came to the South Carolina colony in the 1730s. Because he had married a white woman and had been a landowner in another colony, Gideon Gibson was granted substantial land in expanding South Carolina and eventually became a well-off planter and slaveholder there. This worked out because before the Civil War, as Sharfstein notes,
Most Southern states followed a one-quarter or one-eighth rule: anyone with a black grandparent or great-grandparent was legally black, and those with more remote ancestry were legally white.
As the Gibson’s descendants moved west and thrived in Louisiana, their African origins got “watered down” by more marriages and interactions with whites, and forgotten or hidden, and soon the descendant of a black man, Randall Gibson, became a raving white supremacist and Confederate Officer. This probably happened dozens if not hundreds of times over slavery’s centuries.
This is a clear example not only of how “race” is socially and societally constructed, but also of how powerful the age-old white racial frame is.
Even those whose ancestry is linked outside Europe to Africa can most certainly buy into and operate out of the white racial frame. What Sharfstein and commentators I have seen so far on this story do not do, is to call out the role of elite white men and the broader U.S. racist system and its imposed white racial frame as the reasons why Colonel Randall Lee Gibson felt the need to inferiorize black people and superiorize white people so aggressively. And to conform to the racial oppressor class so aggressively.
The U.S. racist system is so powerful that it dominates all who come within its sphere, including the minds of Americans of color, and counter-framing and resistance to whites’ systemic racism are very difficult for any person, and thus are only rarely attempted in a big way – in part because one can certainly die in this large-scale resistance and counter framing.