White Women and U.S. Slavery: Then and Now

It’s Tuesday and that means it’s Trouble with White Women and White Feminism, our ongoing series meant to offer a broader context and deeper analysis of the latest outrages by the melanin-challenged.

White women were active participants in, proponents of and key beneficiaries of the system of slavery in the U.S., both historically and now.

fox-genovese_within

While some historians, such as  C. Vann Woodward and Catherine Clinton, have argued that white women were secretly opposed to the system of slavery, scholar Elizabeth Fox-Genovese demolished this notion with her work, Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women in the Old South (University of North Carolina Press, 1988).  Fox-Genovese draws on white slaveholding women’s diaries, letters, and postbellum memoirs, along with the Works Progress Administration’s narratives of enslaved black women as her source material to make a convincing argument that even though they worked in the same households there was no “shared sense of sisterhood” among black and white women in the plantation household.  Fox-Genovese makes a distinction between white women in the North, whose urban, bourgeois culture valued individualism and the redeeming power of domestic work, and white Southern women, whose hierarchical, dependency-based culture judged women’s worth on their success in conforming to the ideal of the “lady,” rather than on their thrift, industry, and devotion to all-sacrificing motherhood. By arguing that white, Southern women’s history “does not constitute a regional variation on the main story; it constitutes another story,” Fox-Genovese joined women of color and labor historians who were offering critiques of both the white, middle-class feminist movement and the histories it produced. (See this for a much longer and more thorough summary of Fox-Genovese’s work.)

ebony_ivyIt is a mistake to believe that slaveowning was an entirely Southern U.S. phenomenon. In fact, it was the Northeast where slavery began in the U.S. and where some of its enduring legacy remains. “Human slavery was the precondition for the rise of higher education in the Americas,” writes historian Craig Steven Wilder in his, Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery and the Troubled History of American Universities.  Wilder writes:

“In the decades before the American Revolution, merchants and planters became not just the benefactors of colonial society but its new masters. Slaveholders became college presidents. The wealth of the traders determined the locations and decided the fates of colonial schools. Profits from the sale and purchase of human beings paid for campuses and swelled college trusts. And the politics of the campus conformed to the presence and demands of slave-holding students as colleges aggressively cultivated a social environment attractive to …wealthy families.”

Wilder paints a compelling portrait of the ways that slavery was not merely part of the “context” present at the same time as the rise of higher education in the U.S., but in fact, was a crucial element that universities relied on to build facilities, endowments and legacies of elite social environments for cultivating subsequent generations of the nation’s leaders. While it’s true that these institutions were established for the benefit of white men, white women eventually demanded and won access.

White women in the academy, and I’m one of them, continue to benefit from the system of higher education built by enslaved human beings. According to the Almanac of Higher Education, women accounted for only 31% of all tenured faculty in US colleges and universities,but of these 78% are white women, compared to just 0.6% American Indian, 4% Latina, 6.7% Asian American, and 7% African American.  Wilder’s research is focused on Ivy League (elite) educational institutions, but it has implications for those of us outside those institutions as well. I work at CUNY (not, to my knowledge, built by enslaved people) but CUNY operates within an eco-system of other institutions of higher education from which we all benefit.

“But, my family didn’t own slaves!” also, “Slavery was a long time ago, isn’t it time to forget all that?

These refrains about a distant, non-slaveholding past are a commonplace among white people. The first is meant to suggest a lack of connection to the institution of slavery, and therefore, a lack of responsibility for understanding it; and the second is meant to suggest that historical amnesia is a salve for social ills. My family didn’t own slaves either (that I know of). This wasn’t an ethical stance, they just couldn’t afford to own any human beings.

The rush to forget, to distance from the legacy of slavery in the U.S. strikes me as peculiar.  Recently, this resistance to facing history has come out in the ways that white people talk about (and don’t talk about) the film ’12 Years a Slave.’    Most often, what I hear from white women friends, is this: “I’m not sure I can go see 12 Years a Slave. It just sounds too painful to watch, and I wonder, why would I want to pay a babysitter so I can be in agony for two hours?”

Perhaps part of this resistance is a reluctance to come to terms with the way that, as Olivia Cole writes, white women ruined lives while wearing their pretty dresses.  While scholarly works like those by Fox-Genovese or Wilder may not reach a wide public audience, this film could if people are willing to go see it. Part of what the film reveals is the cruel treatment meted out by white women situated as the plantation mistress to the enslaved women they controlled.

Plantations: Topographies of Terror or Theme Parks?

Slavery does not exist solely in the mists of some distant past, but remains with us in the here and now of the U.S.  Plantations are increasingly popular locations for weddings for white women who are convinced they can “work around the racism” of such a setting.

Nashville-Plantation-Wedding-500x333

(Image source)

People who doubt the fascination we have as a society with the “plantation” theme, should watch “Gone with the Wind” (1939), which serves as a kind of cultural template for the aesthetics of this phenomenon. While some may see this as irrelevant to the contemporary milieu, the recent micro-controversies involving Paula Deen and Ani DiFranco suggest otherwise.

paula_deenPaula Deen is a celebrity who built a small empire on her southern cooking and down-home style.  Deen recently became embroiled in controversy when in June 2013, she became the target of a lawsuit alleging racial and sexual discrimination.  In her deposition, when asked if she’d used the N-word to describe African American people, she said “Yes, of course.”   Among the other revelations about Deen that emerged were the details of her “dream southern plantation wedding.”   Deen offered a tearful apology for her use of the N-word, the lawsuit was dismissed, but it may have been too late because there was already a Twitter hashtag #PaulaDeenRecipes with some truly hilarious, creative entries (e.g., Back of the Bus Biscuits #PaulaDeenRecipes). Deen had her television show cancelled by Food Network, and endorsement contracts cancelled by Smithfield Foods, Walmart, Target, QVC, Caesars Entertainment, Home Depot, diabetes drug company Novo Nordisk, J.C. Penney, Sears, KMart and her then-publisher Ballantine Books. However, several companies have expressed their intent to continue their endorsement deals with Deen, and fans flocked to her restaurants in a show of support.

 

ani_difrancoAni DiFranco is a singer, songwriter and is often regarded as a feminist icon.  DiFranco faced a controversy in 2013 when after the announcement that she was hosting a three-day artists’ workshop billed as the “Righteous Retreat” at Iberville Parish‘s Nottoway Plantation in White Castle, Louisiana.  Now operated as a luxury resort, Nottoway Plantation was one of the largest plantations in the South, and features the largest antebellum mansion. Its operator and founder John Randolph owned over 155 slaves in the year 1860. DiFranco’s choice of venue for the retreat was called “a blatant display of racism” on a petition at change.org that collected more than 2,600 signatures. On December 29, 2013 DiFranco cancelled the retreat and offered what many saw as a tepid, non-apology-apology. Chastened by the criticism that followed that first statement, DiFranco issued a second apology on January 2, 2014 in which she wrote, “..i would like to say i am sincerely sorry. it is obvious to me now that you were right – all those who said we can’t in good conscience go to that place and support it or look past for one moment what it deeply represents. i needed a wake up call and you gave it to me.” 

The public oppobrium that Deen and DiFranco faced are tied up in what Priscilla Ocen, writing at For Harriet, calls the subservience fantasy in the U.S.  The persistent cultural fascination with plantations as settings of an idyllic past positions them as locations that can be “reclaimed” as luxury resorts, wedding venues, and “righteous retreat” destinations. And, I would argue, it is not coincidental that it is white women who are fueling this fantasy.

There are other ways to approach our history. At the same time that the controversy with Ani DiFranco was roiling the interwebs, I was visiting Berlin. While I was there, I went to a museum called “Topographies of Terror,” a museum that marks the site of the former Secret State Police, the SS and the Security Main Office of the Third Reich.  The story of how the museum was created fascinated me as much as the collection itself. After the war the grounds were leveled and initially used for commercial purposes, and eventually became a vacant lot. Public interest in this site emerged gradually in the 1970s and 1980s. It was during this time that groups of citizens, historians, and activists began the work of commemorating the site and using it as a mechanism for confronting the difficult past of the Nazi regime.

In the U.S., we have very few (if any) of these kinds of monuments.  Imagine, if you will, a wedding held at a former concentration camp with a “Third Reich” theme, with the bride urging guests to “work around” the blatant anti-semitism. Offensive, right? Of course it is.  Then why is it that here in the U.S., we turn plantations – our own topographies of terror – into theme parks and luxury resorts?

As I said, I find the American rush to forget, to distance ourselves from the legacy of slavery strikes me as peculiar.  I suspect that part of this reluctance has to do with the affective, particularly for white women, who wish above all else, not to be made uncomfortable about race.  More about that in another post in this ongoing series, Trouble with White Women #tww.

 

>>>> Read next post in series

 

Labor Day: Considering the Legacy of Stolen Labor

On this Labor Day, I’m thinking about the legacy of stolen labor.  While Labor Movement-created-holiday is meant to commemorate the “social and economic achievements of American workers,” a post from a friend, Son of Baldwin, has me thinking about labor that was not freely given, but rather was taken from people and for which they were not compensated.

(Facebook post from Son of Baldwin)

What does that legacy of stolen labor look like today?  If it were a bar graph, it might look something like this:

(Graph from Demos – Stats from 2010 Survey of Consumer Finances)

As you can see, black and Latino families have much less wealth than white families, even when you compare  within the same income groups.  Matt Bruenig, writing at Demos, asks, “why is this the case?” and then answers his own question with the following:

“There are many factors, but one in particular looms large. It turns out that three centuries of enslavement followed by another bonus century of explicit racial apartheid was hell on black wealth accumulation. Wealth accumulation opportunities haven’t exactly been evenly distributed in the last half century either. Because wealth is the sort of thing you transmit across generations and down family lines (e.g. through inheritance, gifts, and so on), racial wealth disparities remain quite massive.”

And, indeed, if we look at the wealth accrued to those who enslaved others, just in the U.S., the estimates from economists put those numbers in the trillions, in 2011 dollars.

(Source: Measuring Worth.com)

In their understated, scholarly language, the creators of the chart  – Williamson and Cain – write:

Slavery in the United States was an institution that had a large impact on the economic, political and social fabric on the country. This paper gives an idea of its economic magnitude in today’s values. As noted in the introduction, they can be conservatively described as large.”

So, the impact of slavery in the US was large?  Got it. But slavery ended in 1865.  Everything’s been fine since then, hasn’t it?

Not really.

Profiting from Stolen Labor Now

Deadria Farmer-Paellmann is researcher who is documenting the way contemporary corporations benefit from slavery. Many of the companies we use today initially established those profitable entities by profiting from stolen labor. For example, many of the current insurance companies began by insuring slaves, as with an 1854 Aetna policy insuring three slaves owned by Thomas Murphy of New Orleans. Farmer-Paellmann has located evidence of connections to slavery from a number of other corporations, including:

In 2000, Aetna expressed “regret for any involvement” it “may have” had in insuring slaves. Today, the company stands by that statement and says it has been able to locate “only” seven policies insuring 18 slaves. “We stood up; we apologized; we tried to do the right thing,” said Aetna spokesman Fred Laberge.

That was all a long, long time ago. Aetna apologized.  Besides, what’s all this got to do with now, today? These companies built their wealth, either partially or in whole, on labor that was stolen from people who didn’t have a choice and who were never compensated for that labor.

These corporations with legacy-connections to slavery are not the only ones profiting from stolen labor now. For-profit corporations are making millions off of locking people up. CCA, which I’ve written about here before, and The Geo Group are among the worst offenders here.

(Source)

Federal Prison Industries, also known as UNICOR, is a US-owned government corporation created in 1934 that uses penal labor from the Federal Bureau of Prisons to produce goods and services (UNICOR has no access to the commercial market but sells products and services to federal government agencies). The statistics about UNICOR’s use of prison labor, perhaps the quintessence of contemporary stolen labor, are staggering.

These U.S. federal prison labor statistics are from Prison Policy (pulled from UNICOR Annual Reports):

These wages at federal prison are criminal, and the ones at state facilities are even worse. Nevada, for example, pays inmates just .13 cents/hour for their labor.

There’s no possibility of organizing these workers, however, since the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld a North Carolina warden’s ban on prisoners’ right to form a labor union.

 

Addressing the Legacy of Stolen Labor & the Contemporary Racial Wealth Gap

To address this legacy of stolen labor, some have called for reparations.

US Rep. John Conyers has introduced H.B.40, Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act, into every session of Congress since 1989, and vows to keep doing so until it is passed into law.

In 2002, a group of U.S. legal scholars led by Charles Ogletree (Harvard) started litigating the legacy of slavery to get redress from some of the corporations that benefited. A number of people, mostly political conservatives, oppose reparations.

More recently, representatives from more than a dozen Caribbean nations are uniting in an effort to get reparations for slavery from three former colonial powers: Britain, France and the Netherlands. Leaders from The Caribbean Community (Caricom)  are launching a united effort to seek compensation for the lingering legacy of the Atlantic slave trade.

A much more modest proposal, as Bruenig of Demos suggests, is a steep, progressive inheritance tax in the U.S.  If the proceeds of such a tax were directed to a full-fledged sovereign wealth fund that pays out social dividends, we could address a number of social ills at once.

It’s actually not hard to think of ways to address the legacy of stolen labor and stolen wealth. It simply involves the transfer of capital. And, there is precedent for it in the U.S.

The federal government reached a consent decree with a class of over 20,000 black farmers to compensate for years of discrimination by the Department of Agriculture. Previously, the government also approved significant compensation for Japanese-Americans interned during World War II and paid reparations to black survivors of the Rosewood, FL [pdf], massacre.

What we lack to address the legacy of stolen labor and the contemporary reality of a racial wealth gap is the collective political will to do the right thing.

Frederick Douglass: On the Meaning of the 4th of July

On this Independence day it is well to remember a speech, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” given by the formerly enslaved and probably greatest 19th century American, Frederick Douglass, at Rochester, New York, on July 5, 1852, at the peak of North America slavery (indeed, about 230 years into that era).

In this era Black Americans were usually not allowed at 4th of July celebrations in the slaveholding South, apparently because many slaveholders feared that they might get an idea of freedom from such events (as if they did not already have such an idea!). Also, Black residents were often discouraged from attending such festivities in the North.

It is in this very dangerous and hostile national racial climate that the great Douglass–increasingly, a leading intellectual of his day and the first Black American to receive a roll-call vote for US President (later on, at the 1888 Republican national convention!)–was asked by leading citizens of Rochester to give an address at their Fourth of July celebrations. He gave them this stinging indictment of racial oppression:

Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men, too-great enough to give frame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.

But later adds:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy-a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.

Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.

Take the American slave-trade, which we are told by the papers, is especially prosperous just now. Ex-Senator Benton tells us that the price of men was never higher than now. He mentions the fact to show that slavery is in no danger. This trade is one of the peculiarities of American institutions. It is carried on in all the large towns and cities in one-half of this confederacy; and millions are pocketed every year by dealers in this horrid traffic. In several states this trade is a chief source of wealth. It is called (in contradistinction to the foreign slave-trade) “the internal slave-trade.” It is, probably, called so, too, in order to divert from it the horror with which the foreign slave-trade is contemplated. That trade has long since been denounced by this government as piracy. It has been denounced with burning words from the high places of the nation as an execrable traffic. To arrest it, to put an end to it, this nation keeps a squadron, at immense cost, on the coast of Africa. Everywhere, in this country, it is safe to speak of this foreign slave-trade as a most inhuman traffic, opposed alike to the Jaws of God and of man. The duty to extirpate and destroy it, is admitted even by our doctors of divinity. In order to put an end to it, some of these last have consented that their colored brethren (nominally free) should leave this country, and establish them selves on the western coast of Africa! It is, however, a notable fact that, while so much execration is poured out by Americans upon all those engaged in the foreign slave-trade, the men engaged in the slave-trade between the states pass with out condemnation, and their business is deemed honorable.

Behold the practical operation of this internal slave-trade, the American slave-trade, sustained by American politics and American religion. Here you will see men and women reared like swine for the market. You know what is a swine-drover? I will show you a man-drover. They inhabit all our Southern States. They perambulate the country, and crowd the highways of the nation, with droves of human stock. You will see one of these human flesh jobbers, armed with pistol, whip, and bowie-knife, driving a company of a hundred men, women, and children, from the Potomac to the slave market at New Orleans. These wretched people are to be sold singly, or in lots, to suit purchasers. They are food for the cotton-field and the deadly sugar-mill. Mark the sad procession, as it moves wearily along, and the inhuman wretch who drives them. Hear his savage yells and his blood-curdling oaths, as he hurries on his affrighted captives! There, see the old man with locks thinned and gray. Cast one glance, if you please, upon that young mother, whose shoulders are bare to the scorching sun, her briny tears falling on the brow of the babe in her arms. See, too, that girl of thirteen, weeping, yes! weeping, as she thinks of the mother from whom she has been torn! The drove moves tardily. Heat and sorrow have nearly consumed their strength; suddenly you hear a quick snap, like the discharge of a rifle; the fetters clank, and the chain rattles simultaneously; your ears are saluted with a scream, that seems to have torn its way to the centre of your soul The crack you heard was the sound of the slave-whip; the scream you heard was from the woman you saw with the babe. Her speed had faltered under the weight of her child and her chains! that gash on her shoulder tells her to move on. Follow this drove to New Orleans. Attend the auction; see men examined like horses; see the forms of women rudely and brutally exposed to the shocking gaze of American slave-buyers. See this drove sold and separated forever; and never forget the deep, sad sobs that arose from that scattered multitude. Tell me, citizens, where, under the sun, you can witness a spectacle more fiendish and shocking. Yet this is but a glance at the American slave-trade, as it exists, at this moment, in the ruling part of the United States.

And then concludes with this:

Americans! your republican politics, not less than your republican religion, are flagrantly inconsistent. You boast of your love of liberty, your superior civilization, and your pure Christianity, while the whole political power of the nation (as embodied in the two great political parties) is solemnly pledged to support and perpetuate the enslavement of three millions of your countrymen. You hurl your anathemas at the crowned headed tyrants of Russia and Austria and pride yourselves on your Democratic institutions, while you yourselves consent to be the mere tools and body-guards of the tyrants of Virginia and Carolina. You invite to your shores fugitives of oppression from abroad, honor them with banquets, greet them with ovations, cheer them, toast them, salute them, protect them, and pour out your money to them like water; but the fugitives from oppression in your own land you advertise, hunt, arrest, shoot, and kill.

The far off and almost fabulous Pacific rolls in grandeur at our feet. The Celestial Empire, the mystery of ages, is being solved. The fiat of the Almighty, “Let there be Light,” has not yet spent its force. No abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light. The iron shoe, and crippled foot of China must be seen in contrast with nature. Africa must rise and put on her yet unwoven garment. “Ethiopia shall stretch out her hand unto God.” In the fervent aspirations of William Lloyd Garrison, I say, and let every heart join in saying it:

God speed the year of jubilee
The wide world o’er!
When from their galling chains set free,
Th’ oppress’d shall vilely bend the knee,

And wear the yoke of tyranny
Like brutes no more.
That year will come, and freedom’s reign.
To man his plundered rights again
Restore.

Sadly, our system of racial oppression still persists, even as most white Americans are in denial about its deep and foundational reality. Yet, there remain many people like Frederick Douglass today who still fight to remove this “yoke of tyranny” from us all. May they flourish and prosper. We should remember those now and from the past who fought racism most on this day to celebrate freedom.

ADDENDUM
Some forty-two years later, in the last speech (“Lessons of the Hour”) he gave before his death—at an AME Church in DC, on January 9th, 1894—Douglass made these comments as he watched southern and border states hurtle toward bloody Jim Crow segregation, the new neo-slavery system:

We claim to be a Christian country and a highly civilized nation, yet, I fearlessly affirm that there is nothing in the history of savages to surpass the blood chilling horrors and fiendish excesses perpetrated against the colored people by the so-called enlightened and Christian people of the South. It is commonly thought that only the lowest and most disgusting birds and beasts, such as buzzards, vultures and hyenas, will gloat over and prey dead bodies, but the Southern mob in its rage feeds its vengeance by shooting, stabbing and burning when their victims are dead. I repeat, and my contention is, that this “Negro problem” formula lays the fault at the door of the Negro, and removes it from the door of the white man, shields the guilty, and blames the innocent. Makes the Negro responsible and not the nation….. Now the real problem is, and ought to be regarded by the American people, a great national problem. It involves the question, whether, after all, with our Declaration of Independence, with our glorious free constitution, whether with our sublime Christianity, there is enough of national virtue in this great nation to solve this problem, in accordance with wisdom and justice.

He concluded thus, his very last words ever spoken in public:

But could I be heard by this great nation, I would call to to mind the sublime and glorious truths with which, at its birth, it saluted a listening world. Its voice then, was as the tramp of an archangel, summoning hoary forms of oppression and time honored tyranny, to judgment. Crowned heads heard it and shrieked. Toiling millions heard it and clapped their hands for joy. It announced the advent of a nation, based upon human brotherhood and the self-evident truths of liberty and equality. Its mission was the redemption of the world from the bondage of ages. Apply these sublime and glorious truths to the situation now before you. Put away your race prejudice. Banish the idea that one class must rule over another. Recognize the fact that the rights of the humblest citizen are as worthy of protection as are those of the highest, and your problem will be solved; and, whatever may be in store for it in the future, whether prosperity, or adversity; whether it shall have foes without, or foes within, whether there shall be peace, or war; based upon the eternal principles of truth, justice and humanity, and with no class having any cause of compliant or grievance, your Republic will stand and flourish forever.

Happy Juneteenth!

[from the archive – originally posted June 19, 2009]

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.

Senate Apologizes for Slavery: 219 Years Late

On June 18, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution apologizing for slavery and segregation. A day later, on Juneteenth, commemorated annually to commemorate the date in 1865 when African Americans learned of their emancipation, President Barak Obama praised the Senate’s action. And, the U.S. House, which voted in support of a similar resolution previously, is expected to endorse the Senate resolution, perhaps as early as the coming week.

In offering an apology on behalf of the American people, lawmakers joined peers in other settler states, namely Australia and Canada, to express regret for and in some way resolve historic injustices associated with nation-building and capitalist expansion. They took a step, even if small, to come to terms with race, but importantly, did so on terms acceptable to White America and shaped by the very racist history they so wanted to escape.

Undoubtedly, the resolution says something important about how far the U.S has come since 1865, while diverting attention away from how little has changed. Indeed, while the overt racism and legally sanctioned discrimination that flourished under slavery and were reborn under Jim Crow have receded, racial stratification, black disadvantage, and white privilege are as pronounced today, if not worse than, they were in 1965 when the civil rights movement crested in the U.S. Worse, the apology avoids accountability as it bars reparations. Words stand in for action and once more structural remedies to the legacies of slavery seem unimaginable to most white Americans and unworkable to their elected representatives.

In the apology, one can glimpse a pattern that has emerged around race relations as well. Over the past ten to fifteen years, it has become common for white celebrities and politicians who make a racist statement to issue an apology in which they express regret, claim lack of intention or forethought, and point to their true character which is not racist. As I suggested in a larger discussion of such apologies, they have emerged as important ways of disavowing racism, deflecting attention from the ubiquity of racism and deferring individual and collective responsibility for racism. In many ways, this is what I see in the apology, an effort to deny the persist of racism, locating its ills and the past as we craft images of our better selves today.

Another sort of denial has accompanied the resolution: the palpable resentment of white Americans. Although the precise phrasing varies, the themes are familiar: “my family did not own or benefit from slavery as we immigrated after 1900 and lived in the North” or “race is only an issue because Blacks keep talking about it” or “I am unemployed, the economy is a wreck, and all they can do in Washington is pass meaningless, feel good legislation,” and so on. The material rewards and social privileges of being white discounted, trumped by a rhetoric of injury and angry identity politics.

In contrast with Ben Buchwalter, who reads the action as a sign of strength, for me, sadly, this historic resolution reminds me more of the persistence and power of white racism today.

House Resolution Apologizing for Slavery and Segregation

Rep. Steve Cohen from Memphis, Tennessee, has introduced a non-binding resolution (H.Res.194) next week “apologizing for the enslavement and racial segregation of African-Americans,” according to John Breshanan at The Crypt. Cohen represents a majority African-American district in Memphis. The resolution, which was introduced at the beginning of the 110th Congress (image from wallyg), makes no mention of reparations, but it does state that black Americans “continue to suffer from the consequences of slavery and Jim Crow — long after both systems were formally abolished…” The resolution also acknowledges that an apology “cannot erase the past, but confession of the wrongs committed can speed racial healing and reconciliation and help Americans confront the ghosts of their past.” The resolution has 120 co-sponsors.

What do you think about the resolution? Drop a comment.

DNA and Our Slavery History

Pearl Duncan, who is descended from both enslaved black Americans and white slaveholders, has written an interesting piece on “How DNA is rewriting history”:

 

She points up the use of DNA testing to track some of one’s ancestors, in this case African Americans:

 

Thousands of African-Americans have discovered ancestors through DNA, genealogy and family stories, and in the process reconnected with a wide range of ancestral cousins around the world. I digested details about the Founding Fathers in my ancestry, emotional as it was. In 1787, President John Adams purchased a mansion as a summer house from Leonard Vassal, a wealthy New England slave owner. Leonard Vassal owned seven sugar plantations in Jamaica, including Content, where a few of my ancestors were enslaved. With the proceeds and wealth from his slaves and plantations, he built a historic house in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1734. The mansion is the historic Adams Mansion beautifully displayed on page 68 of Peter Mallary’s Houses of New England.

 

She found she has now cousins in both Ghana and Scotland. But she also found that some of her enslaved ancestors had helped John Adams with his housing. Adams is one of the few U.S. presidents from Washington to Lincoln who did not himself enslave African Americans, and he is often celebrated for that. But we can see even he benefited greatly from the slavery system. His famous mansion house was built with money made off the backs of a great many enslaved Africans in the Caribbean, and probably in North America as well.

Duncan then adds a comment on

 

Another plantation owner, one of my Scottish ancestors, used the proceeds from his six Jamaican plantations and the inheritance from his cousins’ “Founding Brother’s” tobacco plantations in Virginia to purchase an estate in Scotland where shale oil was discovered. Shale oil gave rise to the independent oil companies, which was organized into the multinational oil company, BP, British Petroleum.

 

Notice in both these accounts several things. First the North American and Caribbean slavery system was not just a bloody and rapacious system that benefited white plantation owners in the South and the Caribbean. It was something foundational to the country that became the United States, in its colonies/states, and it played a central role in making European countries politically powerful. Secondly, notice the great wealth that this slavery system created, not only for southern and Caribbean whites, both slaveholders and whites who worked for them, but also by means of reinvestments it created much economic development outside the slavery arenas—even the development of oil companies that became such as British Petroleum.

 

As John Donne said, “No man is an island,” and indeed the United States and the Caribbean region were not isolated from the great Atlantic economy, which was founded in and grounded in the enslavement of Africans. They are “founders” of the United States as much as any other group, but where are their great monuments in Washington, D.C.?

Documentaries About Race & Racism (*Programming Alert)

Back in April, Joe wrote about the major new book, Inheriting the Trade by Thomas Norman DeWolf, about a slave-trading family of “The Deep North.” Tonight, the related documentary, “Traces of the Trade,” by Katrina Browne airs on PBS (check your local listings). And, while I’m not great at predicting future trends, I think we will increasingly see non-fiction books combined with documentary films geared for (near) simultaneous release. Mark my words, this is a trend in search of a name, and it has implications for those of us in the classroom as well.


And, I stumbled upon another documentary called “Resolved,” (currently available on HBO in demand). It’s a documentary about high school debaters, predominantly white, and one debate team from a predominantly black school. It’s deeply engrossing – and not just because I did speech and debate in high school. I was unexpectedly blown away by this film, especially the Freire-ian-turn it takes. I highly recommend this film.


Finally, a brief thanks to Melissa F. Weiner, Assistant Professor at Quinnipiac University, for her suggestions for additional video titles. I’ve updated the video page with her suggestions.


Addendum from Joe: I just finished reading the very personal book by Tom DeWolf, Inheriting the Trade, and it is indeed dynamite. You learn not only about the central role of New Englanders in the slave trade, but also about the way in which some members of a large and extended white family learned about their heavy slavery history and tried to come to grips with it, including travels to slave regions of the US and to Africa. I highly recommend the book to you and for class use from high school to graduate school. It will likely change, a little or a lot, all who read it seriously.