Friday, July 06, 2012

Post-Independence Day Reflections on the Lingering Legacy of US Slavery

On one hand, I guess I understand the impulse of this rather astonishing effort by Tea Party activists...
A little more than a year after the conservative-led state board of education in Texas approved massive changes to its school textbooks to put slavery in a more positive light, a group of Tea Party activists in Tennessee has renewed its push to whitewash school textbooks. The group is seeking to remove references to slavery and mentions of the country's founders being slave owners.

According to reports, Hal Rounds, the Fayette County attorney and spokesman for the group, said during a recent news conference that there has been "an awful lot of made-up criticism about, for instance, the founders intruding on the Indians or having slaves or being hypocrites in one way or another."

"The thing we need to focus on about the founders is that, given the social structure of their time, they were revolutionaries who brought liberty into a world where it hadn't existed, to everybody -- not all equally instantly -- and it was their progress that we need to look at," Rounds said, according to The Commercial Appeal.
If it were not for the assertion that the criticism was "made-up," I could almost buy the argument that it's time for us to focus more on the progress our founders enabled to eventually take place. After all, we can't linger in the past forever if we're sincere about perfecting our union. 
But we dare not forget the truth of our past, lest we lose our true selves entirely in the process.
It's not without its critics, of course, but I for one was convinced by Toni Morrison's argument in Playing in the Dark that the racism that permitted slavery played a central role in defining our national character (at least as recorded in American literature). The so-called national bravery we read so much about, that enabled us to boldly pioneer new frontiers, for example, came in part through a projection of our fear of real freedom onto slaves. From The New York Times review:
The black "shadow" has, paradoxically, allowed white culture to face its fear of freedom, Ms. Morrison continues. Though Pilgrim, colonist, immigrant and refugee embraced America for its promise of freedom, they were nevertheless terrified at the prospect of becoming failures and outcasts, engulfed by a boundless, untamable nature. It was not surprising, then, that writers explored American identity in the most anxiety-ridden genre of literature -- the romance. There they could fill in the romance's "power of blackness," as Melville called it, with the figure of the slave, whose lack of freedom and whose blackness confirmed his contrast to the master. Africanism, the culture's construction of black slavery, stood, therefore, not only for the "not-free" but also for the "not-me."
But more concretely than metaphors, wanting to maintain the economic advantage of slavery loomed very large among the founders' practical rationales for breaking away from England. In fact, a little-known retort to the Declaration of Independence by John Lind, a British pamphleteer, rubs our nose in this less-than-flattering motivation:
[T]itled "Answer to the Declaration of the American Congress", [the retort was] written in the same snarky tone as an attack ad.


But like most attack ads, it also contained a few facts that the rebels didn't want to face. You remember the part where the Declaration says King George (quote) "has incited domestic insurrections among us..."?

John Lind points out that what the rebels were really upset about was that the King had "offered freedom to the slaves."

(QUOTE) "Is it for them to say that it is tyranny to bid a slave be free?"
Lind goes on to mock the founders for writing noble words stating, "all men are created equal" and asserting "Life Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness" and then in the same document, complaining about the King for encouraging the slaves to rise up.

"Is it for them to complain of the offer of freedom held out to these wretched beings? of the offer of reinstating that equality, which, in this very paper, is declared to be the gift of God to all?"
Again, I understand the desire to move on reflected by the Tea Party activists' attempts to whitewash our history, but even there, one underlying implication is that as a nation that we're not strong enough to handle the truth. As an American, I reject that implication.
Yes, our history is complicated. Yes, in parts it's hideous and unforgivable. But it's all part of what made us who we are. And we can't be truly proud of who we are unless we're honest about the times we failed and then made amends.
There's a man of African descent living in the White House. We are unquestionably perfecting the union. As a Progressive, I believe we can stand to do so more quickly. As an American, though, I accept that as much work as there is still to do, we can only celebrate who we are meaningfully if we acknowledge it honestly.

9 Comments:

Blogger Richard G. Crockett said...

Along similar lines, there is an excellent book called American Freedom, American Slavery One of my history professors uses this book in a graduate class. It introduces and explains the rather counter-intuitive proposal that without slavery, there would have been no American democracy.

It worked like this. The slaves were many. The whites were few. Keeping the slaves controlled required total cooperation among the whites; hence, the aristocrats were willing to accord democratic privileges to those whom they would otherwise have little to do with. In simpler terms, American slavery created an "Us and Them" that would not have existed without slavery.

These efforts by the Tea Party to distort history are very disturbing. I have not, however, yet met a real, live person, in person, face to face, who actually believes that nonsense.

[edit: I see blogger does not allow the "cite" tag. Grrr... reverting to italics.]

7/06/2012 11:44:00 AM  
Blogger Nina Ulana said...

You state it perfectly - "We can't be truly proud of who we are unless we're honest about the times we failed and then made amends."

To me, whitewashing school textbooks is comparable to burning books. History, no matter how "hideous and unforgivable," as you state, needs to be presented honestly. It illuminates our present and increases our potential for improvement. To distort or erase facts only leads to distorted reality. We must remember every "hideous and unforgivable" event in history so we do not repeat past mistakes.

7/06/2012 02:58:00 PM  
Blogger Elwyn Palmerton said...

I watched a documentary about Thomas Jefferson a while ago. In the end, it that said that Thomas Jefferson died thinking that the founders fathers had failed because he (correctly) anticipated that the slavery issue would eventually tear the country apart. The criticism that the founding fathers failed in some way (or were hypocrites or flawed humans) is hardly a "made up" criticism. It's one that the founding fathers, themselves (at least some of them) made themselves or might have at least agreed with.

7/06/2012 08:44:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

This is the second time in a week that I've read a pro-British take on the American Revolution, pointing out that the British record on slavery was superior to that of her colonies. The other one came from Conrad Black.

...individual Americans did not have substantively more liberties at the end of the Revolution than they had had at the beginning, nor more than the British in the home islands had (then or now or at any time in between), apart from having a resident sovereign government. The whole American notion of liberty came from the British, along with the common law and the English language. If the Americans had maintained their British status, they would control Britain and Canada and Australia and New Zealand now (another 120 million people and over $5 trillion of GDP), have all their energy needs met, and enjoy better government than they have actually endured for the past 20 years. It would have been much easier to abolish slavery and, if there had been a Civil War, it would not have lasted long, nor cost a fraction of the 750,000 American lives that it did.

To the credit of the Americans, it's worth remembering that they hardly created the slave trade. Indentured servitude was a perennial feature of life in sub-Saharan Africa and slave-trading frequently practiced among its various nations. By the time the Portuguese first showed up in the 1400s, trade of slaves to North Africa and the Middle East had been going on for several centuries. When François Bernier published his taxonimic text from which we derive our current conception of "race," it was almost 250 years later. And there's an argument that slavery might have died out in this country for economic reasons caused by immigration, namely, it was cheaper to hire Irish immigrants for wages than keep black slaves.

The moral of the story is that actual history tends to destroy convenient historical narratives, regardless of slant.

7/07/2012 08:40:00 AM  
Anonymous Charles Browning said...

"But we dare not forget the truth of our past, lest we lose our true selves entirely in the process."

Exactly. But you knew I would say that ;)

7/07/2012 08:54:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

This is the second time in a week that I've read a pro-British take on the American Revolution,

This reminds me of a frequent response to the work of Yevgeniy Fiks who mines the Cold War and whose work includes "Lenin for Your Library" and "Ayn Rand in Illustration." Because he's not always clearly condemning the Soviet stance on things, we often hear people ask whether he is pro-Communist. Our response is always that his work reflect his dedication merely to being pro-truth.

It's not at all "pro-British" to acknowledge that the Founders felt an urgency to declare independence before King George freed the slaves. It's merely pro-truth.

7/07/2012 10:26:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

To clarify, I was referring to the John Lind pamphlet, not your post.

7/07/2012 12:12:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I see nothing wrong with kids knowing that many of the Founders were slave owners. HOWEVER, those text books need to make it clear (the currently don't) that many African tribes sold there own people to slavers.

I remember the text books in school. Most made it sound as if whites went in guns blazing to capture slaves. That, for the most part, is not true. The fact is this... slavers liked to deal with tribes rather than fight them. Most slave vessels simply did not have enough man power to take a hostile approach. It was trade.

And before someone says that whites introduced Africans to slavery... shut up. LOL Slavery existed in Africa among tribes long before whites arrived.

I see a lot of people suggesting that white Americans today should still be accountable for what our white ancestors did. What about what the Africans did to themselves? Why is that never discussed in the classroom?

Same goes for native Americans. We read in the classroom about how cruel whites were.... but there is rarely any mention of how tribes tended to massacre weaker tribes and yes... some did take slaves in the sense that women would be captured to bare children.

Cruelty does not have one skin color. Get over it.

7/10/2012 07:33:00 AM  
Blogger Nat Turner Chronicles said...

To anonymous and Franklin, You are the reason why telling false American History is the worst possible thing the country can do. The history taught within the American school system is already white-washed, inadequate, sanitized, false, an inaccurate as it pertains to the descendants of Africans. Now very basic aspects of American history are all of a sudden so objectionable that you have legislatures attempting to erase these aspects. Ask yourself why? Why is it important to tell American history absent significant events pertaining to black people?

It’s funny how you both suggest that White America has no responsibility or accountability for the transatlantic slave trade. First of all, the whole” Africans sold themselves into slavery”, is white supremacist rhetoric devoid of any substance. The word African, Black, and any other term used to describe people of African Descendants was superimposed by conquerors. No one person thought of themselves as Africans prior to European Conquest. There were Yoruba, Hausa, Ashanti, and so forth. Furthermore, the Transatlantic Slave Trade was an invention of the Portuguese solely under the directive of the Papal Bull--There were no so-called Africans in attendance in the drafting of this “Bull”. And for the record, Slavery is existed throughout the world, but nothing like chattel slavery introduced by Europeans. The root of the word slave means Slav or Slavic people--Not of African descent. The Portuguese came in with guns and took slaves; they only later discovered that there were rivalries amongst Africans that could be exploited to increase their slave acquisition ability. This is no difference from what European Conquerors did by turning Native American tribes on each other, Pakistan against Indian, many others. Now both of you idiots lack obvious historical foundation and white supremacy has damaged your critical thinking skills so much that you don't understand that when you make statements like Africans sold Africans into slavery you are asserting the lowest brow of historical misnomers. Would you say Europeans put other Europeans in an Oven when referring to Nazi Germany genocide of the Jews? Would you say that White people killed White people when discussing the participants in WWII? Of course you wouldn't, but you speak so confidently using ill-logic that you wouldn't use to describe European history. Guess what makes this possible, the white supremacist history that you been fed about the world of color especially when it comes to black people. You probably couldn’t name one African Country or one African Head of State, or one African nation/tribe that existed prior to conquest. But you are an authority on the slave trade-huh. And it does not matter how many other idiots agree with you because this ignorant rhetoric has been disproven over and over again. Go to any college and challenge a professor of African Studies to this debate. I will take you own or anybody else who wants to assert these lies.
The crux of the matter is that telling the truth about history weakens the argument of those in power, as well as those who have benefitted from the unfair privileges the white supremacist social system has granted. The lies tend to suggest that those who have material wealth are more deserving than those who don’t because they simply worked harder and are genetically superior.

7/10/2012 06:25:00 PM  

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