Debunking a White Power Meme: Did free blacks really own more slaves than whites?

Gentle Readers, studying the things I do often brings one in contact with the part of the internet which has forgotten its real purpose as a source of gentlemen’s special interest media. The nineteenth century insulates me to some degree from modern expressions of white supremacy, though not so much as one would hope. White power devotes its tremendous creative energies to strategy more than ideology, even when not spreading lies about the Confederacy. What I do see of modern racist discourse consequently has tight connections to proslavery and anti-Reconstruction arguments, the latter of which I have begun to familiarize myself with.

I haven’t found any proslavery writing that justifies slavery on the grounds that more free blacks than whites owned people, though I found a meme that does:

The latest in white supremacy

The latest in white supremacy, coming soon to a Facebook feed near you.

The stock photo of a darker-skinned gentleman looking puzzled by whites should feel guilty about slavery, which the text insists lays at the feet of black people, deserves credit for taking the logic of white supremacy to a nauseating conclusion. It implicitly both excuses whites by the proxy of a black man and encourages us to see ourselves deserving of an apology from black Americans for our national ancestors enslaving theirs. Ordinarily, our narratives grant no agency at all to non-whites; we treat them as objects which we act upon so consistently that it takes conscious effort to do otherwise. We learn our whiteness in schools, from our media, and every other cultural channel available to us.

Yet the moment white agency involves white people behaving in ways we have decided that we must, at least in mixed company, condemn, white agency vanishes. Then we must speak of black agency. Black people in Africa sold slaves to us, which washes away any injustice we might have done. We find the real racists with black skin, just as we find the real miscreants in every other possible sin. In this crazy, upside-down world it doesn’t matter that whites bought black slaves, but only that blacks sold them.

A full debunking of this meme would run very long. I may make a series of it, but today I want to focus on the first the first factual claim:

A greater percentage of free blacks owned slaves than whites.

This kind of argument would have made no sense to someone in the middle nineteenth century. I don’t know that any antebellum white considered that a mitigation of slavery, as it turned their racial caste system on its side. Black skin meant enslaved, not enslaver. That the slaves still had the “right” color would not have charmed them much. They did not understand black slaveholders as entering a class with themselves, even if those same free people of color sometimes aspired to that role.

The author of the meme found a real fact, rare enough for white supremacists, but naturally used it in a profoundly misleading way. Just taking it on its face, you would think free blacks constituted the great slaveholding caste of American history. We may know otherwise, but the presentation encourages us to let that slide by. They accounted for a trifling fraction of the number of whites who owned slaves, not even close to a significant fraction of all free people of color in the Antebellum South. The author asks us to ignore almost every slaveholder, indeed the nature of American slavery as a race-based caste system itself. We may as well declare the Pacific Ocean one vast desert, neglecting all that water.

Our author also neglects the multitude of ways in which slavery still constrained the lives of free black Americans. In no way did being free, but black, make many black Americans even near-equals to white Americans. In slave states, where the great majority of them lived, free blacks led lives still governed by the slave codes. They and their children lived in real fear of being kidnapped and sold as slaves somewhere far away. Whites and white law frequently, though with notable exceptions, restricted to low status and/or economically marginal work. Their marginality extended, thanks to the system whites built, to treatment often similar to slavery. In many slave states, especially in the later antebellum, freeing a slave required deporting the slave from the state at the owner’s expense. The whites literally wanted them gone, rather than around to contradict how black skin inherently meant enslaved, and whiteness alone made one free. At the least, this meant separation from homes and loved ones, just as a slave sale did. The impulse to purge the land of free blacks recalls twentieth century forced population transfers.

One finds successful, even wealthy, free black Americans in the historical record but they appear few in number. Many of these tried to make distinctions based on their lighter skin color, inherited from rich white fathers. They don’t make fair representatives of free blacks in general, and still faced considerable disabilities on account of their ancestry. In rare conditions, enough free and freed black Americans lived in one place to form their own class, particularly in New Orleans and Charleston, but whites insisted they occupy a sort of middling position well short of whiteness. Most were dependent on maintaining close relations with white patrons, often their relatives, to remain in that status. Complicating this further is that in most of the Cotton States have far fewer free blacks than they the Upper South (the Chesapeake, Kentucky, etc.) where no such “brown” class develops.

This began with black enslavers, so it would do to come back to them. Free blacks owned slaves in every slave state, but it pays to mind the details. When most of us read that someone owned slaves, we probably picture a plantation, a whip-wielding master, and all the rest. We imagine the actual experience of the great majority of slaves in the United States, sensibly enough. But free blacks almost always held very modest amounts of human property. Though a few operated plantations, for the most part we find circa one or two people owned. Specifically, we find family members of the free person.

Whites insisted that freeing slaves constitute a difficult legally and socially challenge on top of any financial burden from lost investment or labor. It could literally required an act of the state legislature, something far beyond the means of a person hoping to buy a spouse or child to save them from the full horror of slavery. The more freed people appeared locally, the stronger the local whites would object and the harder they might fight to make the lives of freedpeople impossible. Purchasing a loved one could thus mean taking the least worst option.

All of this requires us to grapple with a slavery that actually existed in the real world: a system of violence, theft, torture, and rape spread across two continents by white Europeans and their descendants. The Atlantic world that whites built on constraining, controlling, and exploiting blacks does not go away because we pretended otherwise. We can imagine a strange world where cunning black enslavers coerced or corrupted virtuous whites into buying human beings. We can pretend that they sat on the shoulders of white enslavers on their plantations, whispering in their ears: whip them, rape them, steal their children. We can tell ourselves whatever stories we like, use whatever startling facts out of context might distract us. The reality remains, as we all know. Declaring ourselves innocent and demanding apologies from those we still studiously afflict for how they hurt our feelings doesn’t depart from the system we built long ago, but rather continues it. We know that too.

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