The Confederacy’s modern partisans like to whitewash its history. You can’t blame them, since there’s scarcely a single thing about the Confederacy that anybody would admire otherwise unless far more profoundly invested in conscious white supremacy than most Americans can manage. It probably goes without saying that most people actually doing the whitewashing fit that description, but true believers don’t require the argument. They know what they know. Rather they mean their arguments for the ignorant. With ignorance a common condition for all of us, they suffer from no dearth of prey.
This past week a specimen of modern proslavery rhetoric came to my attention. I mean that literally:
“Slavery,” League of the South founder Steve Wilkins and Douglas Wilson tell us
produced in the South a genuine affection between the races that we believe we can say has never existed in any nation before the War or since. Whatever its failures, slavery produced in the South a degree of mutual affection between the races which will never be achieved through any federally-mandated efforts.
I don’t know how anybody could read that as short of a ringing endorsement. Wilkins and Wilson clearly understand it as such themselves:
Slavery as it existed in the South was not an adversarial relationship with pervasive racial animosity. Because of its dominantly patriarchal character, it was a relationship based upon mutual affection and confidence. There has never been a multi-racial society which has existed with such mutual intimacy and harmony in the history of the world.
Wilkins and Wilson make some gestures toward how slavery had its faults and propose to defend a pure, Biblical slavery, but they titled their work as they did and concerned themselves in practice exclusively with, in the words of the aforesaid title Southern Slavery As It Was. If they didn’t mean for readers to take from their work Steve and Doug’s account of the wonders of slavery, with a lament for its passing, then they wrote a pamphlet curiously designed for that purpose.
I didn’t raise this subject just so we could point and laugh or throw stones. Nor do I simply take it as a matter of dogma that one must consider slavery a great evil about which we must believe the worst possible things. I bring Wilkins and Wilson to your attention in order to demonstrate some of the innumerable ways in which their arguments don’t withstand scrutiny. I can’t claim a complete answer to them; I presently lack the time and tolerance to go through every detail and chase down each citation. My patience for such things increases with their age and W&W’s pamphlet barely has a decade under its belt. As such, please understand this as an answer to the points that immediately particularly jumped off the page rather than a comprehensive refutation. I further do not propose to vindicate the respective Christianities of enslaver, enslaved, or abolitionist, a subject of great concern for W&W. Historically speaking, I consider them all equally Christian.
This still leaves us with much to say about slavery. To defend their position that slaves and enslavers largely lived in circumstances of “mutual affection and confidence”, W&W rely upon the testimony of actual slaves. By that I don’t mean that they cracked open some Frederick Douglass or some other abolitionist. Indeed, if they cited a single black American writing in the nineteenth century, I have missed it. Their contemporary sources run as white as the local Klavern. W&W delved into the Works Progress Administration slave narratives. A pair of old school American conservatives like W&W probably relished the chance to turn the work of a New Deal program against American liberals. The WPA sent journalists out to find survivors of slavery and interview them. Those narratives deserve consideration. However, we cannot accept them uncritically as representative accounts of antebellum slavery.
Al Mackey has a very thorough post discussing the issues with the WPA material here, which I have deeply drawn upon for what follows. You should really read him for a full treatment. But take this as a very abridged version:
If for no other reason, the math makes the argument against uncritical acceptance of the WPA narratives. The last enslaved African-Americans got their freedom in 1865. The WPA began operation in 1935, some seventy years thereafter. A person born enslaved in America at the last possible second of slavery would have seen sixty-nine years and nine months come and go before a WPA interviewer appeared on his or her doorstep, assuming that interviewer arrived at the first possible second of the WPA’s operation. This implausible encounter would have involved precious little in the way of information about slavery, since the enslaved suffered the status for only fleeting moments long before his or her brain had any capacity to remember it and before the unfortunate could give an enslaver some “reason” to apply the whip.
A more realistic scenario would require someone born and come of age before the Civil War, thus able to see, experience, and remember slavery as at least a young adult. Given notions of adulthood ran differently in the nineteenth century, let’s estimate one would have to reach the age of ten to fifteen. It’s probably closer to the latter than the former, but the exact age would vary person to person. This put the birthday of a good, reliable witness between 1845 and 1850. Even if we take the war as not disruptive to slavery, quite a whopper, it only moves that range up to 1850-1855. A person born in 1855, a date so late that it still raises some doubts, would turn 80 in the first year of the WPA’s operation and would very likely not have experience the full suite of horrors that slavery had to offer. Someone born in 1850 might very well have, but would meet the interviewer only at age 85.
Some people at that age have very good memories, but most of us don’t have that good fortune. So many things have come and gone even on top of the aging of our neurons. The more remote an event becomes, the more easily we confuse it or recast it to our convenience. Let’s opt for charity and say that the WPA’s subjects all had peerless memories. Most of them, like most of us, probably did not. But even if they did, then we have the later problem. How badly do you want to remember your every humiliation? These memories don’t always go away, often to our sorrow, but likewise one doesn’t fondly reminisce about them decades later.
That said, we have a larger problem than not wanting to remember old pains. One can remember every indignity and not care to share them. A WPA interview involved a white journalist coming to your door in the Jim Crow South and asking extremely sensitive questions. The answers to these questions could implicate the ancestors of people still powerful in the community and capable of doing you great harm. Though the golden age of southern lynching had wound down a bit by 1935 it had not yet ended. Anyone old enough to remember slavery could also remember the more recent decades of white terror. Put yourself in that person’s shoes. Would you tell them that the sheriff’s grandfather, or the interviewer’s own, raped, whipped, and destroyed families for profit? Would you come forward and cooperate with a white journalist fully if you had many things to say that reflected poorly on whites in that environment? Not likely. Especially not if the interviewer comes up with leading questions. Nor would one expect an interviewer to seek out unfamiliar informants who might not play along.
Aside the narratives, W&W make two other arguments for the benign character of slavery that I want to address today:
If slavery had been as bad as the abolitionists maintained that it was, and as we have been reminded countless times on supposedly good authority, then why were there not thousands of rabid abolitionists demanding an end to the evil? Or, even more to the point, why were there not hundreds of slave rebellions? These questions have not been asked often or loudly enough.
Why didn’t the abolitionists appear in the thousands? Throughout most of the antebellum, even northerners viewed abolitionists as a nuisance. This included plenty of antislavery Americans. They understood abolitionism as a threat to the Union, in that it might provoke secession and so destroy the grand experiment in white republicanism. They didn’t care in the slightest about the welfare of black Americans, but rather understood slavery chiefly as a threat to white futures. If W&W knew half as much about the historiography as they pretend to, they could have answered that one themselves. They must lack that education, the honesty to disclose the fact, or the intelligence to see the contradiction between the argument they made and the education they have. Only they know which; but none reflect well upon them.
That leaves us with the question of slave revolts. It makes intuitive sense that if people suffer great mistreatment, they will rise up in revolution. Americans imbibe a national myth of heroic resistance that insists upon such things. Slaves did revolt, most famously Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey, but one can’t argue that hundreds of revolts took place that we somehow missed. I think this best answered by telling the story of a less famous revolt.
I take this all from Melton A. McLaurin’s Celia, A Slave. Robert Newsom operated a farm in Callaway County, Missouri.
By the time the census taker arrived at his farm in 1850, Newsom had acquired five slaves: four adult males and a five-year-old boy. Sometime soon afterward, probably within the same year, Newsom would decide to purchase his sixth slave.
Newsom didn’t buy another field hand, or even a boy that would grow into one. He bought an enslaved woman, Celia. Newsom had lost his wife a year prior and he had needs. He did well enough that he could have remarried. Callaway County, while not exactly crawling with women, had plenty of decent prospects for a well-off and well-regarded farmer. Other men of his age and class had remarried. Newsom chose to to buy a fourteen-year-old enslaved woman instead. He had daughters who could and did attend to the customary domestic duties. For that matter, a wife would have done so as well. To Newsom, Celia offered something that no white woman could: a woman he could rape at will and without guilt or consequence. He bought her so he could do as he liked. While the community might not approve exactly, nor did they stand likely to intervene. Some probably would have approved.
Celia did not. As a slave, she really could not approve in any meaningful sense. Even had she and Robert gotten along personally, the threat of punishment always hung over the prospect of refusing. For five years Robert raped her. Twice in her captivity at the Newsom farm, Celia bore children. Newsom contributed his DNA to at least one of those children, probably both. He also built her a brick cabin, luxurious for slave quarters but also serving as a handy site for his further acts of rape. In time, Celia began a relationship with an enslaved man on the Newsom farm, George. George demanded that Celia, pregnant for the third time, end her relationship with sexual Newsom.
George could not demand that of Newsom; it might cost him his life. Newsom would surely understand the behavior as insubordinate and worthy of punishment. Celia, though probably deeply resentful of being held responsible for her own rape, tried to comply. She too had few options. If she simply refused, or appealed to other members of the Newsom family, she exposed herself to punishment. She might implicate George too. She risked the future of her children, who Newsom might take from her as part of her punishment. Risking it all the same, Celia appealed to the women of the household to no avail.
Celia appealed to Newsom himself on or about June 23, 1855. Newsom rejected her pleas and insisted that he had every right to take what he wanted from her. He intended to do so that very night. Celia made threats but Newsom dismissed them. About ten that night, he walked out to her cabin. Her children, his grandchildren, slept within. Celia had a fire going. Newsom cornered her. She seized a hefty stick and hit him on the head with it. Newsom went down, dazed. Celia, understandably worried about what would happen when he got up, finished him with a second blow. Realizing that if she left everything as it now stood she would soon hang, or worse, Celia burned Newsom’s body in her fireplace and disposed of it. After a trial, from which we have most of our information about her life, Celia’s life ended in a hangman’s noose.
When I told a friend this story a few weeks ago, he told me that he considered Celia his new favorite person. I concurred. Placed in a horrific situation, she defended herself and disposed of a serial rapist. It fits well into our narrative of heroic, violent resistance. But most slaves did not do as Celia did. Does it follow from that that they contentedly accepted their lot in life?
I doubt Celia considered herself content in the five years Robert Newsom preyed upon her. Rather she had few options for escape. She could have killed Newsom, as she ultimately did, but that course would deprive her of her life and her children of a mother. She could have run, but to where? With help from whom? Doing so would have required her to take her children and compromise her effort or abandon them. Revolt sounds great on paper, but seems much less promising when you have something to lose and a healthy appreciation of your own mortality. Enslaved Americans still had friends and family they cared for. Would you rebel if it meant your death? Maybe, but we all easily cast ourselves as the heroes of the story. Would you rebel if it meant the death of your friends too? Your family? Your children? We speak easily about dying for our freedom and exalt the act of dying for someone else’s, but is your freedom worth the lives of your loved ones? We can all think of things we might die for or kill for, but we imagine ourselves dying alone or killing enemies. We don’t think so much of those we leave behind or those who dear to us who might die with us or as a consequence of our actions. When we do, does it seem so easy?
This talk of violent revolt, moreover, ignores all the more subtle ways that enslaved people could resist their enslavement. Enslavers complained endlessly about their stupid, duplicitous human property. Slaves misunderstood, or “misunderstood” instructions. They worked slowly. They broke tools. They met in secret together. They stole. They formed families in defiance of the system that bound them. They sang songs about freedom. They built up a separate religious tradition. None of this freed them; none of it brought the system down. All of it together put occasional strains upon white control and provoked white panic and terrorism. The story of slave resistance only rarely ends in liberation. It doesn’t fill one with hope or conclude with a triumphant fanfare. It lives and dies on the scale of individual lives, most of them forever trapped in an earthly hell.
Slaves had great enthusiasm for the story of Moses. He led his people out from slavery and into the promised land, a prospect of obvious appeal. I need not recount it here, but want to draw attention to four million who heard that story and recognized better than we might how it ended for Moses. The prophet climbed Mt. Nebo and looked down on the promised land, but got no closer. He could never set foot within. Generations ground on for two centuries looking down from the mountain in their dreams, imagining freedom in little pieces torn from the margins of slavery. Their struggle ended in thousands of ways, but most lived and died enslaved. Does that mean it all came to nothing? The enslaved didn’t think so, or they surely would have given it up. In asserting themselves however they could, they rejected the edicts of white law that made them property instead of people. In a thousand quiet ways, they declared themselves not things owned by others, but men and women just as good as those who declared them chattel. That struggle had value in itself, a fact well appreciated by the whites who tried to destroy it.