Southern History? It’s Complicated.

Gentle Readers, some time back an acquaintance of mine described my abiding interest in southern history. That didn’t sound quite right to me. I spend a fair bit of time studying the American South -mostly the ugly bits I admit- but when I name it for myself, I use “history”. The exact label doesn’t matter that much for my internal monologue, but I do aim for precision when asked by others. Depending on the context, I’ve told people that I study slavery, the nineteenth century, or the Civil War. I have lately moved away from the last one, as if one says one studies a war then one tends to get questions about battlefield tactics or other very explicitly military matters. I don’t object to that kind of question and, if it requires saying, accept that they have an important role in historical inquiry. But they don’t interest me as much as many other questions. None of my standard answers quite satisfy, but they get close enough for most conversations.

I never considered, until the acquaintance suggested it, calling the whole business southern history. I knew the term existed, but hadn’t until then connected it with my own efforts. I still don’t, which probably sounds either silly or thick-witted of me. I don’t spend hours reading books about the lumber industry in Maine, Puritan Massachusetts, or Michigan during the fur trade. The stars of my bookshelves owned people, wanted to, or suffered under the attentions of the previous. Their business most often takes place within the confines of the slave states of 1860, or very closely adjacent and directly connected to slave state concerns. One cannot get much more southern than all that, given how completely slavery marks the South out from the rest of the nation. Where slavery went, the South went. Where white supremacists rode by night, there you find the South. The beating heart of Dixie pulses with the blood of stolen lives.

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips

If you grew up in the United States, you probably heard some version of that often enough. Study a little and you find Ulrich Bonnell Phillips telling you just the same. Southern history has a central theme: white supremacy. Most Americans from outside the region probably agree. They do things differently down there, if you know what we mean. This all has more than a whiff of the stereotypical crazed relative kept locked in the attic. We have a secret national shame which we dare not acknowledge, even if the whole world knows already.

The more I have thought on this, the more apt that stock character from an age less considerate of the mentally ill has seemed. The good family squirrels away the human disgrace, which cannot bear the light of day. Some people shun society willingly, probably all of us have now and then. But the stock character doesn’t hide up in the attic entirely out of choice. Rather the family put him of her up there, away from prying eyes and so conveniently unacknowledged. We have a perfectly normal, healthy family, and you can’t prove otherwise.

A fair observer of all this might suspect that we have tried too hard to make the case. Crazed relations don’t just fall from the sky; they grew up somewhere. Someone put them in the attic or, in later decades, had them committed. Who else but family? Stock characters don’t go around locking up someone else’s relations to spare them the stigma of mental illness. They do it for themselves. In confining their relatives, they push the whole of the burden on the afflicted. If something went wrong, it went wrong with that person, there. It has nothing to do with us. Look all you will, you will find no hint of strangeness about us.

Stock characters don’t know their genetics or any of the other ways someone can end up ill. They don’t know much history either, except maybe a handed-down story about how now and then you get one of those sorts. But they know, at least implicitly, that if you get too close then the crazy might rub off on you. Often it already has. Our families don’t necessarily define us, but they try awfully hard.

De Tocqueville could sail down the Ohio river and see enslaved dock workers on one side, free on the other, and imagine a vast rift separated them. I wouldn’t try to leap or swim the Ohio myself, and not only because I do better at drowning than floating, but his chasm tells only half the story. The distinctions between North and South deserve consideration, both on their own and as expressions of their principle source: slavery. No one can fairly look at the United States and say they have found uniformity. We really do have different ways of doing things.

De Tocqueville’s Ohio separated the sections, but it also linked them. Farm products from the Midwest flowed down the Ohio to their markets. Southerners from Kentucky, including the Lincolns, moved across the same river to occupy the opposing shore. There they remained a powerful constituency, powerful enough to nearly make Illinois a slave state. They supported northern politicians who tilted South and constituted a significant check on the Republican party’s electoral success. The Grant Not-Yet-Old Party knew it had no hope in the South, so winning the White House required a great deal of support in the border North. Most of the butternut districts might have voted Democrat anyway, but their strength meant that the party needed a candidate with a more moderate reputation than party stalwarts of national standing, like William Henry Seward. The homely guy from Illinois worked out pretty well.

This story doesn’t end in 1860 or 1865. The first Klan, and allied groups, murdered and terrorized their way across the South to fight black equality even in the limited form tolerable to most nineteenth century whites in the North. When black Americans left the region of their birth, as much refugees as immigrants, they came North to cities with factories hungry for labor. Many of the children and grandchildren of idealistic abolitionists, as well as newer white arrivals, didn’t like that one bit and consequently signed on for the second Klan. That national organization had little trouble finding recruits outside the South and for a time controlled the government of Indiana. In many places, near enough every white man joined up. Did all those communities, and the state of Indiana, join the South for a while?

The Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement punctuate Southern history. They set the section apart from the rest of the nation. Those things happened down there, involving those people. Then the rest of us knocked some heads together and it all worked out. Integration for everyone. It all sounds plausible enough, if you leave out the rest of the nation. If a generation of civil rights activists suffered losses, many of them tragic, then they had some wins too. When the movement swung north those dried up fast. My own state, Michigan, successfully defended segregation before the Supreme Court. White Bostonians rioted against the possibility of their children sharing a classroom with black children in the 1970s, not the 1850s. By that point, Southerners had done most of their rioting on the subject and restored segregation through private schools. And I don’t see southern states going out of their way to poison majority-black cities.

If we take white supremacy, or even just especially virulent and unrepentant white supremacy, as the defining trait of the South then we have a real problem. We have the South, sure enough, but on a fair examination it might take us a long time to find the North. We might not find it at all. With this in mind, I think that calling the subject Southern history gets close to the truth, but so close that one can miss the forest for all the damned trees in the way. Places outside the South’s traditional bounds do differ, but not nearly so much as those traditional distinctions might lead us to believe. Southern history is American history.

The Persistent Politics of Disenfranchisement

freedmen votesMost people in the country probably know that not all that long ago white Americans had a serious problem with black Americans voting. The laws they passed rarely came out and said that black Americans simply could not vote, but a byzantine system of residency requirements, registration, literacy tests, poll taxes, bans on felons voting (when combined with laws designed to criminalize the mere act of living while black) ensured that as a practical matter the polls remained whites only. The net might not catch every voter, every time, but its everyday work and the tremendous violence backing it did the job well enough. On paper, these laws just coincidentally kept black Americans from voting. In practice, everybody knew exactly what it all meant. We had a white country, thank you very much.

Denying citizens their right to vote, however one wants to rationalize it, hardly makes for an act of love. One doesn’t disenfranchise a people one considers every bit as deserving as one’s own. Restricting the polls to white Americans requires a hatred of black Americans. White supremacy requires, at least in the long run, a healthy share of that hatred. But, as I’ve written before, it takes more than simple malice. The white power crowd does hate, but they don’t hate because some strange distillation of evil trickled into their ears and poisoned their minds. They hate with purpose.

At the end of the Civil War, white Southerners had a problem. The men they had enslaved for centuries now considered themselves deserving of the vote. This offended them on many levels, but ultimately they understood that hardly any freedperson would even think to vote as his former enslavers preferred. What would happen if they all came to exercise the franchise? In South Carolina and Mississippi, the black vote would surely have decided every election. A distinct polity comprising half the population, united through centuries of horrific abuse would win any election they cared to vote in. White southerners, bar those rare sorts willing to adapt and make some kind of common cause with their former property, would turn from the dominant to the dominated. The math demanded it. In other states, black Americans didn’t quite form majorities but did exist in such numbers as to make them a very major constituency.

As a minority very long accustomed to using their unity to exercise decisive influence in national bodies, the enslavers didn’t have to wonder how that would work out for them. A latter-day Haiti might still come to destroy them all, but even should the genocide fail to arrive the exercise of black suffrage would turn their world upside-down. That black men (and in later decades, black women as well) would come to vote constituted a dire affront on just about every possible level. White men, in the South and elsewhere, built their identities around never submitting to the dictates of another. Women and slaves submitted, not the free white male.

Those concerns bear a serious look, but they don’t tell the whole story. Running through it all, we must acknowledge slavery, Jim Crow, and white supremacy as a political system in themselves. Whites might have their parties and contend fiercely every election, but all whites together shared a party organized for the express purpose of depriving all blacks. They might not have understood it in precisely those terms, but it didn’t take twenty-first century historiography to get that by making black Americans into the de facto opposition party, they ensured that if permitted to vote at all black Americans wold rarely vote as the local whites preferred.

This held true in the South after the war. It also held in early nineteenth century New York, which chose to retain property qualifications for black voters even as it removed them for the state’s whites. Their gradual emancipation plan would soon mean a great more many black voters without such restrictions. The Republicans, Jefferson’s party, understood that their functionally proslavery politics and avowed southern orientation held little appeal for such voters. The black New Yorkers who already could vote preferred the Federalists. As such, they must presume any new black voters members of the opposition twice over. Thus white men in general could have suffrage, but no more black men than already did.

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips

The same holds true in Wisconsin, where early this month a Republican congressman admitted that the state’s voter identification law aimed not to fix the phantom problem of voter fraud, a practice singularly rare outside of antebellum Kansas, but rather to minimize the number of black Americans voting. They would vote for Democrats, you understand. That just will not do. My own state, just across the lake from Wisconsin, has a similar voter ID law enacted for the same purpose. So do many others.

Looking at this, among many other examples, I don’t know how one can take white supremacy as simply the central theme of Southern history. Much in American history has no more to do with the South than it does any other area of the nation, but I don’t know anything of significance in the national past or present that doesn’t have a great deal to do with white supremacy. When Ulrich Bonnell Phillips argued otherwise (PDF) decades ago, he didn’t cast his net wide enough.

On Bias and How to Read History, with thanks to @HankGreen

This past week, I saw a post from educational Youtuber Hank Green (@HankGreen) over on Facebook. Hank and his brother John operate the benevolent informative empire of SciShow, CrashCourse, and numerous associated channels. Hank found a quiz put out by an actual academic to tell the you how much bias influences your politics. He scored very well on it. I also took the test and beat the average by a healthy margin, though I didn’t do quite so well as Hank. Best to disclose that up front. I also don’t mean to call Hank out here. His Facebook post provided the inspiration, but dealing with bias constitutes a very large part of what I do here. Evaluating sources for bias comes in not very far under reading sources, and usually runs simultaneously with it.

If you go around the Civil War block enough times, you’ll hear plenty of accusations of bias. Historians have a bias. Sources have a bias. Interpretations have a bias. Geography itself has a bias, apparently toward the North. The implication generally runs that the guilty indicate, by the presence of bias, shown themselves utterly untrustworthy. The speaker, emancipated by that discovery, can just skip reading the lot in favor of the unbiased. There one can learn the truth. The same argument runs through almost every subject on which people have differences. We could as easily have talked about the news as historical documents, or the questions asked on the test that Hank found. The liberating power of shouting “bias!” always works.

I find the entire business frustrating, because it comes so close to a good point and then careens off into a weird mix of cynicism and naivete. The cynicism comes in with the assumption that the presence of bias invalidates all points. If we really believed that then we would believe nothing about anything including that. Rather we generally mean by it that people who disagree with us constitute a pack of lying villains we can and should dismiss out of hand. This conviction comes in tandem with the notion that those who agree with us we can accept uncritically as they have no bias. Not everybody will go to that extreme, and I don’t mean to suggest that Hank did or does, but just calling out bias and stopping there ends up in much the same place. I’ve seen others do it, and others have seen me do it, often enough.

The bias road has a third exit, which generally goes unstated: we ourselves either have no bias or can easily set it aside when we make determinations about the bias of others. After a few years dealing with historical actors and documents, on top of all the normal business of life, I have come to find the latter assumption far more dangerous. What follows from finding what one considers an unbiased source, if not that we can then accept what this source says uncritically? We have not escaped bias then, but rather elevated it to dogma.

In some perfect world, we may find that unbiased source and so come to no grief from taking it uncritically. In the world where we actually live, bias comes hand in hand with humanity. If you can think, you have bias. It comes from your upbringing, your values, your experiences, your education, how your brain chemistry sorts itself out, and literally every input into your life. All of us live in its thrall; none of us can escape. We all come from somewhere and we all take it with us into all the things we do, from the historian perched uncomfortably on the sharpest peak of the ivory tower to the latest newborn. Every stimulus gets processed according to the machinery already in place and in so doing becomes part of the machinery itself. This doesn’t make us bad. We do not acquire all our biases out of malice. But we do acquire them uncritically enough that we should do our best to keep close watch over them. As the world’s most peerless experts in fooling ourselves, that proves a daunting challenge.

So naturally, we should give it all up. If we can never escape bias, then we can never do anything worthwhile or approaching the truth. Having no solution, we must either decide we have no problem and proceed anyway or we have to call it quits. Only the second allows us to make an honest choice, though even there we come freighted with biases in favor of consistency over contradiction. I even put my thumb on the scale by calling the latter the honest choice. Or we can do something else entirely, though this comes less naturally than either of the two previous options.

John Blassingame

John Blassingame

If all of this sounds abstract, then let me give you a few examples. I’ve mentioned Ulrich Bonnell Phillips before. Phillips wrote the first real history of slavery in the modern sense. In so doing, he made one of these calculations and demonstrated very well how the cynicism/naivete dynamic plays out. Phillips had slave narratives available to him. He chose to discard them as hopelessly muddled and written as polemical works to inflame antislavery sentiment. In other words, the experiences of enslaved people as passed down to us came with bias. They couldn’t be trusted. Phillips had no trouble, however, accepting uncritically the writing of their enslavers. Those rare specimens of humanity had written objectively, free of their biases. This may sound so retrograde to us that it beggars belief, but it made perfect sense to Phillips and to a bit more than two generations of historians after him. For most of the twentieth century, the study of slavery involved very few enslaved perspectives. This held true even for historians with a far more positive opinion of the antislavery movement and black Americans than Phillips had. It took until the 1970s and the work of a black scholar, John Blassingame, for the change to begin. One still finds occasional historians who treat slave narratives as an expendable genre of literature rather than one which can tell us important things about slavery. The Economist generally likes their work.

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips

In my own late work, I’ve dealt with two murders committed by proslavery men against antislavery men. In both cases, the only eyewitness testimony I have found comes from proslavery sources. These naturally paint both murderers as acting in self-defense against aggressive antislavery partisans who both escalated the conflict and initiated the violence in their final, fatal encounters. Samuel Collins literally came looking for Patrick Laughlin to cause trouble. Charles Dow and Jacob Branson wanted Franklin Coleman gone so badly that they went against established custom to excuse their expropriating parts of his claim and leaving him with not enough to support his family.

Or so the stories sympathetic to the killers go. The accounts in the Herald of Freedom generally swing the other way, but George Washington Brown doesn’t claim to have any witnesses to back himself up. His decision to paint both Collins and Dow as innocents murdered by brutes seems to have come down to consulting their politics. William Phillips, the author and journalist but not the lynching victim, did much the same. Branson, Coleman, and Laughlin all lived to tell their sides of the stories but they all had an understandable interest in vindicating themselves.

How does one sort out that mess? Ideally, one could read proslavery and antislavery accounts against each other. When they agree, we can more confidently argue that things happened as described. Where they do not, we must necessarily consider both in their contexts and inevitably make subjective judgments about probability and plausibility. When I do this, I try for transparency by both admitting that I have made the judgments and sharing my reasoning. In no way do these judgments, or those of a real historian, constitute a science. In the past generation most historians have come to accept that we can’t manage any kind of perfect objectivity. Instead the discipline strives to integrate diverse perspectives in the service of mitigating the ubiquity of bias through commensurate diversity of bias.

That said, I don’t want to leave you, Gentle Readers, with shrugs and invocations of human messiness. History does not aspire to science, but it does have some best practices. I’ve already alluded to some of them, and they live in the subtext of most every post here, but I can’t go this far without offering a few suggestions. These apply to both primary sources from the era in question and to historians working from them:

A diversity of sources, as diverse as one can get, considered fairly but critically will tell you more than one source or one type of source alone. Where they differ, you can read them against one another and see what falls out. However, this often makes for an unattainable goal. We have only so much time, money, and access to information. Sources which seem consistently misleading and deceptive may not deserve the effort put into integrating them. That holds especially true for sources speaking to things that happened in some external to the author sense, but less so for sources speaking to attitudes, feelings, and perceptions at the time. If you want to know what enslavers thought and felt, you’ve got to read them even though they frequently lie even to themselves.

William Phillips

William Phillips

One should always consider who wrote a source and try to know something about the author and his or her circumstances. That includes their politics, upbringing, and their personal involvement with issues touching upon their subject. William Phillips (both of them) actually lived in Kansas and participated in antislavery politics there, which presents us with both an asset in firsthand knowledge and a liability in that they have enough personal investment to strongly encourage them to ignore or obscure facts inconvenient to the cause. Much the same holds true for Franklin Coleman and all the rest. More recent and scholarly works remain likewise a product of the same. Historians find their questions in their present, even if they dig into the past to answer them. Historical work inevitably comments on the present as well as the past. Interest in political violence, notably around Reconstruction, has had a considerable revival since September 11, 2001. Interest in moderation and consensus, along with enthusiasm for capitalism, similarly took place of prominence during the years of white prosperity after the Second World War.

One should then consider to when the author wrote. William A. Phillips published his book on Kansas with the issue still very much unsettled. Charles Robinson wrote his decades after the fact. He had more hindsight to benefit him than Phillips, as well as a less urgent need to vindicate the free state cause before the nation with the question long resolved, but likewise took a very personal role in events. Those decades further added to the natural fading of human memory. On a broader level, one should take histories written closer to the event as inherently more invested in the event than those written later. That doesn’t mean that all early works don’t deserve reading, or that all recent works do, but the earlier authors often have less access to information and frequently worked in times with different scholarly norms. Assessments we find abhorrent, like U.B. Phillips’ dismissal of the slave experience, once raised no eyebrows at all. Our own time will have the same.

Robert S. Kelley

Robert S. Kelley

One should further consider to whom the author wrote. William Phillips, like George Brown and Robert Kelley, wrote with a national audience in mind. Kelley’s and John Stringfellow’s Squatter Sovereign hoped to elicit the sympathy and support of southern partisans for their Kansas project, whilst simultaneously stressing the evils of abolitionism to depress its appeal to wavering northerners. Phillips and Brown hoped to do the same things, but in favor of their own Kansas project. Thus they have more interest than they might otherwise in emphasizing the virtues of their own side and vices of the other. Furthermore, they might not shy away from printing lies that anybody in Kansas could spot on the grounds that many readers would not have the firsthand knowledge to recognize the deceptions.

As a person inordinately concerned with history, writing a history blog, I have naturally approached the subject through that particular lens. I submit, however, that these techniques apply just as well to sorting through the inherent messiness of humanity in other fields. We can’t figure it all out to perfection, but we need not make the perfect the enemy of the good here. Understanding better and more completely, if more complicatedly, may require uncomfortable and unaccustomed exertions, but remains within our power.


Burning headlineThe spinning newspaper with the banner headline informs us that horrible things have happened. We must all look and know them so we remember our capacity for evil. In remembering, we tell ourselves that we do our small part toward ensuring such things do not happen again:

Insurgents seized a man, tortured him with a red-hot poker, gouged out his eyes, and castrated him before burning him alive.

Extremists tied a married couple to a tree, making them hold hands as their mob chopped their fingers off, to give away as souvenirs. Not content with those trophies, they set in with a corkscrew to dig out plugs of flesh. Only then did the militants relent and burn their victims alive. The radicals and their supporters alike made a picnic of it, enjoying refreshments as they watched the spectacle.

This news comes not from CNN or any other modern news outlet. Nor did these events transpire in some distant land where they speak differently, accents aside. The castrated man, Lation Scott, died in Dyersburg, Tennessee. The married couple? Luther Holbert and his wife, of Doddsville, Mississippi. Nor did those who tortured and murdered them come from abroad, shouting strange slogans in an unfamiliar tongue. If they happened today, in some other country, the news would report them in much the same voice. The news did, however, report such things back in the day. Some genuine headlines accompany this post. They communicate the obscene excitement accompanying the events better than I could.

I have these accounts from the Equal Justice Initiative’s new report on lynching in the South. Between 1877 and 1950, they count nearly four thousand victims of lynching, ranging from individuals like Lation Scott to massive attacks that claimed the lives of hundreds. The New York Times supplies a map of those lynchings. One of those took place in Arkansas, on the Mississippi Delta. The Daily Beast has the story, beginning with some horrible framing:

In 1919, in the wake of World War I, black sharecroppers unionized in Arkansas, unleashing a wave of white vigilantism and mass murder that left 237 people dead.

John Hartfield will be Lynched by Ellisville Mob at 5 o'clock This Afternoon

John Hartfield will be Lynched by Ellisville Mob at 5 o’clock This Afternoon

I know that one needs to sum up the entire story in a line or so to meet journalistic conventions, but doing so in such a way invites questions about whether the Beast’s editors think the victims had it coming. They did not unleash a wave of white terror. The whites did. The remainder of the article does much better, explaining how the sharecroppers, exploited by their white landlords, did what exploited workers the world over do to get redress: they organized a union. The owners, like employers in every land and at every time, did not welcome this development. Better pay meant money taken straight from their profits. Those vile unionists wanted to steal their rightful property, which the owners had properly stolen from their laborers in one of the most hallowed traditions not merely of the South, but of the United States in general.

There was nothing “peaceable” about the methods used to demolish the sharecroppers’ union. Late on the night of September 30, 1919, the planters dispatched three men to break up a union meeting in a rough hewn black church at Hoop Spur, a crossroads three miles north of Elaine. Prepared for trouble, the sharecroppers had assigned six men to patrol outside the church. A verbal confrontation led to gunfire that fatally wounded one of the attackers. The union men dispersed, but not for long. Bracing for reprisals from their landlords, they rousted fellow sharecroppers from bed and formed self-defense forces.

The planters also mobilized. Sheriff Frank Kitchens deputized a massive white posse, even setting up a headquarters at the courthouse in the county seat of Helena to organize his recruits. Hundreds of white veterans, recently returned from military service in France, flocked to the courthouse. Dividing into small groups, the armed white men set out into the countryside to search for the sharecroppers. The posse believed that a black conspiracy to murder white planters had just been begun and that they must do whatever it took to put down the alleged uprising. The result was the killing of 237 African Americans.

The local whites could not do it themselves. They got help from the War Department, which dispatched six hundred soldiers at the governor’s request. Men crossed over from Mississippi to pitch in. The union men fought back, but numbers and superior arms overwhelmed them.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has called white supremacy a kind of theft. We don’t usually frame it quite that way, but he has it absolutely right. White America has stolen from black America labor, property, success and lives with which we instead enrich ourselves. So the cannibal dynamo turns their misery into our happiness. That dynamo doesn’t exist independent of us; it is us. The violence did not just happen, but rather people who look like us chose to make it happen. They felt not shame, but pride and satisfaction. No one went to jail. If white, one could collect a finger or a plug of flesh from Luther Holbert and walk away feeling enriched.

By and large we don’t remember those atrocities. In the hundred and fifty years since the end of slavery, we instead ask why black Americans don’t do better. It suits us better to forget that we have prevented them from doing better and made our success out of the wreckage of black lives. Best we forget, lest we suffer pangs of conscience.

Negro Jerky and Sullen as Burning Hour Nears

Negro Jerky and Sullen as Burning Hour Nears

Or we could remember and perhaps do better. We have a good museum in Washington, part of the Smithsonian, all about the Holocaust. Go see it if you have the chance. But we have no unit of the Smithsonian for slavery, an American institution for more than two hundred years and utterly central to the development of the United States. In the American History Museum, which you can skip, you will find displays about presidents, first ladies, and George Washington sculpted as a Greek god. We choose to remember those things, not the others. Washington had his eight years and slavery its two centuries, but with sufficient editing we can turn Washington into an Olympian object of veneration.

Certainly we cannot teach our children the uncomfortable parts of our past. Today news came to me that a House committee in Oklahoma has voted to defund the state’s AP American History program, which would amount to an effective ban on it. Why?

Fisher, who has been active in a church-and-state organization called the Black Robe Regiment, said the AP U.S. history course framework emphasizes “what is bad about America.”

I don’t recall my own AP American History course as very long on the bad about America, but perhaps they’ve improved in the many years since. I have written on this before, but the facts remain the same. The Oklahoma committee, like the Denver school board, doesn’t want students to learn complexities and nuance. Instead they must believe the United States either perfect or close enough to call it that all the same. History class should not present difficult questions or raise consciousness, but rather suppress both in a lily-white stream of sunshine and flag waving. Should history teachers give children the skills to understand complicated issues and turn a critical eye on their own society, who knows where it would end?

That sunshine can’t come through clouds, so the clouds have to go. It can’t come in different colors. The shadows it casts must pass without scrutiny, taken for granted like a Whites Only sign. Such signs, ex officio, remain on the covers of plenty of history textbooks. The lynchings from the EJI report, their great popularity in their day, and how they went unpunished say things about America, past and present. Remembering them doesn’t put a neat little bow on history, raising past injustices only to declare them resolved in the grand tradition of American progress where, born immaculate and perfect, the nation only gets better. They confront us with our national shortcomings.

The EJI support memorializing the victims. They should have monuments to fill that curious lacuna in the American landscape. We have monuments for the Civil Rights Movement. We have monuments for Confederate soldiers, including one I saw in Massachusetts. Yet even where scores died no monuments exist, as people of the right color died at the hands of people of the other right color, each group in its proper place. A plaque here and a statue there will not change the world but just as forgetting four thousand lives feasted on by white mobs says something about us, so would choosing to remember them instead. It might even say that, in some small and tenuous way, we have had our fill of such lives and wish to stop claiming them as our own.

But that does require that white Americans acknowledge that we have all received stolen goods and so have a responsibility beyond that of well-meaning bystanders to do what we can to ameliorate the wrong. Progress on that front has come with agonizing slowness and great controversy, most infamously involving the greatest political realignment in recent American history and most famously the Civil War. We should accept the country we have and not think about alternate visions, whether for better or worse. Otherwise we might have to ask what kind of country we actually have, at what costs we have it, and whether we should allow it to continue as we have.

The first great historian of slavery and the South, Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, got a few things badly wrong. He thought slavery a benevolent, paternal, and tragically inefficient and backwards institution. But he did find a kind of consensus, however unwittingly. Writing in the 1920s, he identified white supremacy as the central theme of Southern history in a famous essay of the same name.

Phillips wrote long ago. The field has moved on. He particularly missed the centrality of white supremacy outside the South. Writing today, he might instead title his essay The Central Theme of American History. When the American ISIS rampaged across the South, busting unions and burning people alive, the rest of the white America filled our pockets and looked away. When thousands of black refugees flooded out of the South, fleeing white terror, we got into the lynching business ourselves to remind them that we had a white man’s country, by us and for us. Many of us, if not so many as in past decades, want to keep it just that way.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Preventing children and adults alike from putting the picture together ably serves such goals. If they can’t count on our malice, then they can count on our ignorance. Toss in a large helping of desire for peace and quiet, popular once upon a time on the Missouri frontier, where it saturates the writing of proslavery men, and then again in Alabama, not so long ago, and it might seem like things will never change. They might not, but if so then we have again said something about ourselves. We have said that the American ISIS and all its gains must prevail. This must remain a country for the white man and the Klan, the Red Shirts, and their many auxiliaries had it right. We have chosen and voted in our myriad ways to keep it that way.

That choice falls not on impersonal forces beyond our control, but in ourselves. It would mean discomfort. We would have to take sides. But we do both of those things anyway. White America usually chooses to make black America pay the price, with everything from grotesque violence and our carefully-curated, genteel forgetfulness. Maybe that makes sense to members of the Denver school board or the Oklahoma House committee. I know it made sense to proslavery writers in the nineteenth century and defenders of segregation in the twentieth. Might we at last wonder if we picked the wrong side? We have such clarity when we condemn ISIS, the Taliban, and Al Qaeda. The horrors at home receive a few passing mentions, often full of equivocation or calibrated to avoid the larger questions they present.

Growing up white and American means you get to take that for granted; I know I did. Despite learning better, I probably still do in more ways that I care to count. It takes uncomfortable work to curb the habit. It takes more than a book or memorial or post by some random internet person. The slaveholder’s lexicon comes built in: runaways, not slaves who stole their lives back; race riots, not pogroms built on white terrorism; plantations with their nice houses and gardens; not slave labor camps like something out of Siberia. Even the word lynching doesn’t do the reality justice. Terrorism might, but even that seems too abstracted from the gross realities of cutting off fingers and pulling plugs of flesh out by corkscrew to keep as souvenirs.

Three thousand people came to see a man burned alive. If they did that in some other country, it would be the one thing every American knew about that country and we would cite it for decades after as the defining trait of that foreign land. No American old enough to have heard of it forgets that the Germans had the Nazis and killed the Jews. To at least a generation, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. To another, Muslims flew planes into the Twin Towers. In our memories, those moments stretch on to eternity…so long as someone else has the dirty laundry worth airing.

While we can attribute this to a universal reluctance to grapple with complex issues and resistance to confronting things that don’t reflect well on people we imagine as somehow a part of ourselves, that only sanitizes things for the perpetrators. Yet even granting that, other countries have done much better. In school, German children learn all about the Nazis and the Holocaust. I understand they have special classes just on it.

Americans can’t even manage a National Museum of Slavery. Some of those who prefer the version of history espoused lately in Oklahoma City and Denver stress the import of American exceptionalism. Why not meet them halfway? History teachers should encourage students to understand American exceptionalism: Exceptional Americans made an empire for slavery. They came by the thousands to watch a man burned alive. They came and took fingers and corkscrews of flesh to remember the day. They posed for the pictures with the hanged bodies, like they would with a prize deer or trout. They smiled and laughed and ate their picnics while human ash rose up to the sky, burnt offerings as much as anyone that rose above camps in Europe.

We wrote those chapters into the story of us just as we did all the other things. If a full accounting leaves us with more bad than good on the balance sheet, we should find fault not in the math but in ourselves.

The Story of Steve Scalise is the Story of White America

How should we interpret a politician going up and speaking in front of a group? They do it all the time, both to large groups in public and small groups in private. They raise money for their campaigns by selling tickets and plates of often infamously questionable food to supporters, which generally come with a speech attached. Mitt Romney got in some hot water a few years back when one of the servers at such an event recorded what he really thought of the American people. But going on the television or having a fundraiser usually comes at the politician’s initiative. Politicians also make appearances by invitation of others. This often includes private groups.

When a politician accepts one of those invitations it must mean at least one of two things. The politician may seek the group’s support or the group has received the politician’s endorsement. Usually both situations apply to some degree. Groups simply don’t invite speakers antithetical to their own beliefs. It would be perverse, and hazardous to one’s career, for a politician to speak to a group diametrically opposed to his or her ideals as well. The obvious contradiction calls into question just what policies the politician actually prefers, just the same way as catching a vegan tucking into a steak would.

Steve Scalise, presently the third man in the Republican Party’s House leadership, spoke to a conference of white supremacists back in 2002. David Duke, the 1992 GOP candidate for governor of Louisiana, ran the group that organized the event. Had the white Louisianans had it to themselves to decide who won the race, they would have had Duke for a governor. His previous adventures included serving as Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. It beggars belief to imagine that Scalise, himself a Louisiana politician, did not know his name. Likewise Scalise could hardly have missed the message in the name of Duke’s group: European-American Unity and Rights Organization. They made no secret of such things:

The Iowa Cubs, a minor league baseball team, also told the Gambit Weekly that they were concerned about housing their players, which included several African Americans, at that hotel while traveling to Louisiana.

“I’m glad we’re staying away from it,” Pat Listach, then a Cubs coach, said in an interview earlier that month. “I wouldn’t have been comfortable staying there.”

The Duke group drew additional headlines nationally in the weeks before the Louisiana meeting. In mid-May 2002, USA Today reported that the organization was active in South Carolina and had “picketed” there to support the Confederate flag flying on state Capitol grounds.

Scalise pleads incompetence due to having only a single staffer at the time. This seems unlikely when even a baseball team from Iowa, hardly people with their finger on the pulse of Louisiana politics, caught on. If they could read USA Today, so could Scalise. But even if incompetence explains the speech itself, that still leaves us with the problem that between 2002 and now it seems he never revisited events and offered any kind of explanation. Only when caught by outsiders did he come forward and decide that EURO contradicted his deeply-held beliefs. Wouldn’t a person who genuinely felt that way have come forward sooner?

Scalise may simply not have cared one way or the other about the group. He insists that he would speak to anybody who invited him back in the day, whatever their beliefs. That sounds very open-minded of him, at least on the surface. The indifference, however, speaks volumes. If getting in bed with the Klan could get him what he wanted, Scalise would do so. He told us as much. How then does he differ from a rank and file Klansman? The distinction between a willingness to embrace white supremacy for political gain and harboring it in your heart seems rather academic. The votes fall the same way regardless. Scalise chose to go, eyes open, and take the money and court the endorsement of a convention of white supremacists.

We do not do ourselves favors by pretending such distinctions excuse politicians, past or present. Electing a black president didn’t make white supremacy go away. Neither did abolition, letting black athletes play professional sports, or civil rights laws. We tell ourselves stories about how bad things happened long ago and we do better now. They did and sometimes we do. Sometimes we don’t and sometimes we continue. Ulrich Bonnell Phillips declared white supremacy the central theme of Southern history, but he didn’t need the last adjective. White supremacy stands among our most ancient and important values, whether we like to admit it or not. I submit we should stop declaring victory and start doing something about it.

Maybe Scalise can help. He could resign his seat. He could resign his leadership position. He could use this chance to take a real look at himself and resolve to do better. He might even do those on his own, without anyone putting the screws to him quietly behind closed doors. I wouldn’t bet on any of that. One does not get far in politics and then easily quit the business. But he could do it.

Samuel A. Cartwright

Samuel A. Cartwright

So could his fellow white Americans. We don’t have a habit of rushing to do that either. Nor do we, despite what we tell ourselves, contain white supremacy in a tidy little box as a retrograde idea. We assume it. We take it for granted and let it guide our behavior. We see pathologies that afflict black Americans and explain them away as innate to blackness rather than imposed upon black Americans by white Americans. Why didn’t the slave work hard? Rascality. Dysaesthesia Aethopica. Why did they run away? Drapetomania. Nothing but madness could explain their behavior. Certainly nothing whites did could.

Why don’t black Americans today do as well as white Americans? Certainly we whites can’t share any of the blame. We could never have rigged the entire system to take from them the success they could manage just as well as we can and pocket it ourselves. Who would do that, except a bunch of white supremacists?

How about a bunch of white supremacists who pretend otherwise? Henry VIII, he of many divorces, annulments, and beheaded wives, confiscated England’s monasteries and promptly sold most of their lands off to wealthy men. This created a party eager to defend his religious settlement, as an England reconciled to Rome might have to restore that property to its previous owners. They bought in, literally.

Across the ocean, we do things the same way. The white hands that type these posts did not personally take anything from anybody, but received stolen goods all the same. White supremacy requires bad actors. It requires violence. It cannot thrive without one or the other. But it also requires people to buy in. Few of us want to do that in as many words, but we do it often enough all the same. It doesn’t require all of us to proceed with conscious malice; we have built a far more subtle machine than that. It lives on in the things we take for granted. Black people don’t do as well as whites. Things just work out that way. Black people have to fear the police in a way whites do not. So it goes. These things just all happen, or so we tell ourselves. That doing so requires us to assume black people simply deserve bad things in a way whites do not doesn’t come to mind, or at the very least that we have no power to do anything about it even when we have so much power to accomplish other things. We assume white supremacy, carefully hiding it from ourselves even as we do.

That concealment has shaped the politics of the decades since open racial hatred went out of fashion. Lee Atwater said it best in describing Republican strategy back in the 1980s, when the party adopted the banner of white power that the Democrats had reluctantly abandoned:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

As a byproduct, blacks get hurt worse than whites. Things just happen; no reason. People behave randomly, without thought. We’ve abstracted away the motives, removed reality from the equation, and made it easier to buy in. We have carefully colorblinded ourselves and so proclaim that we have white supremacy problem.

That’s mighty white of us.

I would like to resign my whiteness. I did not create it; I did not run for the office of white man. But people give it to me and I don’t know that I can stop it on my own. The privileges transferred out of black lives and into mine move through other minds that I cannot control. Personally rejecting the benefits of whiteness will not stop me from enjoying them because they come in how others treat me better and still others worse. It took a society to create whiteness. It will take another to uncreate it.

We have that power. Griping of the more embittered and consciously malicious of us aside, we still control the levers of power, both political and social. We may have to share sometimes, but I don’t see our black neighbors waging a desperate battle to stop us. It would take more than a day. It would take a fight. We cannot, contra Paine, create the world anew. But no law of nature demands we continue as we have, unchanged and unchanging. We could do better every day and every year and, for once in our history, not leave the job unfinished.

That would not be very white of us; that would be resigning our whiteness in favor of human decency.

The Search for a Good Slaveholder

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

Kansas should return tomorrow, Gentle Readers. I set out yesterday to write one post inspired by the passage from Baptist’s book that Kevin Levin quoted and ended up writing another. I agree with him completely on the subject, but wanted to take a moment and expand on why.

People want to think the best of others, especially people we spend a great deal of time with. As social animals, we need to do that kind of thing or go a little crazy making ourselves miserable. Historians, unless they have conducted a remarkable masquerade for generations, share our humanity and attendant shortcomings. They also spend a great deal of time with the writings of historical figures who they can come to feel that they know.

A few years back I read something Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote where she referred to Abraham Lincoln as a friend. Bury yourself in someone’s life and times deeply enough and you do end up, in some distant way, feeling as if you live with them. You see something of yourself in their lives. You find the admirable traits that every person has and they can provide some relief from looking at the horrible things that the same person also did. Nobody gets up every morning committed to consciously doing all evil, all the time. Historical figures come down to us with their human complexities, for better or worse. I don’t think anybody can avoid studying anyone at length and not come out with some sympathy toward the subject. I’ve felt it myself, even for men engaged in the loathsome business of defending slavery.

That natural sympathy can easily cross over into partisanship on their behalf. The slaveholders of the South fancied themselves generous patriarchs, presiding over their white family of blood and black family of property (and sometimes also blood) alike. William Freehling describes their self-image in The Road to Disunion, Volume One. 

A note before the quote: Throughout the book, Freehling uses various nicknames for slaves, their owners, and others. In places, he substituted cleverness for clarity. More seriously, a historian should probably not use eye dialect to refer to slaves or characterize their thoughts unless quoting directly from a period source. I think that he meant well, but at times it comes off badly. In the forward to his second volume he confesses “losing his zest” for such things.

Here’s Freehling:

According to the script, Massa was no jailer or guard or brutalizing tyrant. He was a paternalist-a nineteenth century American paternalist. Familial control in the American Age of Romanticism meant an emphasis on education, on affection, on maintaining order through a  minimum of punishment and a maximum of persuasion. The patriarch, whether with slaves or children, would not haul out the lash for every transgression. He preferred to teach wards to obey next time.

Mary Chesnut

Mary Chesnut

This act did not just go on in the presence of outsiders. Masters played the part for themselves too. If nothing else, this helpfully obscured what they actually did. The better off ones could, after all, hire an overseer or pay the sheriff to do the whipping. But they still knew:

Manuals of instructions, published and unpublished, on southern plantation management constantly prescribed relentless punishment to secure black servility. Masters were instructed to separate the innocent from the guilty scrupulously. They were then instructed to punish the guilty automatically. Patriarchs were told to issue a word, then a blow. When orders were evaded, punishment must follow. When disobedience persisted, punishment must escalate. When contrariness continued, the contrary must be sold. Systematic whippings and chainings and selling bad actors down the river were not acts of cruelty but kindness. Blacks, realizing the slightest misstep automatically yielded brutality, would willingly obey.

This whipping hurts master more than it hurts you, remember it and think twice next time. Slaves who stole themselves

must be hunted down, then whipped into awareness that Massa was inescapable.

One can grant that the slaveholder fancied himself a benevolent patriarch. One should make allowances for differing standards with regard to violence in the family, for the standards of one’s peer group, and so forth. But I have trouble imagining any white nineteenth century American, slaveholder or not, stripping his daughter naked and whipping her in public for any reason. Likewise while sexual violence doubtless occurred, probably to an extent that would stagger us, it nineteenth century Americans hardly took it for granted that a man would and could rape any woman under his roof as the done thing. The wives of slaveholders, at least in Mary Boykin Chesnut’s refined circles, took this as an unpleasant but commonplace reality. Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow considered, however reluctantly, the availability of slave women to rape a benefit of the system.

The human impulse to sympathize with the subject and ample inability to sympathize with people who had the poor taste to choose the wrong skin color, inspired the first historian of the South, Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, to call slavery a benevolent enterprise. To him, the masters truly lived up to their hype. Others followed him, insisting that few masters brutally abused their slaves. They had money invested in those bodies, after all.

Phillips  had the slave narratives. They had the evidence of thousands who risked life and limb to steal themselves before the war and the many more who followed whenever a Union army came near enough. Phillips lived in a time when he could have gone out himself and interviewed former slaves. Yet the Junto informs me that he exhibited a general hostility toward slave narratives that would have fit right in over at The Economist.

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

That said, not every owner raped his human property. Not every master relished the thought of the lash. But the search for a good slaveholder, a genuine father figure, implies we have one to find. Even an owner who never personally beat or raped a slave might die and leave slaves to someone who would, or find himself forced to sell by circumstance. Furthermore, whatever promises a slaveholder might make he (or more rarely, she) retained the option of brutality sanctioned by the law and a slave who forgot it risked much.

At the most basic level, a slaveholder owns people. Whether inherited or bought personally, every one of them had the option to free their slaves. Even with a war destroying the institution around them, even in the most marginal slave states, Abraham Lincoln couldn’t convince Delaware slaveholders to consent to so much as compensated emancipation. Few took the road that Edward Coles did.

One might find someone who otherwise, if  granted this glaring exception, manage life as a good person. We all have faults, often of a quite grievous sort. Even people who do horrible things don’t do them every moment of the day. But a good slaveholder? I don’t mean to sit on my mountain and proclaim right and wrong for the masses; taking sides in disputes long past makes for cheap virtue. But in this random guy on the internet’s opinion, a good slaveholder makes as much sense as a square circle or a warlike pacifist.