Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Slavery: Legacies and Potential Legacies

Yesterday, Inrock of African-American Political Pundit published the slave narrative of William Moore who had been a slave in Louisiana and Texas before being freed at the end of the Civil War. Here's some excerpts from Moore's account.

“We had a purty hard time to make out. Marse Tom didn’t feel called on to feed his hands any too much. I members I had a cravin’ for victuals all the time. My mammy used to say “my belly craves somethin’ and it craves meat.” I’d take lunches to the field hands and they’d say “Lawd God, it ain’t ‘nough to stop the gripe in you belly.” . . .

‘Seems like niggers just got to pray. Half they life am in prayin’. Some nigger take turn ‘bout to watch to see if marse Tom anyways ‘bout, then they circle theyselves on the floor in the cabin and pray. They git to moanin’ low and gentle, “someday someday this yoke gwine be lifted off of our shoulders.” . . .

Marse Tom was a fitty man for meanness. He just about had to beat somebody every day to satisfy his cravin’. He had a big bullwhip and he stake a nigger on the ground and make another nigger hold his head down in the dirt and whip the nigger until the blood run out and red up the ground. We li’l niggers stand round and see it done. Then he tell us, ‘run to the kitchen and get some salt from Jane.’ That my mammy. She was cook. He’d sprinkle salt in the cut, open places, and the skin jerk and quiver and the man slobber and puke. Then his shirt stick to his back for a week or more. . . .

One day I’m down in the hawg pen and hears a loud agony screamin’ up to the house. When I git up close I see Marse Tom got mammy tied to a tree with her clothes pulled down and was layin’ it on her with the bullwhip and the blood am runnin’ down her eyes and off her back. I goes crazy. I say ‘stop Marse Tom and he swings the whip and it don’t reach me real good but it cuts jus’ the same. I sees Miss Mary standin’ in the cookhouse door. I runs round like crazy and sees a big rock and I takes it and throws it and it cotches Marse Tom on the skull and he goes down like a poled ox. . . .

Mammy and me stays hid in the brush then. We see Sam and Billie and they tells us they am fightin’ over us niggers. Then they done told us the niggers ‘clared to Marse Tom there ain’t gwinebeno more beatin’s and we could come and stay in our cabin and they’d see Marse Tom didn’t do nuttin’. And that’s what mammy and me did . . .

I've also references to slaves attacking masters and surviving in reference to the slave narrative of Solomon Northrup, but believe that the defiance of the slaves on William Moore's plantation and their success in curbing a slave owner's violence was quite rare.

Inrock titles the post "Read your History, Read Our History" and I'm at least initially assuming that he's addressing African-Americans and referring to African-American history.

But I'm not sure that the history of William Moore is only African-American history. Certainly, I wouldn't want to deny that African-Americans have a special relation to the history of black people in slavery as their legacy as a people. But shouldn't white Americans view this history as "our legacy" in our own particular ways as well?

I think so.

It goes without saying that whites would identify in complex ways with the slave owner of the story, Tom Waller. Waller was white, occupied a position of slave owner that was monopolized by whites, bought and sold slaves, and mistreated and tortured his slaves in a manner that was peculiar to white slave owners. Waller's monstrous behavior is an important element of the white legacy to those who are descendants of slave owners and those who are descendants of everyone both North and South who enthusiastically supported the slave system.

That legacy can be seen in many areas of American life, including the persistence of many of the racial stereotypes of African-Americans deriving from the slavery period, the constant racial jokes told by whites, and the arbitrary and brutal police behavior toward African-Americans, among other things.

There's tremendous embarrassment, shame, and guilt among whites over the behavior of people like Tom Waller as well.

And that's also an important part of the white legacy from slavery.

But I'd like to suggest another element or possible element in the white legacy of slavery and that's an identification with William Moore and other slaves. It's not the same as the "that could have been me" or "that was my great-great grandmother identification" that can be seen with African-Americans.

But it's still real.

I've taught the slave narratives of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and others several times to white students in Kentucky. Sometimes move toward identification by asking the "what would I have done if that were me" question. Other times and this strikes me as a likely response to William Moore's narrative, there's an identification with the black person suffering from, resisting, and/or escaping slavery as the hero of the story--someone who is admired and liked, someone who the reader has an emotional stake in seeing them succeed.

I think it would be a positive thing if whites could go further in their identifications with the slaves and slave resistance--not just see William Moore, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, or W. E. B. DuBois, MLK, and Malcom X as admirable and heroic figures but view them as persons to be emulated by white people as well as African-Americans and see themselves and many of the good aspects of their own white lives as resulting from the efforts of African-Americans.

In other words, it would be a good thing if whites began to view their own lives as part of the legacy of African-American history.

1 comment:

Todd Mayo said...

I remember writing a paper in one of your classes in which I posited that the history of The United States and racism/slavery are one and the same. They breathe together. They cannot be separated. Especially given that the effects of this history are still alive.

I also remember a different paper, a short essay we did in class wherein I expressed my revulsion at my own heritage as the descendent of slave owners and as such a recipient of the heritage of that terrible holocaust. It still stains my family name and it always will. So when I read stories such as that which you included in your post, I am filled with rage that any person treated others with such savagery and I am even further enraged and ashamed of those ansecstors of mine who participated in this perverse system. So much so that were it possible, I would sooner disown those anscestors if I could, but I cannot. They were there and they were part of that horror. And because of them, so am I. And I hate them for dragging me into it. I hate them for thinking it was alright. The manner in which Americans of African descent have been and are treated in the US has never been alright. So I suppose in one sense I do view my life "as part of the legacy of African-American history." But I have never seen it as a good or positive part of that history. I have always viewed the existence of people like me, descendents of slavemasters as constant reminders to African-Americans, and (to those of us with conscience), as constant reminders to ourselves that we exist in part because our anscestors existed on the sweat and blood of a noble people who they dismissed as nothing more than commodities to be used until they wore out.

What had not occurred to me, at least not entirely, until I read this post was the idea that as a white person, I should participate in more than the shame of slavery and racism but also to identify with people such as; "William Moore, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, or W. E. B. DuBois, MLK, and Malcom X" and to "emulate.." those great people and so many others and to see myself "and many of the good aspects of" my life "as resulting from the efforts of African-Americans." An intriguing idea. I like the idea but in the back of my mind there is a voice whispering that because direct Mayo anscestors contributed to the problem, I am not entitlted to emulate those who were both heroes and victims of the system to which my 18th and 19th century relatives were so wedded.

I will consider it. But I may never feel worthy of the real heroes. Rather I will feel humbled by their sacrifice and ashamed of Mayo family participation in their suffering during and after slavery.

Someone feel free to call me "cutnpaste" for I am about to do just that. It seems appropriate to include this. I saw the actual speech on C-SPAN and I think it belongs here. If anyone finds it "too long" to read, feel free to ignore it. Your loss. Here it is:

On the End of Slavery
Reverend Jesse L. Jackson, Sr
6/7/2007 Leeds, England
"We are brought together today to celebrate the end of the British slave trade to the Western hemisphere that began in 1562 when John Hawkins began the first slaving trip to the coast of West Africa. This trade, a crime against humanity that lasted for 245 years until 1807 was fueled by commerce, pseudo-science, law, politics, theology, all of which accompanied the expansion of British colonialism into the Americas, Africa, the Caribbean and other areas of the world. The dehumanization of the slave system was an injury to the British soul. It sewed the un-Godly seed of race supremacy, one group as being inherently superior, the other inherently inferior, born to be less than, insufficient, inadequate and to be servile subjects."
"Within the context of this crime against humanity, emerges one William Wilberforce, who came to Parliament in 1870 and began his campaign against the Slave Trade with a speech in 1789, at a time when the French and Haitian revolutions were questioning the old order and ushering in new principles of the rights of man. His family background embraced riches and a conservative theology making him an unlikely candidate to become a legendary emancipator, whose work gives him stature among most significant human beings that have ever lived. After all, few people in the forest of the human race have a tree any taller than a Wilberforce, who set a standard for other tall trees who were also champions of human rights, like, Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., John Brown, John Wesley, Martin Luther and others. Wilberforce, a mere mortal, became immortal by his courage in performing a moral act, by his consuming passion to abolish slavery, in an attempt not for self aggrandizement, but also in an attempt to salvage the honor of his country and to change its course in world history. He learned early on that also where corruption and sin abound, integrity and grace must abound more. Where it abounds, love must abound even more."

"During the early years of my childhood in the racially segregated apartheid of South Carolina, there was a state of law that denied blacks the right to go to state universities, even though financed by their own tax dollars. Even then I knew that in some distance place was an institution of higher education founded in 1856 before the ending of slavery in the United States that especially catered to the descendants of ex-slaves, named in honor of William Wilberforce. In attempting to extinguish the fire of the slave trade, Wilberforce was that bright light that kept burning during cross-winds, chilly winds, all adverse winds of the attempt by politicians to extinguish his fire, he just kept it burning. After all the pressure to keep the slave trade alive, he kept his flame burning, proving that even in the darkest of the night, a little light would illuminate the path to justice."

"Without his work and the risk that he took, the ending of the slave trade would have been merely wishful thinking, since usually without transformative power, righteous causes are seldom achieved. But in his religious tradition, against all odds, like a laser beam, Wilberforce used his biblical definition of faith: faith is not wishful thinking, it is not abstract, it is not vapor that is worn out by the wind. Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen. So many profess faith, but the substance of their acts is immoral or irrelevant to human suffering. Conquerors, invaders believe might is right, in their budgets, their heroes, their medals, their values reflect that belief. History, however, is replete with evidence that right is might. Wilberforce embodies that truth."

"Through the long periods of slavery, there were churches erected, songs sun and sermons preached, too often justifying the theology of racial supremacy. This theology said that the enslaved were the cursed descendants of Ham; this was a theology that made God a co-conspirator with slavery. But Wilberforce’s substance was abolition. He once said in his personal journal, that, “God almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.” (Meaning morality in the English of that time). His peculiar sense of urgency for the abolition of the slave trade provided him with the audacity to think that he could move a mountain of opposition. After all, slavery was not a marginal action, it was deeply rooted in the history of the economic foundation of the British Empire, it was a driving force that created the wealth of Kings and Queens, armies, universities, Barons, and their formation of social institutions such as hospitals, businesses and others. It was the fuel that lit the sun that Winston Churchill said would never set on the British Empire. Through its use of human slavery the British Empire appropriated the gold, diamonds, bauxite, other precious minerals in the territories of nonwhite peoples, that even to this day, are at the disposal. But the spirit of William Wilberforce declared the soul of the culture to be rotten, spoiled by the success of exploitation and that it would not be able to face God’s judgment bar of morality."

"You have to measure Wilberforce and his contribution not only by the size of the mountain he climbed but by the crooked roads that he sought to make straight, by the moral tone he sought to achieve in the face of this pernicious global system. He was a man against mountain, will against steel. And this was a huge mountain to climb, not since the Roman Empire of global domination, had a nation been as powerful as Great Britain with the core of its foundation being slavery. And much like Jesus, the moral indignation that pierced the shielded of the Rome Empire, caused Wilberforce to follow Jesus Christ and pierce the shield of British slaver trading."

"Slavery was both popular and profitable, enduring for two and one-half centuries. But Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would often assert that vanity asks is it popular and Politics asks will it work, will it win. Morality and conscience ask the question, is it right. The Psalmist believed that if you’re right, God will fight your battle, Wilberforce believed that even though slavery was popular, politic, and profitable that it was not right."

"Even though slavery ended legally in Britain in 1833, and North America in 1865, the prerogatives of white dominance were extended into the 20th and 21st Century as racial segregation and Jim Crow, the partitioning of Africa, South African Apartheid, the Caribbean under-development. Thus, the legal status of these systems of slavery was altered in 1833 and 1865, but the essential social framework has lasted until this very day."

"Thus, the impact has been that for one group, the legacy of racism and greed, produced inter-generational wealth, with inheritance laws to protect the perpetuation; the other group, however, has experienced, inter-generational poverty. In those two results, those on the short end, surely know that while hard word, intelligence and hard work matter, but inheritance and access matters even more. A caste system, based upon race, master race, chosen race, etc. things that set human beings apart from one another, are rooted in a distortion of God’s will. The action in 1807 ended of slavery, but not its prerogatives -- the song is over, but the music has lingered on. This race supremacy has affected, and infected the whole world. To this day, we feel the fracture from this division of our human family."

"If one can say that the end of the slave trade affected an earth quake, it should be said that the after-shocks have created the floods of poverty, racism and war around the world."

We hear apologies and near apologies for slavery in this country and in the United States (recently - Virginia, Maryland and Alabama) but meaningful restitution have not been made because of the fear of unearthing a shameful history and a concern about the cost of damage done. There is resistance to forge genuine apologies for it would suggest an admission of complicity in what was called a ”crime against humanity” by the United Nations Conference Against Racism and Cultural Xenophobia in Durban, South Africa in 2001. So even a mere apology doesn’t cover the depth of the injury or the healing required. But to move to healing, you must remove the glass from the wound. The continuing patterns of race exploitation, gender bias, still linger, one must erase the wound in that system to let the healing begin."

"Given the earlier phases of the impact of slavery there is the question what will this generation do to take the glass from the wound, to eliminate the lingering legacy of slavery today, to remedy the fair access denied to universities, jobs, contracts, and other areas of life. This legacy that still leaves Africa the Caribbean still hemorrhaging for the centuries of rape and manipulation and division is alive today in the form of a rampant disease and poverty."

The G8
"This legacy of slavery where people have languished as exploited subjects, the legacy that drives the unstated agenda of the G8 caucus of states, a radical polarization that is not just North and South, it is between the have and have-not nations. In the G8 meeting, most of the nations of the world are not present. A few meet to determine the fate of the rest of the world and that is not right. The global majority is black, brown, yellow, poor, female and young and does not speak English. They must be at the table as we attempt to resolve world challenges. Once there was to be the abolition of differences among states based on economic exploitation. We must now abolish the wall between North and South, between wealth and poverty. Today too few have too much and too many have too little and building walls with big militias should not be able to withstand the legitimate “surge” of human rights for all human beings if we are all committed to that task."

"Amazingly the uniform that Wilberforce wore was what Paul called “the whole armor of God.” He didn’t use guns or standing army or a navy. He pierced the veil with the sword and brought about righteousness. Today, we must have the same indignation to balance trade with Africa, to end one-way the profit from trade exploitation. Today, there must be the elimination of global illiteracy in the world. There must also be a commitment to eliminate diseases like HIV/AIDS that cannot be contained in one place, because a world with distance and speed is dwarfed by science, we are all each other’s neighbor and whatever affects one of us directly as Dr. King would say, affects every one of us indirectly. If your neighbor is insecure, no wall can protect you from their problems because the wind blows and the world keeps turning. Just look at the problem of Global Warming. AS they meet in Germany this very day, they must reduce global warming, as well as the pain of poverty and disease."

"One, then, has a right to ask whether it is just to engage in a war in Iraq, when we invaded that country on a false premise of a threat to British and American security fostered by the existence of WMDs. This act of unnecessary war has devalued our allies and the attempt to devalue the United Nations when they would not give us cover, left us morally alone in the global system. And we have lost prestige, lives, billions of dollars; and our way in the process. Now is the time for this generation to call an end to the gun trade, the missile trade, the trade that does not protect workers, and the will to dominate and control the land of others for the sake of oil. We need a renewed power that is the spirit of Wilberforce, the spirit of grace, redemption, negotiation, the science of reconciliation and non-violence."

Amazing Grace
"A song emerges from this period that illustrates the pain of tormented souls trapped in the system of slavery. This reminds me that Thomas Jefferson, once a profiteering slave master, once observed that is slavery was unjust, he trembled for his country. As we now know, John Newton worked with this system of slavery as a ship captain. But after his conversion to Christianity and life-threatening experiences one night during a storm, he wrote the hymn, “Amazing Grace” an immortal hymn to the wonder of God’s power. A few lines of this song read as follows:

Amazing Grace
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believed!

Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

"This song is not rooted in the greed of commerce, but has a power beyond guns, beyond greed, beyond the despoilage of humanity. Grace will allow us to grow, to assess the impact of slavery on parts of the world where it has subjugated humanity….. and in the end to move beyond it."

"William Wilberforce lived long enough to see British slavery itself proclaimed null and void by the English parliament on July 26, 1833 and three days later, he died. He must have passed into eternity with the knowledge that he had fought the good fight, and kept the moral faith of his heavenly father, that he had endowed the generations to come with a standard of the civil treatment of other human beings vested in a righteous code. Today we have the challenge laid down before by Wilberforce to enforce that code, it means that a meaning form of restitution must be eventually made in recognition of the slaughter of millions, and the damage done to their descendants. We will work for that great day when we can lay race and racism to rest as primary concerns of the human family. So, fundamentally, we must work for that day because racial reconciliation will enrich the integrity of the culture a form the basis upon which the major nations of the West can lead the world in the quest for justice, democracy and a better way of life. Beyond color and culture is character, the essence of which is caring, lifting, sharing, healing, building and hoping. We are one! Keep Hope Alive!"