Saturday, September 6, 2014
Slavery Was Racist, OK?
The Economist published, then apologized for, a review of a book about slavery that criticized it for being, you know, anti-slavery.
In a way, this ties in to the conservative push against the APUSH exam redesign. Slavery was a moral abomination. Don't take my word for it, listen to slaveholders like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison grapple with the incongruity of American ideals with the necessary economic power that slavery placed in their hands. Jefferson noted that slavery degrades the slaveholder as well as the slave by making him a tyrant.
Attitudes in the South were very conflicted about slavery until the introduction of cotton as a profitable crop. While slavery had had appeal during the colonial period because of the chronic labor shortage during that time, as the US economy and white population grew, there emerged a strong movement to end slavery in states like Virginia and Maryland.
It is worth noting that these manumission movements wanted also to expel the freed African Americans from their country. They presumed that people of African descent were incapable of citizenship (this despite the fact that enslaved African American had increasing amounts of European blood in them). Jefferson actually wrote once that he thought European and Native Americans would intermarry seamlessly. Ironically, he did not write this about African Americans, despite fathering several children with Sally Hemmings.
What made slavery ultimately impossible to eradicate short of war was the economic benefits it brought to the elites of the South and North through cheap cotton and the intractable racism that underlay the entire institution. Even those without slaves in the South took pride in their place above the slave in the social order. Emancipation without deportation could deprive them of that.
Slavery drew its support from the racism of Americans. Even many white abolitionists felt the weight of this racism. As Frederick Douglass noted, many abolitionists hated the slave as much as they hated slavery.
If there was one force that worked against this consistently, it was the slaves and former slaves themselves. What Professor Baptist is part of an academic movement that is trying to restore the voice of anti-slavery blacks to their proper historical relevance.
For me, the central moment in America's pre-Civil War history occurs from 1829-1831. In 1829, David Walker, a free black man living in Boston, published his Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World. Two years later, William Lloyd Garrison published The Liberator and Nat Turner launched the bloodiest slave rebellion of the antebellum period.
Prior to these events, Southerners had been morally conflicted about slavery. It's economic appeal was obvious, but slavery came with powerful undercurrents of fear, as slave owners lived surrounded by a people they, at best, deprived of liberty and, at worst, brutalized and killed.
After Garrison and Turner - who seem to have been influenced by Walker - the South moved from a passive defense of slavery to an active defense. The Missouri Crisis and Compromise of 1820 had threatened to create a fevered sectional divide, but it wasn't until the 1830s that the rise of an abolitionist movement in the North was mirrored by a pro-slavery movement in the South.
And that pro-slavery movement based itself explicitly and consistently on racism.
Slavery was the great original sin of American history. It is the sin from which so much other heartache and death rises from. That The Economist couldn't see that is a profound problem.
The Economist is perhaps the last voice of reasonable conservatism in the US, perhaps because it's based primarily in Britain. What Professor Baptist's work in this book does is simply to consolidate much of the current scholarship that has endeavored to revivify the voices of a people whom whites tried for centuries to silence.
Perhaps most embarrassingly of all, the magazine ran their review with a picture from 12 Years A Slave, arguably the strongest contemporary effort to give voice to the silenced millions who were enslaved.
No excuse, really.