Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Everything I Learned About Slavery Was Wrong

My current "bathroom book", by way of explaining why I haven't finished it, is Rough Crossings by Columbia University historian Simon Schama, which focuses on the treatment and plight of slaves in the American Revolution. This is one of the most interesting books I have read on the subject of slavery, and Schama brings the circumstances of the slaves to life by using real life stories of individual slaves caught up in the events.

I have been reading a lot about slaves and slavery over the last several years, and I am finding that I was woefully misinformed in history classes in school. The issue of slavery never came up in any course I ever took in the context of the American Revolution, but it seems clear from Rough Crossings that it was a central issue in the conflict and much on the minds of the Founding Fathers. The British had promised freedom to slaves who had crossed over behind the British lines, and the Americans were so determined to get their slaves back that they insisted on a provision calling for their return in the peace treaty. Despite this, the British Commander honored his government's pledges of freedom to the slaves who had crossed over.

I have for many years been under the impression that everything I ever learned about American history in school was bulls**t. Growing up in Georgia, I was never taught anything truthful about slavery. We barely acknowledged its existence as a fact of history except to be assured that it wasn’t all that bad. The slaves had kindly masters who treated them well. It was nothing like those libelous Yankees would have you believe. The slaves were no worse off than sharecroppers or indentured servants and were assured of room and board, yadda yadda yadda.

I have decided on the basis of my more recent self education on the subject that the horrors of slavery cannot be overstated. Any slave who had a moment of joy or leisure did so entirely at the sufferance of his or her master or mistress. Any slave owner, my slave owning ancestors included (I am relieved that these were few), was immoral and corrupt, and no amount of good works outside of slave owning can redeem him. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, for example, were a**holes for owning slaves and supporting the slave system despite anything else they might have done. I used to reckon that they ought to have been judged according to the times in which they lived, but I now reckon that even then slavery was clearly loathsome and slave owning a grievous sin.

It’s too late to make it up to the slaves. Those who enslaved them ought to have been held to account. Now even their estates are out of reach, having been distributed long ago to heirs and creditors. The governments that enforced slavery still exist, but to fund reparations would require a tax on subjects who have never enslaved anyone or derived a personal benefit from slavery. I suppose that if we liquidated the governments and sold off their assets, the proceeds could go to slave estates as priority creditors. That would be killing two birds with one stone by ending the state and making a gesture to the memory of the enslaved.

The least we can do as Americans is to tell the truth about slavery and acknowledge its shamefulness.


Lady Aster said...

Thank you so much of this. I recently posted this to a group online with the folowing preface:

* * *

This part especially speaks to me. I recieved precisely the same version of history from my father, and one of his favourite tirades to launch into was against the 'political correctness' of the (supposedly Northern-dominated) Fairfax County public school system for an alleged conspiracy to demonise Southern society. He would rage against the welfare liberals who wrote the textbooks for their gall to portray slavery with some degree of accuracy in fact and justice in assessment. He considered himself incredibly generous to be able to grant that slavery and segregation were wrong (tho' he hedged on the latter), and sometimes described himself as nonracist because he was willing to make *individual* exceptions to his general view of African-Americans as dumb, dangerous, "lazy and shiftless"... particularly if they had fully assimilated to 'civlised' white cultural norms. His analysis of race consisted of the belief that affirmative action advantaged black people, and thus white people were more oppressed than blacks; his favourite rebuttal to any discussion of Southern slavery was "I never owned slaves!". The striking thing in memory was how much the issue was about *him*- his constant on race issues was that nothing was ever his fault, no social injustice his to correct, and there was nothing in his ideas or attitude than needed to change. And I suspect this, rather than embedded racism, is the psychological center of the proverbial "angry white male".

People think this sort of thing is dead, but my experience has been that quite a few Caucasians in this society believe this sort of thing behind closed doors. It is not at all uncommon as an escort for a prospective client to introduce themselves to me as a 'white male' in what they present as a reassurance of my safety and their trustworthiness (most of my callers are white). The sad thing is that while we've sanitised our public racial discourse, a great number of people believe very ugly things off the record. And most of them do not have the courage to admit it, much less to the public, to themselves.

* * *

Vache- would you mind dropping me an email that we might correspond privately? I've something I wish to ask you which I'd rather not here. You can find my email address on my blog site.


Anonymous said...

I am so happy that even though you had been taught this you know that you and most Southerns are good people with a disgraceful background, but you are able to see just how wrong and terrible this whole ordeal really was. It is something that can make you cringe just reminising on what those people had to go through.