Posts Tagged ‘American Slavery’

Why Uncle Tom was not an uncle tom

November 4, 2022

UNCLE TOM’S CABIN, or Life Among the Lowly by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852)

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a best-selling novel that did more to arouse public opinion against American slavery than any other written work. Yet today educated Americans, if they think of it at all, think of it as racist.

The lead character, Uncle Tom, is regarded as a symbol of a black man who is subservient to white people.  One of the worst things an African-American can call another African-American is an “uncle tom.”

But Mrs. Stowe depicted him as a hero, a Christ-like Christian martyr who was true to himself unto death.

Uncle Tom followed the hard teachings of Jesus – the ones that said to love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 

He reminds me of characters in Quo Vadis., a novel about Christians in pagan Rome.

Mrs. Stowe, in creating Uncle Tom, showed that, under slavery, the most humble and faithful servant could be sold down the river away from his family, beaten for manifesting self-respect and compassion and finally killed for refusing to turn informer against his own people.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is, surprisingly to me, a novel of ideas.  Through thought experiments and debates between the characters, she sets up arguments excusing slavery, and then refutes them.

It also is a documentation of the evils of slavery.  Her claim is that every incident in the novel had a counterpart in real life.

A mother of six herself, she emphasized how slavery broke the bond between mothers and children.  She described mothers and children being separated by slave traders; a woman forced to be a wet nurse for her owner’s children while her own child died of malnutrition; another women being forced to be caregiver for her owner’s children while neglecting her own.

But in her view, as a believing Christian, the worst evil of slavery was that it endangered the souls of both masters and slaves.  The slave owners were corrupted morally by their absolute and unaccountable power.  Enslaved people were driven to despair and atheism by their unjust suffering

The two distinctive principles of Protestant Christianity are salvation by faith and the priesthood of all believers. 

In Protestantism, anybody who leads people to Christ – a black slave, a little girl or an obscure Quaker farmer – can perform a priestly function.   

Protestant faith doesn’t mean just assent to a set of doctrines; it means a personal and continuing relationship with Christ, a real being.  But without faith, your good deeds are meaningless.  Salvation requires faith. 

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is, first and foremost, a story of religious faith and martyrdom.

Uncle Tom’s heroism consists of how the example of his faithfulness saved other characters from hellfire and damnation.  There are few people today for whom these concepts are meaningful on a gut level, and that is the main reason Uncle Town’s Cabin has gone out of favor.

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Book note: The Good Lord Bird

November 20, 2021

Mural of John Brown by J.C. Curry in Kansas State Capitol

THE GOOD LORD BIRD by James McBride (2013)

The Good Lord Bird is the story of the abolitionist John Brown as it might have been written by Mark Twain, if Mark Twain had been black.  I happened to pick it up at a neighborhood free book exchange.

One of Brown’s beliefs is that the ivory-billed woodpecker, the “Good Lord bird,” is sent by God with the mission to destroy dead and rotten trees so the good trees can grow. This is a symbol of his own mission. 

The narrator is Henry Shackleford,  a young black boy growing up in the Kansas territory during the guerrilla war of the late 1850s to determine whether Kansas will enter the union as a free or a slave state.

He is a more-or-less contented slave until he is “liberated” after a shoot-out by John Brown and his sons, who adopt him as a kind of mascot and good luck charm.  Brown has the idea that Henry is a girl, because he was clothed in a gunny-sack that looks like a dress, and he plays along. 

Henry is like Huck Finn.  He is naive and ignorant of politics and religion, not to mention grammar, but a shrewd judge of human nature and human pretensions.  

The language and way of speaking McBride gives him is highly entertaining and full of what you might call black humor.

 Henry shares the hardships of Brown’s band and learns about all their eccentricities.  All his efforts to save his own skin are interpreted by Brown as heroism.

At one point he is separated from the band, is enslaved again and winds up as a servant in a Missouri whorehouse, where he is more or less content, until he is liberated again by Brown’s men.

The last half of the book is devoted to the planning and execution of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, an apparent failure, but the spark that set off the Civil War.  We see Brown as erratic, often foolish, but with an indomitable will and energy that prevails over setbacks, hardship and danger, and a charisma that binds his followers to him in spire of everything. 

We get Henry’s view of historic figures such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.  

Tubman is depicted as a majestic figure, but Douglass as a speechifier who is unwilling to give up his good life in Rochester, N.Y., with his black wife and white mistress.

That’s harsh. I wouldn’t condemn Douglass for holding back from joining what is obviously a suicide mission.

The Harper’s Ferry raid is shown as a true tragedy. We see how bad decisions of Brown and his lieutenants lead to mistake after mistake, depriving them of what little chance they had of accomplishing their plan to ignite a slave rebellion.  There is a final, fatal mistake that is Henry’s fault.

But ultimately Brown was successful. The raid precipitated the American Civil War, which brought about the end of slavery and, in the course of time, full political rights for African-Americans.

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War in the heart of America

February 28, 2018

During my lifetime, I’ve read a fair amount about the Civil War, but two books that I read during the past few weeks bring home its reality in a new way.

They show how different the war was to people at the time than it seems in the light of history, and how events could have turned out differently from the way they did.

It was not inevitable that the war would last as long as it did, that the North would win or that slavery would have been abolished even if the North had won.

The two books are IN THE PRESENCE OF MINE ENEMIES: War in the Heart of America (2003) and THE THIN LIGHT OF FREEDOM: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America (2017) both by Edward L. Ayers.

His window into the war is a collection of source material—letters, dairies, newspaper accounts and the like from two communities— Franklin County, Pa., and Augusta County, Va.—collected over a period of decades as part of a special project of the University of Virginia.

The two counties are at opposite ends of the Great Valley running north and south between the Blue Ridge and the Appalachians, which was a major battleground of the war.

They were more alike than they were different.   Both consisted of prosperous small farms and small towns.  Augusta was different from the plantation South; Franklin was more typical of the North.

Ayers began with accounts of the 1859 celebration of the Fourth of July in the two counties.   The white people of both considered themselves loyal to the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.   Both wanted to preserve the Union.  Neither wanted to abolish slavery.

Yet within a few years they were at war and hated each other.   Reading these books helps me understand places such as Bosnia and Lebanon, which differing peoples can live together in peace for generations, yet, in a short period of time, be brought to the point of killing each other.

In the 1860 election, Augusta County supported the Constitutional Union party, which was pro-slavery, but anti-secession.  Franklin County supported the Republican Party, which was anti-slavery on only one point—that slavery should be barred from United States territories, in order to protect Northern white workers from competition with slave labor.

Slaveowners in the Deep South saw this as an ultimate threat, because no new slave states would have been admitted to the Union, which in the long run would have made slaveowners a politically powerless minority.

In Virginia, delegates from Augusta County voted against secession.  But as secession proceeded, the question changed from favoring the Union vs. secession to favoring the North vs. the South.  Once the decision was made, the anti-secession delegates fought bravely the Confederate Army or otherwise supported the war wholeheartedly.

The white people of Augusta County were willing to break up the Union in order to preserve slavery.  The white people of Franklin County became willing to abolish slavery in order to preserve the Union.   Black people in both counties had their own w

None foresaw how long the war would last, how many lives would be lost nor what the result would be.

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David Brion Davis on the history of slavery

November 2, 2016

One of the things I’ve come to realize is the central importance of African slavery not only in the history of the United States, but of the whole New World and the British, French, Spanish and Portuguese empires.

My understanding has been greatly helped by the historian David Brion Davis.   He wrote about slavery as a moral issue—how it was justified in the first place, and how the Western world came to turn against it.

I’ve read his principal books—The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (1966), The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution (1975), Slavery and Human Progress (1984), Inhuman Bondage: the Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (2006) and his latest book, which I finished reading last week, The Problem of Slavery in The Age of Emancipation (2014).

davisslaveryemancipationbwoakes02161391905742Slavery is a problem because in Western culture because of the heritage of the Greeks and Romans, who regarded freedom as necessary to human dignity, and because of the Christian religion, which taught that all human beings are equally children of God.

In the ancient Mediterranean world, there were two kinds of slaves—debt slaves and war captives.  Selling yourself or your children into slavery was the ultimate form of bankruptcy, and it exists in the world today.  I read somewhere that the world’s largest concentration of slaves are debt slaves in India.

Ancient armies did not have facilities for keeping prisoners of war.  Their choices for dealing with defeated enemies were to kill them (or at least kill all the adult males) or to enslave them.

When the Atlantic slave trade began, the rationalization was that the African slaves had been defeated in war in their own homelands and already forfeited their lives.

The first white opponents of Western slavery were the Quakers and other peace churches.  Since war was anti-Christian, the Quakers believed, then slavery, as the fruit of war, also was wrong.

Quakers were leaders of the anti-slavery movement in both Great Britain and the United States; many and maybe most white members of the Underground Railroad were Quakers.

Another strain of opposition to slavery came from the rationalistic thinkers of the 18th century, who opposed hereditary privilege and believed that government should should be based on recognition of human rights.

They were not as wholehearted as the Quakers.  Slaveowners such as Thomas Jefferson admitted that slavery was in theory a great evil, but insisted that the times and conditions for emancipation weren’t right.

The invention of so-called scientific racism was in part a response to qualms of people like Jefferson.  If black Africans are not as human as white Europeans, then slavery does not have to be justified.  There is no reason not to treat enslaved people as if they were livestock.

This argument did not touch the Quakers and other religious opponents of slavery because they opposed slavery on moral grounds, not scientific grounds.

Black people, both free and enslaved, meanwhile fought for their own liberation, in slave uprisings and in appeals to white people for the abolition of slavery.   Without their struggle, the majority of white people might have been able to ignore the moral issue indefinitely.

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What does the USA owe its black citizens?

May 28, 2014

Almost all nations have things in their past that their peoples find hard to come to terms with.   We Americans have not yet come to terms with our nation’s history of slavery and white supremacy.

Racism in the United States is more than just the bad attitudes of certain white individuals toward black people.  It is the history of government action t0 enslave black people, to deny black the rights of citizenship after slavery was abolished in law, and to exclude them from full participation in society.

The New Deal was tailored so as to freeze out black people from most of its benefits.  Social Security was written so as to exclude domestic servants and agricultural laborers, which were the majority of black people in the 1930s.  The Federal Housing Administration for decades had a policy of refusing to lend money in any neighborhood in which a black family lived.  White suburbanites who said that the value of their house would be destroyed by having a black family in their neighborhood were speaking the literal truth.  This was official government policy.

Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic goes into all this an interview with Bill Moyers, which is shown above, and in an article, The Case for Reparations, in the  Atlantic’s  June issue.

Coates reported on black families who escaped to Chicago from the Deep South, where they were outside the protection of the law, where their incomes were sobject to the whims of white people, and where their property could be taken from them at any time.  In Chicago, they were confined to ghettoes by action of the government, the banks and white mobs, who had the same impunity as white mobs in the South.  Their red-lined neighborhoods are the parts of Chicago where poverty and crime are highest today.

Nor is this all in the past.  The new voter ID laws and other voting restrictions are aimed at discouraging black voting.  Refusal to expand Medicaid disproportionately affects blacks.  Drug laws are enforced selectively against poor young black men, who as convicted felons are then excluded from the protection of anti-discrimination laws for the rest of their lives.

Coates doesn’t deny there has been progress.  The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had a better start in life than Frederick Douglass, but he did not have an equal start with white peers.   Black people once were barred from many occupations.  Now it is just more difficult for them to be hired.

“Reparations” is a trigger word that is easily misunderstood.  Coates did not call for the government to write checks to the descendents of American slaves.  Rather he called on Americans to recognize that the nation (not just white people, but the nation as a whole) owes something to black people, and to discuss just what that is.

I have reservations about the word “reparations,” but I think that Coates is absolutely right to say that we Americans need to face up to our history—the bad along with the good.  I think every American should read his article.

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12 Years a Slave: reviews of the movie

December 7, 2013

In my previous post, I shared my thoughts on the movie, 12 Years a Slave.

Here are some links to reviews and articles that give deeper background and different perspectives.

A Confederacy of Kidnappers by Matt Karp for Jacobin.  Hat tip to tashqueedag.

Henry Louis Gates on 12 Years a Slave and The African-Americans, an interview in Time magazine.

Jezebel and Solomon: Why Patsey Is the Hero of 12 Years a Slave by Amy Davidson for The New Yorker.

Silenced by Christopher Benfrey for the New York Review of Books.   This is an interesting review, but the things Benfrey criticizes as being corny and sentimental are based on facts as set down in Northrup’s book.

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12 Years a Slave: the movie and the book

December 6, 2013

I have long understood the evils of slavery on an intellectual level – that is to say, I kind-of, sort-of, in-a-way understood them.  But seeing the movie, 12 Years a Slave, and reading the book has helped me to understand it in a deeper and more visceral way than I did before.

12 Years a Slave is the true story of Solomon Northrup, a free black man who lived in Saratoga, N.Y., who was kidnapped and sold into slavery, and who survived to tell the story of what happened to him.  The movie is true to the book.  Some details are left out, and some are changed in unimportant ways, but anybody who sees the movie will get the essence of the book.

The movie is a powerful evocation of the slave-holding South.  The movie helps me imagine, as much is possible for me to imagine, what it would be like to be ripped out of my everyday life, and suddenly thrown into a situation in which I had no rights and no identity, subject to people with the power to commit rape, torture and murder without any consequences.   The scenes of everyday slave life are as powerful as the scenes of whipping and abuse.

Northrup experienced the extremes of slavery.  His first owner was William Ford, a sincere Christian, who sought to treat slaves as humanely as possible without giving them freedom.  Under him, slavery was probably as endurable as it was anywhere in the South.  But Northrup spent 10 years of his servitude subject to the power of the half-insane sadist and sexual predator, Edwin Epps.

Epps’ chief victim was a young slave woman named Patsey, whom he used as a sex object, then allowed his jealous wife to abuse and have whipped.   It culminates in a scene that is almost too painful to watch.  Epps, to please his wife orders Northrup to whip Patsey half to death, and then takes the whip himself.

While the movie is true to the Northrup’s experience, Northrup’s book gives you insight into his mind.  He accurately describes not only what happened to him, but what he observed—the conditions of life, how the system worked, how sugar cane and cotton were grown.   He judged people, even white slave-owners, as individuals, and he never gave way to hatred of white people in general.  I don’t think I could have done that in his situation, even assuming I would have survived in the first place.

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