The Good Old Days of Slavery

Human Rights

These days it's getting harder to tell whether history is repeating itself or if human beings are just becoming more cliche. This was underscored last week when it came to light that Cary Christian Academy, a private school in North Carolina, was using the deceptively titled pamphlet "Southern Slavery, As It Was" in their curriculum. Among the more notable claims presented by authors Doug Wilson and Stephen Wilkins were neglected virtues like: "Many Southern blacks supported the South because of long established bonds of affection and trust that had been forged over generations with their white masters and friends." Or this gem: "There has never been a multi-racial society which has existed with such mutual intimacy and harmony in the history of the world."

Listen close and you can almost hear the banjoes strumming in the background. Officials at the school defended the 43-page tract, arguing that they want to present students with "both sides" of the Civil War story and that students also read speeches by Abraham Lincoln. Ironically enough, the "both sides" approach does not include the perspectives of the actual black people who lived through slavery. A random selection from John Blassingame's "Slave Testimony" yields this first-person dissenting opinion: "[The mistress] took her in the morning, before sunrise, into a room and had all the doors shut. She tied her hands and then took her frock over her head, and gathered it up in her left hand, and with her right commenced to beating her naked body with bunches of willow twigs. She would beat her until her arm was tired and then thrash her on the floor, and stamp on her with her foot and kick her and choke her to stop her screams. She continued the torture until ten o'clock. The poor child never recovered. A white swelling came from the bruises on her legs of which she died in two or three years."

Any few pages in your college-worn copy of "The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass" would put the lie to Wilson and Wilkins claim that "Slave life was to them a life of plenty, of simple pleasures, of food, clothes, and good medical care." And one wonders where Harriet Tubman, bludgeoned so badly as a child that she suffered from bouts of narcolepsy for the rest of her life, fits into this backdrop of happy plantation scenery. And far from supporting the South out of their "bonds of affection," nearly all black Confederates, as James McPherson points out in "The Negro's Civil War," were conscript laborers who constantly sought means to escape across Union lines. To put it simply, this was a case of bondage not bonds. It is pathetic that five years into the 21st century, the societal learning curve is so obtuse that we must still make statements like: American slavery was a violent, oppressive institution responsible for the brutal subjugation and dehumanization of millions of people over the course of three centuries.

Wilson and Wilkins claims that slave life was characterized by "good medical care" is particularly bizarre given the fact that enslaved black people were frequently used as subjects of 19th century medical experimentation. The historian Katherine Bankole, in fact, pointed out in her book "Slavery and Medicine" that given the high mortality rates for the most minor surgeries during the era, doctors in antebellum Louisiana "perfected" their Caesarian-section technique on black women before applying it to white ones.

This is not about accurate history, but about providing the South with a human rights alibi, 139 years past slavery. It is about a vast capacity for willful self-delusion, the need to provide self-absolution for the sins of the so-deemed Peculiar Institution. Thus you see the kind of historical hairsplitting of "Southern Slavery, As It Was": Slavery was wrong ... but not as bad you might think.

And sadly enough, it's not only in the far precincts of the Christian right that we hear these kinds of weak rationales. The Southern Alibi tradition rests upon the now – outmoded arguments of historian Ulrich B. Phillips' "American Negro Slavery." First published in 1918, the book glazed the old arguments that slavery had been a benign and beneficial institution to the enslaved with a new scholarly sheen. Phillips' perspective had a striking longevity, finding expression even in the dissenting works that appeared in the 1950s and 1960s, all the way down to Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman's "Time on the Cross" which appeared in 1974 arguing that poor treatment of blacks would have made slavery unprofitable as an economic institution. Back in my graduate school days, my friend and fellow historian Khalil Muhammad and I were amazed to find that we – and a single white student – were the sole voices in a 15-person colloquium who were willing to argue that slavery was an unqualified moral wrong.

All these defenses – whether presented at academic conferences or passed out to adolescents in private academies of the far right, are invested in viewing slavery as a labor system operated by rational, managerial white folk – the plantation equivalents of Jack Welch or Lee Iacocca. But in order for these theories to work, they also have to overlook the concomitant cruelties of sexual exploitation of enslaved black women, which was common enough to be a defining characteristic of the institution. Again, even a commonplace text like Harriet Jacobs' "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl" or Deborah White's "Aren't I A Woman" would illustrate the fact that rape was an intricate part of enslavement in this country. Nor can these depictions of slavery-lite explain away the dissolution of families for profit and the inhuman breeding of blacks to produce additional chattel for the slave owners.

It would be easy to dismiss these disputes as the arid exercises of the History Forensics Society were the implications for our everyday lives not so serious. Truth told, Wilkins and Wilson are only inches away from the "happy darky" illustrations of black life and if this is "Southern Slavery, As It Was" then they would be hard-pressed to explain the literal hundred of slave revolts, attempted revolts, poisonings and fires that defined the South between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. In airbrushing the brutality of slavery, we make it possible to ignore the tremendous power that race had – and continues to have – in shaping this society. To cut to the quick, until we are willing to grapple with slavery as it was, we will remain incapable of dealing with America as it is.

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