William Jelani Cobb

The Good Old Days of Slavery

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.

The Definition of a Sellout

Conventional wisdom has it that modern black conservatism has its roots in the philosophy of one Booker T. Washington, the Tuskegee Wizard whose advocacy of self-reliance, thrift, morality and hard work helped him build a respected university, a personal fortune and a political machine the likes of which have not been seen in black America since. But truth be told, given the Sunday-schooled, Southern-born outlook of large segments of black America the phrase "black conservative" is damn-near redundant. (And a black "compassionate conservative" would, in most quarters, be simply called a liberal.)

The theme of self-reliance, self-respect and hard work run through nearly every major black movement of the 20th century – regardless of political persuasion. But there's a reason why Clarence Thomas is considered conservative in pejorative sense of the term and Louis Farrakhan, who is pro-business, anti-abortion, pro-death penalty (believing it should apply not only to homicide, but rape as well) and condemns "government handouts" is not. That difference being that most people believe Farrakhan – no matter his labyrinthine contradictions and metaphysical snake oil – has some clue to the persistence of racism in America.

With a few notable exceptions, the class of black conservatives is not at the forefront of the conservative debates of foreign policy unilateralism, stem cell research or deficit spending. Rather they're given dominion over a fiefdom of unwashed Negroes whose social maladjustment is to be condemned as consistently, stridently and creatively as possible. And this explains why Bill Cosby's case of racial Tourette's syndrome last April was widely viewed as "conservative" as opposed to simply mean-spirited and incoherent. On some level, the terms have become synonymous.

Which brings us to our present concern John McWhorter. In the span of three years, since the publication of his initial foray into Negro punditry "Losing the Race" and its follow-up "Authentically Black," McWhorter has become something a negro-con phenomenon, appearing on television and talk shows and writing in numerous outlets. His arguments that blacks are done in by "victimology" not racism, and that black people are doomed by their own "separatist" and anti-intellectual tendencies amount to old malt liquor in a new 40-ounce. But no matter, it sells.

With McWhorter's school of conservatives we hear strains of Booker T. not so much in his views on thrift and hard work – because those are articles of faith across and political lines in the black community – but in his tradition of accomodationism and comically "putting on" for his (predominantly white) audience. Think about this in the context of McWhorter's obsessive concern – "proving" that there really isn't much racism left in the country and you suspect that his books serve – intentionally or not – as balm for the white guilty conscience. The message to black folk: what you think is racism is actually just coincidental occurrence. Change to song: We have overcome.

We just didn't notice.

Central to his indictment of black America on charges of self-sabotage is the idea that liberal soft-heartedness has made black mediocrity pay off. (He asserts that black students don't work hard, knowing that paternalistic white liberals will let them into the best universities anyway.) A mentor of mine once pointed out that there would be "equality" in America when a black person could be completely mediocre and still achieve astounding success. The point is that among the many pernicious side effects of segregation was its ability to hide white underachievement from black people.

McWhorter indicts universities that consider race as a factor in admissions, but paradoxically has no problem with police using race as a factor in profiling random citizens. After being stopped and questioned by police for walking while black, McWhorter reports in "Losing the Race," "I cannot say that I walked away from that episode furious that I had just been swiped by the long arm of white racism ... I felt that what had happened was a sign that the black underclass is America's greatest injustice, and that I ought to take it as a call to action to do as much as I can to help rescue the underclass so that such encounters with the police won't be necessary – because under the current conditions, whether we like it or not, they are."

The irony here is obvious: he actually endorses race-conscious admissions – if one is being admitted to the back of a squad car. And his steely, self-interested resolve to "uplift" the underclass echoes the same kind of paternalistic social daddying that was once common among white liberals – though it's hard to tell if this constitutes progress or not.

Amadou Diallo? In McWhorter-world, his overdeath is a sad byproduct of the fact that black people need to be policed more aggressively. These things happen. (Among his favorite acts of self-justifying logic is his point that crime in Diallo's neighborhood increased after his murder because the protests prevented police from patrolling as aggressively as they otherwise would have.) And this kind of absence-of-outrage when confronted by the outrageous is precisely why conservatives like McWhorter are so widely viewed with suspicion.

McWhorter is smart enough to know that racial profiling is based upon a logical fallacy. Saying that 99 percent of carjackings in Newark, N.J. are committed by black men is not the same as saying that 99 percent of black men in Newark are carjackers. If those criminals represent only 2 percent of the total population of black men in the city, but using race as the decisive factor in profiling, the police would create a pool of suspects 49 times larger the number of criminals. It doesn't take a quantum physicist to figure out that this is not the most effective way to end carjackings.

At points, McWhorter takes his white absolution agenda to laughable – not comic – extremes. Speaking of hip hop's role in the demise of black America, McWhorter presents this gem:

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Terror in Black and White

Even before the death-colored clouds had cleared from the skies over lower Manhattan the words 'worst' and 'first' were already becoming synonymous. Three years after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, DC, Sept. 11 has become a sort of touchstone in the common consciousness, a moment of catastrophic unreality that was force-fed into our real world. Looking back at the all-too-recent events of that day, it's easy to understand why 9/11 seems to have blotted out all prior memory and conviction. In its scale and media-age spectacle, it was unprecedented. Its repercussions have only yet begun to echo. It remains the context and subtext for this moment in history.

9/11 is the ghost in our bloodstream.

Still it must be said: the idea that terror is new to American soil has been politically beneficial to the Bush administration which, in the absence of any domestic accomplishments to speak of, has staked its future on "keeping America safe." In the wake of the bombing of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, a misstatement made amid the trauma of so much death and destruction gradually calcified into a fact of public perception: this has never happened before.

But history is long and truth told, terrorism in America is nearly as old as America itself. Only a century earlier, a terrorist had actually succeeded in assassinating a President of the United States. William McKinley died in 1901, shot by Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist assassin. And if we think of terrorism as organized acts of violence directed at civilians in order to instill fear and affect politics, then it is impossible to ignore the fact that racism and terrorism are inseparable in American history. On one level, race is irrelevant on this bleak anniversary – black remains are indistinguishable among the lost thousands cremated in terrorist flames in NY and DC. But the past is relevant here. Race is the link connecting acts of terrorism as disparate as the guerilla raids fought over slavery in Kansas in the 1850s through the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995.

To cut to the chase, American history is a harvest of strange fruit.

It would be easy, at this distant remove, to forget that Timothy McVeigh, the homegrown terrorist who orchestrated the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City that claimed 168 lives did so in order to ignite a race war. McVeigh's attack was literally taken from the pages of Andrew McDonald's racist potboiler "The Turner Diaries." McVeigh himself had spoken at length about the federal government's role in usurping the rights of white people and argued that the government had become an instrument solely for furthering the interests of people of color and Jews.

At the time it occurred, Oklahoma City was referred to as the worst instance of terrorism on American soil. But that assessment required a certain historical near-sightedness to be true. The 1995 bombing was not even the worst act of terrorism in the state's history. The 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, in which bands of armed and deputized whites attacked black residents of the city, resulted in twice as many deaths as the Oklahoma City bombing by the most conservative estimates. (The town of Rosewood, Florida was burned completely off the map by white rioters that same year.) In 1906, entire sections of Atlanta were burned to the ground and untold numbers of blacks were pulled from their homes and lynched. Just after the Civil War, Southern whites killed 46 blacks, injured over a hundred and burned 90-odd homes to the ground in Memphis – while Northern troops stationed in the city watched. And these are only a handful of the scores of town and neighborhood burnings that characterized black life in the pre-Civil Rights era.

Nor can it be said that McVeigh was a historical anomaly. Just over a century earlier, the organized terrorist campaigns of alleged Southern Redeemers began with the goal of eradicating black political participation during Reconstruction. Early in the 20th century, their racist campaigns were mythologized by Thomas Dixon and D.W. Griffith. As the late writer Ralph Wiley pointed out, McVeigh bombed a building in order to live out the plotlines of a novel in the same way that 19th century terrorists attempted to live out the plotlines of "Birth of a Nation." Griffith's masterpiece of racial propaganda was based upon Dixon's novel "The Leopard's Spots." The success of "Birth of a Nation" inspired a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan – which had nearly died out – and became the basis for their ritual burning of the cross (an act that had been invented for it's dramatic value to the story.) The terror directed at black people who had the audacity to take the Emancipation Proclamation at face value resulted in over 3000 lynchings between 1880 and 1920.

The names, dates and casualties of these assorted inhumanities is innumerable: the pandemic of rape directed at black women after Reconstruction, the litany of assassinations, the fatal bombing of the home of NAACP activists Harry and Harriette Moore in 1951, the bombing of Fred Shuttlesworth's home in 1956, the bombing of Martin Luther King's home that same year. The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 – a city so defined by racial terrorism that it was known as "Bombingham."

And ultimately even the prerequisites for black freedom start to fit the technical definitions: Sherman's march through Atlanta. Nat Turner. John Brown's Raid. Sherman was an early proponent of the concept of "total war," which recognized no battle lines and few civilian zones. His famed march to the sea was designed to both instill fear in the Southern civilian population and to break the will of the Confederate soldiers miles away from their jeopardized homes. Nor are the revolts of Nat Turner and John Brown exempt. The difficult truth is that sometimes the charge of terrorism lies in the eye of the beholder.

None of this is meant to lessen the tragedy of the lives stolen three years ago – it is bad moral mathematics to even weigh any one tragedy against another – but it does raise questions about the current administration's use of the term 'terrorist.' In the midst of a public stricken with post-traumatic stress syndrome and a presidency that has used fear as its primary political tool, we would do well to recall that terror has deep roots in American soil.

The Tragedy of Colin Powell

In the cavalcade of heroes that we trot out each Black History Month, there is a special VIP section reserved for Negro Firsts. The belief is that each one is a barometer charting the falling pressures of racism in America. But the truth is that for every racial pioneer, there are hundreds, if not thousands of black also-rans who made the mistake of being ahead of history. Still, the job is not enviable: the First is generally required to perform a high-wire act in hurricane winds. And, in the last months of his tenure as Secretary of State, one starts wishing that Colin Powell had done so with the benefit of a net.

Since it is unlikely that he will return to the State Department even if a disaster for democracy occurs and Bush is returned to the White House, we are possibly looking at the twilight of Powell's career as a professional diplomat. Historians are trained to avoid snap, in-the-moment assessments, but at this juncture, Powell's tenure at the State Department appears to have no clear diplomatic legacy, save the dubious distinction of being First.

Last year, on the verge of the invasion of Iraq, Harry Belafonte denounced Powell as a House Negro. But it's not as simple as Powell being some species of sellout (Negro Domesticus) – because were that merely the case, Powell the political figure would not be nearly as tragic a figure as he ultimately is. Unlike Thomas and Rice, Powell felt no need to disrespect the in-the-street activism that paved the way for his present position (Thomas decried the "specious" social science underpinning the Brown v. Board of Education decision and has frequently criticized the Warren Supreme Court that decided it, struck down segregated transportation in Montgomery, Alabama and outlawed the anti-miscegenation laws that would have prevented Thomas himself from living in Virginia with his white wife.)

Rice – who grew up in Alabama – has taken great pains to point out that her family was not among that set of activist Christians who felt it necessary to march in the streets to end segregation (a statement that runs counter to her own father's political activism, which included his traveling the country giving speeches denouncing the war in Vietnam.)

Powell, on the other hand, wrote in his autobiography of the fury he experienced as a young soldier in Vietnam when King was assassinated and noted that even the radical voices of H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael were "like a fire bell ring in the night, waking up defenders of the status quo with the message that change had better be on the way."

Powell is the most popular of the black Republicans and has more support within black communities than any of the other institutionally-sanctioned black power brokers. He has benefited from the perception that he is not among the Negro-loathing mean-spirits of the G.O.P. – a grace that does not extend to his son Michael, who as Chairman of the FCC presided over the indictment and arrest of Janet Jackson's right nipple when he wasn't busy slackening the laws that inhibit corporate monopolization of the media. (Asked what he planned to do about the alleged "digital divide" that results in poor – presumably black – children having less access to computers, the Young Powell remarked to the effect "there's a Mercedes divide too. I want one and can't afford one, but it's not government's job to do anything about it.")

But the House Negro indictment can't be dismissed out of hand, either. He took office as the most obvious gesture of racial reconciliation within an administration that required the disfranchisement of black voters in order to come to power. Powell's own foibles played into the House Negro perception – commissioning a Scottish coat-of-arms in recognition of his distant European ancestry, with seemingly little concern for the bitter racial circumstances under which that Scotch blood entered his ancestral line. And even more damning is the sad irony of a black Secretary of State leading the U.S. delegation's walk-out of the United Nations World Conference Against Racism.

The politics of symbolism permeates Powell's – and to a lesser extent, Rice's – role within the administration. Powell broke ranks with the administration last year to maintain his life-long support for affirmative action during the University of Michigan case (the same case where the Bush Administration filed a friend-of-the-court brief against affirmative action). But it has to be recalled that Condoleezza Rice – a former professor and Stanford University Provost who spent her academic career attacking affirmative action – also broke ranks with the administration and supported the Michigan diversity policies. The fact was that Bush benefited from having the top Negroes in his administration disagree with him publicly because that way Rice and Powell at least maintained a degree of melanin credibility. Dissing the sincere efforts of white academics to attract black students would've made those charges of House Negroism stick like bad rice. And when you get down to it, what good is having a racial token if not even white liberals think they're black enough?

But the ultimate irony of the Powell tragedy is that it is not mainly about race, but character. He took office amid grumblings from the left that his background as a general and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff would lead him to pursue militarism instead of diplomacy as the Secretary of State. But Powell – like Eisenhower before him – was a general who keenly understood the dangers of over-reliance upon warfare. Madeleine Albright, Powell's predecessor as Secretary of State, criticized him, in fact, for being too reluctant to commit U.S. troops to activity.

Powell the diplomat was birthed by Powell the soldier. As Secretary of State, his vision for the world – the so-called Powell Doctrine – called for the use of military force only in circumstances where there were clear objectives, where there was domestic support and understanding for the action, and where the military could be used in precise and overwhelming forces. He also disdained using warfare to achieve what were essentially political goals. In short, Powell's vision was an attempt to correct everything that had been wrong about his own experience in Vietnam.

In the early days of the Bush Administration, and even more clearly after 9/11, though, it became apparent that foreign policy was being run out of the Pentagon and the Vice President's office – not the State Department. Powell had set himself up to be the voice of conscience in an administration that did not appear to have one. But there were also other concerns about Powell from the gate: When you get down to it, Powell was smarter, more experienced and better prepared to be President than George W. Bush was, and his status as Secretary of State might be the biggest consolation prize in history.

Powell made his disapproval of the administration's Iraq plans known early on, and as his – and numerous other former general's – calls for caution went unheeded, the Secretary's lack of influence became more publicly apparent. In past, these kinds of unbreechable gaps had led to extreme statements: Powell's predecessor Cyrus Vance had famously resigned from the Carter administration and an entire roster of career diplomats resigned in protest when the Bush Administration began its long march toward Baghdad.

The job requirements for a Negro First, however, explicitly demand that one remain loyal no matter what happens. Under no circumstances does one quit, lest it be said that members of the race are not suited to handle the pressures of the gig in the first place.

But it's hard to say that Powell was thinking about race in February 2003, when he went before the United Nations and made the case for a war he did not believe was necessary – a gesture that nudged his diplomatic career from the politically ignored over into the historically tragic. Given the nature of his comments to the journalist Bob Woodward a year later, Powell recognized even then that the ties between Iraq and Al-Qaeda were tenuous at best and that the war would likely be disastrous.

The central tragedy of Powell's tenure as Secretary of State is the failure of history to act as any sort of guide for the present. The present quagmire in Iraq is almost a made-to-order rejection of everything Powell articulated when coming into office. The ideas underpinning the "Powell Doctrine" were gleaned from Powell's own bitter experiences of combat in Vietnam. Both Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney (along with Paul Wolfowitz) have spoken of the need to erase the failures in Vietnam from the American memory, to avoid history. So in rejecting the Powell Doctrine, Bush & Company were not only dismissing the Secretary's diplomatic theories, the administration was fundamentally rejecting both Powell as an individual and the portion of history that he represents. And Powell himself aborted history in choosing to remain part of the administration.

Simply put, Powell did not know when to quit.

His name, despite his high-profile and abortive dissents, is tied to one of the worst diplomatic fiascos of the past century. The Black History Month calendars may regard Powell well as a Negro First, but those of us concerned with more substantive issues have to hope that Powell is the last of his kind.

CondiGate

You had to bypass your automatic race-loyalty circuits in order to fully appreciate the scenario. Under normal circumstances, the sight of a lone, brilliant and articulate black woman deftly fending off hostile inquiries from a delegation of power-suited white guys would go down as a miniature Great Moment In Negro History. But Condoleezza Rice, the most powerful black woman on the planet, has all but deleted race from the narrative of her personal success and she certainly doesn't need a partisan racial cheering squad when she has George W. Bush holding it down for her.

Rice's appearance before the 9/11 commission on April 8 was the definition of a Catch-22: a public failure on her part would invariably be read as yet another example of black incompetence. And a virtuoso political performance from Rice would be a victory for an administration that has squandered international goodwill, undermined the United Nations, used the horror of September 11th as a political trump card, run the economy into long-term recession and started a war to protect us from non-existent Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

For what it matters, Rice was convincing -- even as her testimony was starkly at odds with the historical record, her own previous claims and those of other members of the administration. And the underlying point is this: In the long, tangled history of black people in the United States, we have at last reached the point where black politicians have earned the right to be just as dubious and questionable as their white counterparts.

Given the antagonistic racial history of this country, it would be almost impossible for the presidency -- or presidential scandals -- not to reflect the prevailing currents of racism. By the time Frederick Douglass was appointed to the Santo Domingo Commission -- which gathered information supporting President Ulysses Grant's plan to annex Haiti -- he had become the most influential black political appointee of his era. Nevertheless Douglass had difficulty explaining to his supporters why he was still not invited to official White House functions -- even those regarding Haiti. Later, when Rutherford B. Hayes appointed Douglass as US Marshall for the District of Columbia, Douglass saw the responsibilities of the office curtailed so as to not offend white residents.

Booker T. Washington served as the unofficial advisor on Negro matters to President Theodore Roosevelt, but when Roosevelt made the mistake of having lunch with Washington in the Oval Office, it set off a firestorm of criticism that threatened to undermine Roosevelt's support from Southerners. (Roosevelt later downplayed the meal, saying that he had simply ordered sandwiches and happened to offer one to Washington.)

When the Great Migration began shifting the population balances in Northern cities, Franklin Roosevelt attempted to attract black voters into the Democratic Party by creating a "black cabinet" of advisors. Roosevelt appointed Robert C. Weaver as an aide to Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, placed Mary McLeod Bethune at the head of the National Youth Administration's Office of Minority Affairs and created an interagency Department of Negro Affairs.

Still, it was a political scandal that pushed Roosevelt to expand his list of black appointees on the verge of World War II. When Roosevelt's Stephen Early knocked down a black police officer during a dispute in New York, the administration feared it would lose critical black support in the coming election. Within 24 hours of the incident, Roosevelt had appointed Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. as the first black general in the Army, federal judge William H. Hastie the first black civilian aide to the Secretary of War, and Campbell C. Johnson as first black head of the Selective Service.

The civil rights era provided the backdrop for Kennedy's appointment of Thurgood Marshall as Solicitor-General and Johnson's elevation of Marshall to the Supreme Court (acts that ironically set the precedent for the nomination debacle of Clarence Thomas three decades later). Jimmy Carter famously appointed Andrew Young as the US Ambassador to the United Nations, but Young was forced out of the position when his decision to meet with Palestinian representatives ran afoul of the Administration's Israel policy.

The Clinton Administration boasted more high-level black appointments than any previous presidency. It also featured more scandals and subsequent resignations of black appointees than any previous administration. Clinton nominated -- and subsequently abandoned -- Lani Guinier, as an Under-Secretary in the Department of Justice amid racialized charges that she was a "quota queen." He was less than steadfast in his defense of Jocelyn Elders, who resigned from the post of Surgeon-General for mentioning masturbation publicly (an indulgence that might have saved Clinton from further scandals of his own.)

Mike Espy, the former Mississippi Congressional Representative who had staked a claim as an early Clinton supporter, was appointed as Secretary of Agriculture and resigned as a result of a probe into his relationship with the Tyson Chicken company. And Ron Brown, the Clinton-appointed Treasury Secretary, managed to buck the trend, fending off charges that he had accepted a $700,000 bribe from the Vietnamese and retaining his position until his death in a plane crash in 1996.

Condoleezza Rice's position is fundamentally different from those of her black predecessors. Unlike these others, she is not solely waiting upon Presidential support. The Bush administration's credibility is, on one level, dependent upon Rice's credibility as an individual. Still, if anyone will be called upon to fall on his or her sword to spare the Administration further scandal, it will be Rice.

Media attention of late has passed over the more serious allegations made by Richard Clarke -- that the administration had essentially special-ordered intelligence linking Saddam Hussein to September 11th to justify attacking Iraq -- and focused on events prior to the attacks on New York and Washington, DC. And the result of this was the demand that Rice testify in public under oath about failures which, at worst, can result in charges of incompetence, rather than a demand that Bush and Cheney answer questions about impeachable offenses.

When you boil away the excess, Condoleezza Rice may have more in common with John Erlichman and H.R. Haldeman -- the Nixon-era appointees who were forced out in the vain hope of sparing the President further political fallout from Watergate -- than she does with Mary McLeod Bethune, Andrew Young or any previous black politician. And that's a dubious honor.

Sexual Segregation

Outside, on an uncharacteristically cold Georgia night, stood a stubborn knot of people holding flickering candles, singing and demanding justice. Civil Rights veteran Reverend Joseph Lowry led the chorus. We Shall Overcome. This is not taking place in 1964, but 2004 and in the ongoing plotline of American history, racial injustice has become our most enduring cliché. The specific injustice at hand was the incarceration of Marcus Dixon, an 18-year-old honor student, football star and college scholarship recipient who is currently serving a ten-year prison sentence. His crime: consensual sex with a class mate two years and some months his junior. The young woman is white.

On one level, the case highlights universal problems with inflexible automatic sentencing laws that are the current political vogue. On another level, however, this is a race-specific concern. It would be difficult to imagine this happening had both young people been of the same racial classification. Only a specific brand of American racial naiveté -- the same kind that denied for centuries that Jefferson was capable of having sex with Sally Hemings -- would dismiss the racial elements at play here. Ultimately, the Marcus Dixon case brings to light more racial dynamics than a James Baldwin play: a young black boy is adopted by a white family in the American South; he does well in school, scores a 1200 on the SAT and is pursued by Vanderbilt University. In a dizzying sequence of events, he is arrested after having sex with a classmate and although he is acquitted on all other charges, he is found guilty of aggravated child molestation -- a crime that carries an automatic ten-year sentence in the state of Georgia.

His case, which is under review by the Georgia Supreme Court, would be unbelievable were it not part of a legacy of interracial anxiety that is literally older than this country itself. As a nation, the US invested enormous social and legal resources in what can only be called sexual segregation.

The specter of black men having sex with white women has been used to justify everything from lynching to segregation and is rooted in an aged specious concern with alleged racial purity. In slaveholding societies like Santo Domingo (later Haiti), a complex caste system for persons of biracial -- or triracial -- lineage evolved and South American states, particularly Brazil, developed Byzantine codes for racial classification. In the United States, however, the general dogma held that if one is black at all, he or she is all black. The idea was that blackness is a toxin, a single drop of which ruins an otherwise useful white person.

In the early colonial era, it was not uncommon for black and white indentured servants to intermarry, though there appeared to be some social ambivalence about these unions. In 1630, a Virginia settler named Hugh Davis was whipped "before an assembly of Negroes and others for abusing himself to the dishonor of God and shame of Christians, by defiling his body in lying with a Negro." At the same time, the colony had no specific prohibitions against interracial unions. By 1662, however, the colony had mandated that all children of biracial parentage were to be afforded the status of the mother -- meaning that white men would not be compelled to support offspring born to slave women and simultaneously giving white women specific reason not to reproduce with black men. By the end of the century, marriages across color lines brought mandatory expulsion from the colony.

In the early republic, however, sexual access to black women had become a cherished privilege of slaveholding white males. It was understood that concerns with racial purity were not to interfere with white men's sexual liberty. Harriet Jacobs, who was born into slavery in North Carolina in 1813, reported in her autobiography that she was pursued relentlessly by a slaveholder 40 years her senior.

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Stamp of Disapproval

Word on the street has it that the person who told us that hindsight is 20/20 vision was blind in one eye his damn self. And that explains why in 2004 it's increasingly difficult to recognize the difference between this country's history and its alibis.

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Stamp of Approval?

Word on the street has it that the person who told us that hindsight is 20/20 vision was blind in one eye his damn self. And that explains why in 2004 it's increasingly difficult to recognize the difference between this country's history and its alibis.

Here history is a mass market of collectible heroes who are bereft of moral conflict and flaws, the dead equivalent of pop stars: American idol, 1776. Time was when there was restricted access to this kind of embalmed celebrity, but in recent years we've become way more democratic with our half-truths. Case in point: on Public Enemy's 1989 incendiary "Fight the Power," the rage prophet Chuck D rhymed:

"I'm black and I'm proud, I'm ready, I'm hype 'cause I'm amped Most of my heroes don't appear on no stamps."

But since that song first hit the airwaves, W.E.B. Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson, Langston Hughes, Malcolm X and, most recently, Paul Robeson have appeared as part of the Post Office's Black History stamp series (Robeson's is the 27th issue in the series to date). On one level, this belated recognition of African American history is an indicator of how hard black people have fought to force the United States to recognize our centrality to the national storyline -- and how successful we've been. After centuries of whitelisting, black American historical figures have finally begun to emerge in the public consciousness.

Viewed from another angle, though, issuance of postage stamps is curiously ironic, given the relationship the US government has had with black dissenters and the current assault on civil liberties under the guise of fighting terrorism. It is no coincidence that so many black leaders in the 20th century have, at one point or another, found themselves behind bars. Fannie Lou Hamer and Martin Luther King were arrested -- and Hamer beaten viciously -- for having the audacity to demand that the United States obey its own Constitution. Marcus Garvey was arrested for mail fraud and deported after his Universal Negro Improvement Association began demanding an end to colonialism in Africa.

The list of those harassed or placed under federal surveillance is even longer: James Baldwin, Medgar Evers, Bayard Rustin, Adam Clayton Powell and Roy Wilkins, among many others. Langston Hughes was not arrested, but was hauled before Senator Joe McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee and coerced into admitting that his early poems were unpatriotic and should be censored. Mary McLeod Bethune was accused of being a communist sympathizer for advocating equal rights. W.E.B. Du Bois was placed on trial at age 83 for allegedly violating the McCarran Act -- a piece of McCarthy-era legislation that made it illegal to work on behalf of a foreign government without registering with the State Department. (Du Bois' advocacy of peace amid growing threats of nuclear conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union had been construed as near treason.) The accumulated weight of this history raises a question of whether belated recognition marks progress or an attempt to gloss over the undemocratic history of the Unites States -- to provide a racial alibi for America at large.

That Paul Robeson is being honored with a stamp in the current era of repression and political paranoia is the height of historical irony. The catalogue of Robeson's achievements is incredible, but his demise, amid allegations of being a communist in the 1950s, is almost a metaphor for the experience of black heroes who have been enstamped by the US Postal Service. Robeson was born in 1898 to parents who were both former slaves. His mother died in a fire when he was six years old. His father served as minister at a number of churches in New Jersey (being pushed out of at least one post due to racial factors) and settled in as the pastor of St. Luke A.M.E.-Zion church in Westfield. Paul Robeson entered Rutgers College in 1915 as only the third black student to be accepted by the school. He went on to earn 15 letters in sports during his time there, joined in the debate team and graduated as valedictorian of the class of 1919. He went on to Columbia University Law School, graduated in 1922 and practiced law briefly before becoming disillusioned with the racism practiced by New York law firms. He decided to embark upon a career as an actor and vocalist.

After landing theatrical roles in "Shuffle Along," "Black Boy" and "The Emperor Jones," he appeared in a 1930 production of Shakespeare's "Othello," eventually being recognized as the definitive enactor of the tragic Moor. Robeson had graduated to film in 1924 and starred in Oscar Micheaux's Body and Soul, but abandoned the genre because of the limited roles available to black actors. He traveled extensively, visiting Africa in the 1930s and becoming friends with a number of African students, including the Kenyan Jomo Kenyatta, who were actively fighting against European colonialism. He would eventually learn to speak over a half-dozen languages. Radicalized by his exposure to African struggles, Robeson began to articulate an increasingly critical perspective about racism and American politics. By the beginning of World War II, he was widely acclaimed as a vocalist, actor, athlete and intellectual. Paul Robeson was possibly the best known American artist in the world.

By 1949, however, the Cold War had begun to heat up and the lines between dissent and treason were deliberately blurred. Robeson's comments at a 1949 peace conference were deliberately misinterpreted to say that African Americans would never fight in a war against the Soviet Union. The denunciations came with fury and swiftness: Walter White, Jackie Robinson and Mary McLeod Bethune lined up to distance themselves from him. He was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1950, where he refused to state whether or not he was a member of the Communist Party. Robeson, though he had a number of friends who were Communists and had himself visited the Soviet Union more than once, had never been a member of the Communist Party. His issue with the McCarthy inquisition was a moral one: he objected to any form of political expression being criminalized and saw McCarthy as a greater threat to the Constitution than Communism was. Asked by a committee member why he didn't simply move permanently to the Soviet Union, Robeson famously replied: "Because my father was a slave and my people died to build this country and no fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear?"

There would be consequences for this kind of democratic audacity. Robeson was refused permission to perform in venues across the country and his passport was revoked, making it impossible for him to tour abroad. His alma mater, Rutgers University, omitted his name from its list of football greats and all but dismissed his significance as an alumnus of the institution. A planned concert in Peekskill, New York, devolved into a riot when local residents began throwing bricks through the car windows of Robeson's entourage. Within a decade, the most famous black person in the world had quite simply disappeared.

Robeson could have ended his internal exile by simply stating that he was not a Communist, but to do so ran counter to his deep belief in intellectual freedom. He fell into financial ruin. The accumulated strains -- along with his discovery of the horrors of Stalin's tyranny in the USSR -- took their toll; he suffered a series of nervous breakdowns. The Supreme Court ruled in 1958 that it was illegal to deny a passport to a citizen on the basis of political beliefs and Robeson was allowed to travel abroad later that year. He performed internationally, but never came close to his former prominence. He died in 1976, a legend who had been quietly forgotten.

With a sitting President who tells the world, "you are either with us or against us," endorses secret military tribunals, and condones eavesdropping on confidential discussions between a person and his or her attorney, it's almost impossible to ask whether the Robeson stamp is tribute or hypocrisy. These days, presidents visit Martin Luther King's tomb -- before appointing former segregationists to the federal bench. And a defamed icon is given accolades a half-century after his life was ruined by an overzealous government that had declared Communism its primary threat and told him that he was either with us or against us. With history as an alibi, you can't expect anyone to plead guilty.

William Jelani Cobb is an assistant professor of history at Spelman College and editor of The Essential Harold Cruse.

The Other L-Word

They have been together for a millennium -- or at least look as if they have. They are seated beside each other, arms touching, him shoeless and her head wrapped in cloth and God only knows what they've seen. They are barely past the bitter years of slavery and to tell the truth, it's still hard to tell the difference. The photograph is grainy and slightly out of focus, but you can still make out the weathered lines of years and experience on their faces. And you can still sense the connection forged of those years.

The picture speaks of a quiet fortitude, togetherness in the crucible of slavery, an intimacy that is rarely seen in our discussions of black history.

It's ironic that Valentine's Day takes place during Black History Month, but those two events manage to overlap without ever coinciding -- as if there were no love or romance within our collective history in this country. We know of husbands sold away from wives and wives taken from husbands to face the sexual exploitation of white overseers. We know of black men and women who were bred like livestock.

But what we rarely speak of is love in the context of adversity.

The question goes loudly unasked: Who needed love more than the enslaved? Beyond the uprisings and the daily resistance, outside of the escapes, arsons and thefts, the most subversive act committed by enslaved black people may have been daring to love each other. The ten-plus generations of black men and women who lived through the ordeal of slavery went to extraordinary lengths to give meaning to their own lives, to construct relationships that might, if only momentarily, dull the pain of forced servitude, to care for others in a society which sought to make black love a contradiction in terms. And that reality is all but lost in our present love deficit.

Filtered through lens of popular media, it seems like there's a civil war going on between black men and black women. African Americans are the least likely segment of the population to marry and have a divorce rate that exceeds fifty percent. We are also far less likely to remarry after a divorce than members of other groups. Black radio's airwaves are congested with loveless ballads; rappers boldly declare themselves love-proof -- and thereby pain-proof -- and disgruntled sirens sing songs of fiscal obligation. In an era where baby-daddies and baby-mamas replace husbands and wives, it's easy to see the destructive legacy of slavery, segregation, incarceration playing itself out. But that's only half of the history -- and we've never needed to hear the other side of the story more urgently.

The truth is that marriage and family were extremely important to enslaved black people -- despite the obvious difficulties that confronted their relationships. Slave marriages were given no legal recognition, but slaves constructed binding traditions of their own. In addition to "jumping the broom," they also presented each other with blankets whose acceptance indicated that they were now considered married within the community. Others, who could not find a willing clergyman or who had been denied permission to marry, simply married themselves. Still, recognition of their union was important enough that ex-slaves besieged the Freedman's Bureau with requests for marriage ceremonies after emancipation. Three Mississippi counties accounted for 4627 marriages in a single year. The end of slavery also brought with it literally thousands of black people wandering throughout the South in search of husbands and wives who had been sold away from them.

Prior to emancipation, individuals went to great lengths to maintain their relationships. One of the most common causes of slave escapes was to see loved ones on distant plantations. One man set out before sunrise each Sunday morning and walked the entire day to spend a few hours with his wife before having to walk back in time to begin the next day's work. George Sally, enslaved on a sugar plantation in Louisiana, ignored the slaveholder's demands and left to visit his wife -- an offense for which he was arrested. (He later stated that he did not mind being arrested for seeing his wife.) Others risked their lives to protect their spouses. While sexual exploitation of married black women by overseers was a constant concern, it was not unheard of for husbands to kill whites who had attacked their wives. One unnamed slave attacked an overseer who had attempted to whip his wife and was himself forced to flee into the woods for eleven months.

William Grose, a slave in Loudon County, Virginia, married a free black woman -- against the wishes of the plantation owner, who feared that she might help him escape. William was sold to a widower in New Orleans,who demanded that he take another woman as his wife. He wrote in his autobiography, "I was scared half to death, for I had one wife whom I liked and didn't want another." The couple managed to remain in contact and his wife travelled to New Orleans and found work as a domestic in the family that had bought William. When their relationship was discovered, she was forced to leave New Orleans. Incredibly, William devised a plan to escape and fled to Canada where he and his wife were reunited.

Some black couples managed, despite all odds, to construct long, close-knit unions. In the 1930s, Barbara, a woman who was born into slavery in North Carolina, told an interviewer the story of how she had met her husband Frank:

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The Hidden Black Iraq

Enter the words "black," "city" and "fuel" into the search engine of the American psyche and you'll conjure up the image of a Chevron station in Detroit. But add a historical element into the equation and you come up with Basra, Iraq.

In the three-card hustle of American foreign policy, the port-city of Basra is the elusive Queen. (The other two bluff cards say "Saddam Hussein" and "War on Terrorism.") Recently, Iraq's delegation to OPEC gleefully reported that 2.1 million barrels of crude oil were flowing from the Basra wells daily. The city's contemporary significance centers around its oil production; historically, though, the city was a commercial and governmental center that rivaled Baghdad for wealth and influence. It is also home to the little-discussed populations of black Iraqis.

Thirty years of black and Diaspora studies have shed light on the scale, intensity and impact of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade -- the 400-year traffic of Africans between the continent, Europe and the colonies of the alleged new world. Less attention has been paid, though, to the millennium-long slave trade that scattered African slaves throughout present-day Iraq, Turkey, Kuwait, Iran, Pakistan and India. Emerging European capitalism and the labor requirements of cash crops like sugar, cotton and tobacco drove the Trans-Atlantic trade; the Trans-Saharan trade, which flourished from the eighth century AD through the 1840s, brought African labor to the hazardous enterprises of pearl diving, date farming and the raw, brutal work of clearing Iraqi salt marshes. African boys were commonly castrated to serve as eunuch guards of royal harems. Unlike those who were enslaved in the West, however, blacks enslaved in the Arabic-speaking world also served as guards, sailors and high-ranking soldiers. In the 19th century, Basra was one of the most profitable slave ports in the region, commonly offering slave traders as much as 50% returns upon their "investments."

There has been a black presence in Basra -- present-day Southern Iraq -- as early as the 7th century, when Abu Bakra, an Ethiopian soldier who had been manumitted by the prophet Muhammad himself, settled in the city. His descendants became prominent members of Basran society. A century later, the writer Jahiz of Basra wrote an impassioned defense of black Africans -- referred to in Arabic as the Zanj -- against accusations of inferiority which had begun to take root even then.

The Zanj, who were primarily persons of East African descent, were to have a significant impact upon Iraqi history. They had been traded from ports along the African coast (Zanzibar, which is derived from the term "Zanj," was a major slave exporting center during the era) to clear salt marshes. Laboring in miserable, humid conditions, the Zanj workers dug up layers of topsoil and dragged away tons of earth to plant labor-intensive crops like sugarcane on the less saline soil below. Fed scant portions of flour, semolina and dates, they were constantly in conflict with the Iraqi slave system. Between the 7th and 9th centuries, the Zanj staged three rebellions, the largest of which occurred between 868 and 883 AD.

Led by an Iraqi poet named Ali Ibn Muhammad, the Zanj uprising of 868 galvanized thousands of black slaves who laid siege to and eventually overran the city of Basra. In short order, black soldiers in the army of the ruling Abbasid emperors based in Baghdad began to desert and swelled the ranks of the rebellion. Similar to later rebellions that created liberated "maroon" communities throughout the new world, the 15-year conflict, known as "The Revolt of the Zanj," led to the establishment of an independent Zanj capital city, minting of currency and the decade-long control of Basra -- one of the most important trade ports in the Abbasid empire. At their zenith, the Zanj armies marched upon Baghdad and got within 70 miles of the city.

The Zanj uprising was crushed in 883 by the Abbasids, but doing so required vast amounts of the empire's extensive resources. African slavery in Iraq continued to exist throughout both the Ottoman and British empires which incorporated the region into their holdings. In the mid-19th century, decades after the Trans-Atlantic trade had been (technically) outlawed, the Arab trade persisted. As historian Joseph Harris writes in his African Presence in Asia:

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