Thursday, August 24, 2023

The Banality of Slavery

The physical violence of slavery is almost matched by the psychological violence.

(from Tom the Dancing Bug)

There is sort of a trope, in American literature and music, about "The Old South" that was popular for the previous generation and also in my childhood.  Southern authors were celebrated for their books about "the Old South" - authors such as Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird), Thomas Wolfe (You Can't Go Home Again),  and even Truman Capote (Other Voices, Other Rooms) - in a style known as "Southern Gothic" which was quite popular by mid-Century.

These sort of stories glamorized the Old South, while minimizing the evils of slavery. Of course, modern publishers would insist that such "Southern Gothic" stories have some sort of moral about the injustice of slavery and racism, but that didn't mean the authors themselves were apologetic for it.  Shortly before her death, Harper Lee authorized publication of an earlier version of Mockingbird, known as Go Set a Watchman, which tells a similar story from years in the future.  Atticus Finch is no longer a campaigner for racial justice, but part of the problem in the South. He wants to make sure his client gets a fair trial before they lynch him.

Music of "The Old Southland" was also popular up North, from Vaudeville times onward.  Songs such as "When It's Sleepytime Down South" perpetuate the myth of happy-go-lucky slaves singing in the fields, and "Mammy falling to her knees" (whatever that means!):

Dear old southland with its dreamy songs
Take me back where I belong
Right here in my mammy's arms
When it's sleepy time down south

The lyrics were sanitized over time, particularly after Louis Armstrong got some push-back for performing the song (apparently dressed as a slave, even).  But if you read the lyrics, you can figure out who the "folks" are, "singing soft and low" (no doubt while they picked cotton).

Music like this and literature in the "Southern Gothic" tradition perpetuate the myth that maybe slavery (and Jim Crow) weren't all that bad.  After all, the happy-go-lucky Negroes had no worries, and their masters were teaching them job skills - at least according to new Florida textbooks.

Even movies perpetuated this lie.  In the 1967 film, In The Heat of the Night, Southern lawmen were shown as racists, but also redeemed, by the end of the film, by "doing the right thing" - which is in stark contrast to how freedom riders and marchers were assaulted and even murdered by law enforcement at the time.  Sadly, not much has changed, in that regard, in 50 years.

Of course, this "Old Southland" trope is all a lie. The weird thing about slavery was not the violence and abuse - there was plenty of that, as you might expect when someone owns someone else.  As a slave-owner, you could do anything you liked with your slaves - rape them, or beat them to death.  One of the "attractions" on a tour of New Orleans is the house of a madwoman who was famous for abusing her slaves.  While citizens were outraged by it, not much was ever done about it, either.  Property didn't have civil rights.

But more subtle things were just as bad and illustrate the banality of evil as well.  The scion of a slave-owning family might be raised by his "Mammy" who would care for him and even discipline him as a boy.  Later, when he grows up and inherits the plantation, he ends up owning his "Mammy" and her entire family.  House slaves (also known under other names) were generally treated better than field slaves, and yes, maybe they could take liberties a field slave would never dare to think of.  But these positions could change overnight.

For example, you read stories from the "Old Southland" about boys growing up together and playing - and fighting - and doing all the things boys do, except that one is the son of the plantation owner, and the other is a son of a slave.  One boy goes away to military school, the other goes to work in the fields.  When the plantation owner dies, his son inherits it all, including his best friend from childhood.  Remember when we used to play together and wrestle down by the creek?  Well, now I own you and I can rape your wife if I want to.  That is just weird.

But not unheard of in human history, as indeed, the history of slavery goes all the way back to the Old Testament (and beyond) and even back then, people had odd relationships with their slaves and were ruthlessly violent with them as well.

In more modern times, we saw this repeated.  The Nazis established concentration camps to murder millions of people.  But at the same time, they would employ camp inmates to build weapons or roads or harvest crops - or even cook and clean for them.  One day, someone is waiting on you during dinner, the next day, you have them gassed to death.  The banality of evil.

What brought this up is the current efforts to sweep the excesses of slavery - or even that of Nazism - under the rug.  Some right-wing politicians argue that "Critical Race Theory" which is basically an Op-Ed piece published in the New York Times several years ago, makes white people "feel guilty" for slavery.  And maybe there is a nugget of truth to that.  "Folks down there live a life of ease" is one of the lines in "Sleepy Time Down South" and surely folks did, when you have slaves doing all the work on the plantation.  Life for slaves was anything but "ease" however.

What they want goes further than eliminating "Critical Race Theory" (which largely doesn't exist, in today's high schools), but to revise history to make it seem that slavery wasn't all that bad.  The Banality of Evil strikes again.  While it might be true that some slaves were "treated well" by their owners (at least the owners would say so, or their descendants!) the reality is, even "nice" slavery is still slavery.  Rotting in a hellhole of a jail is bad, but even a "minimum security" prison is still a prison, if you can't just leave anytime you want to.  Ask any prisoner.

Maybe it is true that some slave owners were "nice" to their slaves.  But as a slave, you knew that "niceness" could end at any given moment, for example, if you decided to try to escape. Worse yet, your "nice" owner could die and his heirs might not be so nice and moreover, you might be sold off to pay off the debts of your owner's estate.

Much ado was made in my elementary school textbooks about how George Washington "freed his slaves" when he died, as if that made it OK that he owned slaves.   But you can see the position our elders - and ourselves - are put into.  We champion ourselves as defenders of "freedom" and Democracy, when our country was founded on a history of slavery.

Some argue that the bloody Civil War washed the sins of slavery clean, and maybe there is a nugget of truth to that.  Yet today, when I drive through Pennsylvania, I see a memorial to the lost Civil War dead - fighting for the Union - and some yahoo is driving by in his pickup truck with a large Confederate battle flag flying from the bed.  He forgot which side his ancestors fought for.

That is the scary part - that lost in all this discussion is the fact that a whole host of people not only want to sanitize history but literally bring back slavery.  Maybe it is a small minority - and indeed, such weak thinkers have been with us, always.  They use Externalizing to excuse their own malfeasance in life and blame all their personal problems on convenient minorities.

Is Critical Race Theory - even if it was a "thing" - a threat to Democracy?   Well, I am not sure it is right to teach young white kids they are guilty of creating slavery, anymore than it is appropriate to shame young Germans for things their grandparents did.  And yes, I think this sort of castigation ends up pushing a lot of this shit into the closet, where it festers and explodes.

When I was a teenager, the whole "Southern Rock" genre became popular. A lot of it was good music, but some of it was just posturing.  But it wasn't hard to figure out what was going on.  This "Southern Pride" thing had the same roots as "Gay Pride" in fact.  You tell people for years that they are worthless pieces of shit and eventually they latch onto the first movement that comes along and tells them they are, in fact, good people.

Trump knows this, telling his basket of deplorables they are "beautiful" and wonderful people - while the rest of the political spectrum eyes them with suspicion. The Democratic Party, which once embraced the blue-collar worker (and before then, embraced Southern racists, ironically enough!) now castigates the same group that once made up their base.  So, no wonder these folks flock to Trump - he doesn't tell them they are worthless pieces of shit.

But is there a nugget of truth to "CRT" as they call it?  Do white people really get "money batons" on their 18th birthday to spend on a new car?  Well, not exactly, but then again, not exactly untrue either.

I noted before that genealogy is bunk.   After four or five generations, you are pretty much related to everyone else, and the idea you can "trace" your ancestry to one person in the past, is kind of specious.  Over time, fortunes are made - and lost - and your immediate situation has more to do with your own work and the fortunes of your immediate forebears than anything else (for most of us, anyway).

And my own life is an example of this - and pretty typical of a "white guy" in America.  I noted before that the most valuable thing I "inherited" from my parents was the sense that education was good and excellence was expected of me.  Others were not so fortunate.  But let's examine my family tree and figure out if I received any "money batons" from the slavery industry.

Like most Americans, I am a mixture of races or nationalities - Irish, Scots, English, French, Swiss - to name a few that we are aware of.  My Father's side of the family is easier to trace, so I'll start there.  His Dad was a drunk who died in his 50's of lung cancer (perhaps asbestos-related) who left my Dad nothing other than an old pre-war Buick that was burning oil.  He was kind of browned-off about that, but then again, he wrote me out of his will (or my brother did, we'll never know for sure).  But my Dad inherited nothing to speak of, and most of the money he had in life he earned over the years.  No money batons there.

Even that old Buick didn't come from the profits of slavery.  His side of the family was only one or two generations removed from "the old country" - Ireland and Switzerland - and they came to this country with nothing, and as far as I know, never exploited minorities.  Indeed, his grand-parents came over here as servants for the Steinway's, who gave them an upright piano as a wedding gift.  So I am not sure that we got any money batons out of that, as by the time this trickled down to him, there wasn't much left.  We donated the piano to charity as the soundboard was cracked.

My Mother's family is a half-and-half of "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps" and the legacy of slavery.  The Wiggins owned 100 acres of farmland in what is now Brooklyn.  But they lost it all when one ancestor committed suicide (at age 35 or so) leaving his wife to raise the children.  If somehow they had kept all that land, I would be fabulously wealthy - except for the fact that it would have been divided up again and again by each successive generation.  So my Grandfather Platt Wiggins had to work his way through law school and eventually became partner in a law firm representing what is now Citibank, and moved on up from Brooklyn to Larchmont.   An American success story - sort of.

His wife, however, was a Southern Racist and Grand-daughter of a slave owner.  They met during World War I when Grandpa went to Texas to learn how to fly Curtis Jenny's.  After the war, he went back to Texas and proposed.  She was a Thompson, and her Father, Robert Thompson, was a Civil Engineer and laid out most of the secondary roads in Texas (according to family lore) and was involved in founding the Civil Engineering program at the University of Texas as Austin (again, family lore).

His father, Col. Robert Thompson, was a slave owner in Alabama and "fought" in the Civil War.  Family folklore (from my racist Grandmother) was that after the war, he moved to Texas to start over, as his plantation was devastated.  His (former) slaves followed him, she said, "because they loved him so much" which I doubt was true.  I suspect they probably had no idea what to do and were afraid to remain behind in Alabama without any means of supporting themselves or any protection from the Klan.

Did I inherit a "money baton" from Col. Thompson?  Not that I am aware of.  My mother left a small trust to us four children, based on money she received from her parents.  Most, if not all, of that money came from my Grandfather's law practice.  Of course, you go back that many generations and you have more and more ancestors to account for.  Col. Thompson was the grandfather of my grandmother - so he represents one of 16 great-great-great-grandparents, so this represents a thin slice of my ancestry, remembered only, perhaps because he was a "colorful character."  Lesser ancestors are not remembered.

So maybe there is a thin slice of truth here, but I never got a "money baton" from my slave-owning ancestors.  Then again, as I noted above, money isn't the only thing you can inherit.  My family placed a great emphasis on education.  My Dad clawed his way up from poverty by getting a college education. My Mother's Father had to invent himself by becoming a lawyer. There is far more in terms of bootstrap-pulling than inherited slave money.  And by the way, you read the part where Col. Thompson lost it all after the war, which is why he moved to Texas in the first place.  And yes, it is justice that his wealth, based on the labor of slaves, should have been lost.

I suspect my family history is similar to that of a lot of "white people" in America.  There are few folks, if any, who can trace their wealth directly back for generations to slave-owners or claim that that their wealth was a direct result of slavery.  In the South, you do see the same family names again and again, running various businesses or owning  various properties.  And yes, I suspect that these "old families" had their roots in the plantation-era and that the lands they own were acquired in part, through the labor of slaves.  On the other hand, it seems that Georgia Pacific owns the vast swath of pinelands that seem to make up much of rural Georgia, and that the few farmers scratching a living growing cotton and peanuts don't seem to be all that wealthy.

Making a direct connection between slavery and wealth today would be hard to do, other than for a small number of individuals.  And castigating an entire race for the actions of others of the same race isn't an answer, either.  The American of Irish descent, whose family immigrated here in the 1800's was exploited and yes, even lynched.  Today, of course, we have a Catholic President.  They shot the last one, however.

So it is kind of in poor taste to suggest that people whose ancestors immigrated to this country after the abolition of slavery, who never exploited anyone, but were themselves exploited, are somehow "guilty" of the sin of slavery.  But then again, I don't think many people are actually saying that - although I am sure Fox News could line up a "guest" to come on their show and say that (there are a lot of weirdos in the world, or you can just pay someone).  But that seems to be a strategy of the GOP these days - to take an oddball or outlier and then use them to paint the opposition as representing that view.

And then they take it even further - by claiming that since "Critical Race Theory" is poisoning the minds of young people (in the three liberal colleges in the Northeast teaching it) that somehow we need to "balance" this by teaching a counter-lie - that slavery "wasn't so bad after all!"

Neither proposition has merit.