Those divisions persist -- and even grow -- in our now largely self-segregated society.
The Problem Stated
Understanding these divisions -- or at least their antecedents -- requires, at a minimum, understanding the vastly different paths White and Black America in arriving at our shores. Virtually every White descends from some person or family that voluntarily -- and often at great personal sacrifice -- choose to make America home. Whites have been taught to take seriously the promises of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the notion of American Exceptionalism. They also believed for good reason that their hard work would translate both in their lifetime and generationally into greater and greater material wealth. The idea that America stands as a city upon a hill still resonates with most White Americans. Patriotism to them is therefore as American as apple pie. Whether they be first generation or tenth generation, Whites, for good reason, have esteemed America and the American way as a promise realized.
In virtually diametric fashion, virtually every Black American descends from some person that was brought here involuntarily -- someone who was literally stolen in chains and fetters from his homeland thousands of miles away. Blacks learned long ago that the same promises of liberty and equality that Whites have taken for granted were largely illusory as applied to them. Setting aside the lack of political rights, Black slavery divorced Black labor from its personal fruits. The Black experience in America -- the ideas, values, and perceptions -- that has been passed down from generation to generation could not have been more different than that of White America.
To understand these differences is not to see them as a justification. For example, I find myself -- still to this day -- viscerally sickened by the collective Black response to the O.J. Simpson verdict. I still do not understand it -- even if I know how vastly different White and Black America see the police and court system. There are other aspects of Black culture as well that I do not understand as well -- like how can Christian Blacks vote for a leader willing to continue the destruction of babies in utero (Blacks especially) and support the legal normalization of homosexual liaisons. But many conservative Americans -- of which I count myself -- seem to pretend away the painful antecedents of the Black experience. In what is admittedly a caricature, they mutter things like “slavery was a long time ago,” or “my great-grandfather came here with nothing and couldn’t even speak the language,” or “why don’t Blacks stop blaming everyone else for their problems,” etc. And while it is true that other immigrant groups -- the Irish and Italians among them -- suffered brutal persecution upon their arrival in America, their experience, while profound was different in kind from the Black experience.
It is the duty of any literate American to understand these antecedents -- and it is especially incumbent if one critiques the shortcomings of Black American culture. As both an intellectual and an American, I believe I have the right and duty to look at the positive and negative attributes of my culture -- and other cultures as well. But criticism rooted in an ahistorical vacuum is little more than a rant. And if we want to understand something as profound as the reaction to the O.J. Simpson verdict -- or as mundane as why Black cuisine -- considering the Black initiation to America is necessary.
An Accidental Discovery
I was not looking for a new reading topic -- rather, I was perusing the pages of The New Criterion when I came across the obituary of Eugene Genovese (RIP) of the November 2012 issue. It read:
On September 26, Eugene Dominick Genovese, one of the most influential—and controversial—historians of his generation, passed away at age eighty-two. During the latter stage of his career he had publicly renounced Marxist atheism and returned to the Roman Catholic Church that had nurtured him in his youth. No scholar studied more deeply the history of the master-slave relation in the antebellum South. His masterpiece, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, which in 1975 received the Bancroft Prize, the most prestigious prize in the field of American history, will stand the test of time.
Candidly, I never heard of Professor Genovese or his tome but I immediately ordered Roll, Jordan, Roll if for no other reason that this little blurb reminded me how important this topic was.
The World the Slaves Made
Roll, Jordan, Roll, named for a Negro song, is one of those rare historical narratives -- so rare in fact one is reticent to call it “history” at all. If history is dispassionate and accurate retelling of past chronological facts interspersed with reasonable conjecture and explanation regarding motives, values, and character of the event or events so described then Roll, Jordan, Roll is not “history.” Rather it almost a social anthropology of the world in which the American slaves lived and breathed. It is the review of the roles, relationships, themes and “types” relating to slaves in the Antebellum South -- a who, what, where, when and how of Slavery and a distillation of what was important to them. Ultimately, it is a book of what constituted the slaves’ culture and worldview.
Surprisingly, Roll, Jordan, Roll begins virtually in Act II -- there is very little discussion of the slave trade or the enslavement of Blacks in Africa. Rather it begins (even if that is the right word) its survey of slave characters and themes in the Nineteenth Century. Obviously the African capture and enslavement is something pregnant in every theme and character because we see a thoroughly subjugated people in every facet of their life. Among the various themes covered are Christianity, family life, the complex and contradictory relationships between slaves and masters (and the masters’ extended family), work (house and field slaves), lodging, language, holidays, and resistance to the regime (in its various iterations). Genovese is very good at putting us into the slaves’ world to study one aspect or another in discrete and exhaustive fashion -- such that when we have finished many dozens of these aspects, we feel as though we have visited the Antebellum South. It is neither glorified nor demonized -- he simply takes us there to the best of his objective abilities. It that sense, I know more -- far more -- about slave life, slave psychology and slave culture than I would have expected.
The Legacy of Slavery
While a review in detail of these types is beyond the scope of this review, there are overarching themes that radiate throughout the book. One is that of “reciprocal obligations.” By this term, Genovese means to capture the idea that both slave and master saw their relationship marked by obligations imposed on both. The slave was owed his material comforts of clothing, lodging and food. He was further owed some periods of rest and relaxation along with the right to raise his family in relative peace from his master. All of these, which Genovese documents, were violated in one way or another but they were the slaves’ expectations of their world. Masters, from their perspective, were entitled to the fruits of their slaves’ labor -- much of which was toiling and backbreaking. But beyond its literal explanation, Genovese seems to convey that this term was a stake in the ground for the slaves’ humanity -- that they were not the mere extension of their masters’ will and that they too were entitled to quid pro quo notwithstanding their lack of virtually any legal standing as citizens or men. Over time, many of the concessions made by slaveholders to their slaves, e.g., time off at Christmas, cash bonuses for Sunday work or the availability of personal garden plots, became over time “rights” that were owed the slaves.
Another theme, which is not so obvious throughout, is an apology for the lack of whatever virtue we think with the benefit of hindsight slaves ought to have had. For example, he excuses their lack of rebellion in a manner that almost protests too much. He is too defensive of whatever criticism he thinks can be made of collective slave action or inaction. In this I found a whiff of incipient political correctness that was off-putting. That a unique racial caste is held in bondage -- generationally -- and intentionally kept as ignorant as possible -- generationally -- does not require justification for much. Indeed, there is no historical analogue for it. While there have been slaves throughout human history, I am not aware of a slavery perpetuated on the basis of a supposed racial inferiority. Stated more bluntly, that the slaves did or did not do anything needs no justification given the grim circumstances into which they were born.
Still another theme is the fundamental disconnect between the way in which slaves and Whites saw the world -- much of which still resounds today. Most obviously, the fear and distrust of authority figures looms large. Whites still view authority figures -- such as police and judges -- as generally fair and honest. Black slaves internalized a very different standard for authority figures -- all of whom were White. In what must have been passed from generation to generation, Blacks have learned from a virtually pre-conscious level that authority figures are not to be trusted, which is socially destructive construct.
The slippery concepts of lying and stealing confounded Black-White slave relations: Blacks saw a malleable standard for truth and theft and a gross hypocrisy in White supposed superiority in these virtues when -- fundamentally -- the very slaves themselves were the product of an intercontinental theft. Interestingly, in a theme that repeated over and over again in Genovese’s work, Black slaves seem to have maintained a West African social behavior in their approach to truth-telling. West Africans believed -- evidently on grounds relating to hospitality -- that telling someone what they wanted to hear was more importantly sometimes than telling them the truth. This constant slave dissembling earned Blacks a reputation as liars -- perhaps unfairly -- considering that slaves often had to be “good” Negroes in front of Whites and conceal their true feelings in a given situation. In any event, this culture of lying notwithstanding its relative justification or explanation is yet another legacy from a slave culture that persists.
The concept of Black solidarity -- often at communal costs -- likewise is important. An brief personal aside is necessary here. When I worked for a Judge on the West Coast, a fellow lawyer recounted a case in which a Japanese-American defense lawyer had made a critical mistake in a federal drug trial. He believed that his client, a young Japanese-American, would benefit from a jury composed by as many Asian Americans (preferably Japanese) as possible. He received the jury of his choice -- and that jury convicted his client with near record speed. What this Asian lawyer did not understand is that the Japanese-Americans were profoundly ashamed by the actions of this young member of their community and they wanted -- more than anyone else -- to punish him. I recall at the time thinking to myself how well that spoke of Japanese culture and implicitly how poorly it spoke of Black culture that Black criminals are routinely freed by Black juries notwithstanding their obvious guilt. What Genovese’s book has helped me calibrate my view because slavery so often involved capricious and arbitrary punishment of Blacks, Blacks grew exceedingly communally self-protective. Perhaps that communal instinct -- born of slavery -- has metastasized into virtual blindness to confront individual antisocial Black conduct in the name of protecting Blacks generally. Whatever its causes, the Black unwillingness to convict Black peers has its roots in slavery.
Genovese quite aptly captures the horror of slavery while not dramatizing it. For example, he goes on at some length demonstrating that the slaveholders’ contentions that their slaves were provided for in material conditions that often surpassed poor proto-industrial whites (in America and Europe) was in fact generally true. Slaves were generally cared for -- with medical attention, generally adequate nutrition and housing accommodations. In meaningful ways, slavery for the slaves meant a superior material existence as compared with many other groups. But, as we all know today, so do prisons.
What is distilled by this book -- and consideration of its collective themes -- is that “man” is much, more than the data of his material conditions. A “man” means ontologically freedom -- he is supposed to be existentially free. If the Creator indeed grants us free will, how can creatures deprive other creaturs of the same. We all -- the richest among us -- suffer from the bulwark of social obligations imposed in whatever cultural settings we live but we are all “free.” We must obey many imposed requirements (cultural, legal, social, etc.) but we are -- most are -- free. When I think of slavery -- especially in a country that was born of a jealous regard for liberty -- I think of the indignity of the infantalizing of the slave. There is no other way to put it: reducing a man to the status of a child is a great, great crime. The idea of another man lording the most mundane aspects of my existence over me -- controlling, as it were, when and what I eat, when and where I relieve myself, to whom and for how long my relationships may be maintained, at what I must labor and for how long -- is a fate that I can almost imagine no worse. Maybe I am more American than I like to believe -- but my freedom -- my prideful freedom -- is something I value as much as any political reality in my life. It is criminal that it was stolen from generations of people on account of the accident of their birth and capture. Moreover, perpetuating that crime through a perpetual and generational racial caste system is beyond criminal -- it is vile.
A Copperhead Revisited
So how does a Copperhead make sense of this? Must we, in the vein of contemporary Whig history, reduce the culture and ethos of the Antebellum South to little more than a front for a great crime against humanity. To his credit, Genovese takes seriously the South and does not demonize it per se for their slaveholding. Given that he is taking apart slavery, it is not an easy task to do. One of part of the book does address how Southern masters felt -- at least generally -- slavery. For many, it was a burden to be endured; one in which their black slaves were an extension of their family -- albeit in submissive childlike form. For many, they genuinely wanted and expected gratitude and love from their slaves. When the Civil War exploded slavery, many were deeply disappointed by what they perceived as ingratitude and abandonment by their slaves, or, at the very least, their favored slaves.
One point it seems worthy to make is that masters were born into the system of slavery as much as their slaves. Stated differently, after slavery was firmly established in the New World during the Seventeenth Century, later slave masters of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries were born into a world in which slavery was firmly established around them. Stated still differently, once the men and forces aligned to set up the New World/African slavery system in the Seventeenth Century, later generations of slaveholders were less culpable for the cooperation with it as a pre-existing institution.
Slavery -- as an economic matter -- has been a ubiquitous form of human exploitation in preindustrial societies in which labor is scarce. While modern liberals -- with their socialist agenda -- self-righteously condemn the South for its reliance on slavery, the inconvenient truth for them is that capitalism, and, in particular, the progress of labor saving technology and specialization of labor largely eviscerated the need for slavery. In socialism, we all become slaves. Slavery would have beaten, as it was everywhere else, without six-hundred thousand deaths by the progress of the market. Man -- free and motivated -- is a much better and more efficient component of an economic society than any slave can be. In other words, slavery would have become -- and already was -- a huge economic millstone around Southerns. It was a luxury that few would have been able to maintain to compete in agriculture and commerce.
The question remains whether the South could have been the South without slavery. Could the paternalistic view of the world, the code of honor, the mantra of chivalry and tradition, the cult of self-reliance, and the agrarian ideal formed without slaves? I don’t think it is an easy answer. In some ways, slavery afforded Southern intellectuals the opportunity to live as if they were born in an earlier time -- an almost medieval time complete with serfs and a landed aristocracy. It allowed them, ironically enough, luxuries in the form of human capital that their economic system could not afford. One of the reasons that thinking Catholics like the South and the Southern tradition (sans slavery) is that it is far more compatible with a rightly order Catholic worldview than as\ Northern mercantile/industrial society. Moreover, when we see what a totalitarian monster the federal government has become, I cannot help but think that we would have been better off if the side fighting for limited government won. Be that as it may, the legacy of slavery is a perfect example of bad facts making bad law -- the tarnish of slavery should not ruin what was genuinely good about the South.
In the end, however, this is about Blacks. Given what was taken from them and what was imposed upon them, we should logically expect that it will take more than several generations to workout much Black dysfunction. The legacy of slavery unfortunately continues in rampant imprisonment, poverty, crime, abortion, and stunted family life. This is our problem and slavery’s contribution to it is great. Obviously, a young Black cannot plead slavery as an excuse for ignorance or crime -- and it is no personal excuse -- but we should look at these seemingly intractable problems with a degree of empathy.
Saint Peter Claver, Pray for Us.