Monday, April 11, 2016

Confederate Heritage Month: That Peculiar Institution

“Slavery as it existed in the South … was a relationship based upon mutual affection and confidence. There has never been a multiracial society which has existed with such mutual intimacy and harmony in the history of the world. … Slave life was to them [slaves] a life of plenty, of food, clothes and good medical care.”

-- Douglas Wilson and Steve Wilkins, Southern Slavery, As It Was
“Somebody needs to say a good word for slavery. Where in the world are the Negroes better off today than in America?”

— Jack Kershaw, League of the South board member, 1998
[Slavery was “a bad institution”, but possibly] “the mildest, most humane form of slavery ever practiced”.
“If you look at the wealth created by the slaves, in food, clothing, shelter, medical care, care before you’re old enough to work, care until you died, they got 90% of the wealth that they generated. I don’t get that. The damn government takes my money to the tune of 50%.”
-- Todd Kiscaden, 64, a neo-Confederate guarding the grave of Confederate Gen. Edmund Pettus
"I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro. When I go through Las Vegas, North Las Vegas, and I would see these little government houses, and in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids — and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch — they didn’t have nothing to do. They didn’t have nothing for their kids to do. They didn’t have nothing for their young girls to do.
"And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do? They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

-- Cliven Bundy
While many defenders of the Confederacy are content to simply argue that the Civil War wasn't about slavery, it was about [insert historically inaccurate excuse here, i.e., "states rights," "foreign trade," "federal tyranny"], others try a different tack: Hey, slavery really wasn't so bad in reality -- thus, neo-Confederates Douglas Wilson's and Steve Wilkins' obscene attempt to make it out to be a benevolent institution. Wilson's  and Wilkins' book Southern Slavery, As it Was is inordinately popular on the far right, especially among the home-schooling crowd.

As the SPLC explains, the book "selectively interprets slave narratives and rehashes pro-slavery arguments of the mid-nineteenth century to argue that the practice was benign, sanctioned by God and was used as a 'pretext' by Unionists to prosecute a war fought over the 'biblical meaning of constitutional government' in an effort to suppress Christianity."

Many others try to soft-pedal the memory of what slavery was about, even beyond the morally bankrupt concept of owning another human being. Slaves were well provided for, they say. And they love, as Bundy rather infamously did in 2014 in Nevada before a bunch of reporters, to suggest that their current impoverished state is actually worse than slavery.

All of which adds up to the obfuscation of the realities of slavery, and what it actually meant -- and why its devastating and toxic legacy remains with us today.

The reality is not hard to find. From Geoffrey Ward's The Civil War: An Illustrated History:

A slave enters the world in a one-room dirt-covered shack. Drafty in winter, reeking in summer, slave cabins bred pneumonia, typhus, cholera, tuberculosis. The child who survived to be sent to the fields at twelve was likely to have rotten teeth, worms, dysentery, malaria. Fewer than four out of one hundred slaves lived to be sixty.

"It is expected," a planter wrote, "that [slaves] should rise early enough to be at work by the time it is light ... While at work, they should be brisk ... I have no objection to their whistling or singing some lively tune, but no drawling tunes are allowed ... for their motions are almost certain to keep time with the music." Slaves worked till dark, unless there was a full moon that permitted them to be kept at it still longer.

On the auction block, blacks were made to jump and dance to demonstrate their sprightliness and good cheer, were often stripped to show how strong they were, how little whipping they needed. "The customers would feel our bodies," an ex-slave recalled, "and make us show our teeth, precisely as a jockey examines a horse." Since slave marriages had no legal status, preachers changed the wedding vows to read, "Until death or distance do you part."

"We were not more than dogs," a slave woman recalled. "If they caught us with a piece of paper in our pockets, they'd whip us. They was afraid we'd learn to read and write, but I never got the chance."
And their mistreatment, as the Wikipedia entry on the subject suggests, went well beyond what one might imagine necessary for the subjection of millions of people, and grew well into the irrationally sadistic:

Slaves were punished by whipping, shackling, hanging, beating, burning, mutilation, branding and imprisonment. Punishment was often meted out in response to disobedience or perceived infractions, but sometimes abuse was performed to re-assert the dominance of the master (or overseer) over the slave.

They were punished with knives, guns, field tools and nearby objects. The whip was the most common instrument used against a slave; one said "The only punishment that I ever heard or knew of being administered slaves was whipping", although he knew several who were beaten to death for offenses such as "sassing" a white person, hitting another "negro", "fussing" or fighting in quarters.

Slaves who worked and lived on plantations were the most frequently punished. Punishment could be administered by the plantation owner or master, his wife, children (white males) or (most often) the overseer or driver.

Slave overseers were authorized to whip and punish slaves. One overseer told a visitor, "Some Negroes are determined never to let a white man whip them and will resist you, when you attempt it; of course you must kill them in that case." A former slave describes witnessing females being whipped: "They usually screamed and prayed, though a few never made a sound." If the woman was pregnant, workers might dig a hole for her to rest her belly while being whipped. After slaves were whipped, overseers might order their wounds be burst and rubbed with turpentine and red pepper. An overseer reportly took a brick, ground it into a powder, mixed it with lard and rubbed it all over a slave.

A metal collar was put on a slave to remind him of his wrongdoing. Such collars were thick and heavy; they often had protruding spikes which made fieldwork difficult and prevented the slave from sleeping when lying down. Louis Cain, a former slave, describes seeing another slave punished: "One nigger run to the woods to be a jungle nigger, but massa cotched him with the dog and took a hot iron and brands him. Then he put a bell on him, in a wooden frame what slip over the shoulders and under the arms. He made that nigger wear the bell a year and took it off on Christmas for a present to him. It sho' did make a good nigger out of him."

Slaves were punished for a number of reasons: working too slowly, breaking a law (for example, running away), leaving the plantation without permission or insubordination. Myers and Massy describe the practices: "The punishment of deviant slaves was decentralized, based on plantations, and crafted so as not to impede their value as laborers." Whites punished slaves publicly to set an example. A man named Harding describes an incident in which a woman assisted several men in a minor rebellion: "The women he hoisted up by the thumbs, whipp'd and slashed her with knives before the other slaves till she died." Men and women were sometimes punished differently; according to the 1789 report of the Virginia Committee of the Privy Council, males were often shackled but women and girls were left free.

The branding of slaves for identification was common during the colonial era; however, by the nineteenth century it was used primarily as punishment. Mutilation (such as castration, or amputating ears) was a relatively common punishment during the colonial era and still used in 1830. Any punishment was permitted for runaway slaves, and many bore wounds from shotgun blasts or dog bites used by their captors.
Even 150 years after it was finally overthrown, the legacy of this evil remains with us today. The underlying attitudes that gave it sustenance, it emerges, remain very much alive today; anti-black attitudes remain at toxically high levels in the former Confederate states. Its legacy also lingers in our racially segregated ghettoes. It continues to have a horribly negative pull on the mental health of African Americans.

And of course, white folks remain defiantly obtuse about its legacy. One of their favorite claims -- which we'll be exploring in greater depth throughout Confederate Heritage Month -- is that blacks have proven they are less capable because slavery was outlawed 150 years ago and they still haven't improved their lot significantly, as though the subsequent systems of oppression put in place, particularly Jim Crow and other means of demographic segregation, had no effect on their ability to advance.

But even without those systems, as Daria Rothmayr demonstrates authoritatively in her book Reproducing Racism: How Everyday Choices Lock in White Advantage, blacks' disadvantaged position would remain. She describes, using the economic "lock-in" model, the way that unfair competitive advantage can begin to reproduce itself over time, automatically, without any ongoing illegal behavior.

It actually takes conscious choices on the part of whites, who are too busy being defensive about the legacy of slavery to take those steps. Mostly, they swim in the system every day and are unaware how slavery continues to impact American society today. As Luke Visconti puts it:

If you go back to people being created equally, it is just math that a percentage of our country’s greatest minds were eliminated from the competition simply by fact of skin color, and by extension their families were denied the head-start of their accomplishments. Every white person benefits from this–even people who arrived to the United States yesterday.

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