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Monday, July 11, 2011


The transition from Du Bois in 1935 to Berlin and Fields in 1992 proceeded by stages, not all at once, and there are important lessons to be learned from looking at the transition process. In fact, the succession of changes in the story of slavery and its aftermath teaches us something very important about just what it is to be truly human.

The first step in the rewriting of the old story was the recognition by historians that chattel slavery was in fact a brutal system of physical coercion and economic exploitation, not a benign paternal folkway accepted by the slaves themselves. The oft-repeated images of happy slaves twanging banjos and serenading Massa each evening in the Big House were fictions of a self-deluding Southern planter elite, taken up by Northern historians, repeated in novels and later in movies, and given the stamp of scholarly approval by textbook writers. The truth was totally different.

The slaves were forced to work in the fields by overseers who carried, and used, vicious whips. Slaves who ran away, as so many did, were hunted down by patrols of White men, brought back to their owners, and then hung by their thumbs and whipped until the blood ran from their bodies and stained the earth beneath them. Slave women were raped by their masters and forced to raise the babies, who were merely valuable property to their White fathers. When pregnant slave women were whipped, a shallow depression was dug in the earth and they were forced to lie in it face down, so that the beating would not injure the economically valuable babies in their wombs. Family units in the slave quarters were often torn asunder when the father or the mother was sold at auction to another plantation owner, leaving the rest of the family behind.

Archaeological excavations of slave burial grounds have produced evidence of the brutality of slavery in the distortions of the bones, which show the permanent effects of the extraordinarily hard labor the slaves were forced to perform.

Ulrich Phillips was perhaps the academically most accomplished of the many academic apologists for slavery. In 1956, Kenneth Stampp attacked Phillips’ rosy picture of slavery in a work called The Peculiar Institution, demonstrating that cruelty and exploitation were essential to the institution of slavery, not occasional and atypical flaws in an otherwise benign practice.

Thus, the first step away from the original Southern School was the recognition that slaves suffered – that they felt pain. This may strike you as absurdly obvious, but in fact there is a long history in Western and other civilizations of the myth that the lower classes feel less actual pain than the refined, sensitive upper classes. Eighteenth century English and French aristocrats used this supposed fact to justify their brutal, thoughtless treatment of their servants. [This was the real evolutionary import of Jeremy Bentham's now familiar insistence that in the Utilitarian calculus, each person's pleasure or pain was to count the same, regardless of how high or low born the person was.]

But animals feel pain also, and even the cruelest masters can be quite solicitous of their pets. The next stage in the transformation of the story of the slaves focused on a different aspect of their humanity – their capacity for productive labor. Everyone understood that the slaves were capable of labor – that, after all, was why they had been seized in Africa and brought to America. But historians found it impossible to recognize that Black men and women could be efficient workers, skilled workers. Even Stampp, while proving against Phillips that slavery had been an economically successful form of production, continued to maintain that the slaves were less efficient, less productive than free White wage laborers in the North.

As later historians looked more closely at the record, however, they found that in fact the four million enslaved descendants of Africans were, as a group, a highly skilled and productive work force. Indeed, as Jacqueline Jones notes in her great work, American Labor, at the time of the Civil War, the popular view among Southern plantation owners was – believe it or not – that the slaves were good workers, and that it was poor Whites who were shiftless, lazy ne’er do wells.

With this second revision, historians thus wrote into the story of slavery the fact that slaves not only suffered, but also worked productively, intelligently and efficiently.

A third revision of the old story took dead aim at the claim that the slaves were without any significant culture or civilization of their own, and that their religion, their family practices, their social relationships, and even their music, art, and folk lore were merely learned from their masters or were a debased aping of the manners of their betters.

The first White scholar to explode this myth was not an historian, but the great anthropologist Melville Herskovitz. As early as 1941, in a work called The Myth of the Negro Past, Herskovitz used his knowledge of West African culture to demonstrate that in the speech, the kinship practices, the folkways, and the religion of the American Negro could be found countless cultural holdovers from their African roots. Herskovitz’s argument had three parts, each of which was important to the effort to defeat the old myths. First, Herskovitz drew on anthropology to establish that African peoples, just like Europeans, had rich, complex cultural traditions. This put the lie to the view widely shared by White Americans that the slaves were not fully human, but were, as some of them liked to put it, “one generation out of the trees.” Second, Herskovitz refuted the oft-repeated claim that the process of enslavement had mixed together peoples of such different backgrounds that neither language nor culture survived the passage from Africa to America, leaving the slaves as blank slates on which their White masters could write some form of European culture. These two points prepared the way for the third and most important recognition, that in America the slaves and their descendants succeeded in preserving, transforming, and passing on from generation to generation a rich, vibrant culture, despite the terrible burdens of chattel slavery.

We are today accustomed to recognizing the extraordinary contributions of African Americans to the complex cultural life of America, but I am old enough to recall quite clearly that until Black students protested in the 1960's and 70's, no Black poet or novelist could ever be found on the reading list of a literature course at a predominantly White college or university. Hard as it may be for you to believe, there was even a time in this country when a white band leader, named – I kid you not – Paul Whiteman, was widely considered to be the father of jazz.

Little by little, White historians began to pay attention to the existence of a rich, complex array of cultural traditions and social institutions in the Black community, a fact that had always been well known to African Americans. The churches, the fraternal organizations, the written and oral literary traditions, the art, the music, the science, the philosophy, the politics of Black Americans finally made their way into the story that mainstream historians were telling about America.

At every step of the way, there were White historians and public figures who resisted this rewriting of the American story. Here is an excerpt from a speech delivered by our old friend Thomas Bailey in 1967 to the leading association of historians of America, The Organization of American Historians, on the occasion of his inauguration as its President. The topic of Bailey’s address was “the mythmakers of American history," and after some remarks about that old chestnut, George Washington and the cherry tree [ you remember the one – “I cannot tell a lie.”], he turned to what he called the “newly formed hyphenate group,” African-Americans. Here is what he had to say:

"This belated recognition [of the experiences and activities of Negroes], though praiseworthy in some respects, is fraught with danger. Most non-militant Negroes would probably like to think of themselves as dark-skinned Americans, and this self-imposed Jim Crowism can be self-defeating. Pressure-group history of any kind is deplorable, especially when significant white men are bumped out to make room for much less significant black men in the interests of social harmony. If this kind of distortion gets completely out of hand, we can visualize what will happen when the Negroes become the dominant group in all our largest cities, as they already are in Washington, D.C. Coexistence may end, and we may even have hard-backed Negro histories of the United States, with the white man’s achievements relegated to a subsidiary treatment."

As I observed at the beginning of these remarks, there is an on-going struggle to see who will tell the story of America, and those who find their once-unchallenged hegemony under attack do not willingly yield the narrative voice.


Murfmensch said...

As an academic, I am very used to hearing "I concentrate on this area in this particular period." Historians can be incredibly specific here.

Bailey is worried there will be a "hardback volume" that concentrates on Black history?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

He was worried that the doings of White men would be slighted! We are living at a time when scores of millions of White Americans believe they are the victims of discrimination because they are White Christians. No kidding. If you doubt it, Google Lynn Cheney and the teaching of American history.

Michael said...

I wonder if his comment about the hard-backed (which I take to mean something like "serious" or "scholarly") reflected anxiety about publishing resources. If scholarly publishers begin publishing books about Black history, there won't be as much money for Bailey's books about good ol' White celebration history.

English Jerk said...

It strikes me that Bailey is also (presumably unwittingly) acknowledging how Black history had been treated by him and his ilk up to that point, as a mere footnote to White history. It reminds me of an old Israeli woman who stood up in a public lecture I attended to say that if Palestinians were given the right of return they would "drive us from our homes or kill us in our beds." Hmmmm.

Amato said...

Arthur Schelesinger Jr, in 1998, wrote "The disuniting of America: reflections on a multicultural society," which epitomizes the struggle of historians trying to hold on to America's classical narrative.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

So he did, Amato. I shall have a few choice words about L'il Arthur, as he was called at Harvard to distinguish him from his father, Arthur Schlesinger Sr.