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Saturday, December 30, 2017


Professor Pigden has written a long and eloquent response to my cri de Coeur of six days ago [“A Question for Christmas Eve.”]  I agree with virtually everything he says, and yet I am not content to adopt the voice he articulates for us.  In explaining why, I encounter a problem that, I suspect, afflicts many writers who have grown long in the tooth:  I went into all of this in a book I published a dozen years ago, and so feel that there is no need to go into it again, and yet that book sold almost no copies and therefore, so far as the reading public is concerned, does not exist.  The book, which dealt with my experiences in the University of Massachusetts Department of Afro-American Studies, is called Autobiography of an Ex-White Man, an homage to a novel by James Weldon Johnson well-known in Black American circles.

Rather than rewrite here the two chapters in which I dealt with this question, I am going simply to reproduce the joke with which I begin the first of those chapters.  Then I will be able in a few words to complete my response to Professor Pigden.  Here is the joke:

“Sam Shapiro’s daughter comes home from college at the end of her Junior year and announces at the dinner table that she is to be married in two weeks time.  Mrs. Shapiro goes into panic overdrive and starts to plan a modest wedding for three hundred.  Her last words to Mr. Shapiro, before taking over the den as headquarters for the planning operation, are “You are going to need a new suit.”

Mr. Shapiro sighs, and goes to see Schneider the Tailor.
“Schneider, I need a new suit, and there’s no time for fittings.  My daughter, Tiffany, is getting married in two weeks time.  It’s got to be a real fancy suit.”

“Mazel tov!   Not to worry.  I will make you such a suit, your own relatives won’t know you.”

Schneider measures Mr. Shapiro up one side and down the other, all the while assuring him that there is nothing to worry about.  “Just come back the morning of the wedding,” he tells Mr. Shapiro, “wearing your good shirt, your good underwear, and your good shoes.  The suit will look like it was born on you.”

Two weeks later, not having spoken more than ten words to Mrs. Shapiro or Tiffany in the interim, Mr. Shapiro goes back to Schneider the Tailor, with his shirt, his shoes, and underwear all just waiting to be graced by the perfect suit.  Schneider whisks out the suit with an air of triumph, and tells Mr. Shapiro to try it on.

Mr. Shapiro slips on the trousers, and his face falls.  The pants are a disaster.  The right leg is three inches too long, and slops over his shoe.  The left leg is four inches too short, revealing a quite unappealing ankle.  And the waist is too big, so that the pants sag dangerously low on the Shapiro midsection.  Mr. Shapiro lets out a cry of anguish, and turns on Schneider.  “Schneider, you idiot!” he yells.  “What have you done?”

“Now, now” Schneider croons, “don’t worry.  Just extend your right leg to make it a bit longer.  Now hike up your left hip, so that the leg pulls up.  And if you will remember to keep your stomach pushed out, the pants fit perfectly.”

Mr. Shapiro is beside himself, but the wedding is in one hour, and there is nothing for it but to make the best of a bad situation.  He extends and hikes and pushes, and the pants more or less cover his lower half without falling down.

Now Mr. Shapiro slips on the jacket, and this is an even worse disaster, if that can be imagined. One sleeve is too long, the other is too short, and there is a bunch of cloth over his right shoulder blade that has no discoverable function at all.  Schneider the Tailor guides him through another series of contortions - one arm down, the other arm up, the shoulder hiked to fill the extra cloth, and finally, clammy with anxiety, Mr. Shapiro steps into the sunlight and makes his way carefully down the street toward Temple Beth Israel.

As he walks, concentrating fiercely on his left leg, his right leg, his left arm, his right arm, his stomach, and his shoulder, a nicely dressed stranger approaches him on the street and says, “Excuse me, but could you tell me the name of your tailor?”

“My tailor!  My tailor!” shouts Mr. Shapiro.  “Why do you want to know the name of that scoundrel?”

“Well,” says the stranger, “I figure any tailor who can cut a suit to fit a man shaped like you must be a genius with the needle!”

Mr. Shapiro is America.  His new suit – Schneider’s folly – is the story White people have been telling about this country for the past four centuries.  In recent times, textbooks have tinkered with the story, pushing a leg out here, hunching up a shoulder there, trying to make the story fit the facts of the American experience, but the suit never really fits.  The only thing to do, at long last, is to give the story to Good Will and write a new one that really fits the facts.”

In the rest of the chapter, I examine in detail the successive editions of the three most successful and widely respected college American History texts of the 20th century, showing how they adjust to the times by tinkering with their account of the American experience.  But it is Schneider’s Wedding Suit all over again.  In the next chapter, I tell the real story of America, as I learned it from my colleagues in the Afro-American Studies Department and from the countless books I read about Black history.

America is not, was not, and never has been a country founded on the Idea of Freedom, imperfectly realized at first and then, through struggle, little by little brought into greater conformity with its founding ideal.  America was, from Colonial days, a Settler State built from the 17th century onward on unfree labor.  By a complex process taking more than a century, that unfreedom was codified as racially defined chattel slavery.  As the saying has it in this digital age, slavery was a feature of America, not a bug, and today, a century and a half after the official end of slavery, racial inequality remains a feature of American society, not a bug.  It is, like the inequality of women, a foundational structural arrangement for creating and perpetuating inequality.

The problem I tried, however ineptly, to articulate in that Christmas Eve post, is that with the exception of most Black and some few female intellectuals, no one who speaks in the public sphere shares this view, and would find it alien and even incomprehensible if confronted with it.  How then can I speak so as to be true to my understanding of the facts and also relevant to the conversation?


s. wallerstein said...

I myself find it hard to resist pointing out what you point out, and having lived most of my life in Latin America, I find it even harder not to point out the vicious history of U.S. imperialism in Latin America, which is as greedy, homicidal and undemocratic as European imperialism in Africa, except "we" generally used local elites, Somoza, Trujillo, Pinochet, Stroessner, to do our dirty work.

That this homicidal imperialism is justified in U.S. media by a rhetoric of freedom and human rights makes it doubly irritating, and as all of you may have noticed, I find it difficult to refrain from lecturing others on the subject.

Maybe my mission in life is to lecture others about the hypocrisy of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America. There's a interview with Chomsky from some years ago, where the interviewer asks him why he's not supporting the Democratic candidate in the election. Doesn't Chomsky realize, the interviewer asks, that the Democrats are better than the Republicans? Sure, answers Chomsky, but supporting the Democrats isn't my mission in life, criticizing U.S. foreign policy without compromising is.

So maybe, Professor Wolff, your mission in life is to keeping speaking the truth about U.S. racism and U.S. imperialism without compromising.

Unknown said...

What is the difference between slavery and chattel slavery?

s. wallerstein said...

To be more specific, just because the correct strategy for the radical left is to unite with the center-left (mainstream Democrats) against Trump does not necessarily mean that every member of the radical left has to adapt or moderate their discourse to suit that strategy.

There are multiple goods at stake here, the most important of them being to get rid of Trump, but another good is teaching people the truth about U.S. history and that still has its place, even though the most important good is that of getting rid of Trump.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

chattel slavery is hereditary slavery, unlike the slavery in ancient Greece, or in parts of West Africa, etc.

Unknown said...

Thank you for the explanation.

mesnenor said...

Another implication of "chattel" slavery is that chattels are moveable goods. They can be bought and sold and the purchaser can pick them up and take them to another location if they so wish. English common law traditionally drew a distinction between chattels and real property, and there are very different conditions for sale and inheritance associated with real property. (This is "real" in the sense of "real estate", not in any sense associated with any of the philosophical debates associated with the term "realism".)

So chattel slavery implies that slaves can be bought, sold, and inherited like farming implements, and not like a house or like the land itself. This distinction was drawn to make clear that chattel slaves were not serfs in the European sense. Serfs could not be bought or sold independently of the property they lived and worked on. Serfs were considered part of the land. Chattel slaves were not part of the land.