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P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
11.1 (Winter 2011)
the polis vs. progress
courtesy of artrenewal.org
The American South: A Whipping Boy That Intellectuals and the Masses Can Share
J. S. Moseby
I am neither proud nor ashamed of my ancestors. My metaphysical convictions forbid such emotions as blind folly. How can I answer for anyone’s life but my own? What sane adult would have any sympathy with me if I demanded that Hitler’s or Stalin’s descendants be sought out and executed? Or what lunatic would propose that we bestow public honors upon Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, children just because they carry his genes?
Of course, the reader will probably be squirming with me as I conclude the previous sentence. We are alarmingly close to a stage of social and cultural degeneration that worships any King scion or eagerly votes for any relative of John Kennedy or George Bush, Sr. We are becoming barbarians. Our current president speaks openly and approvingly of collective guilt (egged on by his would-be-Messiah advisor, the Rev. Jim Wallis). People are instantly worthy of admiration and indulgence–or of contempt and punishment–for no better reason than their skin color. Aspiring political candidates marry a Chavez or an Avila in a bid for Latino support. Mega-journalists bully office-seekers with mainstream religious beliefs to confess an antipathy to Darwin, confident that such an admission will identify them to the whole world as friends of the Spanish Inquisition.
We have become self-righteous, shallow, and very nearly stupid–nowhere more so than in our “progressive” thinking.
That having been said–and it is a critical disclaimer–I wish to devote the rest of my space to a defense of the Southern male: not that I think him better than others of our species, but that I think him certainly no worse. I tire of seeing my ancestors, in casual conversation and in formal print, reduced to a cliché for sadistic brutality and arrogant hypocrisy almost as universal as the “Hitler/Nazi” genre of shorthand. My Turner, White, and Thomas forebears all arrived in Chesapeake Bay some time well before the Year of Our Lord 1700. He was an Englishman. I never heard that he was fleeing religious or any other kind of persecution. He probably undertook the venture in a zeal to test himself, to amass wealth, and to be free of the Old World’s often highly restrictive conventions. If these were not particularly praiseworthy motives, neither do I find them contemptible. Even the Rev. Wallis has made a nice bit of change speaking for God (as the title of his bestseller of yore portrays his calling).
I know that many of my ancestors owned slaves. I also know that none of them owned many slaves. This was the norm in the antebellum South: a girl to help out in the kitchen and the nursery, a “boy” to saddle horses and assist in the garden… often nothing more. Vast plantations were very rare. No one in my family owned one.
A series of observations, if I may:
* Slaves cost money. To have underfed them, mutilated them, beaten them, or otherwise jeopardized their health and strength would have strained the small landowner’s domestic economy severely. It would have made no sense at all. It occurred, as spousal and child abuse occur. A certain percentage of the populace has always been insane. But to suppose it common would be absurd.
* The South was only the final destination of the slaves. Northerners owned and operated the ships which brought them over from Africa–the South would indeed sorely feel her lack of a navy during the Civil War. Let us never forget, as well (as too many of us always do), that the slaves were originally rounded up by Arabic traders in North Africa, some of whom are still hard at their ancestral trade. Now, why is it, again, that certain African-descended Americans have renounced Christianity for Islam on the basis of their slave past?
* Some of the slaves fought for the Confederacy. One presumes that they were given freedom, in exchange: this is a bizarre fact on its face, I readily admit, and the historian will have to inform us of the precise conditions which brought it about. But such military units were not isolated–not a mere two or three. The fact in and of itself should suffice to slow us down in our sweeping generalizations.
* An anecdote told to me by my grandmother, which she had heard from her grandmother: a certain slave girl (we’ll call her Sarah) was drawn into a conversation between her mistress and a guest. The two white women were aghast over rumors that so-and-so actually whipped his slaves. Such a thing was unheard-of–it was outrageous and preposterous, a transparent fabrication! Sarah begged to differ. She insisted that such things did indeed happen. The white women scoffed at her for being so naive. This continued, apparently, until Sarah dropped her blouse and turned her back. There were the cicatrices left by the whip.
The story proves, once again, that some owners were boors and scoundrels–but it also proves that, at least in parts of the South, their kind must have been very rare and must have done its dirty deeds when most of the neighbors couldn’t look on.
At the risk of appearing to excuse the sadist’s behavior, I would further add that these were very callous times. The British Navy sometimes flogged its malefactors to death. Out West, a man was hanged for stealing a horse. And while laws on local books often condoned or even commanded severe punishments for wayward slaves, my grandmother’s anecdote suggests to me that obedience to the law’s letter was very hit-and-miss. The South was agrarian, and hence rural, in culture: there was no force of snooping Gestapo to report slave-owners not in compliance with ordinances. Such laws were also often written by the wealthy few who stood to lose the most from a general slave insurrection, but who would not have greatly missed the services of an executed worker or two. I know from my grandmother, as well as from my own childhood, that considerable tension between these two groups–the money-driven potentate and the small, independent landowner–has existed in the South for centuries, and exists to this day.
* General Lee freed his slaves before going to war. Many families, like mine, sent men to both armies (a Union general by the name of Thomas was our “black sheep”). One must say of such cases one of two things: either that Southerners were willing to kill each other–kill members of their own family–to end slavery, or else that most of them regarded the institution as unsavory and not a central cause of the war. In neither event do we glimpse any support for the stereotype of the slave-master jealous of his evil privileges.
* The freedmen, in fact, did not greatly profit from the “blessing” of emancipation as heaped upon them by their saintly Northern benefactors. Having destroyed the South’s economy, the Union jettisoned the freed slaves into an environment where even white families could scarcely survive, and where the real animosity which we know so well–the race hatred which ignited the KKK–was born. Meanwhile, in Northern industrial centers, millions of immigrants from Ireland and Central Europe were being submitted to conditions far worse than slavery. The Southern planter lost a major investment if his slave sickened or weakened: the Northern industrialist simply released his tubercular victims and hired a new crop of cannon fodder for pennies.
For all of the above reasons, I hope that contributors to Praesidium, at least, will abstain from comparing the antebellum South to Nazi Germany (as was done in passing–and not clearly with the author’s personal approval–in a recent piece). To assign to another the role of devil is always the work of the devil. It is the beginning of that moral arrogance which, as a matter of fact, we can recognize within the KKK: i.e., “Well, at least I’m better than a d—ed n—-r!” As long as our fellow citizens north of the Mason-Dixon line find absolution in the formula, “Well, at least I’m better than a damned Southerner,” we shall continue to suffer from the hubris of people who imagine themselves an altogether superior class of human being. There is no such class. We are all sinners, and miserable sinners. If you trace us far enough back, our blood ran in slaves’ veins, and in slave-masters’–the blood of every one of us.
A concluding pair of recent examples: one of The Anointed, Ken Burns, famously created a documentary history of baseball more than a decade ago now. The struggle to desegregate the game was the subtext of that series, with a brief time-out called to eulogize Babe Ruth, populist icon. The Babe’s Ahura Mazda was paired with Ty Cobb’s Ahriman: that is, the roly-poly poor-boy-made-good son of an immigrant Yankee tavern-keeper versus the snobby, aloof, blue-blooded Southern racist. Burns smoothly patched togethre a hatcheted version of an incident which led to Cobb’s suspension and one of baseball’s first labor walk-outs: his beating senseless a spectator without arms (yes, without arms) who had dared to shout the n-word at him. The truth of this incident was that the heckler in question had lost his fingers in an accident, a disfigurement which he carefully veiled under gloves; and also that he had unleashed so many obscenities in Cobb’s direction so loudly and for so long that the prim Southerner was concerned both for the women and children sitting nearby and for the rising outrage of his teammates (who informed him that he must silence the lout). That this version of the story is the more correct is supported by the Detroit team’s having unanimously gone on strike when Cobb was fined for the incident; and if one wishes to reduce the events to no more than a Southern bully’s mugging a cripple for yelling “n—-r” at him”, then were not Cobb’s fellow Tigers equally “racist” for supporting his action?
Burns airs none of the competing testimony. The Ivy League tones of former NBC anchor John Chancellor describe the most damning version as if reading from the Gospels; then a smug academic in tweed appears on screen and sniffs that, all things considered, Ty Cobb was more of an embarrassment to baseball than an asset–far more.
I might also mention an instance which fell from the ever-busy mouth of Bill O’Reilly on his FOX News show late in 2010. The topic under discussion involved a Michigan professor’s claim that ROTC recruiters on her campus were luring young people to commit suicide, and that the recruiters were in several ways advancing the ends fascist militarism. O’Reilly, all outrage, insisted that the professor should be fired. Groping for a hypothetical analogy, he imagined for his audience that he himself, as a young high-school teacher in Florida, had claimed that American history would have been happier if the South had won the Civil War. Why, just picture to yourself keeping a teacher on the public payroll who calls slavery a good thing!
We can at least rejoice that Mr. O’Reilly no longer teaches (though he appears to have been awarded a law degree by Harvard: no real surprise there). To Mr. O’Reilly and whomever else it may concern: the Civil War was not fought primarily over slavery, an institution which was fast proving economically disastrous and would have collapsed of its own weight within another generation. To sermonize that the slaves were better off being freed into a destitute and ruined South, so that they were forced into the most squalid tenantry or else into urban industrial centers where they were guaranteed no shelter or food, rather than being gradually set free into the vibrant agricultural setting they had grown up in surpasses the pinnacle of bombastic absurdity. Most of the misery endured by African-Americans today stems from their being flung out of the boat (after two brief years of “reconstruction”–a quick orgy of vendettas that brought local white populations to the boiling point) after declaring their freedom. And what of this matter–which one never, never hears addressed? Had the South “won” the war (i.e., repelled northern invaders from her borders), how would the Great Plains Indians whose treatment East Coast lung-howitzers like Mr. O’Reilly so love to deplore have fared? Is it not reasonable to suppose that, states’ rights having been affirmed and the South’s economic interests not having been swept aside. northeastern railroad and mining interests could not have raped the rest of the country with quite such gay abandon? Would the young Mr. O’Reilly, history teacher, not have been better advised to challenge his students with such questions as that instead of deifying Abraham Lincoln for trampling down the Constitution?
We Southerners have lived our entire lives under a steady effluvium of such contemptuous condescension. The University of Kentucky’s cashiering of its mascot, a Confederate colonel, is but the latest little prick of a bristling popular inanity masquerading as “conscience”. The vast majority of us have grown inured to it all. Yet, as I say, it grows very tiresome at times.
A frequent contributor of fiction to this journal for years, John Moseby lives with his family in the Atlanta area, where he occasionally teaches at several institutions. This is his first venture into commentary under Praesidium’s banner.