Franklin and Armfield

I keep hoping that I will hit some end to the depravity of these guys, but there is none. One of the critics I read says that, to truly understand slavery in the U.S., you have to come to grips with how it functioned as a sexual… he uses the term fetish, which I don’t quite like because it reminds me too much of Freud’s “everyone’s worried about castration!” nonsense and “compulsion” makes it sound like these men just couldn’t help themselves. But, you know, I’m thinking some about the research they’ve done on rapists these days and how the rapists will often–especially if you don’t call it “rape” in the interviews–brag about how that’s the kind of sex they like to have, that resistance and tears or frightened silence is what they want in a “partner” (“partner” is such a crappy term in this context, but roll with me). And that’s true for Franklin and Armfield and the men they were selling their “fancy ladies” to. They liked sex where the other person involved could not say no, was frightened, where her humiliation was an important component.

So, let’s say that slavery was, in part, in important ways, a sexual preference of white men. It was linked to how power was distributed in this country at the time (and in ways now) with the person with the most power being able to prove it through his ability to dominate others. The more people he could dominate, the more powerful he was. Sexual domination was just awesome proof of his power. That helps illustrate the threat inherent in white women partnering with black men. If the white women were raping their slaves (which certainly happened), white women were being powerful in a way that was supposed to be reserved for men. If black men had sex (consensual or not) with white women, they were displaying power that was reserved for whites.

Not all white men, and even not all white slave owners, raped their slaves. But in order to be seen as men in their society, in order to display the right kind of power and status as befitting men of their station, they had to be open to the possibility. It was an essential component of slave ownership.

I have two thoughts reading this stuff. Maybe three. One is that everything that was so terrible about the Harpes or the Mystic Clan was also perpetrated by slave traders. Franklin joked about hiding the dead bodies of his sick slaves in the ravines around Natchez. He even got in trouble with the city because of the stench. He raped women and destroyed families. But Franklin’s money is why we have Belmont University. Armfield was even more directly involved with the founding of the University of the South. So, two, how do you reckon with that?

Maybe there isn’t a way. Maybe we just all wander around in the wreckage of countless previous tragedies. But it seems like we have an obligation to know that’s what we’re doing and to remember the cost of what we have. I think Ta-Nehisi Coates is right, too, that also what slavery is is a kind of warfare. We recognize our veterans, even the Confederates, and find ways of talking about and acknowledging their sacrifices and the hardships they endured. But we haven’t developed, as a country, that skill for the people upon whose lives our country is built.

Third, I’m starting to appreciate Andrew Jackson in ways that disturb me. Yes, he was a genocidal madman. But at least he was forthright about what it would take to live the kinds of lives white people wanted to live in this country, as opposed to the strategy of being outraged by, say, the Mystic Clan but completely cool with slave traders. The other thing I find interesting is that a man of Jackson’s status didn’t marry for love. You married a woman who could give you children. If you were a man and hadn’t been married before, you didn’t marry someone who had been. It’s simply not how well-to-do people did (of course, it happened, but it wasn’t conventional). I think part of why people dogged him so much about the bigamy was because you didn’t come straight out in public and say “Ha ha, you like your wife.” But, of course, there wouldn’t have been the bigamy problem if he hadn’t been eager to marry her. If it had been arranged more like a business transaction, he would have known or made sure about the divorce.

The other, other thing I’m intrigued about is that Jackson stole that Creek kid and gave him to Rachel to raise. Which is pretty much what happened to the Brown kids, but in reverse. They were divvied up as battle spoils and passed out to women who needed children. We draw firm lines between “Nashville” and “the Indians,” but a lot of people living in and around Nashville had extensive dealings with the locals–families killed by them, and importantly, time spent with them as hostages. It’s silly to assume that we could live with people so intimately and not be changed by our encounters. And here’s Jackson, giving a child to a woman who needed one.

Everything you think is a clean line of demarcation is blurry. It all leaks through.

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2 thoughts on “Franklin and Armfield

  1. A sexual fetish, right. I think the component you only hint at but also matters more loudly is that it isn’t just desire across races. Slavery is also about sex insofar as white men enslaved nonwhite men to control their access to white women, not just to control their access to the nonwhite women they wanted sexually. So slavery ensures that the slaver can have All the sexual authority and access. I learned that from Gunnar Myrdal who traces that drive through lynching and Jim Crow practices and anti-miscegenation laws more than through a study of slavery, but whew it does pull together some understanding. And whew do people today really work hard to not see that truth. But I think that people don’t want to see it today because they really don’t want to see sex working that way as much as they don’t want to accept the depth of depravation and horror in slavery and how its effects linger today.

  2. Ursula LeGuin’s book, Four Ways to Forgiveness, is so good on slavery. If you haven’t read it, you should. She also said something in Always Coming Home to the effect of “when men want to make war, they first make it against women.” I think there is something to that, that violence and power and the desire to control the other seem to be tangled up somehow with sexual jealousy.

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