Sarcastro sent me this link to a Reason interview with Thaddeus Russell and I will say up front that I found it incredibly thought-provoking, but, you know, I’ve spent a lot of time with historians and some historians hang out here and the more I think about this interview, the more I’m curious about his bibliography. I know a lot of scholars who work on women’s history and histories of marginalized people–the subjects of Russell’s A Renegade History of the United States–and the biggest obstacle they have is that there’s just not a whole lot of primary sources and what there is is no usually first-person accounts from the people you want to know about.
For instance, say you wanted to write a book about 18th century prostitutes who worked the taverns in Philadelphia. Probably most of these women were illiterate, so there’s little chance of diaries or letters surviving. You might, maybe, find an occasional newspaper article about them in which one of them is quoted. But your best chance for hearing directly from an 18th century tavern prostitute would be court records, if she made her way into the legal system at some point.
Otherwise, your sources are going to be ministers talking about their sinful nature, politicians talking about them as examples of why we have to clean up the streets, etc. And sure, you can make educated guesses, but in order to make educated guesses, you have to look at a lot of these sources and calibrate for their biases.
I’m unclear from the interview whether Russell gets this. I mean, how, for instance, does one argue that there were ways in which slaves had it better than slave owners without adjusting for the fact that, of course, slave-owners are going to think that and yet slave-owners were not chucking the big house and the politically-motivated marriage and the money to go work in the fields and have that “better” life? If there were things about being a slave that were truly enviable, those things would have been (and were) co-opted–see barbecue and good music.
But here’s the part that made me long to be sitting in a room of professional historians while Russell said this to them:
reason: At one point you argue that it was fairly rare for slaveholders to sexually assault the women they owned or oversaw. The main part of that argument was all these texts in which they were admonished not to do so. But when I see so many admonitions not to do something, I start to suspect it’s something that did happen a lot—that that’s why people felt the need to keep proscribing it.
Russell: There’s absolutely no denying that it happened. And likewise there’s no denying at all that slaves were whipped. I put the evidence in for exactly how often they were whipped. But the major point I was making is certainly not that white slaveowners and overseers were nice guys and they avoided raping the women under their charge because they were benevolent. It’s because they had good reasons not to, and because slaves had much more power in that relationship than we were led to believe. If you rape a woman who takes care of your children, have you now increased the chances that she will poison your child? Yes, you have.
Just from a “Have you seen black people before? Have you listened to you black colleagues talking about paper-bag tests?” perspective this is an amazing claim–that white slave owners didn’t rape their slaves that often. Well, shoot, if not, there must have been a handful of really demented and busy motherfuckers traveling from plantation to plantation. But, okay, fine. White people, me included, have weird blind-spots about what it means to be black in America.
But this idea that, of course, there would be repercussions for the rapist from the rape victim is so… I mean… it’s amazing how naive this is. Seriously, there are women who are raped right this second by their abusive husbands or boyfriends and those men’s children (some of whom are collective-her step-children) remain perfectly unharmed by her.
Don’t get me wrong. Slavery was fucked up and it fucked people up to have to live as slaves. And no doubt there were women who planned and dreamed and fantasized about killing their owners’ kids. But a plantation is just a tiny oppressive regime. And there are plenty of oppressive regimes in the world today. You can look at many of them and see that women who are raped by people with power over them, even if those women have access to those people’s children, rarely kill their children.
I’m not saying that it’s not possible to break a person that way. It is. But to act like it’s common enough to dissuade men from raping women?
It’s as if Russell doesn’t actually understand how the marginalized people he’s writing about coped.
It’s very strange.
I have to think that room full of historians would just start laughing as he got to this part of his argument.
I mean, it would be an improvement of sorts to live in a world where women who are raped believe they deserve revenge, instead of believing that it’s just one more part of the life of a woman, something you have to learn to deal with and cope with and move on as best you can. Sure, let’s shoot for a world in which rape victims believe they deserve justice, but that road goes through “revenge”*
*I don’t think rape-victims necessarily have to get to a point where they want revenge, as if revenge is some natural pre-cursor to justice. I don’t think that’s so. I think that, in the steps from “this is just something that happens that I hate” to “This is wrong and I will not accept it as something that just happens” there is a moment where people consider whether revenge is an appropriate step. I think most people consider it and decide “No, I’m going to try to get some kind of justice instead.”
But I do think that the ability to consider revenge signals something about a person finally being able to face that what happened to her wasn’t acceptable.