If anyone’s reading my stories naked and in public, they’re not telling me.
One thing I love about the internet is that you can have primary sources right at your fingertips within seconds, so when you’re writing about Hank Jr., you can pull up a copy of the Constitution of the CSA and read through it. I wasn’t very familiar with it. But it’s kind of cool to look at, just from a “if you were going to set up your own country, how would you do it?” way. But one thing that struck me, and struck me hard, is exactly how slavery is built into the Constitution. I expected there to be a part like “And we can own Negros forever, it is our Right!!!!!” And there is.
But I think there’s something else going on in that Constitution that any white person who’s all “If the South would have won…” should consider. In the Confederate Constitution they specifically close the slave trade. You can’t import slaves from any foreign country other than the slaveholding states and territories of the United States and they reserve the right to cease importing slaves from the U.S.
Just think on this. Say you have an ice cream maker and you’re churning out ice cream cones. But you’re the only creamery in the South. So, you charge $20 per ice cream cone. That ice cream maker is making and keeping you rich. But then I import an ice cream maker from Mexico. And I’m selling ice cream cones for $15. Then all our friends catch on and they import ice cream makers from Mexico and all of a sudden a lot of people have them and ice cream cones cost $2 a piece.
The CSA’s Constitution is specifically designed to keep slaves only in the hands of the wealthy. If slaves can’t be imported from the Caribbean or Africa, there’s no danger of a glut in the marketplace which would reduce the value of slaves and make it possible for more people to own them. So, while on the one hand, the promise of Confederate white supremacy is that you could, one day, own a slave (and with him or her the financial well-being he or she represented), the constitution was set up to keep the value of slaves too high for most white people in the South to actually afford.
It’s no wonder you had places in Alabama and in the mountains where poor white communities were like “Not my war, Richie Rich.”
If the CSA did succeed, you have to wonder how long it could have stood with no room for social mobility. Even assuming that there wasn’t widespread almost constant slave rebellion, it would have behooved white people who couldn’t afford slaves to emigrate to the United States, where there was at least some possibility of social mobility, because life in the CSA would have sucked for them. And then who would be the merchant class? Would that fall to the second and third sons of the slave owners?
So, the internet is not telling me much about Hank’s granddad, but if he wasn’t a wealthy slave owner then, Hank would not have had it made in the CSA now. And as for Elvis and Patsy Cline? Patsy Cline’s hometown hated her and treated her like they thought she was trash, even at the height of her fame. Elvis and his family were dirt poor. They were not the kind of people the CSA would probably have devoted national holidays to. Especially in Elvis’s case, since his dad would have had to move to St. Louis to find work, instead of Memphis.
In a way, losing was the best worse-case scenario for rich people who were benefiting from white supremacy. If they’d won, when soldiers got home, they would have, oh, you know, read the Constitution and seen how it dicked most of them over (One wonders how the CSA planned on settling up with soldiers. They had no land to give them and getting a country off the ground takes a lot of funds, so they probably didn’t have money for them. Non-rich white people would have left the country in droves looking for a place with some social mobility (north or west). And the slave owners would have been alone with a hostile workforce who hated them. It’s not hard to imagine them burning through their fortunes just trying to hire people willing to help them maintain order.
But by losing, they get to keep the myth of white supremacy alive, coupled with the the false promise that someone like Hank Jr. could have risen up to become President of the Southern States, and sit back and keep their power.
Man, what strikes me is that, if your ancestors fought for the South in the Civil War and they didn’t own slaves, they were on the verge of getting screwed over so bad by the rich people of the South that it’s almost breath-taking. If the South would have won, a lot of people would have had to leave the South just to feed their families. It’d be like the Great Migration, but earlier and whiter.
Edited to add: I feel like this point may not be clear, so let me make it explicit. If you were a white Southerner who could not own slaves because you had no way to buy them–they didn’t come on the open market often and you couldn’t import them from out of country–you were literally existing in a world that had given you a wealth cap. The monetary value of slaves was so high that, if you could not invest in slaves, your wealth would be curtailed. You would never be able to accumulate enough money to be of the same class as the planter class, who had slaves and could increase the amount of slaves they had through pregnancy. That might be fine for some people, of course, but just some.
Oh, sure, it’s only October, month of frost, usually. Let’s have the morning glories bloom now. No problem, morning glories. I’m sure this strategy of blooming after all the bugs have given up for the year will work out swell.
I’ve been working some on the Sue Allen project. This is a strange first draft. At least, I think it’s a first draft. It might just be a really dense outline. I can’t yet tell. I was telling the Professor at lunch yesterday that I’ve not yet described any of the characters physically. In my head, I know what they look like so I had been figuring that could wait. Better to get down the stuff I’m unsure of or the stuff I need to see where it goes.
But that means that, when describing a slave society, I don’t yet have any racial markers. Maybelle is just a name, as is Sue. Or the other Sue. And rereading what I’ve written absent these markers gives the book this weird almost sci fi feel, where you’re plunged into a world where people are sorted, somehow, but you don’t yet know the means by which the sorting has occurred.
It’s a weird experience, rereading, because it makes me really aware of some racial baggage. The compulsion to say “and she was black!” or to give a character a more pronounced accent based on her race is really strong. I mean, lord knows I made fun of The Help for giving the black characters Southern accents but not the white. But I have to tell you, I consider myself to be a liberal, open-minded, socially aware person and, at some level, it freaks me out to read something written about the Civil War era without using the excuse of race.
I know this is going to sound really simple and naive, so I apologize ahead of time. I’m just trying to write honestly about this for myself. But the thing is that, if you don’t have the short-hand of the race of a character to help you make sense of how people are where they are in the society, it’s like a little bridge between “what happened?” and “how do I understand it?” is missing. And the bizarreness of the situation is more obvious.
What I’m trying to get at is that there’s a way, I think, that the narrative of slavery and Jim Crow works on a level of “This happened because they/we were black.” But what I’ve found, for me as a reader sitting in this culture at this time, when I don’t have the short-cut of race to constantly rely on, my first thought is not about the usual narrative but instead is “Why are these people doing this to the people who work for them and who seem to be related to them?”
And that shift in focus makes me, as a reader, really uncomfortable.
Which is not something I had intended. Like I said, my goal at this stage is to just work out the plot points and see if and how they fit together. But I’m starting to wonder if it’s not an approach that’s worth keeping. I think that, when I get a couple of drafts in, I’ll ask some people to read it to make sure that it’s not coming across as stripping powerless people of even their identity. But for now, I think I’m sticking with it. If it makes me uncomfortable, it feels like there’s real juice there.