Slave Owning

This weekend, I read Joshua Rothman’s Flush Times & Fever Dreams, which is about John Murrell, the non-existence of the Mystic Clan, and the brutal, bizarre summer of 1835 when people in Mississippi murdered innocent people in Mississippi in order to keep innocent people from being murdered. It’s excellent. I highly recommend it for history buffs.

One thing that stood out to me is that Rothman’s book shows exactly why slaves couldn’t testify in court. Yes, at a surface level, it’s the racism of them not being considered people. But it’s also because it was legal to torture slaves and, if you torture someone, you can make them tell you whatever you want. Slaves not being able to testify in court was about protecting white people from false testimony coerced under torture.

I also read this really interesting article over at the Smithsonian’s website, by a guy, Edward Ball, who tracks the path of a Franklin & Armfield coffle. He finds a descendant of Franklin’s brother, James. It goes exactly how you’d expect it to:

How does a person inside the family measure the inheritance of slave trading? Thomson takes a half-second. “You can’t judge those people by today’s standards—you can’t judge anybody by our standards. It was a part of life in those days. Take the Bible. Many things in the Old Testament are pretty barbaric, but they are part of our evolution.”

Thomson warms up, shifts in his seat. “I do not approve of revisionist historians. I mean, people who do not understand the old lifestyles—their standpoint on life, and their education, are what today we consider limited. That applies to Southern history, to slave history.

“You know, I have been around blacks all my life. They are great people. When I grew up, we were servanted. All the servants were black. We had a nurse, a woman who used to be called a mammy. We had a cook, a black man. We had a maid, and we had a yard man. We had a guy that doubled as a driver and supervised the warehouse. And we had all these servants till they died. I wasn’t taught to be prejudiced. And I’ll tell you what nobody ever talks about. There were free blacks in the South that owned slaves. And there were lots of them. They didn’t buy slaves in order to free them, but to make money.”

Thomson emphasizes these last sentences. It is a refrain among Southern whites who remain emotionally attached to the plantation days—that one in 1,000 slaveholders who were black vindicates in some fashion 999 who were not.

Are we responsible for what the slave traders did?

“No. We cannot be responsible, should not feel like we’re responsible. We weren’t there.” Are we accountable? “No. We are not accountable for what happened then. We are only accountable if it is repeated.”

Thomson is sensitive to the suggestion that the family took benefit from the industrial-scale cruelty of Franklin & Armfield.

“In my family, people looked after their slaves,” he said. “They bought shoes for them, blankets for them, brought in doctors to treat them. I never heard of any mistreatment. On the whole, things weren’t that bad. You see, blacks were better off coming to this country. It is a fact that the ones over here are far ahead of the ones over there in Africa. And you know that the first legal slaveholder in the United States was a black man? That’s on the Internet. You need to look that up. I think that’s interesting. Human bondage began I don’t know when, but early, thousands of years ago. I think slavery developed here primarily because of the ignorance of the blacks. They first came over here as indentured servants, as did the whites. But because of their background and lack of education, they just sort of slid into slavery. No, I don’t believe in revisionist history.”

I’m not really interested in refuting this. If the Franklins are the bar by which “good” slave ownership is judged, then that bar was so low every slave owner in the South could have crossed it. You could leave people’s carcasses in the swamps. You could rape women willy-nilly. You could oversee people’s torture and death. You could break up families. You could sell your own children. You could repeatedly call yourself a villain. And even that’s not enough to get people to lump you into the “bad” slave owner category.

I will say, though, this is something I will never, ever understand about the South. To my way of thinking, you honor someone by taking him at his word, by believing him when he tells you something. When Southern slave owners flat out say that they are villains or that the Civil War was about slavery, I believe them. That, to me, seems like the honor and respect I owe them–to take them at their word, even if it’s painful or uncomfortable. (And let me be clear, one of the most uncomfortable things about Isaac Franklin is that he is very likable. You read his letters and, even as he’s talking about this horrible stuff, he’s engaging.)

But here, honor and respect of ones’ ancestors is garnered through recasting their deeds as noble, even if their cause was unjust, or through pretending that wasn’t their cause, or that they didn’t do those things. In effect, saying that your ancestors were liars.

To me, this is like some kind of nails-on-chalkboard level of disrespect. I’ve learned not to let my jaw drop over it and to not think less of people who say these things, because clearly there’s some kind of enormous cultural difference here. White southerners who insist on the goodness of their ancestors in spite of their ancestors’ own understanding of their actions do not experience themselves at all as being disrespectful or dishonorable. It is, in fact, this willingness to believe the best, in spite of the facts, that is the act of veneration for them.

I find that fascinating. I wonder what’s at stake there. I mean, not to be flip, but everyone my age got spanked. My parents spanked me. I hated it and it was wrong and people mostly don’t spank their kids any more. My parents were wrong to spank me. I still love them and I think very little about the fact that I was spanked. My parents’ generation was filled with kids who were beaten by their parents. It was wrong and now we actively work to keep people from beating their kids.

Not that slavery is as easy as child abuse, but fixing the damage doesn’t require demonizing the perpetrators–though, my god, it surely does require us to stop pretending they didn’t do anything wrong. I wonder what’s so hard about letting them down off their pedestals?