On Saturday, we went to the Octagon House and the Shaker village. The Octagon House is the kind of place that you’d think wouldn’t exist any more. It’s too…too…exactly what it is, reeking of tobacco smoke and lost causes. And yet, what became clear to me walking around it is that a lot of the horrors of history get lost when the preservers of those horrors learn to be ashamed of the preservation.
It’s always that you don’t know the whole story. Pick on someone for complaining that her Yelp job doesn’t pay her enough to live. Why doesn’t she just move? Why doesn’t she just move in with her parents? Blah blah blah. Why doesn’t she just work really hard and save up and…
Maybe she’s supporting herself because whoa.
As I’ve been thinking about Elias Napier, I’ve had a really hard time with the fact that he kept his grandchildren enslaved. I don’t know why, out of everything I’ve read, that’s just the place I can’t get to, but that’s the place I can’t get to. Your own grandchildren.
I thought a lot about that this weekend.
I think one of the things that makes it hard to understand slavery is that we start from a position of slavery being evil and then the humps we have to overcome are things like “How could these people who I love do this evil thing?” and then we get stuck with these untrue but heartfelt beliefs that it wasn’t really that bad or that our slave-owning ancestors were the good ones or that they just didn’t know better. And all of those things are, sadly, demonstrably untrue.
Here’s the truth, though: slavery was awesome for the enslavers. That’s why it persisted, even flourished. That’s why men who didn’t own slaves fought for the right to own slaves.
Once we admit that owning people was awesome, we can start being honest about all the corrupting ways it was. All the labor around the house you didn’t have to do. All the labor on the farm you didn’t have to do. All the “sex” (what we would call rape) you could have or watch others having.
I mean, just think about all the darker impulses we have. Say you have a fourteen year old at your house who refuses to do the dishes. You may feel an impulse to beat the shit out of her, but you do not, because it’s wrong. But let’s be honest, in the moment, it would feel good to smack her around. Later, yes, you might feel terrible. But in the moment?
Now think of all the people who watch sports and, when the athletes express displeasure, complain because “They knew what they were getting into” or “look at how much money they make” as if there’s some level of recompense that makes watching someone’s bodily destruction your right.
Is the pleasure of the slaver really that foreign to us?
Your enslaved child will never grow up and move away. No matter how old he or she gets, they have to follow your guidance. Your enslaved grandchildren can never be too busy for you. Your enslaved family has to love you (or fake it so well you can ignore that it’s fake) in ways your free family doesn’t.
We’re supposed to understand Elias as generous or good for freeing his family at his death, but the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that the value they had for him was so private, so personal, that he could not believe they retained that value after his death. Setting them free in a way kept them his and his alone. No one else could have them like he did.
I was struck by the idea in the article about Florida that, if we can just hang on, someone will fix this problem in a few decades. In a state where they’re not even allowed to use the term “climate change,” they’re assuming someone will still study the unspoken problem, find a solution to it, and implement it in a place that doesn’t even want to admit what’s happening.
We will leave people to lose everything, possibly drown, rather than be honest about the scope of the problem.
I don’t know. Obviously, I’m not a science person. But it’s hard for me to imagine how an engineer could design a solution to a problem when some part of the problem is unknowable. “Design a levee that will hold water back.” “How much water?” “We won’t tell you.” “How much needs to be protected?” “Not that much (but really, a lot, but not an a lot we’re willing to admit).” “Where should it go?” “On the coast.” “Okay, then, where is the coast? Is it where firm ground is? Is it the first bit of land beyond high tide?” “The coast is where the map says the coast is.” “But that’s under water.” “Yeah, we want that back.” “With a levee?” “Oh, good, we’re all on the same page.”
We just can’t get done what we need to get done if we can’t be honest about what we need.
I mean, I was looking at that map of Louisiana and laughing ruefully at how much the Butcher and I love speculating about what would happen if the Mississippi changed its main channel and flowed down the Atchafalaya. But that is water already. If the river won’t go down to the Gulf that way, the Gulf will come up to the river.
Anyway, I wish I lived on a hill.
I’m thinking about this.
I’m still thinking about King Kong.
I read this article by Ta-Nehisi Coates, in which he talks about a “heritage of rape.”
The this article by Charles Pierce about how a lot of white people think they now face the same kinds of discrimination, at the same levels, that minorities used to face.
Then this blog post by Bethany Liston meditating on how it’s fucked up for women to act like, when men do stuff around the house, they’re “helping” the women out, as if housework is women’s work and men doing it is a special treat for women.
I’m starting to believe that the truth at the core of the funhouse mirror of America is that we believe that anyone who can dominate another deserves the labor (all sorts of labor) of the dominated person. Of course, it’s hard work to dominate someone. You have to keep it up all the time.
Unless you can get the dominated person to believe that their proper, natural role is to be dominated. This is what America wants from racism, classism, and sexism–for the dominated to understand that what’s happening to them is natural. That’s the work those -isms are supposed to be doing.
And it works. Women internalize the idea that it’s their job to keep their house clean. Black people internalize the idea that violence is some problem their community intrinsically has. And so on. Sometimes you don’t even notice the ways you’ve internalized this bullshit, mistake the funhouse mirror for truth.
I don’t want to sound like I’m downplaying the terribleness of racism, sexism, and classism. I just want to be clear that they are more funhouse mirrors. In our case, a great tragedy for us as a country is that they’re the funhouse mirrors that sit closest to the truth, that obscure the truth most thoroughly, so they are reflected in the most surfaces, spread the farthest in ugly, damaging ways.
But the truth at the core is the seducing power of theft–I can take what I want.
And there are very few people immune from the charm of the idea of being a thief.
What can you take from another person without them stopping you? How ostentatiously can you display what you’ve stolen from them and still have the support of your peers? How can you keep what you’ve stolen in the face of a crowd of angry victims? Are you powerful enough to pass down the fruits of your stolen labor? Can you teach your children to steal? Can you convince them that their theft is natural?
There is no other real question in America other than “Can I take what I want from you? Am I powerful enough to keep it without getting in trouble?”
Every sick fuck thing we do to each other culturally has this question at its heart. Every sick fuck thing we do to each other is that so many of us perceive answering no to either of these questions as being some kind of insult we can’t live with.
King Kong has been sitting in the back of my mind for a few days. I don’t know why. But I’ve been thinking how King Kong is probably, if someone wants to try to understand the fucked up way America works about race, the perfect movie.
King Kong is racist as shit. The big black ape who wants to possess the beautiful white woman as his own, even though he doesn’t really know what to do with her or, if he did, it would destroy her to have it happen. His abduction of her is a sexual abduction.
So, there you have the deepest white American fear–these animals are coming for our women and they’re dangerous and powerful and scary. Fortunately, we can outsmart and outgun them.
But from the minute audiences started watching King Kong, they started sympathizing with Kong. His death felt like an unjust tragedy. Clearly, it’s supposed to feel like a victory–We’ve defeated the monster and rescued the damsel. But, as evidenced by the fact that they rushed a Son of Kong into theaters also in ’33, people didn’t want Kong dead. They wanted to see more of him.
That, right there, is fucking America. That’s the bitter twist at the heart of minstrelsy, too. The racial stereotype designed to reinforce white America’s worst beliefs about the talents and abilities of black Americans leaves white Americans screaming for more.
The argument we make to ourselves that justifies our treatment of black people ends up encouraging sympathy for black people in some abstract way. But, as complicated as that is, it’s also too easy. Because it’s not sympathy for black people, but sympathy for black people as we imagine them. Which is why our sympathy, throughout American history, doesn’t necessarily result in improvements for black people.
There’s a special effect here, at the heart of American culture, a trick of light and sound, a series of mirrors reflecting back to us a misshapen view of reality. We act as if those misshapes are real. Sometimes our acting on them has devastating consequences. Sometimes they have unexpected good consequences.
You can’t predict how things are going to come through the fun house.
But it’s important to acknowledge that the fun house is there, I think.
One of my favorite things, though I’m also often really frustrated by it, is how facts become legends that then get cemented back into untrue facts.
Take this really awesome thing about the 11 weirdest places in Mississippi and scroll down to The Witch Dance. You may remember the reference to this in my story about Little Harpe.:
First inhabited by Native Americans, the area of Witch Dance soon became a meeting spot for witches. According to local lore, the witches would perform ceremonies that included dancing. It is said that wherever the witches’ feet touched the ground during these dances, the grass would wither and die, never to grow again. Believed to be bad luck, these barren spots were avoided by Indians, travelers, and traders; however, there was someone who wasn’t so lucky. Local criminal, Big Harpe, was told to stay away from the unusual spots, but he ignored the warning and was later found with his head nailed to a tree. Many believe that a witch ended up taking Big Harpe’s head and using it for a special potion.
There are facts of a sort in here. The Witch Dance was a site the Native Americans knew about. But it’s not clear that it was ever associated with witchcraft or bad luck before white settlers got there. But holy shit. Big Harpe was in no way a local criminal and there’s nothing to indicate that he ever even went to Mississippi. This kind of insinuates that the witches nailed his head to a tree, but we know it was the local Kentuckians warning other river pirates. Weirdly enough, there is a Kentucky story that a witch took his head.
Poor Little Harpe, who actually went to Mississippi, gets kicked out of the legend all together.
I got rear-ended yesterday morning on my way to work. We pulled into a parking lot and the driver of the other car asked me if I was okay. I said I was. I got out. I looked at my bumper. The extent of the damage was that some of the grime on my car had been removed. I was so relieved. Not for my car. It’s almost a decade old and paid off. I’m hoping to get two more years out of it, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world if it got totaled.
But I realized I’m really nervous about involving the police in things lately. I saw the other driver and thought, compared to me, a middle-aged white woman, this dude is at a serious disadvantage if the cops show up. And as lightly as he hit me, I’m pretty confident he stopped in time but slid into me. Yes, he was at fault, but deserving of having the shit scared out of him so that he’s more careful in the rain, not deserving of having the cops involved. And he was scared shitless, scared that he had hurt me. So, from my end, everything seemed resolved how I would have wanted it–undamaged me, undamaged him, undamaged car, he’s a little more cautious in the future.
But it made me feel weird about our country that I was afraid to involve the police.
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?
I used to love the Cubs, but then they dicked over Andre Dawson and Mark Grace. It bothered me that they were neither good nor loyal. I would have forgiven disloyalty if it would have won us some games and I would have forgiven a bad team that ways loyal to its players, but to be neither? To suck and be disloyal?
I always wondered if I would climb back on the bandwagon if they got their shit together.
And I am surprised to find that, no, I really don’t care. Apparently there are ways you can break a young girl’s heart so thoroughly that the middle-aged woman she grows into remains cold to you.
I think, if parents are begging you to stop something and kids are trying to shoot their way out of their circumstances, then, no, this pedophilia is not “their culture.”
The sad and upsetting part is that, if we allow pedophiles to bring their victims to our bases and we require our troops to look the other way and punish them if they don’t, then it is “our culture.”
But, yes, let’s have more war, always war, continuous war. Remind me again why the Taliban was worse than this?
I’ve probably talked about this a million times already, but I love this song. I was listening to it yesterday and not only do I love the guitar part which has a little unexpected swinging kick to it, and I love how she’s like, “what you do to me, baby, it never gets out of me.” Whew. It just blows my mind. It sounds like the truth about certain people.
But it also may be the only song I can think of where a mother-in-law is mentioned positively, as someone who might be on the side of the singer.
This is one of the songs I’m most curious about hearing the original women do it live, because there definitely is something about it that, recorded, seems kind of dour, but I wonder about, in a crowd, if people are dancing real close and slyly.
My time writing at Pith has led me basically to one conclusion–white people view ourselves as the rightful ruling class of America and we lie a great deal to each other in order to instill and reinforce that belief and those lies are incredibly damaging to white people. We laugh and point at people who elongate their necks with rings in such a way that their shoulders are permanently deformed; we’re fascinated by people who bind their feet in ways that permanently break and deform them; but we do not much look at how the ways our parents and grandparents raised us binds and deforms our souls.
Any attempts to point out how we’ve been misshapen by those lies is met by a lot of anger. Our parents love us! As if the parents who subject kids in other cultures to odd and permanent manipulations of their bodies don’t love their children and have good reasons to do what they do.
And now, it seems to me, we’re in this weird position where, in order to prove fidelity and love to our ancestors, a lot of us seem to think that we must insist on everyone accepting a demonstrably false version of history. In other words, in order for me to properly love my ancestor, I need you to accept that he was a good slave owner and the Confederate flag was a symbol of rebellion and somehow also great patriotism. If you do not accept that, I mourn as if my love for my family is being irreparably broken.
It’s weird and it’s no good for us. The work was hard and it sucked and nobody wanted to do it. Our ancestors lived during a time when you could boss around anyone you could dominate–your wife, your kids, your slaves, sometimes your neighbors, etc. We’re still trying to clean up the societal mess that way of living leaves in its wake. But the fact is that, if there was hard work that you couldn’t do alone, it makes sense in their context to buy someone and dominate the hell of of them so they do it instead.
It’s not good.
But it’s also funny to me that we live in such a Christian country that views humanity as fallen and this world as wicked and yet, even with that belief supposedly underpinning the philosophical base of this country, we won’t accept it about our own ancestors.
It’s going to be so close, whether I have enough yarn. So very close. In an effort to try to ensure that I have enough yarn, I’m working on the last twelve squares simultaneously, so I can use up all the yarn I have very, very little of on the middles. Then the yarn I have very little of on the next row, and so on out to the row where I hopefully have enough yarn to complete the borders. But, man, I don’t know.
I am still kind of an emotional mess over yesterday. Between gay marriage and listening to the President sing Amazing Grace at a funeral, I just felt so happy and sad and proud and all the emotions. Watching all the pictures of people getting married stream by in social media just made me feel so happy and so confused about why anyone would want to shit on this for someone else.
I heard conservatives threatening that this was going to galvanize their side like abortion did and I just think that’s not true and they have to know it. It’s like interracial marriage or marriages between people of two faiths. Some people won’t approve and some people won’t do them, but otherwise, it’s a non-issue.
And this morning I woke to pictures of Bree Newsome climbing the flagpole in Charleston to take down the Confederate flag. And I just felt so proud and honored to get to witness this moment in American history. Yes, it’s corny. Yes, they put it back up. But I don’t care. We are a country that makes a great promise to its people and the world and we mostly, thoroughly fail to deliver on that.
But sometimes, in fits and starts, we start to deliver.
Oh my god! I have Bruce Springsteen-itis!
2. I talk about how Nathan Bedford Forrest was always a man and a myth and how the man came to resent not being able to escape the myth. And here we are, still mythologizing him.
3. Coates makes the point that I have been wrestling with for years–that Confederates, actual Confederates, hated the “states-rights” origin story for the Civil War and were pissed that Southerners were rewriting what they did and why to make it more acceptable. Confederates got that their grandchildren were ashamed of them, even as their grandchildren and great grandchildren and so on mask that shame in veneration.
One thing I keep seeing is this idea that the people in the church should just be armed. Like some NRA dolt blamed the pastor for not having a gun.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my dad’s friends, the black pastors, and how many of them, now that I look back on it, seemed fully aware that they could die in the practice of their ministry. I don’t think I ever worried about this with my dad. I worried the stress of the job might kill him. I hated what the people in his congregations did to him, often behind his back, but in front of me. But I never thought he was in physical danger. And so, even when terrible things were happening to my dad’s friends, I didn’t take seriously my dad’s fear for them. I didn’t understand then, as a child, that this is a place where people do kill ministers. I thought they were just jumpy because of MLK.
I say this because I want you to get how stone-cold and deeply ignorant I was, even as my dad was trying to wrestle with a truth he never hid from us.
Now, though, I see. I think. At least better than I did.
Here is the thing about arming people in church, as I see it. My dad’s friends were almost always in danger from people in their congregations, sometimes more broadly their communities, but usually it was someone in a predominately white church who resented having a black pastor. Should a pastor arm himself against his own people? Or are we just saying that white people and black people can never be each other’s people? That the only way for black people to be safe is to just always assume white people are the enemy?
How can you be a Christian, let alone a Christian minister, believing that your first duty to your flock is to protect yourself from them? How can you square turning the other cheek with carrying a gun with the intent of using it on any congregant that wishes you harm?
I don’t think you can pray and study with someone for an hour in genuine fellowship and keep one hand on your gun in case things go south. They’re just incompatible. Either you close yourself off to almost everyone in your church and only have genuine fellowship with those few people you intimately trust or you leave yourself open to being vulnerable to those who would harm you.
Christian churches can’t be open and be safe.
But a lot of this advice, to go back to my first point, also, assumes that the threat is always external. That someone from outside wants to do harm to people inside. My dad’s friends didn’t have that experience. The threat was from inside the church. And, if the Church is doing what it says it wants to do–spreading the word of God–then Christians have to be open to fellowship with strangers, who then are brought into the group.
What people are calling for is for Christians to be something other than Christian in order to be safe.
I have my issues with my dad, but I respect that he believes with his whole heart that people can be redeemed and changed by Christ’s love. (I have my grave doubts, myself.) I also respect that he knows that some people aren’t going to be. You sit across from 10 white supremacists and maybe only one changes his ways. I know my dad knows the other nine are still a danger.
I think he still believes it is his obligation to make himself vulnerable to scary people in order to reach them.
Again, he has his drawbacks, but, at least when it comes to racial justice, my dad wants everyone in church to be “us.” That’s what he’s worked for his whole life. That’s what his friends have put their lives on the line for, over and over.
A racist walking into a church and killing nine people can’t ruin American Christianity. American Christians deciding it’s safer to take precautions against “them” rather than trying to be open to folks becoming a part of “us” will.
I can’t begin to tell you how it feels to look at that list of victims and see how many have “Rev.” before their names. I can’t tell you how sad and scared it makes me for my dad’s friends, who somehow have to get up in the pulpit on Sunday, have to open their Bible studies to whoever says he needs it on Wednesdays, knowing that racists have no respect for the sanctity of the church and, in fact, that they’ll target ministers.
My heart is with them.
I don’t have organized thoughts. But I have these thoughts.
1. I always felt it was a great unfairness that my dad was so faithful and gave up so much of what he wanted out of life and it didn’t make things any easier. I know you’re not supposed to tit-for-tat God, but being a minister is a difficult thing and, it’d be nice, to put it mildly, if someone wasn’t throwing knives at you while you were up on the high wire.
2. My dad’s black minister friends went through Hell–yes, the names and the hatred, but people putting their obituaries in the paper or turning the gas on at their churches and then locking them in. And these were always members of their congregations. A church is not a safe place for a minister, especially not from the racism at the heart of our country.
3. Since the Clinton era, we’ve had a series of terrorist attacks in this country that are, to me, obviously linked–Tim McVeigh (and whoever helped him), Eric Rudolph, that guy in Knoxville, this dude and so many more. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think there’s some supreme commander behind the scenes pulling the strings. If there were, I think we’d go after him and get him and declare a final victory on racism. Mission accomplished, so to speak. Then we’d, for years, be killing or arresting “The Number 2” of our secret domestic terrorism organization. I think what we have, instead, is a bunch of people with similar interests who bump into each other and share information or pass things along on the internet or whatever and who gin each other up to do this kind of shit.
And that’s a lot harder to find and deal with because it means everyone admitting that there are now active, violent movements with actual power in this country. It means admitting that we let people responsible for Oklahoma City go, that some of us sheltered Eric Rudolph for a long, long time, that someone saw this dude’s picture on the news this morning and recognized him and weighed his worth over the worth of those dead Bible studiers and is choosing to protect him.
4. The hate mail I got for the Isaac Franklin piece all, it seemed to me, shared one thing in common: when they read a story about a white guy who stole, raped, and murdered black people, even though that white guy himself understood himself as evil, the “white” told these white readers where to put their sympathies–with Isaac Franklin. And then they felt they had to jump to his defense as not being so bad or misunderstood or whatever. I was doing wrong by not showing him in the best, false, light I could.
We will never keep feeding into and perpetuating the great American sin if we, white people, can’t learn to hear a story where a white person does something horrible to anyone else on this continent and have our sympathies go to the people who are wronged or, if they are wronged to death, to the families of those people, instead of feeling like our duty is to flounder around finding some way to sympathize with the wrongdoer.
Because, for as long as I’ve been alive, dudes like this jackass have had both active supporters and a lot of people willing to gloss over what they’re doing. Most of us will never be in a position to do anything about the evil villains and their supporters. But we can refuse to be among the willing to gloss over. We can stop providing cover.
Right now, cotton growers get 500-600 pounds of cotton out of an acre (source). At peak production, slave owners claimed to be getting 1,000 pounds of cotton an acre.
Which means we still don’t have a machine that picks cotton as well as a person.
This is at the heart of what Baptist means when he points out that we’re lying to ourselves when we say that slavery would have just gone away in thirty or forty more years. Even assuming that the U.S. wouldn’t have found a million other things to do with an enslaved workforce, some forms of agriculture see John Henry winning against the machine every time. All the time.
Still, if we were willing to do to the cotton pickers what was done to the cotton pickers in the 1000 pound an acre days.
That, to me, is the second most chilling thing about the book (1. being how important liberty was to white men and how, even with that goal and that philosophy in their hearts, it was so very rare for a white man whose goal was liberty to even consider the possibility of anyone not in that category as being a part of the project of this country, as it exists to make men free) is how easily it would have been, how likely it was, for slavery to continue and to spread country-wide.
It is really almost a fluke–just an overstep on the part of the South–that lead us to war and thus to ending slavery.
When you think of how very likely it was that slavery would continue and expand, how, if the scenario played out 100 times, 95 of them probably would have ended with continued enslavement of black people, it feels no wonder that we’re still so fucked up about race and unable to see our way out of it.
I also really wish I’d had Baptist’s book assigned to me in a history class in college, because he does such a clear job of laying out pre-Civil War U.S. history not as a series of facts, but as “this happened because of these three things. And because this happened, years later, when this other thing happened, it happened in this way.”
I mean, just at the level of fleshing out “Andrew Jackson didn’t like banks” into “here’s all the crazy shit banks were doing” was really useful. And, though I still think a gold standard is stupid, when you have what we had in the 1830s, with people lending money to other people to lend money to other people who’ve mortgaged crops they haven’t grown yet to buy slaves they’ve already put up as collateral for other loans, you can see the appeal of “you have 300 gold coins in your vault, so you can’t lend out 500000000000 gold coins, because they don’t exist. You don’t have them. If you want more money to lend, you’d better figure out a way to get people to put more money in your bank.” Was Andrew Jackson doing to the banks what he should have been doing to Andrew Jackson Jr.? Probably.
But it’s also hard to look square in the face the fact that we are a white, male supremacist nation. Not just in the way we use those terms now, but in the very real sense of that being exactly who our country was designed for and to benefit. Everything that we have in this country that is different than that is because we have imagined a way to make the dreams those guys had for themselves big enough to cover more of us.
But it is a massive revision. And I was telling the Butcher this morning, when you see what a sweet deal the white guy ruling class had set up for itself and how strongly it depended on other white guys wanting in on that sweet, sweet ruling action, white guys are not wrong to feel like they’ve lost something in the modern era.
Now, I would argue that, it was immoral in the first place, what they were given.
But it doesn’t change the fact that there is a loss of power. And for a lot of them, white power was the only power they really had.
I’m just about finished with Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told. It is just as fantastic as you’ve been told. I only wish I’d read the bad reviews on Goodreads before I’d read the book, because it would have provided me with some levity in a book where there’s very little. (One of the reviewers seems to think that Baptist is black and doing his part of make white people feel bad. A few seemed to think that Baptist’s book had nothing to do with the economics of slavery–even though the whole last half of the book is how Southern speculators managed to tank the American economy in the 1830s and the fall-out from that for the next thirty–and more–years.)
I really highly recommend it. Baptist’s an academic, but his writing is accessible. It’s lengthy and I had to take substantial mental-health breaks between chapters. But I also felt like he walked a really masterful line of showing all the kinds of terrible thing that happened without fixating on a few bad actors, so as to let everyone else off the hook.
I also appreciated how he wrestled with the language we use to talk about slavery to try to really get at what was going on. He calls “plantations” “labor camps,” which is really evocative. But I also ended up feeling like “enslaver” is not entirely satisfactory. On the one hand, it gets at the fact that it was an ongoing, continuous process. You couldn’t just make a person a slave. You had to do things that constantly reinforced to the people you held in captivity that they were slaves. But it also has the effect, to me, of seeming like there was a specific social role or job of “enslaver.” And maybe you could argue that, yes, this is the social role of slave owners. But I kept having to stop and figure out whether we were talking about all slave owners or some subset.
But I don’t think that’s a drawback to the book. I think one of the arguments he’s making is that we’re so familiarized with a certain story about slavery and we have to do things–talk about things we don’t normally talk about, look at things we don’t normally look at, use words we wouldn’t normally use–to jar ourselves out of thinking about slavery in the usual way. That they’re not always going to be satisfactory is to be expected.
Faulkner is all “virgins” and “niggers.” And fuck that shit. The one word hardly needs discussion. But the other–I think that Faulkner is fascinated by the idea of a woman’s body that no one has ever been inside of.
And that’s the problem with all his women, isn’t it? A man being inside of one ruins her. But he can’t imagine that there was always already a person in that woman’s body. And that, for that reason, virginity as he understands it, doesn’t exist.
I spent the morning looking at old houses, trying to get a feel for how my haunted house should be laid out. Trying to decide which ones I should try to get in.
I came home and the Butcher put on the documentary, Rich Hill. I don’t really know what to say about it. It’s fantastic. It’s as clear a picture you’ll get for why I would never, ever live in a small town, especially not a small midwestern town. It’s so sad. Just a heartbreaking look at a bunch of boys whose lives and parents suck. The only decent parent in the whole movie is the mom in prison and her kid is a fucking mess.
My heart is broken. How easy it is to be left behind like that. And why weren’t we? Mostly luck. It’s so easy to get trapped there.
One thing I was struck by when working on the Scene piece, which I didn’t write about but tried to indicate indirectly, was just how much work was happening for social justice in families. JC Napier’s parents, for instance, worked really, really hard to get James and his peers educated for a Nashville they could barely imagine and never got to see come to pass. James worked his ass off for a Nashville he never got to see come to pass. Each generation working to make a better future they would never see. They moved the ball down the field, but they often knew they wouldn’t be alive to see if they scored.
And it strikes me, watching these families working that long game, how important it is for white supremacy to pathologize black families–to tear them apart and then pretend that torn apart is their natural state–because the nation gets changed because of the generations’ long strategies of black families. Someone willing to work toward a goal she will not accomplish, but that her grandchildren might, is really powerful. Normally, you break a person by destroying their ability to reach their goal. If they already know they aren’t going to reach it, but that they just need to make some strides toward it and trust that it puts the next generation in a better position for when they set out for the goal, how do you break them?
If you can’t break a person working toward something for his family, you throw his family into disarray.
There have been Filipinos in Louisiana since the 1700s. Everything I know is always too simple. That’s how learning shit like this makes me feel.