Toppling Confederate Statues Does Not ‘Erase’ The Confederacy From ‘History’

News from Baltimore and Durham suggests a long-overdue of cleaning American towns and cities of various pieces of masonry known as ‘Confederate statues’; young folks have apparently taken it upon themselves to go ahead and tear down these statues which pay homage to those who were handed a rather spectacular defeat in the American Civil War. News of these evictions has been greeted with a familiar chorus of pearl-clutching, teeth-gnashing, and chest-beating: that such acts ‘erase history’ and contribute to an unwillingness to ‘move on,’ ‘let go,’ or otherwise ‘move on,’ all the while keeping our eyes firmly fixed on the rearview mirror, bowing and scraping our heads to those who laid their arms on the ground and accepted unconditional terms of surrender. This offence against memory and history should not be allowed to stand; but those statues sure should be. It’s the way we get to be are truly grown up, mature, adult Americans.

This is an idiotic argument from start to finish; no amendment will redeem it.

Toppling the statues of Confederate leaders–the ones who prosecuted and fought the Civil War on the wrong side, who stood up for a racist regime that enslaved, tortured, and killed African-Americans–does not erase those leaders from American history; it merely grants them their rightful place in it. The stories of John C. Calhoun and Robert E. Lee–to name just two worthies whose names have been in name-changing and statue-toppling news recently–will continue to live on in history books, television documentaries, biographies, movies, Civil War reenactments, autobiographies, and battlefield monuments. Generations of American schoolchildren will continue to learn that the former was a segregationist, a racist, an ideologue; they will learn that the latter, a ‘noble Virginian,’ was a traitor who fought, not for the national army that granted him his station and rank, but for his own ‘home state,’ a slave-owning one. The toppling of their statues will not prevent their stories being told, their faults and strengths being documented.

What the toppling of their statues will achieve is bring closer the day when these men will no longer be treated as heroes of any kind, tragic or otherwise. The toppling of statues will make it harder for young schoolchildren in the South and elsewhere to think that those memorials in their town serve to recognize courage or praiseworthy moral principles; it will prevent racists in the US from using them as rallying points, as faux mementos of a faux glorious past.

History is far more capacious than the defenders of the Confederacy might imagine; it holds many stories all at once, and it lets us sort them a;; out. The defenders of the Confederacy are not afraid that their heroes will be erased from history; they are afraid that a history which has no room for their statues will have considerably increased room for alternative historical accounts of the men who were once so commemorated.

Let’s take out the trash and replace the statues of racists with statues, instead, of those who fought to emancipate the slaves–in any way–and to erase the terrible blot of slavery from America.


John Muir On The ‘Negroes’ Of The American South

John Muir often wrote soaring prose about the beauties and majesties of nature, about how the outdoors were our ‘natural cathedrals’; he urged his fellow human beings to leave behind their sordid, grubby, weekday cares and let themselves be elevated by the sublime qualities of hill and vale and river and babbling brook. Here, on earth, he sought the transcendent, and his writings reflected that elevated aspiration and his delighted and delightful responses to the grand offerings of awe-inspiring locales like the American West. Elsewhere, in his opinions of human beings, he often showed himself to be anchored firmly in his times and place; a man ultimately, of a particular locale, at a particular point in history.

During his famed 1867 walk from Kentucky to the Gulf Coast, Muir passed through an American South still recovering from the Civil War. Its population included both ‘whites’ and ‘negroes.’ Muir’s encounters with the latter are described in a language typical for its time–‘negroes’ are creatures with distinctive characteristics, a sub-species of a very particular kind.

In Kentucky,  Muir met “a great many negroes going to meeting, dressed in their Sunday best. Fat, happy looking, and contented.” There too, when trying to cross a “deep and rapid” river, he had been aided by a “negro woman” who asked him to wait while she arranged for a horse. This was arranged; “the little sable negro boy that rode him looked like a bug on his back.” Muir was soon “mounted behind little Nig. He was a queer specimen, puffy and jet as an India rubber doll and his hair was matted in sections like the wool of a merino sheep….little Afric looked as if he might float like a bladder.” Muir did think that “many of these Kentucky Negroes are shrewd and intelligent, and when warmed upon a subject that interests them, are eloquent in no mean degree.” In Georgia, Muir found that the “negroes here have been well trained and are extremely polite. When they come in sight of a white man on the road, off go their hats, even at a distance of forty or fifty yards, and they walk bare-headed until he is out of sight.” Still, Muir was worried about “idle negroes..prowling about everywhere” and took considerable concern to avoid them–and their “wild eyes”– in his search for a resting place at night. He was generally less than impressed by their work ethic for “the negroes are easy-going and merry, making a great deal of noise and doing little work. One energetic white man, working with a will, would easily pick as much cotton as half a dozen Sambos and Sallies.”

His impression of the negro’s essential wilderness was confirmed by an encounter with a ‘negro family’ in Florida, who he encountered in a forest:

When within three or four miles of the town I noticed a light off in the pine woods. As I was very thirsty, I thought I would venture toward it with the hope of obtaining water. In creeping cautiously and noiselessly through the grass to discover whether or not it was a camp of robber negroes, I came suddenly in full view of the best-lighted and most primitive of all the domestic establishments I have yet seen in town or grove. There was, first of all, a big, glowing log fire, illuminating the overleaning bushes and trees, bringing out leaf and spray with more than noonday distinctness, and making still darker the surrounding wood. In the center of this globe of light sat two negroes. I could see their ivory gleaming from the great lips, and their smooth cheeks flashing off light as if made of glass. Seen anywhere but in the South, the glossy pair would have been taken for twin devils, but here it was only a negro and his wife at their supper.

I ventured forward to the radiant presence of the black pair, and, after being stared at with that desperate fixedness which is said to subdue the lion, I was handed water in a gourd from somewhere out of the darkness. I was standing for a moment beside the big fire, looking at the unsurpassable simplicity of the establishment, and asking questions about the road to Gainesville, when my attention was called to a black lump of something lying in the ashes of the fire. It seemed to be made of rubber; but ere I had time for much speculation, the woman bent wooingly over the black object and said with motherly kindness, “Come, honey, eat yo’ hominy.”

At the sound of “hominy” the rubber gave strong manifestations of vitality and proved to be a burly little negro boy, rising from the earth naked as to the earth he came. Had he emerged from the black muck of a marsh, we might easily have believed that the Lord had manufactured him like Adam direct from the earth.

Surely, thought I, as I started for Gainesville, surely I am now coming to the tropics, where the inhabitants wear nothing but their own skins. This fashion is sufficiently simple, “no troublesome disguises,” as Milton calls clothing, — but it certainly is not quite in harmony with Nature. Birds make nests and nearly all beasts make some kind of bed for their young; but these negroes allow their younglings to lie nestless and naked in the dirt.

These lines of Muir’s are only odd because Muir wrote so eloquently and voluminously about how he descended into a kind of feral existence himself when he ventured into the wild, how he slept wherever he could make a bed for himself, and so on. Clearly, in his case, his ‘wilderness’ represented a kind of movement outward, while for the ‘negro’ it was just an essential state of being.

Dehumanization As Prerequisite For Moral Failure

In An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (§III – Of Justice, Part I, Hackett Edition, Indianapolis, 1983, pp. 25-26), David Hume writes:

Were there a species of creatures intermingled with men, which, though rational, were possessed of such inferior strength, both of body and mind, that they were incapable of all resistance, and could never, upon the highest provocation, make us feel the effects of their resentment; the necessary consequence, I think, is that we should be bound by the laws of humanity to give gentle usage to these creatures, but should not, properly speaking, lie under any restraint of justice with regard to them, nor could they possess any right or property, exclusive of such arbitrary lords. Our intercourse with them could not be called society, which supposes a degree of equality; but absolute command on the one side, and servile obedience on the other. Whatever we covet, they must instantly resign: Our permission is the only tenure, by which they hold their possessions: Our compassion and kindness the only check, by which they curb our lawless will: And as no inconvenience ever results from the exercise of a power, so firmly established in nature, the restraints of justice and property, being totally USELESS, would never have place in so unequal a confederacy.

This is plainly the situation of men, with regard to animals; and how far these may be said to possess reason, I leave it to others to determine. The great superiority of civilized Europeans above barbarous Indians, tempted us to imagine ourselves on the same footing with regard to them, and made us throw off all restraints of justice, and even of humanity, in our treatment of them.

For the past couple of weeks my students in my Landmarks of Philosophy class have been reading and discussing Hume’s Enquiry. In the course of our classroom discussion this past Wednesday–on §V – Why Utility Pleases–one of my students said, “It seems that if our moral behavior depends on a kind of sympathy or empathy with our fellow human beings, then one way to make possible immoral behavior would be to dehumanize others so that we don’t see them as our fellow human beings at all.” In the course of the discussion that followed, I did not specifically invoke the passage cited above–instead, we spent some time discussing historical examples of this potentially and actually genocidal maneuver and examined some of the kinds of language deployed in them instead. (Slavery and the Holocaust provide ample evidence of the systematic deployment of dehumanizing rhetoric and action in inducing and sustaining racism and genocide.) But in that passage, Hume captures quite well the possibility alluded to by my student; if morality depends on recognizing our fellow humans as moral subjects, a feeling grounded in sentiment, emotion, sympathy, and empathy, then dehumanization–by language, action, systematic ‘education’–becomes a necessary prelude to overriding these feelings of ours so that the stage may be set for moral atrocity. This is a lesson that seems to have been learned well by all those who rely on humans mistreating other humans in order to implement their favored political ideologies; the modern tactic of the utter effacement of the victims of moral failure by remote warfare or by invisibility in media reports is but the latest dishonorable instance of this continuing miseducation of mankind.

W. E. B DuBois On The Exportation Of Domestic Pathology

In ‘Of Mr. Booker T. Washington And Others’ (from The Souls of Black Folk, Bedford St. Martins, 1997, pp. 68) W. E. B. DuBois writes:

This triple paradox in Mr. Washington’s position is the object of criticism by two classes of colored Americans. One class is spiritually descended from Toussaint the Savior, through Gabriel, Vesey, and Turner, and they represent the attitude of revolt and revenge; they hate the white South blindly and distrust the white race generally, and so far as they agree on definite action, think that the Negro’s only hope lies in emigration beyond the borders of the United States. And yet, by the irony of fate, nothing has more effectually made this programme seem hopeless than the recent course of the United States toward weaker and darker peoples in the West Indies, Hawaii, and the Philippines,—for where in the world may we go and be safe from lying and brute Force?

DuBois was, as might be expected from such a perspicuous thinker, onto something here. Just as wars fought overseas invariably come back home to roost, to corrupt and fester domestic realities by injecting into them the same militarism on display elsewhere–witness the policing on display in Ferguson and the awesome militarization soldiers in the War on Drugs are able to employ, so too, are domestic pathologies sooner or later exported overseas. Especially if the political power in question is capable of projecting itself to the furthest reaches of the world. It seeks and finds expression elsewhere; it has the means to do so; its motivating principles and ideologies lend it problematic form.

As DuBois notes, a nation capable of oppressing its own domestic ‘other,’ will have little compunction in translating that contempt into even more murderous form in its foreign policies. Especially if it sees that same ‘other’ present elsewhere. If indigenous people are exterminated at home, their extermination elsewhere will be of little consequence (it comes as little surprise that US foreign policy in Latin American has consistently propped up regimes who have enacted brutal programs of suppression of directed at their indigenous peoples); if people of color and women are denied rights at home, their enslavement elsewhere will matter little if required as a cornerstone of international relations (the long tolerance of the apartheid regime in South Africa, the propping up of dictatorships in the Middle East and elsewhere pay adequate testimony to this claim). Indeed, the increased ‘otherness’ of the peoples in distant lands may lend the foreign policy an especially brutal and indifferent edge.

It should be small wonder then that the rest of the world looks on with some nervousness at developments in seemingly domestic political matters in the American domain; an America more enlightened in its treatment of citizens at home has taken the first step–no matter how halting and tentative–in extending similar treatment to others who are the subjects of its policies elsewhere.

DuBois knew ‘colored Americans’ would not find respite elsewhere; sooner or later, they would have to fight a power that would soon find them in their new homes. Better to begin that battle now, here.

The Civil War, The Emancipation Proclamation, And The Slow ‘Disintegration’

In his revisionist history of the Reconstruction A Short History of Reconstruction (Harper and Row, New York, 1990, pp.2) Eric Foner writes:

[T]the [Emancipation] Proclamation  only confirmed what was  happening on farms and plantations throughout the South. War, it has been said, is the midwife of revolution, and well before 1863 the disintegration of slavery had begun. As the Union Army occupied territory on the periphery of the Confederacy, first in Virginia, then in Tennessee, Louisiana, and elsewhere, slaves by the thousands headed for the Union lines. Even in the  heart of the Confederacy, the conflict undermined the South’s “peculiar institution.” The drain of white men into military service left plantations under the control of planters’ wives and elderly and infirm men, whose authority slaves increasingly felt able to challenge. Reports of “demoralized” and “insubordinate” behavior multiplied throughout the South.

The transformation among the South’s slaves that Foner makes note of is a fascinating one. It is a process during and through which the formerly enslaved, oppressed, and controlled comes to realize the older shackles do not hold any more–and begin to act, drawing upon and utilizing, the new-found freedom that is now dramatically visible and manifest. For long after the shackles have been removed, after the overseer has left, after the whip has been put down, the enslaved continues to fear the older control, the always exercised restraint. He has come to internalize these controls, to enact them for himself with great efficiency. He has, as it were, become his own slave master. He anticipates the lashing even when the lash can no longer be raised and lowered.

But one day, the slave realizes the physical acts and tools that have restrained his freedom and punished him when he resisted their controls can no longer act.  In their place are only idle threats, puppets who seek to dominate by borrowing the power of others. Power is gone; only its pale shadow remains. The slave cowers under this shadow for a while, but its insubstantiality is all too easily realized; it can be thrown off, shrugged off. The spell is broken. There is disbelief, a reluctance to admit the nightmare is over. Realization and awakening can take their own time to crystallize, to make real former fantasies. But become real they do.

Sometimes the formerly subjugated rise up suddenly and violently. Sometimes their frustrated energies and ambitions, so long repressed, can only seek, and find, explosive release. Those they turn on can find this anger terrifying and pitiless; they, used to cowering and timidity, find the new insubordination and insolence frightening in its lack of regard for older niceties and norms.

As the Union’s Armies approached then, two fronts advanced: one from the ‘outside,’ one from within. The military front promised defeat of one kind, the crumbling domestic one yet another. The verities it uprooted, the older securities it made fantastic, made it a more threatening and ultimately frightening one.  Even if those realizing it took their time about it.

Note: The book excerpted above is an abridgement of Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877 (Harper Perennial, New York, 2014).

Tocqueville On Slaves, House Of Cards, And Miami

In his classic Democracy in America, in the section “Situation Of The Black Population In The United States, And Dangers With Which Its Presence Threatens The Whites”, Alexis Tocqueville wrote:

[I]n a certain portion of the territory of the United States…the legal barrier which separated the two races is tending to fall away, but not that which exists in the manners of the country; slavery recedes, but the prejudice to which it has given birth remains stationary. Whosoever has inhabited the United States must have perceived that in those parts of the Union in which the negroes are no longer slaves, they have in no wise drawn nearer to the whites….the prejudice of the race appears to be stronger in the States which have abolished slavery, than in those where it still exists; and nowhere is it so intolerant as in those States where servitude has never been known….In the South, where slavery still exists, the negroes are less carefully kept apart; they sometimes share the labor and the recreations of the whites; the whites consent to intermix with them to a certain extent, and although the legislation treats them more harshly, the habits of the people are more tolerant and compassionate. In the South the master is not afraid to raise his slave to his own standing, because he knows that he can in a moment reduce him to the dust at pleasure.

This passage on segregation and the power structures that create and sustain it inspire the following indirectly related observations:

1.  In House of Cards Francis Underwood is shown loving the finger-licking good ribs at Freddy’s BBQ, a down-home Southern joint owned by Freddy Hayes. The Wikipedia entry for the character describes him as “One of Frank’s only true friends and confidants who he turns to for a fun talk.” One of the reasons, of course, that Freddy, a black man from the South, is such a ‘true friend’ to Francis, is that besides his facility with ribs, he knows his place; he knows the line not to be crossed. In the North the “negroes” Tocqueville observed did not know their place.

2. Where segregation is visible and manifest by a variety of social mechanisms it can soon become self-imposed.  My first trip to Miami in 1990 was made in the company of a Haitian friend. We drove down, visited a Cuban friend of ours, and checked out some of the local attractions, including its white sanded beaches. A short while after we had hit the waves and stretched out for a little sunning–not that we, black and brown–needed any, my friend got up, gathered his belongings and said he wanted a change of scene, a “better spot.” He seemed uncomfortable. I was a little puzzled; our spot seemed perfect. But I accompanied him as he left. We walked on for about ten minutes or so,  and then parked ourselves in a locale that did not seem too different from the one we had left. I remained puzzled. But not for too long. When I looked around, I noticed there were more black people around us. Indeed, a few minutes later, when I walked back to our car to retrieve some food and drink to bring back to our blanket, I could look down on the beach below me and saw distinct swathes of black, brown, and white. The population of Miami had, on this beach, with varying degrees of consciousness about their actions, sorted themselves into distinct bands on its sands. They knew where and around whom they wanted to be; they knew who would want to be around them; they all knew their place.

CLR James on the ‘Surprisingly Moderate’ Reprisals of the Haitian Revolution

Here are two very powerful passages from CLR James‘ classic The Black Jacobins: Touissant L’Overture and the San Domingo Revolution (Vintage Books, second edition revised, New York, 1962, pp. 88-89):

The slaves destroyed tirelessly. Like the peasants in the Jacquerie or the Luddite wreckers, they were seeking their salvation in the most obvious way, the destruction of what they knew was the cause of their sufferings; and if they destroyed much it was because they had suffered much. They knew that as long as these plantations stood their lot would be to labour on  them until they dropped. The only thing was to destroy them. From their masters they had known rape, torture, degradation, and at the slightest provocation, death. They returned in kind. For two centuries the higher civilisation had shown them that power was used for wreaking your will on those whom you controlled. Now that they held power they did as they had been taught. In the frenzy of the first encounters they killed all. Yet they spared the priests whom they feared and the surgeons who had been kind to them. They, whose women had undergone countless violations, violated all the women who fell into their hands, often on the bodies of their still bleeding husbands, fathers and brothers. “Vengeance ! Vengeance” was their war-cry, and one of them carried a white child on a pike as a standard.

And yet they were surprisingly moderate, then and afterwards, far more humane than their masters had been or would ever be to them. They did not maintain this revengeful spirit for long. The cruelties of property and privilege are always more ferocious than the revenges of poverty and oppression. For the one aims at perpetuating resented injustice, the other is merely a momentary passion soon appeased. As the revolution gained territory they spared many of the men, women, and children whom they surprised on plantations. To prisoners of war alone they remained merciless. They tore out their flesh with redhot pincers, they roasted them on slow fires, they sawed a carpenter between two of his boards. Yet in all the records of that time there is no single instance of such fiendish tortures as burying white men up to the neck and smearing the holes in their faces to attract insects, or blowing them up with gun-powder, or any of the thousand and one bestialities to which they had been subjected. Compared with what their masters had done to them in cold blood, what they did was negligible, and they were spurred on by the ferocity with which the whites in Le Cap treated all slave prisoners who fell into their hands.

The italicized line is footnoted as follows:

This statement has been criticised. I stand by it. C.L.R.J.

I can imagine some of the contours of this criticism: How could you defend rape and murder and pillage? The killing of babies? The savage treatment of prisoners?

James offers a defense in the same passage and it is interestingly plausible.  The slave revolt, the uprising, was bound to be a convulsion, a shaking-off, one that could not but, given the history of their oppression–described in gruesome detail in Chapter 1–result in some reprisals. But this striking back would not be, and perhaps couldn’t be, anything more than a brief spasm of cruelty and anger, a cathartic and horrible outpouring of accumulated anger and grief. It would not be followed by enslavement and the systematic, prolonged brutality the slaves had been subjected to. The violence inflicted on the slaves was directed at the perpetuation of a very particular system of control; that which the slaves directed at their masters was a momentary outburst.  The mutilations, floggings, rapes, and live roastings–among other humiliations and obscenities–the slaves had suffered were to ensure the breaking of their spirit, the assertion of owner privilege; they were the visible features of an ideology of utter and total control. They broke bodies and minds alike. The cruelties of the retaliation meted out by the slaves, in contrast, appear as a momentary expression of revenge, the passions underlying which, hopefully, would soon subside. There is nothing systematic, nothing codified, about them.

These considerations do not, I think, condone the violence but they do put them into some perspective.