Friday, October 24, 2014

Race Riots Circa 1919

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Washington, DC 1919

As reviewed by Jonathan Yardley, in the Washington Post, "'Red Summer,' by Cameron McWhirter, is about racial violence in the year 1919," on 14 July 2011 -- Human memory being both short and unreliable, most Americans today who know anything about the history of race riots in this country probably assume that “the greatest period of interracial strife the nation has ever witnessed” took place in the 1960s and ’70s: riots set off by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., by police violence against blacks in Los Angeles and elsewhere, by agents and opponents of the Black Power movement. Those were indeed bad times. But the comment above was made by the prominent historian John Hope Franklin about the summer of 1919, known, according to Cameron McWhirter, as “the Red Summer because it was so bloody.” He writes:

“The violence enveloped towns, counties, and large cities from Texas to Nebraska, Connecticut to California. Though no complete and accurate records on the months of violence were compiled, analysis of newspaper accounts, government documents, court records, and NAACP files, show at least 25 major riots erupted and at least 52 black people were lynched. Many victims were burned to death. Riots were often over in hours, but some immobilized cities like Chicago, Washington, Knoxville, and Elaine, Arkansas, for days. Millions of Americans had their lives disrupted. Hundreds of people — most of them black — were killed and thousands more were injured. Tens of thousands were forced to flee their homes or places of work. Businesses lost millions of dollars to destruction and looting. In almost every case, white mobs — whether sailors on leave, immigrant slaughterhouse workers, or southern farmers — initiated the violence.”
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‘Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America’ by Cameron McWhirter. Henry Holt.

McWhirter, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal who has also worked at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Detroit News, has done a capable job of rescuing the story of the summer of 1919 from oblivion. His prose doesn’t exactly sing, but he writes competent journalese, and he clearly is a dogged researcher. He has added to our understanding not merely of the long and appalling history of interracial violence in the United States but of one of our more difficult times: the period, measured more in months than in years, between the end of World War I and the beginning of the brief euphoria known as the Jazz Age.

It was an unhappy and confusing time. What Woodrow Wilson and many others had foolishly and naively called “the war to end war” had left the world in turmoil and this country bitterly divided along many lines: between isolationists and internationalists, between wets and drys, between whites and blacks, between patriots and anarchists, between liberals and communists. As was to be the case a quarter-century later, at the end of World War II, black Americans who had fought for their country came home to find that the rights for which they had risked their lives on the battlefields of Europe were still denied them in their native land, not merely in the South but in the North.

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Tulsa, OK 1921

Black veterans’ anger did not set off the violence that tore the country apart between April and November of 1919, but it did contribute to a slowly growing sense of militancy among blacks, especially in cities. There had been a number of organizations working on behalf of black rights, but mostly they were toothless, and too often they were mere cat’s paws for paternalistic whites. That certainly was true of the NAACP until three exceptionally determined and able African Americans — W.E.B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson and Walter White — asserted themselves and began to steer the organization in a more active, assertive direction. As McWhirter points out, even as African Americans were suffering devastating discrimination and violence, “an unprecedented political awakening” was taking place:

“In 1919, blacks began to broadly challenge the long-held premise that they must exist in this country as inferiors. Led by the NAACP and other groups, they began to assert themselves as equals — many for the first time in their lives. They started fighting in legislatures, courtrooms, and the streets to become full partners in the American democratic experiment.”

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Omaha, Nebraska 1919

Make no mistake, though, they were up against formidable and implacable forces. The release of black veterans into the work force, combined with the heavy black migration from the rural South to the big cities of the North, put them in direct competition for jobs with other underprivileged groups, many of them immigrants. Many white soldiers and sailors who had not yet been mustered out of the service harbored strong anti-black feelings — they often insisted, entirely without foundation, that blacks had been incompetent servicemen — and leaped at opportunities to beat blacks. In the Southern countryside, of course, Jim Crow was still going strong, along with the strong right hand with which it was enforced: lynching. Though popular mythology (especially in the white South) had it that black men were lynched for crimes against white women, “NAACP research found that most lynching victims were not killed for rape or attempted rape.” Indeed, “only 14 of the 77 black men lynched in 1919 were accused of assaulting a white woman,” and the odds are that most, if not all, of those accusations were trumped up.

The first of the year’s major urban riots took place in Washington, “black America’s leading cultural and financial center” but a city where blacks “trod more carefully than their counterparts in northern cities, as the District was middle ground between North and South.” On the evening of July 17, a white woman claimed two black men “jostled her and tried to take her umbrella.” Two days later, “several hundred white sailors and workers marched from the Washington Navy Yard . . . into the nearby neighborhood, beating any blacks they encountered.” The attacks moved into the retail center and then to the heart of the government. The New York Tribune reported:

“Before the very gates of the White House Negroes were dragged from streetcars and beaten up while crowds of soldiers, sailors and marines dashed down Pennsylvania Avenue, the principal thoroughfare in the downtown section, in pursuit of the fleeing Negroes. In one instance a restaurant, crowded with men and women diners, was invaded by a crowd of uniformed soldiers and sailors in search of Negro waiters.”

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Chicago, IL 1919

Finally, President Wilson, who had no friendly feelings for black Americans, reluctantly ordered federal troops brought in, and they got things calmed down after several days of violence. “No one ever determined a final tally of death and injuries,” McWhirter writes. “Conservative reports listed seven killed: four blacks, three whites (one of them [a] police detective). Hundreds were injured; an untold number later died.” Not until 1968 would the Nation’s Capital again undergo racial violence of such ghastly intensity.

On and on the grim procession marched: Chicago (“Thirty-eight people — 23 blacks and 15 whites — were killed. At least 537 were seriously wounded”), Knoxville, rural Arkansas and Georgia and Mississippi. That it is one of the most shameful periods in our history is beyond question. Yet McWhirter is right to insist that during this same time, forgotten though it may be, “Black America awakened politically, socially, and artistically [as] never before.” The first stirrings of what became the Harlem Renaissance were felt, and seeds were planted that bore fruit in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. As McWhirter says, if you explore the whole story of those troubled months, you are left not thinking of America’s bald and cruel failings, but of its astounding and elastic resilience. “The Red Summer” is a story of destruction, but it is also a story of the beginning of a freedom movement. (source: Washington Post)

The Red Summer of 1919


From the The Chicago Tribune "'Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America' by Cameron McWhirter: McWhirter vividly explores post-World War I racial violence," by Eric Arnesen, on  18 November 2011 -- As World War I drew to a close in late 1918, the noted black author and activist James Weldon Johnson posed the issue that was on the minds of many African-Americans: Would their support for the war effort, on the battlefields of Europe and in the factories of the United States, translate into improvements in the "status of the Negro as an American citizen?" At that historical moment, blacks' status could be described as second-class — or worse. Their bill of complaints was painfully long: They were denied the vote in the South, trapped in a system of sharecropping that precluded economic mobility, excluded from countless workplaces, denigrated as biologically and culturally inferior, subject to harassment and violence, and relegated to segregated facilities that were palpably inferior to those of their white counterparts. Black wartime participation had raised "many high hopes" about the possibilities for change. "Now comes the test," Johnson announced.

Indeed, much had already changed over the course of the war. Half a million southern blacks had migrated to the North and industrial workplaces, long closed to black labor, opened their doors under the pressure of labor shortages. Black servicemen fighting in Europe encountered a white population often less hostile than American whites. The talk of a "New Negro" appeared in print and was heard on the streets. Civil rights protests erupted in the North and South. It was not unreasonable for African-Americans to think — or at least hope — that wartime gains would be maintained and even extended.

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Instead of rewarding black Americans for their military service or even acknowledging their patriotic sacrifice, however, white Americans resolved to restore the pre-war status quo. Southern states cracked down hard on black protest organizations. The summer of 1919, argues journalist Cameron McWhirter, witnessed the "worst spate of race riots and lynchings in American history." From April to October, American cities exploded in an orgy of violence whose extensive bloodshed led Johnson to name it the "Red Summer." "Though no complete and accurate records on the eight months of violence were [ever] compiled," McWhirter notes, "at least 25 major riots erupted and at least 52 black people were lynched" in those months. "Millions of Americans had their lives disrupted. Hundreds of people — most of them black — were killed and thousands more were injured. Tens of thousands were forced to flee their homes."

Taking Johnson's phrase for his title, McWhirter vividly explores the dynamics of that season's bloodletting and the responses it elicited from black Americans. Postwar racial violence and politics are hardly new subjects for American historians, who have produced numerous studies on individual riots and lynchings, but McWhirter is among the few to look at the violence as a whole. He weaves together the multiple outbreaks into a single, highly readable (if, given its subject, sometimes painful) narrative.

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The triggering events were many, some real, others imagined. In Washington, daily newspapers fanned the flames with lurid, exaggerated, or even fabricated accounts of black crime. In Chicago, postwar unemployment, labor conflicts, housing shortages, and heat provided the context for the massive violence that followed the stoning death of a young black swimmer who crossed an invisible line separating whites from blacks in Lake Michigan. Whites in Omaha, Neb., physically attacked their mayor before destroying the local courthouse to seize and then lynch a black man accused of assaulting a white woman. In Phillips County, Ark., black sharecroppers' efforts to organize a union to secure fair end-of-year settlements precipitated what one contemporary called "a crusade of death" that left hundreds dead.

In many instances, the press and public officials only made matters worse. Shortly before the nation's capital erupted into a "race war," the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) denounced four local newspapers for "sowing the seeds of a race riot by their inflammatory headlines." Arkansas journalists falsely claimed that officials had suppressed a "deliberately planned insurrection" aimed at a "general slaughter of white people." Making no secret of their opposition to black rights, white southern politicians blamed black sharecroppers and called the NAACP "an association for the promotion of revolution." For their part, federal officials believed, without evidence, that Bolshevik and other "agitators" instigated the violence. President Woodrow Wilson stood on the sidelines, doing nothing.


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Antiblack riots were nothing new, but the postwar African-American response was, McWhirter argues. White rioters now confronted "black men and women transformed by their experiences during the war." In Washington and Chicago, they set up barricades to protect their neighborhoods while marksmen "manned rooftops with rifles." In Knoxville, Tenn., armed blacks established a perimeter at their community's edge and shot out street lights to impede white attackers. The New York Times found that "[p]ractically every one of the 10,000 Negroes in Omaha was armed and . . . ready to fight for his life and home" during that city's riot. Beyond resisters in the streets, McWhirter's true heroes are the members of the NAACP, whose importance in this era is often overlooked by historians. As its ranks quickly skyrocketed to almost 85,000, the organization tirelessly campaigned against lynching, riots, and segregation, giving an eloquent voice to black aspirations and setting the groundwork for future victories.

If "Red Summer" captures the big picture, the narrative is marred by occasional errors and exaggerations. Booker T. Washington's pronouncements, even at the height of his power, hardly "had the impact of papal bulls among blacks." Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association had few "members with socialist tendencies" and Garvey did not found the African Blood Brotherhood. And the IWW was the Industrial – not International – Workers of the World.
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McWhirter stakes a lot on the significance of a single year, raising the larger question of precisely what transpired in black politics immediately after the war. "Black America awakened politically, socially, and artistically like never before," he finds. That a shift was taking place is undeniable. But to conclude that "1919's historic importance was that it was the start of a process – a great dismantling of institutional prejudice and inequality that marred American society" overstates the suddenness of the change in black America's mood. The fight "in legislatures, courtrooms, and the streets to become full partners in the American democratic experiment" hardly began in 1919, as "Red Summer" suggests; the "New Negro" first emerged in earlier years.

The "many high hopes" of the war years that James Weldon Johnson identified may have been dashed after World War I, but rising black expectations underscored a growing commitment to challenging the nation's hypocrisy. McWhirter's anatomy of the year's violence and African-American responses to it make for poignant reading and the stories he tells are powerful ones that deserve to be remembered. (source: The Chicago Tribune)


Friday, October 10, 2014

The Lynching of Jesse Washington In Waco, TX

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Lynching of Jesse Washington (1916)

According to the Texas Historical Society -- JESSE WASHINGTON LYNCHING. Of the 492 lynchings that occurred in Texas between 1882 and 1930, the incident that perhaps received the greatest notoriety, both statewide and nationally, was the mutilation and burning of an illiterate seventeen-year-old black farmhand named Jesse Washington by a white mob in Waco, Texas, on May 15, 1916-an event sometimes dubbed the "Waco Horror." Washington was arrested on May 8, 1916, and charged with bludgeoning to death fifty-three-year-old Lucy Fryer, the wife of a white farmer in Robinson, a small community seven miles south of Waco. After confessing that he had both raped and murdered Mrs. Fryer, Washington was transferred to the Dallas County Jail by McLennan county sheriff Samuel S. Fleming, who hoped to prevent mob action at least until the accused could have his day in court.

Washington's trial began in Waco on May 15, in the Fifty-fourth District Court, with Judge Richard I. Munroe presiding over a courtroom filled to capacity. After hearing the evidence, a jury of twelve white men deliberated for only four minutes before returning a guilty verdict against the defendant and assessing the death penalty. Before law officers could remove Washington from the courtroom, a group of white spectators surged forward and seized the convicted youth. They hurried him down the stairs at the rear of the courthouse, where a crowd of about 400 persons waited in the alley. A chain was thrown around Washington's neck, and he was dragged toward the City Hall, where another group of vigilantes had gathered to build a bonfire.

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Upon reaching the city hall grounds, the leaders of the mob threw their victim onto a pile of dry-goods boxes under a tree and poured coal oil over his body. The chain around Washington's neck was thrown over a limb of the tree, and several men joined to jerk him into the air before lowering his body onto the pile of combustibles and igniting a fire. Two hours later several men placed the burned corpse in a cloth bag and pulled the bundle behind an automobile to Robinson, where they hung the sack from a pole in front of a blacksmith's shop for public viewing. Later that afternoon constable Les Stegall retrieved the remains and turned them over to a Waco undertaker for burial.

Though lynching violated Texas law, no members of the Waco mob were prosecuted. However, the foreman of the jury that convicted Washington criticized local law officers for failing to prevent the lynching, and a special committee of Baylor University faculty passed resolutions denouncing the mob. A black journalist, A. T. Smith, editor of the Paul Quinn Weekly, was arrested and convicted of criminal libel after he printed allegations that Lucy Fryer's husband had committed the murder. Other blacks in the Waco area condemned the Fryer killing and remained conciliatory toward the white population.
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Although the Nation, the New Republic, and the New York Times severely condemned the lynching, only a few Texas newspapers denounced the Waco mob. The Houston Post, Houston Express, Austin American, and San Antonio Express printed critical editorials, but the Dallas newspapers made few comments. The Waco Morning News expressed regret for the incident but resented the "wholesale denunciation of the South and of the people of Waco" by the national press. The most important demonstration of outrage emanated from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which launched a full-scale investigation of the affair and employed the incident as a cause célèbre in the organization's crusade for a federal antilynching bill. A photographer's pictures of the lynching strengthened the argument. Although the American entrance into World War I delayed the NAACP campaign until 1919, the "Waco Horror" remained a vivid indication that though the frequency of lynchings had begun to decline in the United States after 1900, those incidents that still occurred often were characterized by extreme barbarity.







A Labor of Love, A Labor of Sorrow

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LABOR OF LOVE, LABOR OF SORROW

The New York Times, "The Family Came First," by Toni Morrison, published on 14 April  1985  --  AFTER slavery, when fresh-born blacks ceased to represent a supply of unpaid labor, agents of the law, the economy, the academy and the Government began to view the black family as problematic in every way. The education of black children, the employment of black adults, housing, medical care, food - whites suddenly began to regard these normal needs as insupportable burdens, and supposed solutions to ''the problem'' of the black family destroyed some families and disfigured others.

That blacks in America were able to maintain families at all and that these families endured after the Civil War is amazing. Perhaps because of this unexpected survival, historians usually treat the black family as a special phenomenon or trivialize it beyond recognition. Not so in ''Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow,'' Jacqueline Jones's perceptive, well-written study of black women in the labor force from slavery to the present.

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Black Women, Work, and the Family From Slavery to the Present. By Jacqueline Jones. Illustrated. 432 pp. New York: Basic Books

Placing the black family center stage in such a history as this is itself a singular idea, for which we owe the author gratitude. Miss Jones, who teaches history at Wellesley College, has made a valuable contribution to scholarship about black women on several counts. ''Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow'' exorcises several malignant stereotypes and stubborn myths, it is free of the sexism and racism it describes, and it interprets old data in new ways.

Miss Jones shows how the need to maintain family life shaped the work habits and choices of blacks in general and black women in particular. Examining black women as laborers is one thing; examining this labor force in the context of its life-and-death struggle to save the family is quite another. The attempt to annihilate black families was so spirited that every effort to protect those families was seen as nothing less than sabotage. A male slave who ducked off the plantation to go fishing was perceived as a loafer rather than a provider. Similarly, after slavery, when free black women stayed at home to care for their children (a duty and virtue for white women), they were said to be ''doing nothing'' and to have ''played the lady'' by demanding that their husbands ''support them in idleness.''

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Like a silent, underground river, family priorities run through the work choices blacks made after and during slavery. ''Freed blacks resisted both the northern work ethic and the southern system of neoslavery,'' Miss Jones writes. ''The full import of their preference for family sharecropping over gang labor becomes apparent when viewed in a national context. The industrial North was increasingly coming to rely on workers who had yielded to employers all authority over their working conditions. In contrast, sharecropping husbands and wives retained a minimal amount of control over their own productive energies and those of their children on both a daily and seasonal basis. Furthermore, the sharecropping system enabled mothers to divide their time between field and housework in a way that reflected a family's needs. The system also removed wives and daughters from the menacing reach of white supervisors. Here were tangible benefits of freedom that could not be reckoned in financial terms.''

Though slave women are stereotypically thought of as house servants, 95 percent of them were fieldworkers who had the same workload as men. And contrary to the notion that black women during slavery regarded kitchen work as a ''promotion'' from fieldwork, most sought the latter to be farther away from white supervision and closer to their own families. Deliberate ineptitude in the kitchen seems to have been the easiest route out of the big house. And this maneuver was echoed in the refusal of black domestics to ''live in'' when they reached the city.

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Of signal importance is that blacks often decided to migrate to urban centers to get better education for their children - a priority equal to (if not greater than) the hope of more and better work. Another manifestation of the priority of the family is that blacks repeatedly chose collectivism based on kinship over ''individualistic opportunity.'' Miss Jones does justice to this seldom recognized characteristic of black people and suggests that this collectivism accounts for the rapid spread of black protest in the 1960's.

Once again the myth of the emasculating black matriarch is deftly punctured here. Miss Jones supplies more evidence (there seems never to be enough to get rid of the myth) showing that during and after slavery black women were not the lone protectors of their families and black men traditionally risked their lives trying to defend their wives and children. The author's refusal to assert female competence at the expense of male roles is refreshing.

Historians usually speak of white women as though they primarily supported black causes. Other than Miss Jones, few writers have mentioned that white women could be as racist as their men. Appropriately, Miss Jones distinguishes the kind of white women who cried ''Lynch her!'' to black schoolgirls in Little Rock, Ark., from those who worked hard on black causes.

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Rather than simply looking at data, Miss Jones sees them. In so doing, she has turned an arc light on several dark and unexplored corners. There is a marvelous passage on dressing up - how important ribbons, hats, shoes and colorful dresses were to impoverished black women. Films, plays, newspaper cartoons and advertisements once joked about the way black women dressed up, and white women sometimes felt outrage at, and contempt for, black women's choices of fashion. In the mid-1860's, in Wilmington, N.C., Miss Jones writes, quoting an observer, white women took ''great offense'' at black women's wearing veils and gave up the style altogether.

The book contains a surprising analysis of how Ebony magazine - a magazine dominated by men at its inception - encouraged black women by closely chronicling their accomplishments. There is a discussion that links the way black women nourished the civil rights movement with the way they protected and encouraged runaway slaves. Feeding runaways with provisions stolen from the mistress's pantry during slavery grew into giving banquets for civil rights activists during the 1960's. Spirituals sung in clandestine slave services became rallying songs at protest meetings.

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THOUGH she provides a context for joining the African past to the Afro-American present, Miss Jones is not at all optimistic about the future. She believes that the black woman's unprecedented strength can no longer ward off the quite precedented assaults on the black family. But in calling for ''a massive public works program (and) a 'solidarity wage' to narrow the gap between the pay scales of lower- and upper-echelon workers,'' she is exchanging one dependency for another. If Miss Jones is right, if the traditional ''make a way out of no way'' resourcefulness of black women can't save the black family and blacks are still at the Government's mercy, then they face their gravest danger yet.

Fully half this book is devoted to strategies slaves and newly freed women used to balance labor with family. As well done as it is, this section is the luxury we pay for by having less of Miss Jones's scholarship about events of the 1970's and 80's. The sections of the book that deal with more recent history merely track events without offering insights into them. Perhaps a separate text is needed to tell us exactly how, among modern blacks, the expression ''Hey, mama'' took on sexual connotations; how marriage came to be perceived as a barrier to self-fulfillment; and how black children came to be viewed as the Typhoid Marys of poverty rather than the victims they in fact are. Such an analysis is outside the scope of this book but not beyond Miss Jones's gifts.  (source:The New York Times)

Captain Anderson's Kentucky Slave Jail

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From the New York Times, "A Piece of Slavery's Hidden Past," by Patricia Leigh Brown, 6 May 2003 -- Germantown, Kentucky -- Even now, slowed by a stroke and 70 years past his boyhood toiling in the fields as a tenant farmer, Isaac Lang Jr. can still recall the terrible secrets hidden inside the old tobacco barn.

"Dad told us never to go in there," Mr. Lang, 84, recalled, sitting up in his bed in a nursing home here. "He said, `Boys, I'm going to tell you the truth. It's all right to play around that barn, but don't go inside.' He said it just wasn't right. That it was pitiful. He never did tell us why."

The building resembled the hundreds of long, low tobacco barns with rusting roofs that mark these winsome rolling hills along the Ohio River, except for a log structure concealed inside. Its windows were fitted with thick, crisscrossed wrought-iron bars ordered by Capt. John W. Anderson, a Kentucky slave trader.

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In the forced westward migration of slaves in the years after 1790, historians say, Captain Anderson held an unknown number of African-Americans in the log house, which has recently been identified as the only known surviving rural slave jail.

For years, the slave jail, or holding pen, was encased and largely concealed within the tobacco barn, a later addition that screened it from the elements and ensured its survival. It was the stuff of lore, a public secret. Now in storage, its logs awaiting reconstruction, this environment of confinement will take its place in a museum dedicated to freedom, as the centerpiece of the $110 million National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati.

With artifacts from the slave era difficult to find and authenticate, and counterfeit shackles and slave identification tags swirling through eBay, the survival of the holding pen and its subsequent identification by historians and curators is a landmark in the material culture of slavery.

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The insidious byways travelled by the traders and their slaves — rivers, oceans and roads — were served by a transcontinental network of holding pens, jails and yards built to warehouse and secure human cargo in transit. Among the few slave jails that have survived is one in the basement of 1315 Duke St. in Alexandria, Va., once the headquarters of Franklin & Armfield, among the country's largest slave trading companies. It is now a National Historic Landmark.

"That the slave pen still exists is miraculous," said John Michael Vlach, a professor of American studies and anthropology at George Washington University and the author of "Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery". "Slavery used up artifacts the way it used up people."

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Forks of the Road, Natchez, MS

The movement to preserve vestiges of the internal slave trade is relatively recent. For example, with a $200,000 grant from the state Department of Archives and History, the city of Natchez, Miss., is trying to buy a quarter-acre section of the Forks of the Road, the second-largest market in the South, where roughly 1,000 slaves were sold a year, and transfer it to the National Park Service. An empty tavern and a parking lot are now at the site.

In a historic part of Lexington, Ky., known as Cheapside, once home to the state's leading slave market, markers honor Kentucky's vice presidents and Confederate heroes but do not mention the area's slave roots. Doris Wilkinson, a professor of sociology at the University of Kentucky, calls such omission "psychological concealment."

The Underground Railroad museum in Cincinnati is spending about $1 million on the slave jail, including disassembly and reconstruction. Next summer, when the museum opens, its 450,000 or so expected visitors will be able to walk through the holding pen and touch its walls.


"We're just beginning to remember," said Carl B. Westmoreland, a senior adviser and curator at the museum who has spent the past three and a half years uncovering the story of the slave jail. "There is a hidden history right below the surface, part of the unspoken vocabulary of the American historic landscape.

"It's nothing but a pile of logs," Mr. Westmoreland said. "Yet it is everything."

The jail languished for years as the barn around it slowly collapsed. In its dark attic lay a row of wrought-iron rings — five have survived — through which a central chain ran. Men were tethered on either side of the chain.

"It was a slave ship turned upside down," said Mr. Westmoreland, a trustee emeritus of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and himself the great-grandson of slaves.

The jail's original chimney faced the Ohio River, the boundary between slavery and freedom and the same fickle water to which Captain Anderson, who is buried 100 yards from where the jail stood, marched his slave coffles. It was an eight-mile trek down the Walton Pike to the landing at Dover, Ky., where they would board flatboats for a perilous 1,150-mile journey: Dover to Covington, Covington to Louisville, Louisville to Henderson, Henderson to Smithland, Smithland to Memphis, Memphis to Vicksburg, Miss., and on to the infamous Natchez slave market.

The vague outline of the barn's foundation is still imprinted in the alfalfa fields owned by Raymond Evers, 72, a retired Cincinnati steel contractor, and his wife, Mary, 75. They purchased the 280-acre farm and what they heard referred to as a "jail cell" in 1976. Mr. Evers spends weekends on the farm, growing alfalfa, corn and soybeans. He used the barn to store machinery and would occasionally unearth chains while plowing.

Mrs. Evers grew up in nearby Minerva and Maysville. In 1998, when the couple learned of plans for an Underground Railroad museum in Cincinnati, they asked museum officials to look inside their barn.

"It was something I'd read about — past tense," Mr. Westmoreland said. "It was something that used to exist — past tense."

The Everses gave the structure to the museum in exchange for a new barn. Then Mr. Westmoreland and historians, curators and archaeologists set about to determine whether the stories of a slave jail were merely folklore.

What they knew was that Mason County, and nearby Maysville in particular, had been a hemp and tobacco center and a mecca for slaveholders from Virginia and Maryland wanting to sell slaves into the deep South. In the last decade of the 18th century, the geography of slavery, which was largely confined to the Eastern seaboard and the Appalachians, shifted profoundly, crossing the easternmost Blue Ridge mountains and expanding into the Shenandoah Valley, Kentucky and Tennessee. Surplus slave labor in Virginia, the result of depleted soil and crop failure, made it relatively easy for Kentucky pioneers to purchase black slaves at favorable prices.

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The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and cotton planters' insatiable thirst for labor set in motion the forced westward deportation of slaves, most of them on foot. It was an event, the historian Ira Berlin wrote in his recent book, "Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves," that would tear families apart and displace more than a million people, "dwarfing the transatlantic slave trade that had carried Africans to the mainland."

There is as yet no known photograph or obituary of Captain Anderson, who died in July 1834 at age 41, according to his tombstone. In contrast to the antebellum stereotypes of slave traders as coarse and ill-bred characters "with a whiskey-tinctured nose, cold hard-looking eyes, a dirty tobacco-stained mouth and shabby dress," as one writer put it, they were often respected members of society. In Kentucky, they included Stephen Chenoweth, tax commissioner in Jefferson County, and Littleberry P. Crenshaw, a minister in Louisville.

Captain Anderson left an extensive paper trail of business dealings and legal disputes that described his slave trading. By piecing together information from estate inventories, court records, tax receipts and newspaper advertisements, historians have begun to assemble the story of Captain Anderson and his slave jail.
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The first breakthrough was a Mason County probate document referring to a "jailhouse" on the property. Pen Bogert, a historical researcher in Louisville, discovered in the Adams County, Miss., courthouse copies of 1832-1833 tax receipts signed by a John W. Anderson for the sale of blacks. And in 1833, Captain Anderson offered a reward in a Maysville newspaper for the capture of four runaway slaves. Among them was "Carter, aged 25 years, about five feet four inches high, very bright mulatto, bush head; very stout, heavy made, and stammers when interrogated; full round face; he professes to be a shoemaker and rough carpenter."

At the time of his death, researchers say, Captain Anderson had become wealthy enough to invest in a silver-trimmed saddle and 42 thoroughbreds. He owned 37 slaves, far more than he typically claimed at tax time.

Research indicated that Captain Anderson converted a plain log building into a slave jail. Over the past few years, archaeologists have unearthed about 6,000 artifacts, including crockery, tools and kitchen utensils. As the building was being dismantled last fall, they discovered a log on the second floor, beside the rings, bearing the stamp of J. W. Anderson.

But the decision to move the holding pen from Kentucky to Ohio was controversial locally.

"By the time the public found out about it it was a done deal," said Alicestyne Adams, an assistant professor at Georgetown College in Kentucky and the director of the Kentucky Underground Railroad Research Institute. But the priority was preservation, she said.

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"African-Americans have become used to having other people tell our stories," Professor Adams said. "Having an artifact that speaks to the magnitude of what occurred, and where it occurred, is extremely important."

In and around Mason County, some people wanted it to stay.

"It's part of the history of the area, but not the pretty part," said Caroline R. Miller, an English teacher in Germantown who has done extensive research on local court documents pertaining to slavery.

But many residents, Ms. Miller said, would prefer to be identified with the heroes of the underground railroad like Arnold Gragston, who was born a slave on Walton Pike and began rowing slaves to freedom in Ripley, Ohio, in 1859.

"There is a fear of being stigmatized," she said of the ambivalence. "It's not easy to learn that the history of where you live is more than unpleasant."

The green hills in and around the Everses' farm are dotted with white porticoed homes, but the original cookhouses and slave quarters out back remain hidden from public view and await historical reckoning.


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"They bring up very painful memories," said James Oliver Horton, a professor of American studies and history at George Washington University who has been an adviser to historic sites like Monticello. "So even though they're out there, we don't want to find them."


Nonetheless, landscapes have memories. Carol Yates Bennett, 66, who grew up in Maysville, remembers her great-grandmother's story of a slave mother so bereft at her forced separation from her daughter, who was being sold downriver, that she cut off her hand in despair.

Ms. Bennett went to visit the jail on the Everses' farm before it was dismantled. "You just sensed the presence all around you," she said. "It felt like hallowed ground." (source: The New York Times)


Tuesday, October 7, 2014

African Americans and the War of 1812

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From the USA National Park Service Series: Fighting for Freedom: African Americans and the War of 1812, "Chapter 6: Wedged Between Slavery and Freedom: African American Equality Deferred," by Gene Allen Smith of Texas Christian University -- The documentary record that chronicles black service during the War of 1812 is very fragmentary at best. Peter Denison, Prince Witten, Charles Ball, Ned Simmons, and Jordan Noble all chose sides during the War of 1812, and these choices ultimately defined their individual and collective identities.
In the end, the War of 1812 did not provide greater opportunities or equality for free blacks as they anticipated, nor did it initiate a wave of emancipation for enslaved Americans seeking freedom.
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As their stories testify, men of African descent did serve as soldiers and sailors aboard warships and on privateers during the war in substantial numbers on either side; nearly 1,000 African American sailors were captured and held in Britain’s notorious Dartmoor prison—and they embraced their status as free black seamen struggling to uphold their belief in “Free Trade and Sailors Rights.” Some 600 Chesapeake Bay slaves joined the British Colonial Marines and marched with redcoats on Washington, DC, and Baltimore, while others chose to remain with their masters and fight for the Americans. The American army had not opened its enlistments to black troops, and most states did not permit blacks to muster. There were no all-black regular army units in 1812 and 1813, and the black presence, when noted, was poorly documented. Along the coast of Georgia and South Carolina, enslaved peoples faced the same choices as did those in the Chesapeake, while along the Gulf Coast they found additional choices—some joined with the Spanish, with Native American tribes, and others with Andrew Jackson or the British. Jackson ultimately secured the assistance of most with promises of freedom and equality that never fully appeared.

In some instances, the feats of men like Denison were recorded for posterity, but the stories of noncombatants are chronicled often only in statistics. In the Chesapeake, as many as 4,000 to 5,000 enslaved people fled to British protection and were evacuated to Bermuda, Canada, or Trinidad. In New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, enslaved people and free blacks worked alongside whites to dig entrenchments for those cities, loudly proclaiming their civic and patriotic duty. Yet, black-white relations worsened after the war. Collectively, black unity had demonstrated a powerful threat, engendering fears in white America that were exacerbated by memories of the recent revolution in nearby Haiti (1791–1804). In the aftermath of the conflict, Americans destroyed free mulatto gulf communities in former Spanish Florida that they viewed as a threat to peace and as a challenge to the white status quo. Later, the removal of American Indians east of the Mississippi River bolstered the southern plantation system, creating the Cotton Kingdom of the mid-1800s and further altering race relations. Meanwhile, in British dominions, former American enslaved people clutched tenaciously to the freedom they obtained with evacuation, though the British government abandoned them in a segregated naval base in Bermuda or herded them into ill-provisioned camps in Canada and then into unsettled regions of Trinidad; they struggled economically, but they remained free.

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In the end, the War of 1812 did not provide greater opportunities or equality for free blacks as they anticipated, nor did it initiate a wave of emancipation for enslaved Americans seeking freedom. They would find themselves wedged between slavery and freedom, and between race discrimination and egalitarianism. Their patriotic efforts had not reshaped white minds about what role they should play in society, and public memories of the war largely ignored their contributions. New prejudicial racial distinctions replaced class differences among blacks and destroyed once and for all the optimism of the Revolutionary era. For African Americans, the “forgotten war” delayed their quest for equality and freedom. (source: National Park Service)


Fighting for Freedom: African Americans and the War of 1812 from Virginia Historical Society on Vimeo.

Monday, September 15, 2014

British Colonials In Africa

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From the New York Times Sunday Book Review, "'Imperial Reckoning' and 'Histories of the Hanged': White Man's Bungle," by Daniel Bergner, on 30 January 2005 -- In a war-ravaged town in Sierra Leone a few years ago, I listened as five men debated the idea of recolonization, which many of their countrymen favored. They sat in a derelict shed, the office of a building contractor who'd lost all his equipment to rampaging soldiers. He was lucky to be alive and unmutilated; factions in the civil war had cut off the hands of civilians, then let them live as the ultimate message of terror. Amid the ruin of their nation, only one of the five men objected to the idea. ''We had segregation, right over there,'' he said, pointing toward the desolate grounds of a secondary school, his voice rising in outrage. ''We couldn't go to that school!'' To which the contractor, white-haired and old enough to have spent his childhood under British rule, said, ''At least there was school for Africans.''

The men spoke during extreme times in their country; their desperation had reached this pitch after 10 years of anarchy. But despair pervades the continent. ''The average African,'' Moeletsi Mbeki, deputy chairman of the South African Institute of International Affairs and brother of South Africa's president, declared recently, ''is poorer than during the age of colonialism.'' Yet for anyone tempted, even fleetingly, to look to the past for solutions to Africa's problems, two new books, ''Imperial Reckoning,'' by Caroline Elkins, and ''Histories of the Hanged,'' by David Anderson, give warning.

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Focusing on the final decade of British rule in Kenya (ending in 1963), both writers evoke a period when, especially in Elkins's view, the colonial pretense of civilizing the dark continent gave way to the savagery of imperial self-preservation. Some 40,000 whites lived in Kenya by the early 1950's, drawn by promises of long leases on fertile land and native labor at low wages. ''Whatever his background,'' Anderson, a lecturer in African Studies at Oxford, writes, ''every white man who disembarked from the boat at Mombasa became an instant aristocrat.'' But by midcentury, many of the natives, particularly those of the Kikuyu tribe, refused to play their assigned role. The Kikuyu had been put off their most arable land by white farmers. They, like other Kenyan tribes, had been banished to ethnic reserves too small to sustain them. They were forced to carry passbooks as they searched for work from the governing race. In 1952, stirred partly by their displacement and partly by British efforts to prohibit traditional Kikuyu customs, a Kikuyu secret society, the Mau Mau, launched a rebellion, attacking white-owned farms and brutally killing perhaps a hundred whites and 1,800 of their African supporters. In retaliation, the British carried out a campaign that, Elkins suggests, amounted to genocide.

Anderson's book, meant as a kind of requiem for the ''as yet unacknowledged martyrs of the rebel cause: the 1,090 men who went to the gallows as convicted Mau Mau terrorists,'' never manages to render a vivid martyr. Examples of colonial judicial corruption and hypocrisy are thoroughly explored, but little room is left for character. Elkins, a history professor at Harvard, also neglects individual portraits, but she develops an unforgettable catalog of atrocities and mass killing perpetrated by the British. ''Imperial Reckoning'' is an important and excruciating record; it will shock even those who think they have assumed the worst about Europe's era of control in Africa. Nearly the entire Kikuyu population of 1.5 million was, by Elkins's calculation, herded by the British into various gulags. Elkins, who assembled her indictment through archives, letters and interviews with survivors and colonists, tells of a settler who would burn the skin off Mau Mau suspects or force them to eat their own testicles as methods of interrogation. She quotes a survivor recalling a torment evocative of Abu Ghraib: lines of Kikuyu detainees ordered to strip naked and embrace each other randomly, and a woman committing suicide after being forced into the arms of her son-in-law. She quotes an anonymous settler telling her, ''Never knew a Kuke had so many brains until we cracked open a few heads.'' Her method is relentless; page after page, chapter after chapter, the horrors accumulate.

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Yet for all its power, ''Imperial Reckoning'' is not as compelling as it should be. With so much evidence of atrocity, Elkins often forgoes complexity and careful analysis. Not only are the colonists barbaric in their treatment of the Kikuyu, but, as she has it, they are basically barbarous in private as well, maintaining ''an absolutely hedonistic lifestyle, filled with sex, drugs, drink and dance.'' More important, there is the case that Elkins apparently wishes to make -- for genocide. ''Mau Mau,'' she writes, ''became for many whites in Kenya, and for many Kikuyu loyalists as well, what the Armenians had been to the Turks . . . and the Jews to the Nazis. As with any incipient genocide, the logic was all too easy to follow.'' According to the official statistics, the British killed 11,503 Mau Mau adherents. By contrast, Elkins estimates that ''somewhere between 130,000 and 300,000 Kikuyu are unaccounted for.'' She reaches her figures by reviewing colonial censuses taken in 1948 and 1962; she compares the increase in the Kikuyu population to the larger increases in three other Kenyan tribes. It's a fragile means to support her case, partly because we're left wondering whether the other tribes also grew more swiftly than the Kikuyu during earlier periods.

Unfortunately, Elkins's prosecutorial zeal in a sense precludes a true ''imperial reckoning.'' For British rule brought crucial benefits that persist -- among them modern education and a degree of infrastructure -- as well as violent oppression to its subjects. A thorough reckoning would provide, by way of paradox, not only a more deeply insightful but a more deeply wrenching work of imperial history.(source: New York Times Sunday Book Review)

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Author Greg Grandin On The Economist And Slavery

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From the Nation Magazine, "‘The Economist’ Has a Slavery Problem: Multiple commentaries from the journal show a pattern of making sure white people aren’t taken for total villains when discussing slavery," by Greg Grandin, on September 2014 -- A few months ago, my recent book The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World received a lukewarm review in The Economist. The title of the unsigned review, “Slavery: Not Black or White,” was odd, calling to mind a parody of an Onion headline: “Nietzsche: Not Good or Evil.” After all, slavery, a centuries-long institution involving the buying and selling of tens of millions of human beings, did in fact result in divvying up the diversity of much of the world’s population into those two colors. The review itself was written in that smarmy style that makes US corporate managers and hedge funders swoon, identified some time ago by James Fallows as “colonial cringe.” Readers on this side of the Atlantic assign an Oxbridge accent to the text, which “involves a stance so cocksure of its rightness and superiority that it would be a shame to freight it with mere fact.” Another critic said the magazine is written by young people trying to sound old.

The Empire of Necessity tries to establish the dependent relationship of slavery to the capitalist revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in all of the Americas, north and south, and presumes to use Herman Melville as embodying the moral complexities of that relationship. In other words, there’s a lot going on in the book. But the reviewer seemed only excited to find a few instances confirming that the trans-Atlantic slave system was not universally, 100 percent, absolutely, totally, categorically, “a matter of white villains and black victims.” “As is commonly supposed.” “Blacks,” he or she was happy to report, “profited from the Atlantic slave trade.”




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The reviewer then complained about the book’s gloominess: “Unfortunately, the horrors in Mr Grandin’s history are unrelenting. His is a book without heroes. The brave battlers against the gruesome slave business hardly get a look in, although it was they who eventually prevailed.” One might think that “brave battlers” would be a good description of the group of West Africans who led the slave-ship revolt that is the book’s set piece. Having endured horrific captivity and transport, forced not just across the Atlantic but the whole American continent into the Pacific, the deception they managed to pull off under extremely hostile conditions was, I’d say, heroic.


Slavery might not be black or white, but bravery and morality apparently are: whites possess those qualities, a possession that merits historical consideration; blacks don’t, at least according to The Economist. The Empire of Necessity didn’t “credit” William Wilberforce, the white reformist MP, or white abolitionist evangelicals and Quakers, for ending slavery. Nor, the reviewer points out, did I make mention of the British Royal Navy freeing “at least 150,000 west Africans from slave ships during the 19th century.” The book isn’t about abolition, or, for that matter, the British Royal Navy. No matter. “The British historians,” wrote the great historian of slavery, Eric Williams, “wrote as if Britain had introduced Negro slavery solely for the satisfaction of abolishing it.” So too, apparently, anonymous Economist reviewers.

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Then last week another review appeared that made it clear that The Economist has, well, a race problem. Also published without a byline, this one is of Ed Baptist’s wonderful The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, and is even more of an apologia for white resentment, if not supremacy (by which only white folks have virtues worthy of historical commentary). It had to have been by the same critic, for it uses nearly exactly the same victim/villainy opposition as scaffolding: “Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains.” This time, though, the Internet responded with a barrage of snark (“@TheEconomist asks the tough question: why are black people victims in a book about slavery?” #notallwhites #notallslavemasters) that, remarkably, forced the editors to withdraw the review and apologize for its apologia: “Apology: In our review … we said: ‘Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains.’ There has been widespread criticism of this, and rightly so. Slavery was an evil system…” Glad we got that cleared up.

The review of Baptist’s book in fact had other problems than what its editors apologized for. Baptist provides meticulous, extensive and comprehensive evidence that capitalism and the wealth it created was absolutely dependent on the forced labor of Africans and African-Americans, downplaying culturalist arguments for Western prosperity, of the kind rehearsed by historians such as Niall Ferguson. This seemed to particularly irk the reviewer, who asserted that Baptist “overstates his case when he dismisses ‘the traditional explanations’ for America’s success,” including its “individualistic culture, Puritanism,” and “ingenuity.” Here, the reviewer adopts exactly the “cocksure” tone Fallows long ago described, unburdened by the need to actually make a counter-argument or provide evidence. An assertion pronounced in crisp English is as good as its word.
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So a pattern is detected, one reaching back much further than the review of my book. In the 1860s,The Economist stood nearly alone among liberal opinion in Britain in supporting the Confederacy against the Union, all in the name of access to cheap Southern “Blood Cotton” (ironically, the title of the Baptist review) and fear of higher tariffs if the North triumphed. “The Economist was unusual,” writes an historian of English public opinion at the time; “Other journals still regarded slavery as a greater evil than restrictive trade practices.”

Since the Baptist review appeared, only to be quickly withdrawn, other historians, such as Mark Healey, have dug up reviews with similar problems. The Economist seems committed to making sure that white people aren’t taken for total villains and darker-skinned folks held accountable for their share of world’s inequities. It also seems dedicated to make sure the economic system created by slavery is denied its parentage, and on insisting that the miseries that continue to be produced by neoliberal capitalism can only be cured by more neoliberal capitalism. A few years ago, for instance, the magazine upbraided the Laurent Dubois, in his book on the history of Haiti, for, you guessed it, dismissing cultural explanations for the country’s poverty and focusing instead on structural issues. Haitians need to be held responsible for “their society’s underdevelopment,” and the best way to end their misery is to stop clinging to substance production and accommodate themselves to “specialised wage labour for a global market.”

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The reviewing practices of The Economist are opaque, its reviewers shrouded in collective anonymity and endowed with the timeless authority of the “Royal We.” “In our review … ” started off its Baptist recantation. But who was the author of the reviews of The Empire of Necessity and The Half Has Never Been Told? A staff writer? A professional historian? Of slavery? Of the United States? Of the British Empire?

If so, why not be a “brave battler” and stop hiding behind the neoliberal plural. Have the courage of your convictions and come out. An apology and withdrawal isn’t enough. Release the name of the reviewer. (source: The Nation; Please support The Nation. Donate now!)


Author Edward E Baptist On The Economist's Book Review



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As reported by The UK Guardian, "The Economist's review of my book reveals how white people still refuse to believe black people about being black: This is what happens when racism goes viral. This is why, somehow, it still can," by Edward E Baptist, on 7 September 2014  --  In 1845, Frederick Douglass, a fugitive from slavery, joined dozens of white passengers on the British ship Cambria in New York harbor. Somewhere out on the Atlantic, the other passengers discovered that the African American activist in their midst had just published a sensational autobiography. They convinced the captain to host a sort of salon, wherein Douglass would tell them his life story. But when the young black man stood up to talk, a group of Southern slaveholders, on their way to Britain for vacation or business or both, confronted him. Every time Douglass said something about what it was like to be enslaved, they shouted him down: Lies! Lies! Slaves were treated well, insisted the slaveholders; after all, they said, the masters remained financially interested in the health of their human “property”.

In a review of my book about slavery and capitalism published the other day, the Economist treated it the same way that the tourist enslavers treated the testimony of Frederick Douglass on that slave-era ship long ago. In doing so, the Economist revealed just how many white people remain reluctant to believe black people about the experience of being black.
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Apparently, I shouldn’t have focused my historical research on how some people lived off the uncompensated sweat of their “valuable property”, the magazine’s anonymous reviewer wrote: “Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains.” Worst of all, this book reviewer went on, I had, by putting the testimony of “a few slaves” at the heart of book about slavery, somehow abandoned “objectivity”’ for “advocacy”.

Of course, the reviewer wasn’t treating me like the slaveowners on the Cambria treated Douglass. They threatened to kidnap him and send him to New Orleans – the largest slave market in North America. No, a single nameless reviewer from a single stodgy magazine couldn’t do much to me.

Still, the review enraged a significant number of people. Within a few hours, Twitterstorians scorched the earth of the magazine’s comments page with radioactive reviews of the review. The parodies and viral disdain forced the Economist to retract the review and issue a partial apology.

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But the Economist didn’t apologize for dismissing what slaves said about slavery. That kind of arrogance remains part of a wider, more subtle pattern in how black testimony often gets treated – sometimes unknowingly – as less reliable than white. The Economist reviewer was saying that the key sources of my book, African Americans – black people – cannot be believed.

As the historian Jelani Cobb pointed out to MSNBC’s Chris Hayes on Friday night, the reviewer’s ideas about slavery’s history are not actually as uncommon as many of us would like to believe. He’s right: All across the American south, you can go to historic plantation sites still pushing the idea that slaves who had a “good” master were happy, and “faithful”.

If you write about the history of slavery, you become used to the pattern: No matter how many accounts you cite from ex-slaves, people often say they need more information before they can accept what former cotton pickers say about how cotton picking worked. And when we’re talking about contemporary events, the presumptive doubt is just as bad.

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For instance: white people have had numerous opportunities, especially after Ferguson, to hear what African Americans think about how policing takes place when white civilians aren’t around. Yet twice as many white Americans as black Americans still think that police treat African Americans fairly.

Perhaps this is because, according to a recent survey, 75% of white Americans have zero black American friends. Surely if more white people knew more black people on a personal level, some would be more ready to accept the accounts from African Americans about how white privilege affects their own lives.


Instead, we’ve still got white magazine writers refusing to believe first-person accounts of history, which re-enforces white privilege at the very time when we should be revoking it. In the meantime, both historians and advocates of contemporary change often have to turn to the strategy of getting white people to vet black testimony before other white people will believe it.

Back in 1845 on the Cambria, as the attackers surrounded Douglass, threatening to throw him overboard, he told the other white passengers that if they didn’t believe his words, he would speak the words of the enslavers. Straight from the book of state law in the south, Douglas read aloud those punishments allotted to slaves, then – “lashings on the back, the cropping of ears and other revolting disfigurements” – as now: “for the most venial crimes, and even frequently when no crime whatever had been committed”.  (source: The Guardian)

Friday, September 12, 2014

Greg Grandin’s "Empire of Necessity"

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From the New York Times Sunday Book Review, "A Vengeful Fury: Greg Grandin’s ‘Empire of Necessity’," by Andrew Delbanco, on 10 January 2014 -- Between the early 16th century and the middle of the 19th, more than 12 million human beings were shipped against their will from Africa to the New World and sold into slavery. An untold number died at different stages of the journey — overland in Africa, during the “middle passage” at sea or soon after arrival. Among those who perished, most died of disease, some by suicide and still others from wounds or execution following failed revolts.

For nearly four centuries, as Greg Grandin writes in his powerful new book, slavery was the “flywheel” that drove the global development of everything from trade and insurance to technology, religion and medicine. To read “The Empire of Necessity” is to get a sort of revolving scan from the center of the wheel. What we see is an endless sequence of human transactions — the production and exchange of meat, sugar, rice, cotton, tobacco, gold, among many other things — all connected, through slavery, by linkages whose full extent cannot be discerned from any point along the way. Slaves, Grandin writes, “were at one and the same time investments (purchased and then rented out as laborers), credit (used to secure loans), property, commodities and capital.”

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Grandin’s kaleidoscopic technique gives his book a certain pastiche quality (many years and miles are silently traversed in the breaks between chapters), but through a remarkable feat of research he establishes a strong narrative line that gives the book coherence and momentum. Beginning in 1804 with their embarkation from West Africa, he follows a particular group of slaves to a British slave ship until it is seized in the name of “liberty, equality and fraternity” by a French pirate, who exercised his liberty by selling them to a buyer in Buenos Aires. Then came a forced march across the “never-ending blanket of grass” of the Argentine pampas, which must have cruelly reminded the captives of the African steppe they once had known. Next was the hard climb into the Andes, where the weak and sick had their limbs or heads cut off in order to facilitate removal of shackles and halters for future use, their mutilated bodies left to nonhuman predators along the trail. Upon arrival in Valparaiso, survivors were taken aboard the slave ship Tryal, bound for Lima, under the command of a Spaniard named Benito Cerreño.

Into this harrowing account Grandin, the author of “Fordlandia,” intersperses sections about two New Englanders who seem at first disconnected from the story but who were destined to intersect with the lives — and deaths — of the slaves, and thereby with each other. The first was a merchant seaman named Amasa Delano who dropped anchor in late 1805 at Santa Maria Island off the Chilean coast. The second was a Massachusetts writer, Herman Melville (from whom Grandin borrows his title), who, probably sometime in the 1840s, read Delano’s memoir and was drawn to the tale of what happened early in 1805 when Delano spied a ship sailing erratically near the island, in evident need of help.
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That ship was the Tryal, whose human “cargo” had rebelled, murdered their owner along with a score of other whites and demanded that Cerreño sail them back to Africa. Fifty years later, Melville made Delano’s story the basis of a short novel that he called “Benito Cereno.”

When Delano boarded the vessel to aid what he surmised was a distressed crew, he was duped by the risen slaves — and by Cerreño, who feared for his life should he hint at the truth — into believing that the disorder aboard was the result of storm damage and disease. But as Delano was being rowed back to his own ship, the Spanish captain suddenly leapt overboard after him, screaming for help. Now grasping the truth of the situation (at least some of it), Delano dispatched an armed party that subdued, then tortured, the rebellious slaves. When he returned to the ship, he found them “writhing in their viscera.”

In “Benito Cereno,” Melville retold these events with some significant ­changes. Omitting what Grandin calls “Delano’s nearly yearlong hounding” of the Spaniard for what he considered his due compensation for the rescue, he emphasized Cereno’s lingering shock and Delano’s impenetrable insouciance. He focused on the leader of the slave rebellion, whose corpse, after his trial and hanging, was decapitated, with the head impaled on a spike in the main plaza of Lima so all could contemplate his “voiceless end.”

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Melville refused to write knowingly about the unknowable inner lives of the slaves, a reticence that elevated his novella far above the antislavery manifestoes of his time in which slaves appear in one form of caricature or another. He conveyed the horror of slavery while looking unblinkingly at the reciprocal fury of self-liberated slaves toward those who had enslaved them.

Grandin does not say much about the literary power of “Benito Cereno.” But by reconstructing the world through which the slaves moved toward their doom, he has done more than any previous scholar — and there have been many — to illuminate the context of the work in which Melville confronted slavery without presuming to comprehend its vast ramifications. “The Empire of Necessity” is also a significant contribution to the largely impossible yet imperative effort to retrieve some trace of the countless lives that slavery consumed.  (source: New York Times Sunday Book Review)


Greg Grandin on "The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World" from Brooklyn Historical Society on Vimeo.

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