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Slavery

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It’s Not Even Past.

“The early American economy was built on slave labor. The Capitol and the White House were built by slaves. President James K. Polk traded slaves from the Oval Office…[B]lack history does not flatter American democracy; it chastens it…Black nationalists have always perceived something unmentionable about America that integrationists dare not acknowledge — that white supremacy is not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues, or a matter of false consciousness, but a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it.”

In a long, deeply-researched, and very worthwhile essay, Ta-Nahesi Coates surveys the sweep of American history to make the case for reparations — “by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences”. “Liberals today mostly view racism not as an active, distinct evil but as a relative of white poverty and inequality. They ignore the long tradition of this country actively punishing black success — and the elevation of that punishment, in the mid-20th century, to federal policy.”

Coates’ historical case here — ranging from 1619 to the present day and resting on works by Edmund Morgan, Eric Foner, Ira Katznelson, and others (he even gets in the oft-forgotten Tulsa riots) — is air-tight and undeniable. At the very least, we could all stop pretending that four centuries of shameful discrimination and brutality didn’t happen, and acknowledge that, as Coates points out, it remains manifest in everything from our housing policies to the wealth gap to our absurd incarceration rates.

Along those lines, granted this may be changing soon, but it remains ridiculous that we have a very powerful Holocaust Museum on the Mall, but no equivalent museum or memorial about our own national original sin, slavery. The Holocaust Museum is very appropriate for DC: It is an unforgettable reminder of the systematized depravities that even supposedly civilized societies can commit. But we need to start considering the beam in our eye more seriously as well.

This piece also dovetails nicely with one of my favorite Cornel West quotes: “To understand your country, you must love it. To love it, you must, in a sense, accept it. To accept it as how it is, however is to betray it. To accept your country without betraying it, you must love it for that in it which shows what it might become. America — this monument to the genius of ordinary men and women, this place where hope becomes capacity, this long, halting turn of the no into the yes, needs citizens who love it enough to reimagine and remake it.”

The Song of Solomon.

“12 Years a Slave is an easy landmark. It’s a rare sugarless movie about racial inequality…[A]t several points an audience is free to remember that most movies about the Civil War and slavery have been appeals to our higher, nobler selves. They’ve been appeals to white audiences by white characters talking to other white characters about the inherent injustice of oppressing black people at any moment in this planet’s history…McQueen and Ridley turn that dynamic inside out.”

In Grantland, Wesley Morris ably discourses on Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, thus far the movie of the year (and I say that as someone who didn’t think much of Hunger or Shame.) As I said on Twitter, this film should come as a free digital download with any Lee Greenwood CD (or, for that matter, any Gods and Generals DVD.) “A different movie might have taken this story and turned it into a battle between Epps and the white men who feel a duty to free Northrup…The power of McQueen’s movie is in its declaratory style: This happened. That is all, and that is everything.”

Scholar, Journalist, Cop, Hoopster.

“‘I would say that my ideal of writing history is to give the reader vicarious experience,’ Professor Morgan told The William and Mary Quarterly. ‘You’re born in one particular century at a particular time, and the only experience you can have directly is of the place you live and the time you live in. History is a way of giving you experience that you would otherwise be cut off from.’ Edmund Morgan, 1916-2013.

“Well I never knew it was a man’s world! I never accepted that. I thought I had an education just as good as a man’s. I deserve to have the same opportunities and advantages. So I antagonized a lot of people, but I fought for women’s rights and blacks’ rights and civil rights. Discrimination against women was very bad. There was no reason to accept discrimination. No reason.” Helen Thomas, 1920-2013.

“‘My personality was formed by Chicago,’ he told Cigar Aficionado magazine in 1999. ‘It’s very American, very straightforward. If you can’t find it, or make it there, you won’t make it anywhere. It’s a very honest place.'” Dennis Farina. 1944-2013.

“I was the Knicks’ third-leading scorer [8.1 ppg], I also finished third in the league in assist average [2.0], and my salary was 60 dollars per game. Ha! These days, the players make about sixty dollars a minute. Don’t get me wrong, though. I have no jealousy or resentment over how much money these guys make today. I think they’re the best athletes in the world, and they’re worth every red cent. I’m just proud to have been one of the NBA’s pioneers.” Ossie Schectman, 1919-2013.

Djettison Django?

“Basically, Django Unchained is a B movie. A damn fine B movie, but still a B movie…Despite its slavery setting, Django Unchained isn’t an exploration of the subject. It offers no critical insights into the circumstances, no nuances exploring the political realities (as Lincoln does). In the end, slavery is a prop to excite audience emotion and motivate the action.”

Continuing his recent renaissance as a cultural critic, Kareem explains why the otherwise entertaining Django shouldn’t be an Oscar contender. I agree with the take-films-seriously sentiment, but, at least as far as Oscar goes, that ship sailed decades ago (and he’s too charitable to the excellent-but-also-flawed Lincoln.)

Also making the round today, Christoph Waltz and the SNL gang’s Djesus Uncrossed. A funny idea almost redeemed by Waltz, but as with so much SNL fare the execution is less clever than it should be.

Stampp of Excellence.

“‘He was really a pioneer, demolishing the magnolia and mint juleps view of slavery,” said Eric Foner, a professor of history at Columbia. ‘And the Reconstruction book was in the same revisionist mode, sweeping away myths. Among serious history scholars, nobody is going to go back before Stampp.’Kenneth Stampp, 1912-2009. (By way of Ted.)

His Soul’s Marching On?

“‘It’s a great, great project,’ Brolin told us. ‘The script was already out there; I read the script, I loved it. It would be a very tough character for me to play. We’re going to do some tests once I’m done with this, but it’s a great script and story. Somebody who I know, because of Howard Zinn’s thing, and I know the character really well.’” After Jonah Hex and the next Woody Allen film, will Josh Brolin be frontlining a new John Brown biopic? That’s the word I’m hearing from my abolition-minded colleagues at Coming Soon.Net. Let’s just say the authorities at Harpers Ferry had best be wary.

Donald, Considered.

“I was able to sit at Lincoln’s side and see how he thought and how he acted, and how he felt about what was going on around him. I felt the pressures that were on him. You can see what people were writing to him, how they were nudging him.” Historian David Herbert Donald, 1920-2009. “‘It is the most balanced of the biographies out there,” Mr. Foner said in a telephone interview Monday. ‘It is not a work of hero worship, nor does it have a prosecutorial brief. He presents Lincoln as a rather passive figure, not at all in charge of the forces raging around him, which is quite accurate.’

We are Lincoln Men.

“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.” Happy 200th, Mr. President.

Out with a Whimper (and a “9/11″)

“This evening, my thoughts return to the first night I addressed you from this house – Sept. 11, 2001.” Now, there‘s a surprise. To be honest, there’s not much to be said about Dubya’s dismal farewell speech last night, which had been touted earlier in the week as potentially something interesting. [Transcript.] Rather than go the statesman route a la Eisenhower, Dubya chose to spend his last few moments with the nation’s ear dispensing trite, self-serving, and patently idiotic bromides about the world that will do nothing to alter his status in history as one of our worst presidents, if not the worst president, to-date.

I hope to spend very little blog-time in the future attempting to parse the immature, inchoate worldview of this soon-to-be ex-president. But, for example: “When people live in freedom, they do not willingly choose leaders who pursue campaigns of terror.” Uh, they don’t? (No, then it’s called regime change. [rimshot].)

By the way, was America not “free” in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, or were Andrew Jackson, John C. Calhoun, and other duly-elected architects of ugly institutions like indian removal and slavery all just part of ye old axis of iniquitye? Now, put your keyboards down, crazy right-wing Freeper-types. (How’d you end up here anyway?) I’m not arguing that the U.S. is evil — I love America (I just hate flag pins.) But I am arguing that it’s never been satisfactorily proven by world events that ostensibly freedom-loving people aren’t capable of horrible atrocities from time to time.

This is the same ridiculous note Dubya struck constantly in his second inaugural (“Freedom, yeah!”), and it still rings false. When people live in freedom, they can willingly choose anything they want, including paths and policies deeply at odds with the direction we — or even common humanity — might want them to go. News flash: Dubya’s windbreaker-clad nemesis, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is — along with being a certifiable, Holocaust-denying nutjob — the freely-elected president of Iran. So let’s stop pretending that the introduction (or imposition by force) of a western-style democracy to a region is a sudden and immediate cure-all for that area’s problems. Even after eight years in the world’s most powerful office, Dubya once again showed us last night that he harbors the black-and-white, absolutist worldview of a child…or an ex-alcoholic. Good riddance.

Update: See also DYFL on this Dubya chestnut last night: “Murdering the innocent to advance an ideology is wrong every time, everywhere. Um, yeah.

On the Shoulders of Giants.

Two recent and choice Columbia-related links by way of Ted at The Late Adopter:

“Lincoln is important to us not because of his melancholia or how he chose his cabinet but because of his role in the vast human drama of emancipation and what his life tells us about slavery’s enduring legacy…In the wake of the 2008 election and on the eve of an inaugural address with ‘a new birth of freedom,’ a phrase borrowed from the Gettysburg Address, as its theme, the Lincoln we should remember is the politician whose greatness lay in his capacity for growth.” In The Nation and on the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, Eric Foner evaluates the continuing legacy of the 16th president.

“Economic orthodoxy — which gave high priority to balanced budgets and fiscal restraint — remained a powerful force in the 1930s, even as its limitations became increasingly obvious. Similar arguments can still be heard today…The New Deal was least successful when it was least aggressive–when it let concerns about fiscal prudence override the urgent need to pump enormous sums of money into a moribund economy.” And, over in TNR, Alan Brinkley notes what the Obama administration can learn from the New Deal.

Update: “Most Americans, I suspect, if asked whether they would prefer a president with strong principles or one who prefers pragmatic politics, would choose an idealist over a realist in a flash. But almost all successful politicians combine principle with pragmatism constantly.” In a TNR piece that ties the two above together quite well, Prof. Brinkley speculates on the fatal flaw in Dubya’s make-up: certitude. “For whatever reasons…Bush has seemed to be comfortable only when he could make quick and firm decisions, however complicated the issue, and then move on. Admitting mistakes or changing course seems almost contrary to his nature.

House: We Did Ya Wrong.

“African-Americans continue to suffer from the consequences of slavery and Jim Crow — long after both systems were formally abolished — through enormous damage and loss, both tangible and intangible, including the loss of human dignity and liberty, the frustration of careers and professional lives, and the long-term loss of income and opportunity.” The House looks set to pass a resolution apologizing for slavery and Jim Crow. Well, better late than never, I suppose.

Roll, Jordan, Roll.

Schlesinger isn’t the only noted historian we’ve lost of late. A belated farewell to Winthrop Jordan, 1931-2007. (Via Cliopatria.)

The Ties that Bind.

“‘It was probably the most shocking thing of my life…I couldn’t describe to you the emotions I have had…everything from anger to outrage to reflection to some pride and glory.” Genealogists discover a hitherto unknown historical (and perhaps genetic) link between Al Sharpton and Strom Thurmond: namely, in the dark days of slavery, Thurmond’s people owned Sharpton’s. “‘In the story of the Thurmonds and the Sharptons is the story of the shame and the glory of America,’ Sharpton said Sunday.

Old Dominion.

“This session will be remembered for a lot of things, but 20 years hence I suspect one of those things will be the fact that we came together and passed this resolution.” In related news, the Virginia General Assembly unanimously expresses “profound regret” for Virginia’s hand in slavery, becoming the first state to do so. “The measure also expressed regret for ‘the exploitation of Native Americans.’

Wikiality Bites.

“Colbert stepped farther through the looking glass by editing Wikipedia’s ‘Stephen Colbert’ entry during his show. He railed against the Encyclopedia Britannica’s assertion that George Washington owned slaves. ‘If I want to say he didn’t, that’s my right,’ Colbert said. On Wikipedia’s “George Washington” entry, the following phrase appeared at the end: ‘In conclusion, George Washington did not own slaves.’” The inimitable Stephen Colbert sends his legions against Wikipedia. (Via Now This.)

Hurrah, we are all free now.

A very happy Juneteenth (a.k.a. Emancipation Day, the 141st since its first celebration in Galveston, TX on June 19, 1865) to you and yours.

Dixieland.

“If you are going to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh. Otherwise they’ll kill you.” This savvy George Bernard Shaw quote introduces Kevin Willmott’s razor-sharp documentary-satire C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America, which opened at the IFC Center tonight (followed by a Q&A), and, by that measure, Willmott’s film is a rousing success. At times both blisteringly funny and quietly devastating, C.S.A is a take-no-prisoners alternate history of our Confederacy — Yep, the South won — done in the style of Ken Burns’ The Civil War (or Andy Bobrow’s Old Negro Space Program), right down to bizarro versions of Shelby Foote and Barbara Fields. Punctuated throughout by offbeat television commercials that are eerily similar to today’s TV, C.S.A. is one of the best (and most ruthless and unflinching) satires I’ve seen in some time. And it illuminates a central fact often obscured in so many Brother-against-Brother tributes to America’s bloodiest conflict (as well as drek like Gods and Generals): The Civil War was begun and fought over slavery. In the words of C.S.A. Vice-President Alexander Stephens — in his inaugural address, no less — the Confederacy was founded “upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery –subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.

To kick off its conceit, C.S.A requires that you make two leaps of logic from the history of the Civil War: First, that, after the Emancipation Proclamation is issued, C.S.A. Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin managed to convince England and France to join the war on the side of the Confederacy. (This was less likely, I think, than the film makes it out to be. Popular support in England — who had abolished slavery in 1833 — was pretty clearly on the side of the Union, particularly after Lincoln’s Proclamation, and “King Cotton diplomacy” just wasn’t going to work when England and France could import cotton instead from India, Egypt, and other waystations in their respective empires. And, even if the European powers had recognized the CSA, which they might’ve done had the South won more battles, they weren’t about to send troops across the Atlantic to fight on the side of slavery without severe popular repercussions.) Second, and more unlikely, is that, after capturing Washington DC, the South managed to subdue and annex the entire North, leveling Boston and Philadelphia (a la Sherman’s March) in the process. Even despite the Union’s hold on the Mississippi in the Western theater, the South might well have won the war, if Northern public opinion had collapsed in 1863 and 1864 (As it was, timely Union victories — and particularly the fall of Atlanta — buoyed Lincoln’s reelection.) But, had that happened, IMHO, there would likely be two nations uneasily living side by side for decades to come, as you find in Harry Turtledove’s How Few Remain series.

Ok, all that history geekery notwithstanding (which is somewhat unfair to the movie — it’s an alternate history satire, after all, which also explains the more recognizable battle flag replacing the official Stars and Bars on the moon and elsewhere), once you make the conceptual leap that the Confederacy managed to win the war and annex the Union, the rest of C.S.A is remarkably well-thought-out, and at times even scarily plausible. Like Jeff Davis, Lincoln is captured trying to escape in costume (on the Underground Railroad) and sent to Fort Monroe — Here, it’s dramatized in the 1915 D.W. Griffith film, The Hunt for Dishonest Abe. While the South contemplates various “Reconstruction” plans to reintroduce slavery to the North (and Nathan Bedford Forrest reenacts Fort Pillow over and over again), William Lloyd Garrison leads an abolitionist/transcendentalist contingent to Canada. Rather than the Chinese Exclusion Act, the C.S.A. passes a “Yellow Peril Mandate” providing for the enslaving of Chinese laborers. And, as in our world, the nation comes together again to fight a (here much broader) Spanish-American War.

As we get to the 20th century, C.S.A. continues to adroitly riff on American history. Audiences swarm to the Civil War musical, A Northern Wind. (“You tried to take my blacks, But I still want you back.“) In WWII, the C.S.A. plays nice with Germany while despising Japan. (Thanks to the service of Judah Benjamin, Jews can still live in the Confederacy, provided they stay on their “reservation” in Long Island.) Eventually, an armed, highly defended border — the “Cotton Curtain” — descends between Canada and the C.S.A., and ’50’s Confederates scour the nation for the “Abs” (abolitionists) in their midst. Later still, slave riots break out in Newark, Watts, and elsewhere in the turbulent ’60s, as many white Confederates reconsider slavery (due to global sanctions, give or take South Africa) and women begin to demand the vote.

Equally as nimble as the mirror-image counterhistory of the CSA are the many commercial breaks throughout the fake documentary, with ads that are both jaw-droppingly brazen and laugh-out-loud funny. (You can get a sense of this from the trailer — Think Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, itself an excellent satire, to the nth degree.) They range from fake ads for unfortunately real products (Darky Toothpaste, Coon Chicken Inn) to all-too-possible modern innovations — The Slave Shopping Network, a LoJack “Shackle”, a Claritin-ish drug to treat drapetomania (the runaway disease “discovered” by Dr. Samuel Cartwright in 1851), a COPS-style show called RUNAWAYS, etc. etc. As you can see, this is withering stuff, and some might find it in horrible taste. But, there’s method to CSA’s madness. As I noted before, we tend to do a pitiful job of facing up to slavery, America’s Original Sin, and for ninety hilarious, cringeworthy minutes, CSA forces us to look the peculiar institution square in the eye. If we’re serious about our proclaimed role as a Beacon of Freedom to the world, that’s something we need to start doing a lot more often. (But, don’t worry — C.S.A. sweetens this tonic with quite a few laughs.) At any rate, if it’s anywhere near you, definitely go check it out.

Been in the Storm So Long.

In related news, a site is chosen for the National Museum of African American History and Culture (at 14th and Constitution NW, near the Washington Monument.) As I argued before, some museum along such lines on our nation’s Mall is long overdue.

Fables of the Reconstruction.

Foner‘s field of special expertise is what might be called without exaggeration the crucible of American freedom: the Civil War, the emancipation of the slaves and the ambiguous, myth-shrouded period that followed known as Reconstruction. He never puts it this directly, either in this new, somewhat compressed popular history or in his 1988 magnum opus, ‘Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877,’ but he sees Reconstruction, with all its contradictions and unrealized possibilities, as the key to all of American history.Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir takes a gander at Eric Foner’s latest book, Forever Free.

Send back the blood-stained money.

“‘I’m sorry, sir,’ he said to me. ‘I’m sorry for what she’s done.” As pointed out in lecture this afternoon, today’s NY Times includes an editorial on the corporate divulging of ties to Antebellum slavery, spurred by this recent letter of apology at JP Morgan-Chase: “We all know slavery existed in our country, but it is quite different to see how our history and the institution of slavery were intertwined. Slavery was tragically ingrained in American society, but that is no excuse. We apologize to the American public, and particularly to African-Americans, for the role that Citizens Bank and Canal Bank played during that period.” Interesting…research projects into corporate complicity such as this one will hopefully add further impetus for the creation of a National Slavery Museum in the relatively near future — As a whole, we Americans should do a better job in recognizing and remembering our national Original Sin, and I think such a museum would be a great step in that direction. (In fact, the museum really should be on the Mall, not in Fredericksburg, VA.)

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