TUESDAY, JUNE 15, 2021
...about our (nation's) brutal past?: How hard can it be to know what to think about our brutal past?
Actually, let's put that slightly differently.
How hard is to to know what to think about our nation's brutal past?
We add one word because the brutal past to which we refer wasn't invented or devised by anyone living today. No one living today made the decisions to which we, on the left, now lovingly tend to return.
Because as humans we're very dumb, we "on the left" often seem eager to make modern people feel guilty about that brutal past. That impulse is dumb in every respect. Did we mention the fact that we're human?
No one living today invented that past, but we humans "on the left" long to keep that past alive in various ways, some of which may make sense. That leads us back to the curious headline which sat atop an interview piece this past weekend at Slate:
"Understanding the Horror of Slavery Is Impossible," the first part of that rather strange headline rather strangely proclaims. The full headline said and says this:
Understanding the Horror of Slavery Is Impossible. But a Simple Cotton Sack Can Bring Us Closer.
The cotton sack in question is an historical artifact. It forms the basis of a new book by Tiya Miles, a history professor at Harvard, whose work we've discussed in the past.
In the piece which carries that headline, Miles is interviewed by Slate's Rebecca Onion. At the end of the interview, Miles offers some good sound advice—advice we'll quote and consider tomorrow.
For today, we want to return to our basic question about that peculiar headline:
For whom is it even hard to understand the horror of slavery, let alone impossible? What can the strange assertion in that headline possibly mean?
Calendars claim that we're living in the year 2021. For whom is the assessment in question difficult, let alone impossible?
According to that rather peculiar headline, the cotton sack discussed in Miles' new book may be able to bring us closer to understanding the horror of slavery. As you can see if you read the interview, the cotton sack is supposed to serve us that way because it evokes one heartbreaking—and brutal—event which apparently took place, apparently in South Carolina, when slavery was still alive.
An inscription on the sack suggests a heartbreaking, brutal story. As Onion and Miles discuss that story, the story is supposed to help us in our attempt to understand—no, to better understand—the horror of that institution, which no longer exists.
That said, we offer a question. Who could possibly need such help? Our reason for asking is this:
Professor Miles hasn't exactly discovered the horror of slavery. Her book revolves around one particular case—an apparent case whose historical details she can't completely pin down.
That said, the horror involved in other such cases have been well known for years. Who isn't fully aware of this fact? Who could possibly need new instruction?
This past Sunday morning, that headline struck us as perhaps even disrespectful. As a result, we pulled out our copy of Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, an award-winning book by Professor Genovese which appeared in 1974.
(It followed an earlier book by Genovese, The World the Slaveholders Made. In Our Town, we continue to recommend aspects of that world in ways which strike us as foolish, inhumane, unintelligent.)
Roll, Jordan, Roll is a very long, very detailed book, based on a wealth of historical sources (diaries, "slave narratives," newspaper reports.) As happenstance had it, we opened to page 484-485, and our eye fell upon a discussion of sexual assaults on enslaved women during the era in question.
Starting at the bottom on page 5484, Genovese describes one particular incident. His account starts like this:
GENOVESE (page 484): Black women fell victim to white lust, but many escaped because the whites knew they had black men who would rather die than stand idly by. In some cases black men protected their women and got off with a whipping or no punishment at all; in other cases they sacrificed their lives. Knowledge of their inevitable response prevented many outrages from happening.
At that point, Genovese quotes a Georgia woman of the Civil War era ridiculing enslaved black men as "cowards." He's quoting her from a published account.
She "should have known better," he says.
"In view of the risks, the wonder is not that more black men did not defend their women but that so many did," Genovese writes. He notes that sexual attacks of the type in question caused many of these men to "reveal a far greater strength than most men and women are ever asked—or ever should be asked—to display."
With our apologies for where this leads, Genovese then starts to describe one such incident, apparently from the 1790s. The name of a witness is cited:
GENOVESE: An overseer tried to rape Josiah Henson's mother but was overpowered by his father. Yielding to his wife's pleas and the overseer's promise of no reprisal, the enraged slave desisted from killing him. The overseer broke his promise. Henson's father suffered one hundred lashes and had an ear nailed to the whipping post and then severed.
At this point, we've only started to describe the horror involved in this incident. As he continues, Genovese quotes Josiah Henson himself, drawing from one of Henson's published accounts of his own life.
Henson's published quotation appears in italics. Genovese then proceeds:
GENOVESE (continuing directly): Previous to this affair my father, from all I can learn, had been a good-humored and light-hearted man, the ringleader in all fun at corn-huskings and Christmas buffoonery. His banjo was the life of the farm, and all night long at a merry-making would he play on it while the other negroes danced. But from this hour he became utterly changed. Sullen, morose, and dogged, nothing could be done with him.
Threats of being sold south had no effect on him. The thoughts running through his mind as he came to prefer separation from the wife he loved to enduring life there must remain a matter of speculation. His master sold him to Alabama, and he was never heard from again.
This was the horrific incident we encountered when we flipped open the book. Other such events, sourced to historical records, appears throughout Roll. Jordan, Roll, a book which celebrates the moral brilliance of "the world the slaves made" in the face of such brutal treatment.
(For ourselves, we'd be inclined to use the term "enslaved people," not "slaves.")
Our point about this is simple. There's nothing new about the fact that such behavior abounded during our nation's past. Consider:
Genovese's account of this incident appeared in 1974. The account, one of many, appeared in a book which was widely praised.
That said, this wasn't the first occasion upon which the world was able to learn of this particular incident. In the passage we've posted above, Genovese was quoting from the second of Josiah Henson's three published account of his own life.
More specifically, Genovese was quoting from Truth Stranger Than Fiction. Father Henson's Story of His Own Life, a memoir which appeared in 1858.
Henson had escaped to Canada in 1830. His three memoirs described the horrors he had witnessed and endured as a child born into slavery in the state of Maryland, not far from the nation's capital.
According to the leading authority on the subject, Henson's first book, which appeared in 1849, "is believed to have inspired the title character of Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852)." Also according to that authority, that 1852 novel "was the second best-selling book of the 19th century, following the Bible."
People read about the horror of slavery in all the books we've mentioned. Today, the book by Henson which Genovese quoted is in the public domain.
You can read Henson's full account of that brutal incident, in the book's opening chapter, simply by clicking this link. You'll find the passage Genovese quoted, along with Henson's own first-person account of that horrific incident.
Our point is simple. The horror of slavery has been well known for an extremely long time.
No one is recommending the reinstitution of that brutal system. We have no idea why anyone living today would find it hard to "understand" the horror of that institution, an institution which no one living today had a hand in creating or extending.
Who could possibly find it hard, let alone "impossible," to "understand the horror of slavery?" Does that headline really reflect anything Onion or Miles actually thought as they discussed the professor's new book? Does it reflect any part of Miles' purpose in creating the book?
As we've noted, Miles offered some good advice as the interview came to an end. But what could that headline possibly mean or intend to suggest? Also, what might it possibly say about the possible moral vapidity of us, the deeply self-involved, possibly navel-gazing denizens of this, Our Own Failing Town?
How hard is it to know what to think about our (nation's) brutal past? How hard is it to "understand" the horror involved in that history?
Who could possibly find the task hard? What can that headline, and parts of that interview, suggest about us in Our Town?
Tomorrow: Possibly a bit late in the game, Miles offers some good advice