“Most slave families were headed by two parents”, and other lies

Posted on June 30, 2017. Filed under: Civil War, Politics, Slavery, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

Welcome to part the last of our short series of excerpts from the high school textbook American History: A Survey wherein we finish by giving an example of the damage done by history textbooks that are inaccurate at best, harmful at worst.

Inside Higher Ed recently reported on a dispute over a sociology test given at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Lecturer Judy Morelock was challenged by student Kayla Renee Parker:

sociology question

This reasonable question seems to have been quickly escalated into bitterness by the instructor, as evidenced by her postings on Facebook: “After the semester is over and she is no longer my student, I will post her name, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn … after she graduates, all bets are off,” “I don’t forget malevolent attempts to harm me. #karmawillfindyou,” and “Ignore the facts, promote a misinformed viewpoint, trash me and I will fight you.”  Ms. Morelock says some of these comments were not about Ms. Parker.

Ms. Parker blames “outdated research that ‘whitewashes’ the realities of slavery to back up her argument”. We would add inaccurate, whitewashed American history textbooks to that list. Where might an instructor have learned that “most slave families were headed by two parents”? Where might an instructor find quotes to back that myth up? American history textbooks. This is not just an issue with American History: A Survey. Textbook publishers are at the mercy of state boards of education and state school committees that decide which textbooks to purchase for every school in the state. The biggest states call the shots here, as they are the biggest moneymakers for the publishers, of course, so whatever version is approved by those large states is generally the version that goes to all states that buy the textbook.

Some of the biggest states are Texas, Florida, and Virginia. For over a century these southern states have argued with objective descriptions of slavery and Reconstruction, Jim Crow and the civil rights movement. Watered-down pap like we found in AH is the result. Unfortunate that it goes to those three states; worse that it goes to all states that buy the textbooks.

We see high school white-washing moving inevitably into intro-level college history survey courses. To state that “most slave families were headed by two parents” is preposterous. It erases the fact that enslaved black Americans were bred for sale like livestock, with healthy children sold away from their parents for a profit, and women who had recently given birth to healthy children sold immediately so they could be forced to have sex with “productive” enslaved men on other plantations while they were still young and fertile. Once Congress ended the slave trade in 1808, Africans could not be sold into slavery in the U.S. The enslaved population had to grow through reproduction alone. This was a death knell to enslaved black families. Enslaved families were broken up for profit, out of spite, and as a punishment. Marriages between enslaved people were not recognized by law in many states, and no enslaved person had any legal custody rights to their children. They, and their children, were legally defined as the property of the people who enslaved them.

It’s not “malevolent” to stand up to harmful lies about our nation’s history. Fight them wherever you find them, starting in high school.

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The myth of the North being “more racist” than the South

Posted on June 22, 2017. Filed under: Civil Rights, Civil War, Slavery, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , |

Welcome to part 3 of our short series of excerpts from the high school textbook American History: A Survey which deals with with one last reading from AH.

It’s a bitter irony that under the subheading “Black Abolitionists”, American History promotes the sickening myth that free black Americans living in the free states of the north before the Civil War were subject to more racism and worse living conditions than black Americans enslaved in the south:

Abolitionism had a particular appeal to the free blacks of the North, who in 1850 numbered about 250,000, mostly concentrated in cities. They lived in conditions of poverty and oppression often worse than those of their slave counterparts in the South.

—…if free black Americans were worse off than enslaved black Americans, why would abolitionism appeal to them? This logical fallacy begins a section that only gets worse.

We are getting this message for the second time; you’ll recall in part 1 of this series AH pushed the idea that immigrant factory workers were worse-off than enslaved black Americans. Again, we shudder at the comfort AH has with referring to human beings as “slaves” rather than “enslaved people” or “enslaved Americans”. Calling people “slaves” changes them from people to things, which is why the word exists. It allows you to go on to say things like this:

An English traveler who had visited both sections of the country wrote in 1854 that he was “utterly at a loss to imagine the source of that prejudice which subsists against [African Americans] in the Northern states, a prejudice unknown in the South, where the relations between the Africans and the European [white American] are so much more intimate.”

—Let’s unpack. The English traveler is Marshall Hall, an abolitionist who visited the U.S. and Canada and wrote The Two-Fold Slavery of the United States with the hope of appealing to slaveholders in the U.S. to end slavery. Hall’s purpose was to use positive energy to end slavery: rather than attack slaveholders as the inhuman monsters they were, he hoped to reach out to them as good people who would, by nature of their goodness, come to see that enslaving people was wrong. As he put it to them, “I take the liberty of addressing [myself] to you, because from you, I believe, all good to the poor African people in the United States must originate. …from your kindness and generosity, and sense of justice, any peaceful, beneficent, and momentous change in their condition must flow.”

Hall’s tactic is not in itself a bad one; you catch more flies with honey than vinegar, and people you attack are not likely to come around to your way of thinking. But in his efforts to portray slaveholders as basically good people, Hall goes much too far.

Notice his title is the “two-fold” slavery of the U.S. Hall was taken aback by the difficult condition free black Americans lived in in the north. He had expected to see terrors and suffering in the slave south, and happy bliss in the free north. What he saw instead, he says, was “a [virtual] slavery to which too little attention has hitherto been paid.” Free black Americans in the north, says Hall, have it worse than enslaved black Americans in the south.

We immediately suspect that Hall was the guest of slaveholders who made sure that the people they held as livestock put on their best face for the visitor. “Happy” enslaved servants were given new clothes and good food for the duration of Hall’s visit, and were instructed to do all in their power to give him a good impression of slavery—or else. This suspicion is reinforced by Hall’s observation that

…the African in the slavery of the United States is usually so well cared for, that he is for the most part, according to the expression of Henry Clay, “fat and sleek”, and his numbers increase in a higher ratio than those of the European [i.e., whites]; whilst the African said to be free is so crushed by state legislation and popular prejudice as to provide for himself and family through extreme difficulties, and is at once wretched individually and scarcely increases his numbers as a race…

Much, therefore, as has been said of Abolition, I can scarcely regard it, under existing circumstances, as a boon to the poor African in the United States.

Quoting Henry Clay, the “great compromiser” who did so much to expand slavery in the U.S., in an antislavery book is pretty dicey. Clay had a vested interest in telling Americans that enslaved people were “fat and happy”.  Hall notes that freedom in the north is but technical, and therefore abolition as it exists in the U.S. is worthless. It is slavery by another name.

He goes on to elaborate this point in his very short chapter on Slavery: Its Cruelties and Indignities—a meager three pages that begin on page 118 in a book of over 200 pages. As Hall notes, “This has usually been the first topic with anti-slavery writers.” But Hall has little time for the physical cruelty of slavery because his entire labor is to show that physical slavery is nothing compared with spiritual bondage. As he puts it, “The cruelties of slavery are, at the most, physical. I have told you of moral and intellectual inflictions; of hearts rent asunder and of minds crushed.”

Yes, we may grant him his case that mental and emotional torture are equally bad, and sometimes worse, than physical torture. But they are both torture. Hall’s subsequent descriptions of physical cruelty against enslaved people turn the stomach. Clearly Hall was shown “happy” enslaved people but also allowed to see the “necessary discipline” that was sometimes “required” to keep enslaved people down. We will only quote one ad from North Carolina for a runaway that Hall includes:

Run away, a negro woman and two children. A few days before she went off, I burnt her with a hot iron, on the left side of her face. I tried to make the letter M.

M. RICKS, July 18, 1838

“I tried to make the letter M” is a statement, an image, that is forever implanted in your mind once you read it. “Trying” to brand your initial with a hot iron onto a person’s face is a kind of barbarism that is hard to even take in. It is only possible if you don’t think of that person as a human being but as a piece of livestock that belongs to you. We realize the slaveholder likely failed to make the M because of the woman’s struggles and screams. Is this really better than “moral and intellectual inflictions”? Is this really incapable of “rending a heart asunder” and crushing a mind? Is being branded better than being denied a good job in the north? Hall seems to see people like Ricks as the exception that proves the rule that actual slavery is reliably better than the wage slavery faced by black Americans in the north.

And this is the man American History chooses to quote to American students today, in 2017, as a reliable, objective observer whose words are, apparently, proof that free black Americans would have been better off enslaved.

Somehow, we go on, back to AH:

This [quote from Hall] confirmed an earlier observation by Tocqueville that “the prejudice which repels the Negroes seems to increase in proportion as they are emancipated.”

—But the famous French traveller through the United States was not supporting the idea that abolition was a lie; de Tocqueville was observing that in a nation where race-based slavery is legal, any black person who gains freedom will present a problem. The free black person is a rebuke and a challenge to the slave law; the free black person, by living a human life, shows that slavery is not part of God’s benevolent plan but an artificial human invention designed to turn people into livestock. And a slave nation does not want to see that.

Northern blacks were often victimized by mob violence; they had virtually no access to education; they could vote in only  a few states; and they were barred from all but the most menial of occupations.

—All of the statements about black Americans made here were also true of American women of all colors. Women were virtually enslaved in this way, and that enslavement was encoded in laws that did not let women vote, inherit money or property, or claim custody of their children. Yet we don’t find AH saying women would have been better off enslaved. (We hope not; we didn’t read their chapter on women’s suffrage…)

…For all their problems, however, northern blacks were aware of, and fiercely proud of, their freedom. And they remained acutely sensitive to the plight of those members of their race who remained in bondage, aware that their own position in society would remain precarious as long as slavery existed.

—We’re not sure what the first sentence means: black Americans were “aware of” their freedom? All of the language fails here, perhaps because of its shameful duplicity. Black American were sensitive to the “plight” of “those members of their race” who remained in “bondage”? A more honest sentence might read “they remained acutely aware of the horrors suffered by other black Americans who were enslaved and held as livestock”. 

But the worst is at the end, where apparently free black Americans were only aware of enslaved black Americans as a threat to their own freedom. AH makes it sound like free black resented and feared enslaved blacks for making their own lives in the north harder.

We’ll end for now with a reiteration of the fact that living with institutional racism and oppression is not, in fact, worse than being bred for sale. And while there was institutional racism and oppression in the free states before the Civil War, it is impossible to say that people who voted to end black slavery were “just as racist” as people who refused to do so.

Next time: we conclude with an example of the damage textbooks like this do.

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Louisa, unenthusiastically enslaved

Posted on June 15, 2017. Filed under: Civil War, Slavery, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

Part 2 of our short series of excerpts from the high school textbook American History: A Survey focuses on this photo:


The photo is easily found online—we found it on the PBS site Africans in America. It is a photo of a black American named Louisa who was enslaved by the Hayward family in  Missouri. Here’s how PBS describes this photo:

Under the institution of slavery, African Americans and the white people who owned them lived in close proximity and developed relationships with each other. These were defined by the power imbalance between the people involved. They could be relationships of mutual compassion or mutual hatred, but they were an inherent part of daily life.

One of the most complex relationships was the one that existed between white children and their African American caretakers. White children were often in the unnatural position of standing to inherit the people who raised them, and enslaved nannies were in the similarly unnatural position of caring for the children who would grow up to be their masters. This picture, of slave nurse Louisa and her charge, H. E. Hayward, suggests the inherent tension of these relationships.

We’ve already quarreled in part one with the idea that “compassion” between enslaved people and the people claiming to own them as livestock could ever be genuine. Here we want to focus on the second paragraph, which to us is an accurate description of the image. The baby is happy. The young woman holding him looks sorrowful at best, wary and emotionally beaten down at worst. Her eyes, like the baby’s, are on the face of the Hayward parent or parents who wanted the photo. The baby smiles, while Louisa seems to feel all of the stress of being responsible for a white child. If anything happens to that child, Louisa will bear the blame and be punished accordingly. Her life and welfare hang on his. That baby is already her “master.” Any love she might feel for a baby in her care is marred by the fact that she is forced to care for him and not her own children, who may have been sold away from her, and by the fact that any love he might feel for her as his closest caregiver will be systematically and deliberately destroyed as he grows up, so that he will be able to sell her as livestock when that becomes necessary for his own personal enrichment. The photo is a haunting representation of the perversion of all natural human emotion that slavery depends upon, and that’s why it’s famous.

American History, however, has a different take:

NURSING THE MASTER’S CHILD Louisa, a slave on a Missouri plantation owned by the Hayward family in the 1850s, is photographed here holding the master’s infant son. Black women typically cared for white children on plantations, sometimes with great affection and sometimes—as this photograph may suggest—dutifully and without enthusiasm.

Again, AH‘s level of comfort with the terms “master” and “slave” is jarring. But then, perhaps that is what enables AH to criticize Louisa as unenthusiastic in her “duty”. That the editors of AH could look at this photo and approve a caption that belittles her fear and subjection by saying she has no “enthusiasm” for babysitting an adorable child is astounding. How they could critique her for just being “dutiful” instead of “enthusiastic” is completely inexplicable. It comes perilously close to the old “lazy negro” caricature wherein black Americans were depicted as lazy and sullen and unwilling to work hard.

We go on next time to AH’s thoughts on black abolitionists.

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What do you think was the worst thing about a slave auction?

Posted on May 31, 2017. Filed under: Civil Rights, Civil War, Slavery, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , |

That was the question on a 10th-grade American history homework handout we were shown this week, from a public school in the Northeast. Needless to say, it was from the Civil War section of the curriculum. It was followed by this puzzler: “How do you think slaves felt at a slave auction, and why?”

The mind boggles at these questions. A slave auction is the place where the purpose of slavery is fulfilled: to breed human beings for sale. Is there any facet of a slave auction that is not repellent? Can the horrors of a slave auction be hierarchized? What were students supposed to say to answer this question? It implies that there were some aspects of slave auctions that were less awful than others, which is simply untrue.

We asked what textbook the class was using, and were given a copy: American History: A Survey, with Alan Brinkley listed as main author on the cover (McGraw-Hill, 2003 edition). While the handout in question did not come from this textbook, its habit of qualifying slavery as only partly bad is shared and propounded by American History.

First, we’d like to remind our readers that We don’t talk about black slavery in America:

I don’t like to use the word “slave”. To me, it validates the concept that people can be changed from people to slaves, things, property. Many people have been and still are enslaved around the world. But no human being is a slave.

Like most Americans, however, American History uses the word slave without qualm. The damage this does is quickly apparent. Let’s parse a few quotes from the book.

From a section on black codes:

These and dozens of other restrictions might seem to suggest that slaves lived under a uniformly harsh and dismal regime. Had the laws been rigidly enforced, that might have been the case. In fact, however, enforcement was spotty and uneven. Some slaves did acquire property, did learn to read and write, and assemble with other slaves, in spite of laws to the contrary. Although the major slave offenses generally fell under the jurisdiction of the courts (and thus of the Slave Codes), white owners handled most transgressions and inflicted widely varying punishments. In other words, despite the rigid provisions of the law, there was in reality considerable variety within the slave system. Some blacks lived in almost prison-like conditions, rigidly and harshly controlled by their masters. Many (probably most) others enjoyed some flexibility and (at least in comparison with the regimen prescribed by law) a striking degree of autonomy.

—Using the word “slave” here does exactly what racists in the 19th century wanted it to do: it dehumanizes. “Slaves” do this and that, “slaves” experience different treatment by “owners”, “slaves” enjoy flexibility. How can we still be referring to some human beings as “owners” of other human beings in 2017?? It is inexcusable. And we’re not sure what proofs the authors have that “probably most” enslaved Americans were able to escape the harshness of black codes.

A quick note: history textbooks from big K-12 publishers are produced by freelance writers, and edited by freelance editors. The historian’s name on the cover means little. Usually that historian has been brought in to write a new chapter, a new section or two, and to help come up with supplementary material. The main text is mostly static. Freelance writers are given existing copy and asked to revise it in some way (usually to shorten it). HP authors have worked as freelance writers and editors for history textbooks, so we could take a page out of American History and say that “many, probably most,” freelance writers working on textbooks have no idea whether the content they are given is accurate/factual or not. They are not asked to vet the copy for accuracy. If, as some HP writers have done, they point out errors to their editor, the editor is usually at a complete loss about what to do—there is no contingency plan for changing what the copy says, just for shortening or moving it around or putting it into bullet points or multiple choice questions. We had nothing to do with the writing of American History, and do not make any claims to know exactly how it was produced; we work under our own assumption that it followed this standard procedure. And so when we wonder what proofs are given that “most” enslaved Americans were not subject to the full force of the black codes, we feel sure that that question, if it was ever asked by a freelancer, was never answered.

Back to the text:

White farmers with few slaves generally supervised their workers directly and often worked closely alongside them. On such farms, black and whites developed a form of intimacy unknown on larger plantations. The paternal relationship between such masters and their slaves could, like relationships between fathers and children, be warm and affectionate. It could also be tyrannical and cruel. In either case, it was a relationship based on the relative powerlessness of the slaves and the nearly absolute authority of their masters. In general, African Americans themselves preferred to live on larger plantations, where they had more privacy and a chance to build a cultural and social world of their own.

—It is hard to believe one’s eyes: the 19th century idea of paternalism is being endorsed by a 21st-century textbook. The relationship between “masters” and “slaves” was like that between fathers and children? The idea that slavery could be a “positive good”, helping poor ignorant black people to learn how to live in society and follow Christian teaching, was relentlessly shopped by proslavery Americans in the 1800s. And here it is again in the 2000s, as students are told that “intimacy,” and “warm and affectionate” feelings could grow between people who were being bred for sale and those breeding them for sale.

Of course, we should back up to the first line, in which enslaved people are described as “workers.” Another textbook came under fire for doing this in 2015; people who are enslaved and by law treated as livestock are not “workers”. We’ll revisit this below.

Finally, to describe large plantations as having safe spaces for people suddenly referred to as “African Americans” to have private lives and create their own culture, without giving any kind of proof of this claim, is pretty alarming. Why is this the one place where “slaves” are suddenly “African Americans”? The suggestion is that on large plantations–which were large because the forced breeding was ramped up–were in part havens in which black Americans began to create African-American culture.

Even so, according to some scholars, the actual material conditions of slavery may, in fact, have been better than those of many northern factory workers and considerably better than those of both peasants and industrial workers in 19th-century Europe.

—…we’d say “some (not most) scholars” on this one. Here enslavement is presented once again as just another kind of hard “work.” But it’s also yet another argument proslavery Americans made in the 1800s, before and after the Civil War, to promote and protect slavery. Yes, factory workers lived in abysmal poverty, and their bosses had total control over them at work. But they weren’t bred for sale, their families weren’t broken up and sold to different people who considered themselves their “owners”, and you could quit factory work if you wanted to. You could work your way up the ladder to be a boss. You got paid. You could vote. You could get married if you wanted to, to whoever you wanted to. You could move away. You were a citizen of this country, with the rights of a citizen. This is, to put it mildly, better than slavery.

Most free blacks [in the south], however, lived in abject poverty, under conditions worse than those of blacks in the north. Law or custom closed many occupations to them, forbade them to assemble without white supervision, and placed numerous other restraints on them. They were only quasi-free, and yet they had all the burdens of freedom: the necessity to support themselves, to find housing, to pay taxes. Yet great as were the hardships of freedom, blacks usually preferred them to slavery.”

—The “burdens of freedom” is an expression, a concept, that we have not encountered before. Again, echoes of the old proslavery arguments are heard: slaveholders give slaves food, shelter, clothes, religion; they care for them when they’re sick; they support them when they’re too old to work. Why, slaves had it pretty good! If it weren’t so breathtakingly awful to say blacks usually preferred freedom to slavery, we would laugh. Yes, black Americans usually preferred freedom to slavery. Like people usually prefer not being tortured to being tortured.

This last line is the most sickening, perhaps, of the echoes of proslavery arguments: that the enslaved liked slavery. That they knew they were not intelligent enough, not civilized enough, to be free, and they were grateful for their white masters’ help and care. The recently revived myth that “many” enslaved black men fought willingly for the Confederacy is a sign of the undying appeal of this idea to a small number of Americans (see more on this myth here).

Next time: more, if you can bear it, from American History: A Survey

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