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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