Saturday, October 4, 2014

Land of the Free, Home of the Slave

Alan Taylor's The Internal Enemy continues to occupy my mind. His treatment of slave owners' psychology is excellent. He writes, "When confronted with suffering slaves, some masters showed a deft ability to evade blame by, instead, congratulating themselves for a superior ability to feel the pain of inferiors." When Henry Tucker acquired a ten-year-old slave boy named Bob in 1804, the boy "felt devastated by the forced separation from his mother." His new owner wrote,
Poor little fellow! I was much affected at an incident last night. I was waked from a very sound sleep by a most piteous lamentation. I found it was Bob. I called several times before he waked. "What is the matter, Bob?" "I was dreaming about my mammy Sir"!!! cried he in a melancholy & still distressed tone: "Gracious God!" thought I, "how ought not I to feel, who regarded this child as insensible when compared to those of our complexion"...How finely woven, how delicately sensible must be those bonds of natural affection which equally adorn the civilized and the savage -- the American and African -- nay the man and the brute.
Taylor writes, "Despite discovering a shared humanity with the boy, Henry reiterated a stark polarity in which he stood as the superior: the civilized American man in contrast to the savage, African brute. In that view, slave labor supported, rather than contradicted, the freedom of those who most deserved it." Most White Virginians assumed that Black slaves had a fundamentally different inner life that allowed them to bear up under hardship in a way that Whites could not. "'Their griefs are transient,' and their afflictions 'are less felt, and sooner forgotten,' insisted [Thomas] Jefferson" (58-59).

Lest you think these attitudes are distant irrelevancies, consider two recent studies of modern Americans:

Researchers at the University of Virginia found that young children "report that black children feel less pain than white children."
Frontiers in Psychology published a study finding that "Caucasian observers reacted to pain suffered by African people significantly less than to pain of Caucasian people."

It is no great stretch to infer a line of connection between the Henry Tuckers of antebellum Virginia and psychological studies of implicit bias two hundred years later. This raises big problems for most Americans, for whom history is either an abstraction or a tool to be picked up and used at their leisure. It is rather more galvanizing--and terrifying--to face up to history as an independent weight pressing in on us and shaping us well before we're ever able to shape it. What happened exerts an influence that is, despite the distortions of memory and vulgarization of historical thinking, independent of what is said to have happened.

Americans understand this even if we are loath to admit it. Jefferson's language of liberty is assumed to matter. The importance of the Constitution is obvious and inarguable. We take it for granted that these documents, and the intellectual currents that produced them, matter to us in 2014. But the popular discourse surrounding the much more recent institution of human bondage takes place on an entirely different ground. History suddenly disappears; all is the present; all is political. Racial prejudice is so entrenched in our discourse that the influence that is assumed for other centuries-old American institutions is denied to slavery. And not just denied. To explain any contemporary phenomena in light of slavery is now a tired cliche that earns ridicule.

The idea that the enslavement of four million human beings a century and a half ago still tangibly matters is vehemently denied by most White Americans. Take the pervasive White-immigrant narrative: "My ancestors weren't even here. I had nothing to do with slavery." This a la carte Americanism is something to behold. Somehow, we are to believe, the late arrival of these White immigrants on the American scene was comprehensively fortuitous and ennobling. Theirs is the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and the Pursuit of Happiness. Other American birthrites of rather more recent vintage--racial slavery and White supremacy--left them unscathed.

Beneath the flag-waving and the invocations of history resides the psyche of a people that cannot abide what has happened. So we must tame history and make it manageable, however incoherent the results. There is no question that Americans' fear of history is often expressed in ways that are downright funny. But then, those who can see it for what it is laugh only so we won't cry. For the past bears down on us whether we recognize it or not. And it does its most brutal work among the ignorant.

1 comment:

  1. Well, that probably explains the aversion to knowing history that makes the "right" wing's job easier.