Old myths frustrate modern hopes
If you grew up white, Southern and embedded in the successor class to the Antebellum gentry, you’ve likely heard it — more than once: “I was always told that they treated them like family.” “Them” meaning slaves.
It wasn’t a lie; that was in fact what they — the heirs of those who had trafficked in human beings — had always been told.
In the 21st century this can’t qualify as conscious thought. It’s reflexive recitation of a family fairytale that few would keep alive if they gave it one minute’s critical thought. How many planters’ sons and daughters were sold and resold on auction blocks? How many spent their lives toiling from sunup to sundown without pay? How many had their families torn apart and scattered for profit or as punishment? How many routinely had their living quarters ransacked by bands of strangers searching for weapons, or for contraband that could be discreetly pocketed? How many were strung up by handcuffs or stripped naked and, wrists bound to ankles, beaten with whips?
Modern, intelligent, college-educated people don’t even need the answers to such questions. But they do need to ask them, lest perspective be lost for yet another generation while everyone’s interests suffer.
Historians can be too smug about slavery because there’s such a wealth of documentation, including not only family correspondence and tax records, but literally hundreds of first-person accounts by former slaves and their children.
From Frederick Douglass we learn that some slave families were fed “mush” in troughs, without utensils, like swine.
From dry public records and the recorded utterances of prominent people we learn not only grisly details of the Atlantic slave trade, but the twisted theology that the subjugation of blacks for profit was God’s own design and the very foundation upon which freedom rested.
From the WPA Slave Narratives (accessible online) we learn both the hideous particulars and the disturbing generalities: Some masters were considered “good” and others “bad.” It isn’t only whites who fail that test. A few days ago, in a public forum, an African-American held his own against people who were unserious about the thinking process. He did well — until he launched a line of inquiry that included this: Were his adversaries’ ancestors’ slaves well-treated by their master?
Reality check: They were slaves, and slavery is a most aggressive form of abuse no matter what variations suit the master’s fancy, whether it be a happy Christmas Day candy-pull or a sadistic holiday rape. There were laws governing the abuse of slaves, but a far larger number of laws existed to preserve masters’ discretion to do as they pleased within their respective domains, and to protect them if they transgressed.
Those are the real common denominators, and historians who persist in seeking universality among the splendidly documented anecdotes place their conclusions in peril. The treatment of slaves varied from plantation to plantation at the wish of “America’s royalty,” but slavery was in its bare essence premeditated brutality, reinforced by tales spun not to deceive outsiders but to sedate the consciences of those who spun them.
Contrary to widespread belief, the whip or “cowhide” was not infrequently an instrument of execution rather than one of punishment. Beatings often were fatal, and were meant to be. But even when no one died, slavery was divided among masters who were by choice bad or less bad; there was no “good” to be found in the institution itself.
In the 1850s, The Fayetteville Observer carried an advertisement for the sale of the Kingsbury plantation. Among its features were “nine other frame buildings, with brick chimneys to each, and rooms sufficient to to accommodate from fifty to sixty negroes.” There was no literary wink or nudge, but a canny buyer could easily have read that as living space for seventy or more.
I grew up in, and live in, a big, white plantation house whose outbuldings once included two lines of slave cabins — one on either side of the creek just north of the house. I remember only one (and have photos of it, a log building maybe twelve by sixteen or eighteen feet). My father remembered three there, and the ruins of the row north of the creek, although he didn’t know their number. According to his research, his ancestor had at one time held fifty slaves. There is no evidence, anywhwere, that they were treated “like family.” No evidence to contradict, or even slightly mitigate, the obvious: They were treated like farm animals.
No sane American hopes to restore slavery. But emancipation didn’t dispose of the many myths, lies and prejudices that those of the slaveholding class embraced, imposing them on their children as well as their chattels, in order to spare themselves pangs of guilt about the misery they daily inflicted on others of their species.
Those need to be hauled into the light and examined — not to “live in the past” or to “play the race card,” but because they linger, unquestioned, in millions of minds. There, they continue to pollute our nation’s unending discussion of its collective effort to better itself.