History is not always black or white

Recently Slate ran a story allegedly debunking seven myths about slavery.  The intent of the piece was to counter slavery apologists where some, if you can believe it, either think blacks were made better because of slavery or still think slavery was a pretty good thing for African-Americans even looking at it from modern times (here, here and here).  But I found the piece to be too biased, in, unfortunately, trying to simplify the complexity that is the story of human interactions over time.

What frustrates people is when history is used against them; a narrative that they thought was one way suddenly is used another.  History, in many people’s minds, is supposed to be concrete.  This happened.  Boom.  Hitler was a demon.  There it is, let’s move on. The reality is history is far more complex and doesn’t always fit a simple narrative.  Hitler had tremendous leadership talents to have risen to power. It doesn’t make him a great person in history’s rear view mirror, but it jars the soul to read of those who admire him.

plantation-life-1863-grangerSlavery in America is a great example of this concept, where the narrative isn’t as clean as folks might like.

Indentured vs. Hereditary Slavery. The Slate article begins by (allegedly) debunking the myth that “the Irish Were Slaves too.”  The authors, neither historians, took issue with this because white Irish folk were willingly going into indentured servitude and their condition shouldn’t be compared to the heredity chattel slavery blacks faced.  On the surface it seems debunked.  History 101 teaches us that poor, primarily white, folks would sell themselves to a sponsor who would pay their journey to America and in return after working seven or so years. When the time passed, the poor white folk were free to move on and start their life in America unbounded.

If it were that simple.

Indentured Servitude was indeed very much like chattel slavery, so says the Library of Congress: “Before the Civil War, slaves and indentured servants were considered personal property, and they or their descendants could be sold or inherited like any other personalty.”  And it is possible that the indentured servant could be treated worse than a black slave, for “[slaves] were regarded as lifetime investments, whereas the servant would be gone after a few years.” And in looking at the contract, many indentured servants faced restrictions no different than a slave: “Some negative aspects of servitude included the facts that the master retained the right to prohibit their servants from marrying and could sell them at any time without their consent.”  This sure looks and feels like the Irish faced strikingly similar characteristics in slavery that Blacks did.

And while the Slate article acknowledges a truth that black slavery in America left profoundly disturbing legacy, in trying to dispel the myth that Irish were not living in slave-like conditions it also diminishes the history of the Irish as well.  In mid 1800s America, the common citizen would neither rent a room to a black man nor an Irish man. But it is true that for Irish, unlike African-Americans, this is not an issue that arises in modern times.irish1-jumbo

This does not make slavery a good thing nor does it mean that indentured servitude was worse.  What it shows is that the narrative of trying to make one aspect of history a lot worse than another is not accurate to reality.

7694e07c2277ee42e483bcdf647192b4Factory Life vs. Slave Life. Another claim the Slate authors try to debunk is that factory workers in the north had it just as bad as slaves in the south.  The authors go to great lengths to show the poor health and living conditions of slaves, without even addressing the conditions of factory workers in the north.  The Industrial Revolution was not kind to poor Americans, mostly Irish, in northern factories.  While it is true that workers voluntarily took to the factories, there was little prospect for any other type of work.  Their health conditions were no better than slaves.  Cotton and Sugar Cane slaves would work sun up to sun down with a short lunch break as the only down time.  Factory workers faced a similar 14 hour day with the same limit to breaks.  Both would go to their quarters (slave cabins or worker dormitories) where the evening was preparing for the next day and sleeping.

Again, Slate’s authors want to drive home how awful slavery was at the detriment to historical truth.  Yes, factory workers could simply walk out and quit whereas a slave had no such choice, but by comparing the accuracy of how hard each segment had to work each day and for little gain, it shines a greater truth as to how difficult factory work was.  We shouldn’t need to stack the data on slavery’s side to know how horrible it was.

Northern ties to Slavery. But the article goes off the tracks, turning to lazy and sloppy journalism in countering the myth that the north benefited greatly from slavery.  The authors admit plainly that the north did benefit and resort with a form of “so what, slavery was in the south not the north” argument.  One need not look far to see how the northern factory profits were directly connected to slavery as Europe as well benefited greatly from it.  The North should not sit sanctimoniously as if slavery were purely a southern problem.  It was an American problem. Slavery had many more tentacles across geography and society than what the common American may realize.

confsoldierBlack Confederates. But what spurred writing a blog on this article was when the authors tried to debunk the myth that there were Black Confederates who fought for the south during the Civil War. And as I read the reader comments on the Facebook post of the article it was clear that people don’t comprehend nor wish to believe that a black slave could take up arms to defend a nation that enslaves him.  So of course there could be no blacks that fought or the south.  

Except, there was.  Whether a few hundred training at war’s end or upwards of 10,000, the Confederacy actually passed legislation to allow for this.  What was not resolved was whether or not a black slave fighting earned his freedom.

Slate, and others, defend the existence of slaves in the Southern Army as desperation near the end of the war that were never armed nor fought for a cause.  But Frederick Douglass printed in his newspaper that armed blacks were amongst those fighting at the Battle of Bull Run (early in the war).  The linked article appears on a site that claims Douglass was wrong, he wasn’t a first hand witness, and attempts to use multiple pieces of evidence to say so.  But was he?  When historians argue about such claims it only serves to enrichen our understanding of the topic. A long-form piece in The Root is well worth the read on this topic.

The past is filled with wrongs. We teach our history students to not judge those living in the past by our current beliefs. There are many moral wrongs we see today that were acceptable at the time they happened. Wife beating, cocaine, marriage to near-relatives… all were legal at a point in the past.  We can treat them as wrongs today, but at the same time we need to try to understand the motivations of why it was acceptable at the time to learn from it. While it is fair to challenge Douglass, as he was not a first-hand witness to Black Confederates, we also cannot assume that he and others just got it wrong because we cannot fathom blacks fighting for slavery.

One of the most startling slavery pieces you can read is that of Aunt Charity, who was interviewed by the WPA Federal Writers Project in 1937.  This was a wonderful Depression-era program that recorded history from many still-living slaves.  Aunt Charity, who claimed to be 101 years old when interviewed, sheds a different light on what it was like to be a slave.

Her memories are fond, if not glowing, of the time she had working as a house servant for a master who was kind to her and never beat her.

“My old Marster was a good man, he treated all his slaves kind, and took care of dem, he wanted to leave dem hisn chillun…. But thank God I had good white folks, dey sho’ did trus’ me to, I had charge of all de keys in the house and I waited on de Missy and de chillun” — Aunt Charity in Federal Writers Project interview (side note: it was attempted to capture the dialect of the person interviewed)

She had a position of importance inside the family as her pride beams through.  When Charity was freed she surely saw brutal racism and tough economic times as a free black. Was she shielded from this my her “good” master or was oblivious to it in her enclosed world on the plantation?

History’s narrative is complex. Again, this is not to attempt to portray slavery as a good thing.  Charity, and there were others like her, did not suffer as many did during slavery. True, she did not have her freedom and likely did not know the rights she would gain when it ended.  But her world may not have improved upon emancipation. And that is important to show that history is not a neat and clean narrative.

The Slate article does have many fair points and the south was a slavery culture even for those who did not own slaves.  But the article would be better in comparing other instances of history with slavery than trying to repeatedly distancing slavery from all else.

Slavery was an American atrocity and its legacy haunts us still today. There is no excuse that slavery apologists can offer to alter this.  But those arguments should be used to show us that history is very complex and is not black and white, even when discussing blacks and whites.

  • J.

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