Friday, May 8, 2015

Slavery, the Myth of American Innocence, and the Heritage of Historic Racism in the U.S.: Facing What's Real

White America, as it turns out, has a long and storied tradition of not knowing, and I don't mean this in the sense of truly blameless ignorance, for this ignorance is nothing if not cultivated by the larger workings of the culture. We have come by this obliviousness honestly, but yet in a way for which we cannot escape culpability. 


We, as a society, tell ourselves the world divides neatly between right and wrong, between good people and bad people, and that goodness is rewarded and evil punished. Although we may believe we leave such simplistic moral views behind when we reach adulthood, that's not really true. Deep down, we still expect to be rewarded for goodness. Why else would we so frequently respond to tragedy or pain by exclaiming, "That's not fair!" or "That's not right!"? 
This perspective has a name — social scientists call it the "just-world" belief or the just-world myth. [Psychologist Patricia] Resick said people are drawn to this idea because it gives them a sense of control over an unpredictable world. The alternative, acknowledging that bad things can happen to anyone, or be done by anyone, is too much to bear. Researchers have found that belief in the just-world myth is especially strong in the United States. Indeed, many of the ideals of American culture — that hard work will lead to success, that poverty is the result of laziness or poor moral fiber, and that success is due to merit, rather than luck or unfair advantage — are rooted firmly in just-world beliefs.  
~ Amanda Taub, "Moral Injury — The Quiet Epidemic of Soldiers Haunted by What They Did During Wartime," Vox

Two perspectives from news commentary in the past two days . . . . Tim Wise is talking about how the belief in American innocence (the belief of many Americans in our own innocence as a nation) allows us to pretend that the United States' sordid history of exploitation of people of color is simply not there. Out of sight. Out of mind.

Amanda Taub is pointing out how we heap heavy burdens onto the backs of the young men and women we commission to fight our "innocent" wars, who inevitably discover that life is not crudely black and white in the way they've been schooled by the myth of American innocence to imagine it is. And so those soldiers come home broken and carrying a load of "moral injury," "traumatic feelings of betrayal and shame" that psychologist Jonathan Shay, who coined the term "moral injury," thinks are at the very bottom of post-traumatic stress syndrome in the case of many soldiers returned home.

The price of our innocence is turning our backs on those who have, at our behest, experienced a moral complexity in the midst of war that we ourselves do not intend to face, as we do not intend to face our own complicity in killing innocent people in faraway places (out of sight, out of mind) while we profess that we are a singularly innocent and God-fearing folk. Just as we do not intend to face the way in which, from its very foundations, our city built on a hilltop was also built on the backs of enslaved human beings . . . . 

New York Times today, in an editorial entitled "Tracking New York's Roots in Slavery":

Of all the commodities traded over time on Wall Street, the one that goes discreetly unmentioned in historical markers is human beings — the anxious throngs of kidnapped slaves that the New York City government routinely rented and auctioned off across half a century at the end of Wall Street at the East River.

The editorial notes that New York will finally erect a memorial sign, 16 by 24 inches, to mark the site of the city's slave market, which was second only to Charleston's as a hub for the American slave trade. 

Though my own ancestral roots are squarely within the slaveholding part of the nation, and a large number of my ancestors owned slaves, it has never been hidden from me that my slaveholding families were tied in one way or another to people in other parts of the country, who profited from slavery, too — though they sometimes refused to admit how they were doing so. I've previously discussed here a twisted branch of my family in which a father, one Samuel Kerr Green, sought to disinherit his son Ezekiel Samuel Green, my great-great-grandfather, in the early 1850s when Ezekiel sought to claim a number of slaves left to him by his mother Eliza Jane Smith.

When Ezekiel asked his father to hand the slaves over to him as part of his inheritance, Samuel informed Ezekiel that he had never married Eliza Jane and was not Ezekiel's father. The case eventually wound its way to the Louisiana Supreme Court, which found that it is "with a bad grace" that a father seeks to illegitimate a son he has previously acknowledged, in order to gain that son's property. 

Through Ezekiel and Samuel, my family tree connects to that of John C. Calhoun, the American vice-president and defender of states' rights, who created an ideological justification for the secession of the Southern states from the union over the issue of slavery. Samuel's grandmother Mary Calhoun, wife of Samuel Kerr, was the daughter of Ezekiel Calhoun, John C. Calhoun's uncle, and Ezekiel's wife Jane Ewing. In addition, John C. Calhoun married Mary Calhoun Kerr's niece (and John's cousin), Floride Bonneau Colhoun, daughter of Mary's brother John Ewing Colhoun. 

Samuel Kerr Green was in the thick of the slaveholding business when he spent a number of years overseeing slaves on sugarcane plantations south of New Orleans, where he moved after an ill-fated attempt to enrich himself by investing in (and helping to pilot) Nashville's first steamboat, the General Jackson, went belly up when the boat sank. As a co-owner and pilot of the General Jackson, Samuel had made repeated trips to New Orleans to bring farm goods and pelts from Tennessee to the southern port city, and to bring back sugar, coffee, and rum for Tennesseeans. He eventually set himself up on his own plantation (operated by slave labor) in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana, the parish in which Harriet Beecher Stowe has Simon Legree do his dastardly deeds as a slave owner. 

But the point of that historical excursus: as I say above, it hasn't been hidden from me that my slaveholding families were tied in one way or another to people in other parts of the country who profited from slavery, too. This point was driven home to me as I researched Eliza Jane Smith's second marriage, after her marriage to Samuel Kerr Green dissolved (perhaps the two never married, as Samuel claimed in his court battle with his son Ezekiel, but Eliza claimed otherwise). 

After Eliza and Samuel separated or divorced, she then married a Connecticut-born gentleman named Captain Samuel Ives, a former seaman who had moved to New Orleans, where he and members of his family set up a foundry (yes, a branch of that Ives family that produced James Merritt Ives of the Currier and Ives printmaking firm). Samuel's business interests also included a steam-powered sawmill on Bayou Sorrel in Iberville Parish, where he and Eliza appear to have spent much of their abortive marriage (the two seem to have married in 1831 and to have divorced in 1834). 

The Iberville Parish conveyance books record a detailed conveyance, a memorandum of agreement, in which Samuel Ives agreed in 1849 to enter into a business arrangement with a man named Alden E. Piper to operate a lumber mill on Bayou Sorrel, an agreement to which Samuel Ives would contribute slaves Ben, Ruffin, and Tom, and Piper would contribute five slaves of his own.

And then something went terribly wrong: on 2 June 1850, Piper shot and killed Ives in front of his house in Iberville Parish and took off in a skiff up Bayou Grosse Tête with his slaves. Where he was then apprehended and charged with murder . . . . 

There was now, of course, the challenge to dispose of the property of Samuel Ives, who had fathered no children in Louisiana and had no legal obligation to his former wife Eliza Jane Smith, so that his inheritance fell to his siblings — six sisters, Emily, Sarah, Abigail, Lydia, Ruth, and Esther, most of them married and all living in Connecticut. 

On 12 August 1850, the six sisters sold Ben, Ruffin, and Tom to a Joshua Baker of St. Mary Parish, Louisiana, and divided the proceeds of the sale among themselves. The 6 July 1850 issue of the Sentinel, a newspaper published in Plaquemine in Iberville Parish, announces that the parish sheriff and jailer Henry Sullivan, a friend of Ives, was administering his estate and working with his heirs to sell his property. The same newspaper states that Sullivan was also working, in his capacity as sheriff, to apprehend several runaway slaves, including one Ursin, who belonged to Mme. Colon of Ascension Parish, and whose back was much marked with the whip.

Because this history is interwoven with my own history as a descendant of slaveholding families — this history of people living in the Northern state of Connecticut in the 1850s, who chose not to manumit a brother's slaves, but to sell them and pocket the money produced by the sale of human beings — what Thomas Norman DeWolf tells Ben Affleck recently in an essay at Zócalo Public Square resonates with me. DeWolf notes that he has had to cope with discovering that he descends from "the most successful transatlantic slave-trading dynasty in U.S. history," the DeWolf family of Rhode Island, who, over fifty years, brought some 10,000 Africans to North America and the Caribbean to be sold as slaves. 

As DeWolf notes, the story of his family's involvement in the slave trade has been told in the documentary "Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North," and he has written the book Inheriting the Trade to tell this story to the world. As he also tells Ben Affleck, he has learned that 95 percent of all slave trading was done by people living in the Northern colonies and states, half of them from Rhode Island, and that people were enslaved in all of the thirteen origional colonies. 

He has also dealt with family members who tell him that the past is the past, and nothing is to be gained by dredging up sordid details of the past. And aren't "they" better off, anyway, than they'd have been if "we'd" left them in Africa? Why can't they stop their incessant complaining and blaming others and better their lives now?

DeWolf's rejoinder to these relatives (and to Ben Affleck, as Affleck sought to hide his own descent from slaveholders when he asked the PBS show "Finding Your Roots" to expunge that piece of information from its program about his ancestry):

The legacy of slavery continues to benefit people who look like you and me, Ben—and they harm people of color. We only have to read the newspaper headlines to see that inequity and injustice based on race remains deeply embedded in the fabric of our nation.


I’m writing this "open letter" because you’re in the news. My real interest is to invite all white people in the United States to recognize our shared obligation in this work. Rather than distancing ourselves from culpability, let’s recognize that slavery drove the economy and built this nation we proudly call home. Every white person—directly or indirectly—participated and benefited. Everyone who has immigrated here has benefited.

Every white person in the United States has participated and benefited directly or indirectly in the legacy of slavery and the heritage of racial disparity it has bequeathed to us, and all those of European descent who have immigrated to the United States have benefited from this legacy and heritage, though many of those descendants — many of these Catholics, professing a faith that is all about our connections to everyone in the world — refuse to acknowledge these benefits, and prefer to blame African Americans for having failed to do what their immigrant ancestors did, as they imagine: work hard, live moral lives, get over the past.

DeWolf is right about all of this. But I'm not sure that many white Americans today are willing to listen to what he has to tell us. It's soooo much easier to believe it's someone else's problem, a problem over there, in that discrete group who embody all evil.

Unlike ourselves, since we ourselves are innocent . . . . 

I find the graphic at the head of the posting at a number of blog sites, including One Furious Llama, but it's not clear to me where the graphic originates.

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