Reading about Race & Slavery

Reading about Race and Slavery in 2017

This summer, even before the events of Charlottesville, I read through several books on the history of race issues in the U.S. I feel like I need to say a few things as I begin this post:

  • I believe in one human race. My faith and theology demand this. I do not believe in separate white or black races, or any other races for that matter. I use “race” simply because it’s become shorthand for these issues in the U.S. (and elsewhere in the world). I do NOT believe any tribe (for lack of a better term) of people is superior or inferior to another.
  • I read to understand other perspectives, not to understand completely. No one book can explain every nuance. Books can equip us to take part in complicated discussions.
  • Books are listed in the order I read them. Which is no real order at all.

reading about race and slavery in the u.s.Books about the History of Race and Slavery in the U.S.

A Chosen Exile by Allyson Hobbs. I can’t really remember WHY I picked up this book. Maybe my library site suggested it to me.

A Chosen Exile explores the phenomenon “passing”. This means a black person lived, either for a lifetime or a short period of time, as a white person.

Hobbs examines the circumstances both personal and political that would lead someone to “pass”. It’s a little bit heartbreaking and a lot thought-provoking. Also brings to mind all those eugenicist arguments that led to Nazis measuring people’s’ facial features and whatnot to determine who “looked” Jewish because what does it even mean for someone to “look” Black or White? (It would be interesting to revisit these questions and our own assumptions in the day of Rachel Dolezal.)

Soul by Soul by Walter Johnson. You can’t separate the history of race issues in the U.S. from the history of the Slave Market.

Quote from J.W.C. Pennington, 1849:

You cannot constitute slavery without the chattel principle – and with the chattel principle you cannot save it from these results. Talk not about kind and Christian masters. They are not masters of the system. The system is the master of them.

No matter how kind or generous some “masters” may have been, slavery in the Southern United States existed on the concept that one human being can own another.

The Southern Past by W. Fitzhugh Brundage. Follows the competing memories of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow in the South. Especially relevant to current issues, because it discusses the organizations that began to put up the statues that are in the news now.

Remembering Slavery edited by Ira Berlin, Marc Favreau, & Steven Miller. I wasn’t actually able to listen to the tapes, but the transcripts are riveting. This collection is not uncontroversial, partially because the interviewers (mostly in the 1930’s) brought their own assumptions and biases to the interviews.

Quotation from Remembering Slavery:

Across the centuries, the history of slavery could be written as a tale of maniacal sadism…But slavery’s brutality inhered less in brutish and sadistic outbursts than in the routine, systematic violence slave owners found necessary to reduce men and women to things.

Slavery and the Making of America by James Oliver Horton and Lois Horton. Companion book to a PBS series. I haven’t actually seen the series but I highly recommend the book. The straightforward history points out that slavery didn’t become inextricable with race until later in American history. However, indentured servitude had limitations that later slavery did not.

Race and Reunion by David Blight. Hefty and academic, but thoroughly researched and helpful. Many reasons why America still hasn’t “gotten past” the issue of Race have to do with how the country healed and moved on from the cataclysmic war.

A quote from Frederic Douglass, 1870:

We are sometimes asked in the name of patriotism to remember with equal admiration those who struck at the nation’s life, and those who struck to save it – those who fought for slavery and those who fought for liberty and justice. I am no minister of malice…I would not repel the repentant, but may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I forget the difference between the parties to that bloody conflict. I may say if this war is to be forgotten, I ask in the name of all things sacred what shall men remember?

I think about Mr. Douglass when I read or hear news about conflicts over Confederate statues. Battlefields are one thing. Museums are another. But I am personally unable to muster much enthusiasm for these emblems in the public square or the heart of our communities. (And if you’re interested in the history of such statues, see Brundage’s book above. The Jim Crow era saw many of these built, not as a way to mourn the dead, but as a way to control the narrative and the minority population.)

Blight also discussed the efforts of Booker T. Washington and how he spoke to white audiences:

Washington won over a hostile white audience, but one that, by and large, wanted to believe in racial peace, as long as it blossomed in a firmly segregated society, with blacks knowing their place as efficient but politically inactive laborers.

We still see this desire today, I think.

David Blight summed up the conflict in memory and resolution this way:

The bitter experiences of Reconstruction, and the impossibility to a postwar consensus on the war’s causes, all but guaranteed the irresolution deep at the heart of Civil War memory.

Blight’s book came out in 2001, but it’s still true. If you wonder why we have competing memes on social media, along with public protests and political unrest, well, in some part it’s because the Civil War remains irresolvable.

As the famous Faulkner quote goes:

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Further Recommended Reading (Blog Posts):

race and slavery

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