". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Twain, Grant and Racism

From pp. 217-218 of Mark Perry's Grant and Twain:

[ Later, in looking back on his life, Twain admitted what he had discovered about himself in India: that the central and singular fact that had shaped his time and shaped him was the question of slavery -- that "bald, grotesque and unwarrantable ursurpation" of human freedom that "stupified humanity." And at the heart of slavery was the question of race, of racism -- which is what made slavery possible. Race was present, for Twain, everywhere he turned: in this Missouri childhood, in his recollections of "Uncle Dan'l," in the face of Tom Lewis at Quarry Farm, in the strange behavior of his next-door neighbor Harriet Beecher Stowe, and in his own writing. It was this, the question of race, that so attracted Twain to Grant. In Grant's struggles Twain saw his own. Like Twain, Grant turned the question of slavery, and race, over and over in his own mind and faced with it each and every day. Raised by an abolitionist, he employed his father-in-law's slaves, remained silent when his wife defended the institution, and assiduously ignored the calls for racial equality when he was president. Grant condemned slavery and fought against it, and he abhorred racism. But he could not overcome it. Like Twain he believed the nation's soul was infected by racism, but not his. Why?

Why was it that after the loss of more than six hundred thousand Americans in a catastrophic civil conflict, men like Twain and Grant could not complete the victory sealed at Appomattox? Why, deep into their own century, could they not stay the hand of southern (and American) injustice, which freed the slaves to be citizens but then denied them their rights? Books, theses, and endless monographs would be written on the subject in the decades following the passing of Twain's generation, but the simplest answer might well have been uttered by Sam Grant as a commander in Tennessee. One day, observing the lines of the thousands of former slaves following the army, he turned to John Rawlins, one of his closest aides. "I don't know these people," he said. ]


Foxessa said...

[ "I don't know these people," he said." ]

Over the century and a half since Lee's surrender, how he was greeted by Grant on that occasion has been pridefully pointed to as the pointer to the grand healing and reconciliation the United States immediately initiated.

Only more lately have historians and social critics begun to realize that what was immediately initiated was a new form of re-enslavement. The nation still has never healed from this. We are still two nations -- those who are racists and those who are not, and the racists are still running the show, as they did leading up to the Civil War.

Grant knew Lee, knew him very well, and not just because of West Point. They were indeed men who were alike.

Which is why the only solution to racism in this nation is that we must stop living segregated lives.

Love, C.

Foxessa said...

I'm not sure that Harriet Beecher Stowe's "strange behavior" should be attributed as Perry attributes it to slavery. She had alzheimer's, though in her case, it manifested as a heightening of the sweetness of her nature, in child-like behaviors. She liked to take off all her clothes and run naked, out of her front door, and off into the roads.

Additionally, she and one of her brothers both saw spirits that no one else could see, from the time they were very tiny. This brother, iirc, was the sibling to whom she was closest (in a very close-knit family as a whole). He died in early manhood. It broke her heart.

Love, C.

Foxessa said...

The incident that Twain recalls from his journey to India was seeing a white man beating an Indian, which instantly transported him back to his childhood in Missouri, and seeing his father do that to a slave. This passage, about mind, time, and consciousness is as fairly famous one, I believe.

Uncle Dan'l was a middle-aged man from Hannibal's Negro section of town, who was always kind to and giving of wisdom to Twain and the boys he ran with. He drew on him for much of Jim, perhaps.

Tom Lewis was Twain's man-of-all work at Quarry.

Love, C

Foxessa said...

"And at the heart of slavery was the question of race, of racism -- which is what made slavery possible."

It's necessary to make the distinction here between our nation's peculiar institution of slavery and other slaveries as practiced elsewhere and in other historical times. It is in this nation that race needed to be invented in order to make slavery possible, beginning in the early 17th century. That was the intitution into law of the concept that the condition of slavery came from the mother, who was of African descent, not, as as in the past and elsewhere in Europe, that it is the father's condition that determines the place of the child in the wider community. It was necessary because so many slave women's children were fathered by white men. This is the heart of of the toxins that have poisoned this nation ever since. This is what even now so few wish to look into the face. That our slaves, who we made inhuman in order to keep them slaves, were fathered by the men who owned them. What does this say about those men?

From then on the laws instituted that determined slavery became ever more draconian -- the infamous 'one drop' determination.


Foxessa said...

I've started reading the Memoirs now. I'm wondering, and so need to do some biographical research.

Grant supposedly had some trouble with alcohol back in the day, between the Mexican campaigns and the Civil War. Would that have begun while he was driving his FIL's slaves? With a wife that approved of a practice that he found repugnant? A wife that he so dearly loved, and loved all his life? He didn't share her religious viewpoints either.

This is something I have little or no capacity to understand, how one can live with and love deeply someone as a life partner when there are such fundamental differences in outlook about such fundamental things as slavery and religion.

I know that couples do, but I would not be able to.

Love, C.

K. said...

Well, there was no shortage of abolitionists who believed blacks to be inferior (Lincoln, to name one). It was endemic to virtually all 19th C. white people.

Twain's internal struggles are all over the place in Huckleberry Finn. While Jim is ultimately the most redeemed and humane figure in the novel, he's also the butt of a lot of jokes that we are meant to laugh at. What else to make of that other than to see a writer who knows better even as he's ensnarled in the prejudices of his time and place? He resolves some of this in the widely misunderstood conclusion to the book, where Huck flees the smiling, virtually sociopathic face of racism embodied by Tom Sawyer.

At the same time, though, it's the cynic in Twain that triumphs: While Huck rejects Tom and all that he stands for, he also can't think of anything to do but run. You get the "No! in thunder" (as Hawthorne wrote of Melville), but there's no real answer for the people who must say No! and live every day with people who either hate that or look the other way.

Foxessa said...

It hasn't stopped yet, and with 30 years of hate radio 24/7 spewing vileness of every kind, and especially the last 8 years, it's becoming as virulent as it ever was.

We have to reverse this NOW.

Love, C.