". . . 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

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Questions Regarding Liberal Outrage about Slavery, By An Academic of Color

These questions come at the end of an early paragraph of a review in the Los Angeles Review of Books of two recent admirable works.

Lawrence P. Jackson on Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves, and River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom
"Pictures from a Peculiar Institution: Writing American Slavery"

The steady stream of cynical liberal outrage is an important context to two recent books about slavery by white men: Henry Wiencek’s Master of the Mountain and Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams. Both books are, in their own ways, commanding studies of a central area of American history, and pioneering works in an ongoing battle for justice. Wiencek provides more detail about Thomas Jefferson’s history of slaveholding than has ever existed in one place before, making an important adjustment to a bowdlerized historical record; and Johnson reimagines the era that transformed the geospatial reality of the Mississippi River cotton corridor, in the process providing the fuel for the industrial and financial transformation of the western world. But in both cases, I wonder, to what avail? What does it mean to have an agile, ready intellectual force prepared to do this kind of work, on this kind of subject, at this time? How are the appearances of Wiencek and Johnson’s books connected to the phenomenon of the first black president, on one hand, and the probable end of protective voting rights acts and affirmative action, on the other? In other words — to put it rather bluntly — have we reached a moment when the white liberal’s comfort zone is firmly in the archival dust of the 18th and 19th centuries, while they explicitly avoid the jagged edges of the 21st century.
It's important that we hear such questions from the perspective a black man. A well-placed, respected academic, nonetheless a black man, Jackson is subject to racial profiling (recall Henry Louis Gates was arrested for 'breaking into' his own house in Massachusetts), that sends a disproportionate number of young African Americans to fill the prison industrial complexes. These men face the sort of potential homicide and wreckage of reputation that Treyvon Martin and others have suffered in Florida and elsewhere. In view of these legal steps into re-establishing a neo-slavery,  neo-Jim Crow, Jackson has to ask himself and all of us, how, or even if, our studies, and our outrage that the studies we publish provoke, connect in a useful way with the accelerating destruction of Civil Rights.

This is increasingly a matter for all of us (for the sake of privacy and likely retaliation upon the victim I will not tell what happened two nights ago to a close friend on the streets of NO, when the cops thought he was a black man).  However, people of color, particularly men of color, are the first and most obvious targets.  And do I ever share the outrage over slavery and the ever-widening circles of destruction into the present day that fuels the work of Walter Johnson, the New Orleanian native author of the second work reviewed, River of Dark Dreams. 

So Jackson's questions are not only excellent questions, but necessary ones.

I have some answers for myself, as we travel the world, meeting with friends old and new, in a broad range of communities in the arts, journalism, history, music, even in Harlem among some of the most articulate and intellectually / historically aware friends we have. When asked, I give a brief rundown of the subject matter of  The American Slave Coast, the most succinct of which is, "The book is a study of slave breeding industry in the United States before the Civil War."  The inevitable response is, "I didn't know that! I never knew! I can't wait to read your book. It explains so much about why things are the way they are now."

What we mean by the way things are now, besides Stand Your Ground and other laws and statutes, includes the military-surveillance complex. The slave breeding industry + slavery explains "the well-regulated militia" beloved of gun-owners, tea partiers and libertarians: those militias, formed long before the Declaration of Independence, weren't about an external threat, not even about Indian attack. Those well armed night patrols were about keeping the slaves down on their plantations and incapable of planning and making rebellion. It was about regulating the 'enemy' among us, the enemy that we depended upon absolutely for our wealth and well-being, to plan rebellions of our own.

This nation went right to post grad studies on how to keep people from rebelling with the legal system, surveillance and punishment since the 17th century, long before we were a nation. It also received an intensive in how to get rich and powerful from it.  These lessons learned out of our slave system were never forgotten.

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