Basics – Colonial America

The following paragraphs were excerpted from earlier entries I had made onto the blog:

In our society, those lines drawn in the 1600s are still with us and they extend directly into our education system. Everything is documented, it’s all on line or in your library; you can even take classes in it. Compare our history to that of Cuba, Colombia, Argentina, Peru, Chile, Jamaica, on and on: the Indians are killed off, Africans are imported as slaves, Europeans run everything, anti-colonial wars occur, the Whites stay on top, the Africans stay on the bottom, the surviving Native Americans are kept out of sight (I love the Mexican saying re los indigenas: fregados pero cristianiazados), and the Anglo north imports cheap labor from the Hispanic south.

My contention is that the fear and insecurity of slave-holders permeated the major property owners not only of the Old South but of most of the nation – slavery was still common in the North as late as the 1830s. Slave rebellions, despite their rarity, were a constant theme of Southern life. In the face of the great passive resistance of the slaves, Southern law makers continually passed draconian laws meant to keep a restless chattel in line. In fact, in Roll, Jordan, Roll, Genovese remarks that there was not a single incident of slave revenge at emancipation. In further fact, many slaves returned to their distraught and distressed former “owners” who were distraught at the unimagined event of slaves leaving their happy home on the plantation, to help the former slave holders with food and a bit of property management. The slaves managed to put together huge networks of horticultural markets that threatened non-slave producers and made entire regions dependent on them for food.

So many features that separate our culture from European culture, like the violence, can be traced back, I believe, to slavery and its exigencies. “They’ll murder us in our beds” may have originated in England, perhaps with Shakespeare, but I’d like to know; I’d like to know if it originated with a fearful and guilt-stricken slave holder. How else explain how our grandfathers and great-grandfathers happily posed with the remains of a lynched Negro?

Now………….. having read those over, let me posit something Basic here since we’re in the Basic category. I propose that our current society cannot be understood as anything other than a colonial society, just like Argentina, Cuba, Mexico, Brazil, or Panama. Our heritage was Anglo rather than Hispanic, our natural resources were more varied and abundant and easily utilized, our boundaries were non-existent, and we had the great good fortune to have the most astounding group of people the world has seen as our founding mothers and fathers.

BUT….. that aside, we cannot be understood as a European nation transplanted. That is exactly what the colonizers were hoping, to transplant the insitutions of the old country here, but only the colonizers. There were a lot of other folks who came over with the intent to exploit, get rich, and return. They spiced up the melting pot quite a bit b/c their values enriched, if that’s the word, the value system of this nation. Between the colonizers with their desire to transplant England or France or Saxony and the get-rich-quick guys, we were off to a blazing start. Right at the beginning we fought the Native Americans and imported slaves from Africa. Before long, all the slaves in the colonies were Africans and before long slaves and free Blacks made up a significant percentage of the population, anywhere from 10% to 90%. Whole sections of the South became African in culture, much as the islands of the Caribbean became African.

I just heard that the Black population of Cuba is 60%. That’s partly b/c so many Whites left. Why didn’t as many Blacks leave? An exchange student from Brazil with a tawny complexion (haven’t heard ’tawny’ in a while, have you?) told me he was considered White in northern Brazil where he is from. The population is uniformly deep Black, millions upon millions of people. Except for the Cono Sur and some very Indian countries like Bolivia, the African Diaspora swept over the Americas. Only in the U.S. was this presence wholly denied. Other countries tried to play down their Black population, but everybody recognized it and some celebrated it. Not in the U.S.

I always challenged my students to go to our school library, which had in its holdings copies of Life magazine going back to the early 50s. I told the students I was in high school then. I told them to look through the issues from the 50s and find one picture of a Black person. That was what was meant by The Invisible Man (which many of them read for English).

What is specifically colonial about the U.S. and why does it matter? The color line, which meant the difference between slavery and leadership, protection under the law and total exploitation, membership vs marginalization, a chance to shine and invisibility. When my wife, who is 67, can cite the effects of the color line on her life, it is disingenuous (to use a way overworked Beltway term) to consider this fact of American life something in the historical past. Whenever people react differently to my grandkids when their grandmother picks them up (“Oh, they’re part Black”), you see the heritage of colonialism. Once in a while it slaps the nation in the face as has the Pennsylvania swim club incident.

The conservative defense is that other nations are much worse. Yes, but India, China, Japan, the Czech Republic, Nigeria…. don’t declare themselves the greatest nation in the world based on freedom and equality of opportunity. Another conservative defense against this and more general than conservative is what I alluded to above: it’s all in the past, 1776 and all that, nothing we have to take into consideration now. But that is exactly what conservatives took into consideration in their Southern Strategy. Goldwater, Nixon, Bush I and II, McCain and, glaringly, Pallin, counted on the fundamental world view that says that if a White man is not in charge, there’s something terribly out of kilter. The situation must be corrected.

This world view stems entirely from the danger of slave rebellion where the planter class enlisted the support of the White, non-slave holding majority by frightening them with images of slaves ravaging the country side and their women folk. It still works…. like a charm, like a Willie Horton.

What the U.S. escaped was the Latin-American history in which it was the army that carried out the revolutions against the Iberians and remained the only powerful and stable institution in the society. The Catholic Church was not independent and political parties never developed the way they did in the U.S. The only power base in the society was land and the landowners paid the army. Since the landowners perferred their squabbles, when government failed, only the army was available to step in and restore order.

The U.S. faced a similar problem with an ascendent South until the North developed both industry and agriculture and took in immigrants, thus creating a very different society. The South remains very different. Psychological studies referred to by Malcolm Gladwell demonstrate this. Crushing the South and then allowing Southern Whites to maintain a firm hand over their ex-slaves – see Slavery By Another Name for the way that was accomplished up through the 1940s – kept the nation together in a political sense.

By having a constitution and a culture that stuck to the constitution, the U.S. avoided the instability that drives Latin-American countries. We must never forget the great natural resources, incl. space, that boosted the success of the U.S. But neither can we forget the cultural and social institutions that undergird our economic well-being.

As a mental exercise, consider all the elements of our society that can be traced back to this colonial heritage. Note that Maureen Dowd, writing on the second day of Sotomayor’s Senate confirmation hearings, titled her column White Man’s Last Stand. She sees the connection.

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