The Past is Present
The past isn ever dead, it’s not even past. – Williams Faulkner (that bore repeating)
God, the Devil, and truth in general lie in the details. – some linguist
The engine of this essay, for me, is the fundamental idea that this country can be understood fully only when we realize that, like all countries of the Western Hemisphere, its founding was as a colony and this colonial past explains a lot. It explains the discrepancy in health, income, and education status throughout our history among certain groups; it explains the recent political panic among certain groups; it explains the attitude of much of the rest of the world toward us; it explains a great many events and processes in our history that get glossed over so that the effects of these events and processes get ignored…… sometimes to our peril.
A quick definition of the term Western Hemisphere notes that it includes West Africa and Western Europe, which works very well since Western European countries figured entirely in the colonization process and West Africans filled out the labor force which built the continent. While everyone learns in the first couple of chapters of their history textbook how the intrepid explorers from Western Europe arrived and designated the future nations of the hemisphere and a side bar here and there mentions the inhabitants of the place and what happened to them while the Africans were being shipped over, these people perform the role of extras, as in a movie. Usually not in the scene, sometimes in the background, never in the foreground, these people have moved on up and are now looking at Oscars aka deciding elections.
What happened? What happened that made this issue the engine of this essay for me? In the discussion on a listserv about the role of poverty in education, I opined that the distribution and allocation of educational resources and opportunities could be understood broadly by reference to our country’s colonial legacy. A member wrote in something to the effect that he thought for a moment he was listening to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. That got my goat. At the time I responded only to the Rev. Wright part. straightening out the 98% of Americans (made up figure but close) who think Wright just popped out with, “God damn America!”, like the guys down at the pool hall might say, “God damn Obama!” No, he was quoting the Bible where it states God will punish, will damn, unjust nations and so the U.S. had better rectify any injustice in its body.* All hell broke loose. And yet when Pat Robertson or other White ministers go way beyond Wright’s admonition and outright condemns the nation in God’s name for the sins of homosexuality and abortion, all we get is heads nodding solemnly in agreement. Oh, did I say that Wright is Black?
Black Liberation theology might be rightly debated as might Liberation Theology generally as might Dominionism Theology (what Ted Cruz follows)*, but Wright is a fully licensed and highly educated minister, yet he gets zero respect from most White Christians on the Right. The sole reason he was condemned and had to play an unworthy role so Obama could dismiss him as relevant to his campaign was that Wright is Black and Obama could not afford a whiff of what the C/conservatives call Black militancy.
The other aspect of the message to the listserv involved the dismissal of the notion that America’s past is best understood by attending to its colonial past. This has been a pet notion of mine for many years now. It irked me to see it so dismissed as if it had sprung full-blown from my febrile brain with no academic support. As the idea of the Magnum Opus unfolded in my mind, I became aware of the looming presence of this notion and felt I might explicate it further in the Magnum Opus. In the segment on world view I have already stated that in my world view the past becomes the present and untangling them is not easy and I would present the present as past. So here it is.
Constipation is not a topic one would expect to pop up in an essay of this sort but my wife, who suffers from such condition, attributes it to her experience as a five year old riding in a truck convoy bringing Blacks out to Arizona to pick long staple cotton.* She rode for five days in the truck and never went to the bathroom. Why? First, the gas stations and other facilities along the way would not allow Blacks to use them, not even a five year girl. Secondly, scorpions and snakes off the road. Now let’s move to a more provocative case of the past affecting the present:
My wife’s nephew was traveling with her and her sister to Texas as an infant. Along the way he developed a dangerously high fever. Late at night they were happy to see a medical facility open – this was 1965, so I am surprised they even had clinics. They rushed through the doors of the clinic with the baby in his mother’s arms and the doctors and nurses rushed toward them – to take the baby, so they thought. Instead, in harsh tones, they were directed around the back to the boiler room and told to wait until all the White patients had been seen.
Thirty years later her nephew sat in a car, one hand on the steering wheel, the other on the ignition key, trying to start the car which was surrounded by sheriff’s deputies. As he kept trying to start the car, one of the deputies, according to the girl who was with Norvel, shouted, “Kill him!” One shot through the window twice, hitting Norvel in the neck and head. The girl, no thanks to prompt police action, was unharmed physically. Was Norvel’s lack of response due to the drugs he was undoubtedly on or was it a deeper glitch in his brain caused by the delay in treatment of his fever? No one will know. The deputies will justify the shooting because he would not stop trying to start the car, a weapon in itself. Who knows?
Of course, it is easy to set aside these anecdotes and focus on the present. One could assuredly explain current conditions on economic grounds, social and cultural norms, neurological conditions – oops! we’re back to the fever. Anyway, such events offer lots of opportunities for reasoned analysis. But then death is death and constipation is constipation and we would like to go beyond analysis and provide the best environment possible for people to function in. We will address the role of poverty in the next segment by quoting a wonderful teacher, but now I will present the details of the founding of this country and how that founding may impact the way we look at and deal with issues like education, poverty, race and policing.
The core of my argument lies just in the founding. We read about Puritans and Pilgrims and lazy aristocrats and even cavaliers but few details about what happened in the South. The North, including Virginia, gets the attention. What happened down there? I will quote extensively from Sugar in the Blood, a book getting excellent reviews, and American Nations, a look at American voting patterns as outgrowths of early settlement patterns reflecting the culture of those settlers. The story begins not in the South but in Barbados.
From Sugar in the Blood by Andrea Stuart:
- 16=17 Whether travelling by choice or by compulsion, all of these individuals flooding into the New World were part of a historical epic that had consequences its participants could not begin to foresee. Those who survived would become the hub of the British Empire and help Britain to become the dominant world power of the day. Along with their European counterparts, they would enrich the European subcontinent and extend the tentacles of its power virtually across the globe, westernizing the great bulk of humanity, imposing its institutions and beliefs, its languages and cultures across the world. Their collective migration would also precipitate the vast redistribution of life across the globe, most notably the millions of Africans who were forcibly transplanted to the Americas to work as slaves on their plantations. And it would transform the world’s entire ecosystem, destroying numerous species and moving innumerable others, to create a world that would be entirely different from what had been before.
- 147 Surrounded by such ideas [scientific racism], the young scions of the planter caste who had once played, albeit unequally, with their slaves, now despised them, dismissing them as “niggers” and chastising them if they addressed them unprompted or looked them directly in the eye. Racism was the factor that underpinned the entire social system of the colonies. It was not just about maintaining a rigid distinction between black and white but about making sure that white society found some coherence. “in fact”. wrote the historian Karl Watson,” the only issue which seemed to have a unifying effect on Barbadian whites was that of race,” Barbados was after all a tiny, densely populated island in which a paranoid white minority lived cheek by jowl with a black majority they perceived as threatening and volatile. But in reality this small group of whites – divided by class, political allegiance and life experience – had little in common, so in times of crisis, they had only one thing to pull them together: their shared skin colour.
This way of thinking was most seamlessly absorbed by those who grew up on the islands, but it was also quickly adopted by outsiders. The whites who went to the Caribbean often started off being hostile to the slave system but, after going through what the 20th century writer and historian Edward Brathwaite called “cultural action” or “social processing”, they often changed their minds.
- 198 Frederick Douglas writing on the practice of taking children away from their mothers: he noted that the custom had a terrible impact on slave women, who had “children but no family~” But he was even more grieved on his own behalf, because he felt that he had been denied the natural connection a child should have with his mother. Today we use the term “attachment disorder” to describe the profound impact on children’s emotional and psychological development of being denied a consistent and intimate relationship with a trusted caregiver. We can only guess at how John Stephen and millions like him were affected by being denied the core human experience of a parent-child relationship.
- 199 Although unwilling to curb the sexual freedoms of white men, the Barbadian authorities were equally concerned that interracial dalliances would undermine white supremacy. Mixed-race people disrupted the binary opposition between black and white, a polarization that depended on a perception of skin colour as immutable and species-specific. As the structure of the Atlantic slave system hinged on matters of race, categorizing the children of black-white liaisons was an obsession across the Americas. Hence the notorious “one drop rule” adopted in the American South, which eliminated anyone who was not “pure” white from assuming the privileges associated with the planter caste.
p 181 The colonists believed fervently that violence was intrinsic to maintaining the safety of their society. So new planters arriving on the island were instructed with the maxim: “at all times they must fear you, they simply must.” Hardly a day passed on any plantation when some sort of violence did not take place. One observer estimated that many larger plantations had sixty or more chastisements a day. Every estate dweller recognized the terrible, desperate screams evoked by such punishments. They were so loud that they rang throughout the property from the field to boiling house. Visitors to the islands were shocked that whites there didn’t appear to hear these noises and would carry on eating or chatting as if nothing had happened.
- 137 And like all locals, he was able to ignore the crack of the whip and the strangled cries of the slaves: a selective deafness that would amaze newcomers to the island.
p 188 The effect on the slave community of such casual sexual marauding would have been immense. Beyond the damage done to the women themselves, their mothers, fathers, lovers and brothers were forced to continue serving their abusers, powerless to protect or avenge them.
- 199 “… miscegenation or “race mixing” was a source of great anxiety in the region. But this had not always been the case. In the first days of settlement, when island society was still fluid and unformed, and when indentured servitude was still the dominant form of labour, there were marriages recorded between white and black people. During these years, before the ideology of racism had taken root, the English authorities suggested that the offspring of these couples should be free. But with the emergence of slavery, attitudes had hardened. As early as 1644, the island of Antigua passed a law that prohibited the “carnal copulation between Christian and heathen.” Miscegenation could it was now argued, undermine the entire system: “Interracial sex was said to be a violation of both natural and divine law, “ noted the American writer Edward Ball, “as it produced a ‘mixed’ race of people previously not seen on earth and also unsanctioned by God.”
- 101 The [Barbadian] islanders sometimes moved to other less populous territories, but most frequently they went to North America; indeed many areas, such as the Carolinas, were largely settled by Barbadians. These migrants took with them knowledge of the plantation system and the blueprint of how to organize and manage a large number of slaves. Thus it could be said that Barbados was “the laboratory” for the slave and plantation system in many parts of America where cotton, tobacco and rice were later grown………… By the final decade of the century [17th] almost half the whites and considerably more than half of the blacks (slaves brought over by their masters) in the Carolina colony had come from Barbados. A 1685 map of Berkeley County shows that of thirty-three prominent landholders, twenty-four had connections with Barbados. Their economic and political dominance of the Carolinas was such that contemporaries complained that “the Barbadians endeavour to rule all.”…….. All in all, six Barbadians were governors of South Carolina between 1670 and 1730
The island’s imprint on the Carolinas is evident in numerous areas. Some argue that Barbadian derived linguistic influences were taken to SC and are evident in the Gullah dialect. If that idea is contentious, there is no doubt about the Barbadian influence on place names in the region, from Hilton Head, named after the explorer William Hilton, to Colleton County, named after the Barbadian grandee of that name, and Barbados House in Charleston. And when the first slave laws of Carolina were enacted on 16 March 1696, it was clear that they were modeled on those ratified in Barbados in 1688.
His role as planter allowed – demanded – that he deny the humanity of the black people around him, that he participate in a culture of breathtaking cruelty, that he abuse women and children and justify that abuse as the will of God and his privilege as a gentleman. It endorsed rape, torture, and the separation of mothers from children.
Of course, Robert Cooper did not think of himself as a bad man. He believed that he was doing what was necessary to keep order in his society and maintain the social order designed by God. In a clear illustration of the banality of evil, he played his part as willing helper to one of history’s great genocides in complacent denial that he was doing anything other than his duty or exercising his rights.
From American Nations by Colin Woodard:
- 82 The founding fathers of the Deep South arrived by sea, their ships dropping anchor off what is now Charleston in 1670 and 1671. Unlike their counterparts in Tidewater, Yankeedom, New Netherland, and New France, they had not come directly from Europe . Rather, they were the sons and grandsons of the founders of an older English colony: Barbados, the richest and most horrifying society in the English-speaking world.
The society they founded in Charleston did not seek to replicate rural English manor life or to create a religious utopia in the American wilderness. Instead, it was a near-carbon copy of the West Indian slave state these Barbadians had left behind, a place notorious even then for its inhumanity. Enormously profitable to those who controlled it, this unadulterated slave society would spread rapidly across the lowlands of what is now South Carolina, overwhelming the utopian colony of Georgia and spawning the dominant culture of Mississippi, lowland Alabama, the Louisiana Delta country, eastern Texas and Arkansas, western Tennessee, north Florida, and the southeastern portion of North Carolina. From the outset, Deep Southern culture was based on radical disparities in wealth and power, with a tiny elite commanding total obedience and enforcing it with state-sponsored terror. Its expansionist ambitions would put it on a collision course with its Yankee rivals, triggering military, social, and political conflicts that continue to plague the United States to this day.
- 84 This was the culture that spawned Charleston and, by extension, the Deep South. Unlike the other European colonies of the North American mainland, South Carolina was a slave society from the outset. Established by a group of Barbadian planters. “Carolina in ye West Indies” was, by its very founding charter, a preserve of the West Indian slave lords. Written by John Locke, the charter provided that a planter would be given 150 acres for every servant or slave he brought to the colony; soon a handful of Barbadians owned much of the land in lowland South Carolina, creating an oligarchy worthy of the slave states of ancient Greece. The leading planters brought in enormous numbers of slaves, so many that they almost immediately formed a quarter of the colony’s population. The slaves were put to work cultivating rice and indigo for export to England, a trade that made the large planters richer than anyone in the colonial empire save their counterparts in the West Indies. By the eve of the American Revolution, per capita wealth in the Charleston area would reach a dizzying 2,338 pounds, more than quadruple that of Tidewater and almost six times higher than that of either New York or Philadelphia. The vast majority of this wealth was concentrated in the hands of South Carolina’s ruling families, who controlled most of the land, trade, and slaves. The wealthy were extraordinarily numerous, comprising a quarter of the white population at the end of the colonial period. “We are a country of gentry,” one resident proclaimed in 1773; “we have no such thing as Common People among us.” Of course, this statement ignored the lower three-quarters of the white population and the enslaved back majority, who by that time comprised 80 percent of the lowland population. To the great planters, everyone else was of little consequence. Indeed, this elite firmly believed the Deep South’s government and people existed solely to support their own needs and aspirations.
- 86 The low country’s wealth depended entirely on a massive army of enslaved blacks who outnumbered whites nine to one in some areas. To keep this supermajority under control, the planters imported Barbados’ brutal slave code almost word for word.
- 87 Such provisions would remain on the books until the end of the Civil War, and served as the model for the slave codes of the future governments of the Deep South. … After 1660, however, the people of African descent who arrived in Virginia and Maryland increasingly were treated as permanent slaves as the gentry adopted the slaveholding practices of the West Indies and Deep South. By the middle of the eighteenth century, black people faced Barbadian-style slave laws everywhere south of the Mason-Dixon line.
- 88 In the Deep South, African Americans formed a parallel culture, one whose separateness was enshrined in the laws and fundamental values of the nation’s white minority. Indeed, the Deep South was for at least the three centuries from 1670 to 1970 a caste society. And caste, it should be noted, is quite a different thing from class.
- 89 Many planters did, however, take an interest in their illegitimate children, often assigning them to be household servants and sometimes even paying to send them to school in Yankeedom, where such things were permitted. This helped foster the creation of a privileged mulatto social group that came to dominate the middle and upper casses of the black caste, and their later successes in trade, business, and other fields challenged the underlying justification for the entire apartheid system.
Greatly outnumbered, the planters were haunted by the fear that their slaves would rebel. They organized themselves into mounted militia, training regularly to respond to any uprising and awarding themselves honorary ranks like “colonel” or “major”.
- 91 Lowland Georgia would become not a yeoman farmers’ utopia but rather an extension of the West Indian slaveocracy that got its start in Charleston.
The Deep South was on the move, and, unlike Tidewater, it would face no competing European civilization to block its path to the Mississippi and beyond.
I have quoted these two authors extensively because this history is unknown to most Americans; they get the standard high school course and college survey course where little attempt is made to get outside the standard narrative. By looking at the origins of a big chunk of this country and therefore of this society, we then have a basis to which we can trace back from present customs and attitudes to better understand where all this comes from. I will comment on these quotes in the order in which I have recorded them:
Sugar in the Blood
- 16-17 Here we see the origins of European wealth. This is nicely depicted in a video titled The Columbian Exchange I showed my Spanish classes. My point is that so much of European wealth and exquisite culture and lifestyle are attributed to the Industrial Revolution when in fact it began in the 1600s with the immense wealth of the Americas flowing into Europe. This global reach feeds the perception of the universality of European institutions.
- 147 Here we see the origin of the rigid distinctions in skin color, typical of these colonial societies.
- 198 Were the traumas passed on? If so, how? When I worked for Child Protective Services it was stressed how attachment disorders and associated behaviors became a pattern in the family, passed down generation to generation. Is it possible African-Americans have this legacy to deal with to this very day?
- 199 Similarly, how much of this thinking is part of the legacy of slavery?
- 181 & 137 Could this have been passed on down the generations to emerge as an indifference to what happens to Black people? Recall my WWW – the satire poking fun at so much attention paid to one missing White girl while missing Black girls were missing from the news as well.
- 199 Edward Ball is descended from the greatest of the South Carolina low country planters. He decided to look up “members of the family”, i.e. the descendants of the slaves who served on the family’s many plantations. Thus the title of his fascinating book, Slaves in the Family. We must ask if the many features of Barbadian life persist to this day, could attitudes and practices also persist?
- 237 Herein lies the essence of my pov that this is not a matter of good and bad but of the social institutions we create. Later in the segment, My POV, I will lay out the dead end we create by casting these institutions in terms of good and evil. Once you go that route, the movers of an institution can rightfully declare themselves innocent because, in their own minds, they are – they are just doing their duty and exercising their rights.
- 82 Is Woodard’s use of “horrifying” a value judgment? For myself, I felt a chill when I read “east Texas” because that is where my wife is from. Please note the story of Char later on in this essay. Woodard is writing about the U.S. so his comments are much more pointed than Stuart’s; here he pulls this past right up into the present where we see voting and attitudes clearly patterning in the slave states, thus instantiating the legacy of the past in the present.
Few discussions of terrorists bring up one of the oldest continuous terrorist organizations in the world: the Ku Klux Klan and its many incarnations (Knights of the Camelia, White Citizens’ Council, etc.). That doesn’t fit the narrative that would shunt such facts of life to the margins.
- 84 The question this raises for me is how much did the Whites who were not of the ruling class accept their position and even revere the “quality folk”. In fact, the South even uses that expression, quality folk. Does this attitude discourage White Southerners from joining unions, from allying themselves with African-Americans. Such a question is difficult to parse but at an impressionistic level, I would say the social structure of the slave oligarchy laid the seedbed for today’s Southern political landscape.
- 86 and 87 The main purpose of the constabulary was to control the huge slave population. I use constable advisedly because, as I just found out googling it, a constable has limited authority and certainly the constables of the South were not in place to police the gentry, the slave holders, the plantocracy, the quality folk. By the mid-1700s, all Black people south of the Mason-Dixon Line fell under this regimen, and that was an overwhelming majority of Black people in the nation.
- 88 A great divide between Liberals and Conservatives, in my estimation, lies in this blind eye turned to caste. Conservatives treat of the caste-ridden Blacks in this country as they treat of class-ridden European immigrants. Emerging from a caste status is much harder than emerging from a class status.
The reference to a parallel African-American culture should be illustrated and I can do it from a personal and anecdotal perspective. I will not be devoting a special space to culture but it crops up everywhere. Here is an example: our teaching cadre put on a no-talent show once a year to amuse the students. I was tapped one year to play a role in a Seinfeld episode. They told me who it was and I said, OK, what do I do? They said, oh, you know, so-and-so, just act like him. But I don’t know who that is. You know, the one who does so-and-so and I finally said I’d never seen Seinfeld. Jaws dropped but apparently the guy I was playing was real stupid because I nailed it. So the very next weekend, I was reading a newspaper article on advertisers trying to reach a Black audience and they listed the popularity of TV shows by race, Black and White; among Whites, Seinfeld was #1, among Blacks, #56. Culture.
- 89 W.E. B. DuBois referred to the “talented tenth”, those African-Americans who had achieved education, a professional or artisan status, and property ownership. These were often the off-spring of slave holders who bestowed on their progeny some advantages, and because they were the off-spring of White men, they were light-skinned. This light skin color became associated with higher status. This has bedeviled the Black community almost from the beginning of slavery in this country.
So interesting that the Southern colonel stereotype doesn’t come from Civil War service as I had thought, but from service in the slave patrol (the origin, IMHO, of the Black term for Whites, Paddy, from their pronunciation of “patroller”, “paddyroller”).
- 91 And we might have stopped this rather than fight a civil war by lining the western edge of the Deep South with Federal forts, to prevent the spread of slavery, and given safe passage to any escaped slave who made it to the forts. They could then have gone on to settle the West. Once slaves knew they had safe passage once they reached the western edge of the slave South, there would not have been much the slave holders could have done to hold them back. Again, IMO. We might even consider doing something similar now. Viewing the geographical distribution of undemocratic attitudes, I can imagine us setting up a boundary behind which Southern culture could thrive and beyond which the liberal, democratic, pragmatic, and tolerant culture of what Woodard calls the Midlands.
Summary question: If you believe that this legacy was left behind long ago, I only want you to tell me when and where the transmission of values, attitudes, and practices was broken.
Tim Carney reported today April 4 that the “Dutch counties” in WI are like those in Iowa etc., like Mormon counties: lots of social cohesion and they despise Trump.
This perspective on America and its founding and the repercussions of the details of that founding is only one of many. This country can be interpreted in a variety of ways. The standard narrative is one thing but scholars have multiplied the interpretations of our past. But let’s say you focus on the economic development of the country, citing land use and development, mining, forestry, agriculture, stock raising and other farming, and industry. Fine. But you cannot leave out of any of these the slave past. What I am asking is that as you thumb through the pages of America’s history, you not exclude the very basis of the wealth of the country: slaves. If you exclude them, you can just as easily exclude the presence of African-Americans today, as many have tried to exclude the President.
Moreover, we will see when we get into my personal views – opinions, world view, perspective, whatever – I will attribute many of the problems we have in our society today to this foundation in a slave society. About 1969 I overheard a Southern White man being interviewed and the subject of the Civil War came up and he said, “And it’s not over yet.” We cannot dismiss such sentiments. They mean something. More especially they mean votes.