On the New Racist Discourse in America

November 4, 2014 § 78 Comments

[Note: Comments have become out of control on this blog post, including some downright racist terminology that I have not allowed to be posted, as well as a few that include veiled, and occasionally direct, threats against me.]

So Ben Stein thinks that Obama is the most racist president in the history of this great republic.  He thinks so because allegedly Obama “is purposely trying to use race to divide Americans,” and is using the ‘race card’ to convince all African Americans to vote for the Democratic Party.  Ben Stein is wrong.

Obama is not the racist one, but Stein is tapping into a new discourse of racist ideology arising from the right in this country.  In this discourse, anyone who mentions race as an issue in contemporary American life risks being called a racist.  Anyone who points out racial inequality is at risk of being branded racist.  In the mindset of those who trumpet this new discourse, we’re all equal, no matter our ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, or racial background.  And any attempt to point out inequality is therefore racist/sexist/homophobic, etc, by definition.

But what this discursive technique does is to deny the experiences of women and minorities in our society.  It says to those who have experiences different than white men that their experiences are invalid.  In short, this new racist discourse is meant to work as shorthand for racist viewpoints.  Thus, by claiming Obama is racist, Stein is both diverting attention from his own racism, and engaging in that very racism he blames on Obama.

More often than not, this discursive technique comes hand-in-hand with declarations of what is in the best interests of African Americans.  And in this sense, we return to the paternal racism of slave owners in the pre-Civil War era.  I’m not saying that Ben Stein = slave plantation owner.  I’m saying the tricks of technique here are very similar.  Last spring, we saw the Carolina Chocolate Drops up in Vermont.  Towards the end of the show, Rhiannon Giddens, the frontwoman of the band, told us of her own explorations of American history, and a book she read on slave narratives in the post-Civil War era.  One story in particular struck her, and she wrote the song “Julie” about it.

In the story, the mistress of the plantation is shocked at the fact that Julie, the former slave woman would have a will of her own.  She thought that she knew best for Julie, as did slave owners in general in a paternalist racist system.

And every time a white man or woman purports to know what’s best for African Americans, or any other minority, they’re engaging in this kind of paternalistic racism, which appears to be part and parcel of this new racist discourse from certain sectors of the political right in the United States.

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Slave Narratives and the Carolina Chocolate Drops

March 31, 2014 § 6 Comments

Last night, we were up in Woodstock, VT, to see the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a string band from Durham, North Carolina.  The band is comprised of three African-Americans and fronted by Rhiannon Giddens, who is of mixed white, black, and aboriginal descent, they play a mixture of traditional and modern folk/roots instruments.  They’ve revived a number of songs from the slave era in the Deep South, most of which, according to Giddens, were set down in the 1850s, just before the onset of the Civil War.  Most of these, however, come without lyrics, for perhaps obvious reasons.  The band were incredibly talkative on the stage last night, which created an incredible community vibe inside this small theatre in small-town Vermont.  Both Giddens and band mate Hubby Jenkins kept up a running monologue with the crowd, telling us about their songs, how they came to perform them, write them, play them, their traditional instruments, and so on.

Before one song, Giddens told us about her explorations of American history, specifically African-American history, and about a book she read that collated slave narratives, and analysed them collectively, as opposed to the usual individuated approach to slave narratives.  However, Giddens also noted one story that stuck out for her, about a slave woman named Julie at the tail end of the Civil War, as the Union Army was coming over the crest of the hill towards the plantation that Julie lived on.  Julie is standing with her Mistress, watching them approach in the song, “Julie.”

This video was shot last night, by someone sitting close by us, though I don’t know who shot it, I didn’t see it happening.  This is one powerful song, and it got me thinking.  I’m teaching the Civil War right now in my US History class, and as I cast about for sources I am intrigued by slavery apologists, then and now, who argue that the slaves were happy.  But even more striking are the stories about slave owners who were shocked to their core when the war ended and their slaves took their leave quickly, looking to explore their freedom.

It seems that the slave owners had really convinced themselves that they and their slaves were “friends” and that their slaves loved them.  That arrogance seems astounding to me in the early 21st century.  But this song last night powerfully brought the story right back around.

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