The Demeaning of Language

April 15, 2014 § 5 Comments

Slavery is, by definition, a condition where one human being is owned by another.  The condition of African Americans in the US South prior to the Civil War was one of slavery.  Slavery is NOT an unpaid internship.  It is NOT working a bad McJob.  It is also not what happened to African Americans after the Civil War in the South.

After the war, many allegedly free African Americans were made to work on the same plantations they had been enslaved upon.  They were not paid.  They were viciously, and cruelly exploited.  Their civil rights were deeply and fundamentally violated.  And this is a stain on American history that is not spoken of.  The standard narrative is that the slaves were freed and that was the end of that.  But this status of allegedly free African Americans after the Civil War in the South was not slavery.

There is a fine distinction to be made here between the ownership of someone else’s person and the exploitation of someone else’s body or economic power.  A slave has next to no rights.  Slave owners in the pre-Civil War South were free to buy and sell their slaves at will.  They had almost free range to do whatever they wished with and to their slaves.  Men violated and raped their female slaves.  Men beat and savaged their male slaves.  Slave owners broke up families because they could (see my post on the Carolina Chocolate Drops for a powerful story of a freed slave woman).

The allegedly free African Americans after the war, forced to work on the same plantations they had been enslaved on, were not slaves.  They were personally free, even if that freedom amounted to less than a hill of beans.

My college is hosting a partial film-screening of Sam Pollard’s 2012 film, Slavery By Another Name, this week, along with a talk by Rebecca Hill, an historian at Kennesaw State University in Georgia.  I fully understand Pollard’s rhetorical point in his documentary.  The term “slavery” is one of the few that still has the power to shock, and Pollard capitalises on that in drawing audiences in for his documentary and exposure of a more or less forgotten period of American History.  This is a documentary that all Americans and anyone with an interest in American Civil Rights should see.

But the problem is that when we use words like this, we demean their meanings, and lessen their impact.  Take, for example, the term “fascism.” That term is thrown around like it means nothing in political circles in both Canada and the USA, by all sides, to describe anyone and anything the speaker might disagree with.  In the end, “fascist” doesn’t really mean much anymore, and has no shock value.  That is not a good thing.

The same thing will happen with the words “slave” and “slavery,” too.  Especially if otherwise well-off white, college-educated young men and women continue to use those terms to describe their unpaid internships, or if we continue to describe the plight of adjuncts in the academy as a form of slavery.

Language is symbolic.  We use words to describe concrete and abstract theories and ideas.  They are meant to be symbolic for the theories, ideas, and things we are describing.  Language is obviously how we communicate, and if we demean and cheapen our words to the point where they lose their meaning, I’m not entirely sure how we communicate at all.

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.

Happy Black History Month

January 28, 2014 § Leave a comment

I’m an historian.  I teach history.  I study history.  I write history.  I even think about it in my spare time.  February is Black History Month.  In theory, I support this.  I support the teaching of Black history.  As well as the history of other groups who have been marginalised, oppressed, and written out of history.  I remain deeply influenced by the New Left of the 1960s, particularly the work of E.P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm.  Black history has to be incorporated into the rest of the curriculum, it has to be included in the story at the core.  Black History Month is important to raise awareness, but we need to do more than that if we’re ever going to get anything done.  African American history is central to the American story, and not just through slavery, the Civil War, and Civil Rights.

I was struck nearly stupid by a post on NPR.org today, “What Does ‘Sold Down the River’ Really Mean?”  Seriously.  This is considered to be a newsworthy blog post by the leftist, liberal, listener-supported public radio station.  The comments on the story on Facebook are predictable in many ways.  There are the liberals having pedantic arguments about whether the apocryphal river is the Missouri, Mississippi, or the Niger, whether the provenance of the phrase is American or African.  On the actual post on NPR.org,the liberals are arguing about whether or not slavery still exists today in relation to agricultural workers from Central America.  But back on Facebook, there are also people claiming that this is race-baiting, or “playing the race card.”  Others say that there is no racism in America today. Others say that its racist to even have a Black History Month, because there is no equivalent White History Month.  These are the folks who call Women’s Day sexist because there’s no Men’s Day. And then there’s the one who says that this is all ancient history and belongs “up there on the shelf with the other antiques where it belongs.”

Pointing out the history of slavery and the historic oppression of black people in this country is neither race-baiting nor playing the race card.  Pointing out that racism still exists today is also not race-baiting or playing the race card.  In fact, from my experience, those who make such claims are doing to from a place of racism themselves.  As for the one who said that racism and slavery are ancient history and belong up on the shelf with the other antiques, well, the less said about that, the better.

As for the claim that Black History Month is racist because there’s no White History Month.  Well, it’s not often I will outright say an idea is stupid.  But this is an exception to that rule.  The majority of the history we teach, in primary and secondary schools, in university, is about dead white men.  Still.  In the early 21st century.  There is a reason for this, of course, and that’s because most survey history courses are overviews and, at least when it comes to North America and Europe, it is dead white men who were the kings, presidents, advisers, cardinals, popes, explorers, revolutionaries, politicians, and rebels.  In short, in the United States, the history curriculum is still overwhelmingly about white people, particularly white men. So the suggestion that Black History Month is racist is ludicrous, ridiculous, and downright stupid.

But, it’s stories like this, and the comments made on them, that point out the real need for Black History Month.  We do need to spend some time privileging African American history, if only to draw attention to it.  And then to include it in the rest of the curriculum.   A high school teacher commented on the Facebook post that slavery IS taught in the schools, and to suggest otherwise is wrong and stupid.  Well, yes, it is taught.  And then once we get past the Civil War and Reconstruction, black history isn’t generally deal with again until the Civil Rights era, but then that’s it.  So, black history appears in relation to slavery, Civil War, Reconstruction, and Civil Rights.  In short, when the national story was dominated by issues related to race and African Americans.  When race and African Americans aren’t part of the national story, it’s back to the sidelines.  I don’ think this is good, it doesn’t create an inclusive history, it is an exclusive history.  The same is true of women and other minorities.

This NPR story and the comments to it on Facebook and NPR show that rather than moving towards a post-racial society (hey, remember those dreams in 2008?), we are caught in a stasis, and we need Black History Month now as much as ever.

 

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