The immeasurable horrors of slavery and the immediate years after come excruciatingly alive in this novel. Decent white people help recently freed brothers but at a terrible price. A “forbidden” romance between two Confederate soldiers highlights the destructiveness of class and hatred. Yet, in spite of the despair and cruelty, resilience, decency, and tenderness prevail in the end. Long listed for the Booker Prize, this detailed and beautifully written novel remains true to some of the most painful parts of US history.
Reflections on Independence Day
When I was a child, we lived on a farm where it rains around 40 inches annually. On the Fourth of July, Dad always shot off a few Roman candles, and we had small firecrackers and sparklers, nothing fancy, just fun. Even then I knew about the Declaration of Independence, revered its message. Still do.
Now I live where it is hot and dry. The neighbor’s fireworks display rivaled those found in cities–beautiful but dangerous in brown grass country. I wonder if they give any thought to the history, to why anyone celebrates this day.
For the first time in the decades of my life, I did not celebrate Independence Day. Why?
Born decades ago, I originally went to college in Virginia where I experienced the shock of real segregation; I had not grown up where it was like that. I was horrified, lasted only one semester, then transferred. Later I attended a college which shut down in protest over the Viet Nam War, I supported The Civil Rights Movement, I helped create one of the first intercollegiate groups to advocate for abused women, and with an ethnically diverse group I taught diversity classes for teachers.
Now in 2020, I feel that even with all that hard, determined work, progress has been too limited. It is as if I have been transported back to 40 years ago. People need to learn from the history most do not even know:
-Cotton Mather, the leading intellectual and Puritan minister in the colonial era, actually helped butcher King Phillip (Metacomet) like an animal. What did he do to deserve this? He tried to save his Native people. Cotton Mather later writes about tearing Metacomet’s jaw from his skull.
-In 1676, when poor whites joined enslaved Africans to rebel for a better life and decent living conditions, fighting for justice against the wealthy planters, those rich planters realized they had to get poor whites to hate Blacks. They took land owned by Blacks and gave it to poor white people and then paid them to hunt down and abuse, even kill, people of African descent.
-Later, the same Cotton Mather mentioned above, learned from his slave that in Africa, Africans had been taking pus from a smallpox infected person and inoculating others with it to prevent smallpox from spreading. He refused to believe any African could be so smart even though he inoculated himself and his family after learning this. Later, he wrote this about his African slave who had told him the story that may have saved his life: “…brokenly and blunderingly and like Idiots they tell the Story.”
-Of course, we all know that the intellectual giant, Thomas Jefferson, held the deed to the woman who would later bear him numerous children while he proclaimed those famous words that all people are created equal.
The history of racial and ethnic hatred goes back to the inception of this country. It continues to poison progress and hope. It never seems to end. I am tired of it. Enough is enough.
White Trash and Rednecks
Nearly everyone lies about an important aspect of US history even historians. School history books avoid the discussion totally, this significant part of US history, much of which explains past and current racism.
Americans pretend that social class does not matter, that anyone can rise to the top given enough effort. This myth depends on the continuation of a very selective historical memory, indeed, a lie.
It began with the British and those who intentionally left there to come here. Even colonists divided the classes with poor people and criminals at the bottom–whores, discharged English soldiers, robbers, highwaymen; the saddest of the lot were the orphans, rounded up, loaded on ships bound for America, sold as indentured servants. Often these contracts were repeatedly resold with no routes for the individuals to escape. The rigid English class conditions continued here. People of higher classes in the colonies referred to the poor as waste, rubbish, and trash.
John Locke, often considered the father of constitutional government, favored slavery and aristocratic society. He endorsed an aristocratic constitutional government and called the poor, landless, lazy lubbers. Because the southern colonies lacked sufficient land lubbers and land owners believed Africans more suitable for hot, humid swamp clearance, they petitioned for slaves–previously illegal in Georgia, for example. These wealthy landowners also viewed poor whites as too lazy to work.
Even the esteemed Ben Franklin believed in the concept of class as inevitable. Both he and Jefferson saw expansion westward as the solution to potential class conflict. Franklin thought the new colonies needed more people and advocated for the freedom of slave women who bred many children and for white women to be allowed to gain property rights for the same. More people would move west and alleviate class conflict. Franklin was not an advocate for the poor, whom he considered lazy, slothful. He even endorsed their forced migration westward and referred to them as “the meaner Sort, i.e. the Mob, or the Rable”.
If this sounds shocking, Jefferson went even further, calling the poor, “rubbish”. He did feel they could improve, given land and education. He did not include slaves in this theory.
If you ever wondered about the origin of the term “cracker”, look back to the era of Andrew Jackson, the era of “squatters” in a log cabin in the thickly forested frontier, people who squatted on land they did not even own. Many saw them in both positive and negative terms: half strong, hard working pioneers and half robbers. Two terms applied to these people, “cracker” and “squatter”, none of whom legally owned the land where they lived, troublemakers with no hope of upward mobility, people who championed crudity, distrust of civil society and city dwellers, and held on to a kind of crude arrogance. Both terms came from England where such people were considered lazy vagrants. The more educated and “civilized” viewed them as degenerate, low class fornicators. These squatters saw Andrew Jackson as their champion and Davy Crockett as their hero.
The phrase “white trash” became common in the 1860s and after. These were the southern poor with dirty faces, ragged clothing, distended bellies without possibility of improvement, who for a brief time were viewed as even lower than slaves. Southern aristocrats pushed the concept of bloodlines for people as well as livestock. They advocated a criteria for human as well as livestock breeding to justify slavery and Anglo-Saxon superiority. Native Indians were a biologically inferior, degraded race, doomed to extinction. Later Texans used similar arguments to deter intermarriage with Mexicans. Sam Houston championed this cause apparently ignoring his own personal history. He had lived with Natives and married two of them. In the long run these beliefs did not help poor whites or raise their status. They lived off the worst land and were continually referred to in derogatory terms, e.g. white trash, sand eaters.
Just before the Civil War some elite Southerners advocated to keep certain classes ignorant. They defended the planter class as having the best bloodlines, whose destiny was to rule over poor whites and black slaves. When they realized they needed poor white support to secede, and that many did not support them, they convinced them the war was necessary to save them from a state worse than slavery. Some were promised land and other rewards. Since most were illiterate, they remained unaware that they were referred to as “perfect drones”, “the swinish multitude”, and other pejorative terms; and that some saw them as trash who contaminated whatever they touched. It was not the Southern elite who died in masses during the Civil War; it was the poor, recruited with Davis’ rhetoric about the superiority of the white race.
Later, during Reconstruction, William Percy wrote a description of poor whites as those who lynch Negroes, lack intelligence, attend religious revivals then fornicate in the bushes afterwards. He also explicitly referred to them as Anglo-Saxons. Teddy Roosevelt saw this a bit differently. He wanted Anglo-Saxons to work, to join the military, and breed, but he excluded poor whites from this group and his plan.
The term “rednecks” came into use in the South during the 1890s. It referred to people who lived in the swamps and mill towns, wore overalls, heckled at political rallies.
The Great Depression exacerbated the situation for poor whites and increased their numbers dramatically. Those who had never been considered white trash joined the ranks of the poor. Many Southern writers went back to discussions about the Civil War and argued about the current poverty and how to solve the problem. One, Jonathan Daniels, even wrote that Rebel pride blindfolded all classes.
Later, one way to overcome the prejudices against the poor was through music and TV shows, e.g. Elvis Presley and “The Beverly Hillbillies”. It allowed the country to feel better about prejudices and pretend they did not exist.
Today this manifests itself through politicians who “pretend” to be white trash and rednecks to gain votes, but in reality live the lifestyle of the upper class.
Note: For those who wish to read more about class and the writings of the individuals mentioned above here is a partial list.
Writings and speeches of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson
Sherwood Anderson’s “Poor White”
Writings of John Locke
Works of James Agee
“White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America”
Speeches of Jefferson Davis
Whitney Plantation Visit
Whitney Plantation resides on the River Road about one hours drive from New Orleans. A recent visit there provided much enlightening information about the slave trade, crops grown near New Orleans, and the history of this area. Tours can be scheduled all days of the week except Tuesday. It is unique in that many different types of plantation buildings still exist there, including old slave cabins, a foundry, and the outside kitchen.
A German immigrant started the plantation in the late 1700s. At Habitation Haydel, its original name, he grew indigo. After his death, his youngest son converted the main crop grown to sugar cane, which is still grown there today. Both indigo and sugar cane required intensive labor for profitability.
Although, according to population data, only ten blacks lived in Louisiana in 1712, by the end of the century slavery was the main source of labor. In 1795, there were 19,926 slaves in Louisiana. Under Spanish rule the slave population steadily increased. Although many were imported from Haiti, those from Africa came from what are now the countries of Senegal, Bissau, and Guinea. After the initial importation of slaves, the United States imported few compared to islands in the West Indies and Latin America, e.g. Brazil. The preferred method in the United States to obtain slaves was breeding. Women and men were forced to breed. Their owners specifically chose certain people to produce certain types of progeny just like in breeding livestock. One woman complained of having 16 children by 16 different men.
After leaving the visitor center, the first building on the tour is the church. Inside the church are statues of various children who were the products of the breeding program at the plantation.
The artist created these statues from specific information about the children. The plantation owners maintained detailed inventories of all slaves and their value. This particular plantation often owned as many as 100 slaves.
From this inventory a memorial has been created with the names of the slaves. Included are various statements made by the slaves themselves as recorded in slave narratives.
The above tells the story of a child fathered by his owner and one of the slave women and how his father treated him.
Even pregnant women could not escape beatings.
Because the area around New Orleans receives 60 inches of rain a year, the landscape everywhere is lush. This is one of several pools at the plantation.
These containers cooked the sugar cane. Starting with the largest, the cane was boiled repeatedly until it cooked down and poured into increasingly smaller containers. This was especially dangerous work due to the fires, the heat, and the boiling sugar cane. Sugar cane production was much more dangerous than cotton which was grown farther north in Louisiana. The cane itself was cut with large machetes and the edges of the cane are also sharp. Many people were severely injured. The life expectancy of a sugar cane slave who worked in the fields or cooking the cane was approximately ten years from the time he or she went to work, often as young as ten. Although field slaves had a much harder life in terms of labor, they had less exposure to their owners and their families and therefore, in some ways, more freedom to talk and interact. House slaves were constantly watched and the women especially subject to sexual abuse.
Slave cabins like this one contained four rooms. Like the main plantation house, most buildings were built off the ground. No levees existed then and the largest plantations were often built within sight of the Mississippi River and thus prone to flooding.
This building housed the foundry. Skilled slaves, like blacksmiths, were very valuable and received better treatment, e.g. enough food. When the movie, “Django Unchained” was filmed, part of the movie was filmed here because the adjoining plantation did not have a blacksmith shop. The branding portion was filmed at Whitney Plantation.
The walkway, looking from the front of the main plantation house, is lined with giant oak trees. Before the levees were built, the Mississippi River could be seen from the house.
Originally, there was no first floor due to the flooding. Later, after it will built and used for dining, an office, and a living area, whenever the floods came, the slaves were required to carry everything to the second floor until the water subsided. Then they would clean the first floor of mud and debris and return the furniture there. Whitney Plantation possesses some unique characteristics, e.g. finely painted European style ceilings.
Cooking was not done inside the main house at any of the plantations due to the heat and fire danger. The cook, another skilled and valuable slave, was required to know how to cook various popular cuisines typical of the area, e.g. creole, European–French, Spanish.
The various ferns and mosses growing from the limb of this large oak trees demonstrates the lushness and humidity typical of this area and why it is still used for sugar cane production.
A short distance down the road is Evergreen Plantation where the main portion of “Django Unchained” was filmed. It, too, still produces sugar cane and a family lives here. Tours are available as well.
Slaves today outnumber all the past,
more than thirty million.
Eleven year old girls,
locked in motel rooms, never see light,
told you’re a whore, worthless, until
they believe it.
Respectable hotels, brothels in disguise.
Senegalese boys chained in hovels, fake
madrassas, sent to beg on streets.
Texas parents of three daughters, forcing them
into prostitution for drugs. Everyone knows;
no one can catch them.
Famous men running sex slave rings, immune
Young women who think all men watch
pornography; it’s normal.
Innocence promised, endlessly betrayed.
People as commodities.
Proofs sent to the library at work–a high school–cannot legally be used on the shelves so they end up in various places. Somehow I end up where they reside and read them. My latest, The Boiling Season by Christopher Hebert provides abundant food for hard core thinking. The setting, a Caribbean island, reeks of political turmoil and the legacy of slavery. Unless you are totally ignorant of Caribbean history and the various cultures there, it does not take long to figure out the setting is Haiti. In case you want to read the book, I will give you only a cursory introduction. The main character grows up in basically what we call here a slum. His mom dies of malaria when he is quite young and his dad owns a small store. He hates it and focuses most of his life on getting out of these circumstances. He gets a job and a place to live with a senator, meets important people, and eventually discovers an abandoned estate out in the country. He moves there after it is bought by a wealthy foreign white woman who hires him to restore it. He absolutely loves the place. It is an island of beauty and peace in the middle of squalor, poverty, and strife.
The details you can read for yourself. It’s focus is the dilemma many who grow up poor and want to better themselves face: if you progress, are you abandoning your roots, to whom do you owe loyalty. And, indeed, what is progress? Civil war breaks out and the main character is torn between his desire for peace and a more elegant lifestyle in this beautiful place and the needs of the poverty stricken people who surround it and who at one point work there. Is he a free person or just a fancier slave for the rich who own the place? Has he deluded himself into thinking because he worked hard to get where he is that he is better?
Although the book’s setting is a particular place, the theme remains universal. I think of individuals I personally know who could not cope with success and riches, who felt they must “save” all their relatives and then were left with nothing themselves. The thinking is this: if you come into money, you must share it with everyone; to keep it for yourself is morally wrong. If this is the case, how can the cycle ever break? This sort of thinking is very difficult for those of use who work hard and save for the future to understand. We question why we should help them when they hit the bottom.
Yesterday my hard working, single mom, going to graduate school daughter went on a rant about people she knows who get food stamps, Medicaid, etc. while she works and goes to school and gets nothing. They have fancier cars, better TVs, etc. than she does. I do understand both viewpoints although I admit I am the frugal without being austere. I remember a time several years ago when several of my poorer students–I teach at a Title 1 school–wore jeans more expensive than I would ever buy–its jeans. We got into a discussion about this. I informed them that all the clothing I had on except for underwear and socks came from a thrift store. When I take things to the thrift store, I actually shop. Thrift stores are full of “finds”. The response of one student was echoed by others, “I would never go into a thrift store. Someone might see me go in there.” Because they were poor, they wanted to avoid anyone seeing them do anything they thought might confirm this.
Although fraud exists in programs for the poor, it also exists in high end banking and just about everything. The solution is to work hard to investigate and prevent it. I keep wondering what is the solution for the people truly in need? Do we punish everyone to prevent the fraudulent acts of the few? And what about the children? What happens to the dependent young? Obviously, the world has not found answers. I wonder if we ever will.