Slaves of Capital, All

October 10, 2012

 

A few weeks ago, Alexander Saxton died, so I went and read his essay on blackface minstrelsy.  You can read the complete paper here.  I had heard of it, but never actually read it, and it was interesting.

So then I decided to read one of his books, The Rise and Fall of the White Republic.  It contains a chapter that is basically the same content as the minstrelsy essay, and covers the political history of the 19th century USA with a focus on the importance of race, but each chapter can almost be read as a separate piece.  It is not a history of racist ideas, but a political history of the USA, but the depressing fact is that racist ideas are integral to that history.

The book isn’t even exclusively about racism regarding Africans, despite the seismic disturbances caused by slavery in the early Union.  No, the other race, the one that had to be exterminated, the Native Americans, is treated at length, and it is instructive to see how various parties sometimes took divergent views on the two.  The Jacksonian Democrats wanted to liquidate the Indians to get their land, and restrict slavery, and blacks, to the South because they hated the planter aristocrats, and feared black labor competition.  The Whigs, the upper-crust opposition to the Jacksonians, wanted to protect the Indians, all the while hoping they would gradually die off or assimilate, in order to have an excuse to limit slavery to the South.  They were happy to have free blacks in the territories as they had no love for a labor monpoly by the Jacksonian producers.   Besides, they were looking forward to industrialization, and they just wanted free labor, free to accept their wages.

Along the way, a lot of unsavory racial ideology is unearthed and associated with people you might not otherwise think of in the history of imperialism and racism, such as Walt Whitman:

Who believes that Whites and Blacks can ever amalgamate in America?  Or who wishes it to happen?  Nature has set an impassable seal against it.  Besides, is not American for the Whites? And is it not better so?

Editorial in The Eagle, 1858

Yes, the whole thing is quite sordid.  After the Civil War, the northern Republicans went to town on their industrial program, and racism continued to serve handily, and was often employed by workingmen against one another.  Meanwhile, heroes such as Teddy Roosevelt, took up the pseudo-science of race to justify imperialism abroad and oppression at home, although the negroes did do a fair job at San Juan Hill.  And those Indians..?  Now that they were almost all dead, it was time to wax sentimental about them to assuage one’s guilt at having helped along with their massacre.  Thus, Teddy’s statue in front of the Museum of Natural History in NYC shows him mounted like a Roman emperor, aided by his noble and faithful servant, a red chieftain.

And through it all, the driving force of capital remaking our nation, then the world.  Monuments such as the one of Teddy, dedicated in 1940, seem quaint now.  There is no longer any desire, perhaps no need, to cement the image of heroic, white overlords.  In the midst of our multi-cultural society, with its wide tolerance for racial and ethnic difference, the moving power of great wealth does not need to show its face, to justify itself at all! Abstract corporate art serves nicely. Human figures just arouse controversy.

Saxton refers to the 1890s as a hegemonic crisis, during which the ruling elite actually feared for, perhaps rightly so, their privileges.  They had carried on so brutally as to foment a political counter attack.  Now we have a political system that stages ‘debates’ that seem like grade-school reenactments of democracy.  No public interaction – the audience is just for show.  But the debate is the real show, displaying the importance and control of the corporate media.

Just by coincidence, as I was reading the book, I saw the obituary of another scholar of the slave societies, Eugene Genovese.  The author of Roll , Jordan, Roll:  The Lives the Slaves Made, repudiated his radicalism, and died a repentant and fully-fledged Catholic conservative.


Pym

June 17, 2012

In Pym, Mat Johnson has created a wildly satirical novel that takes a tremendous bite right into the heart of American civilization – slavery and its racial aftermath.  You don’t have to be a fan of Edgar Allan Poe, or have read The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Nantucketer to like this book, but it does add another delicious dollop of cultural allusion and dissection to it.  The book stands on its own as the very darkly hilarious (Any metaphorical use of light/white and dark/black have to be tentative in discussing this book, lest one become part of its subject!) riff on Poe’s only novel-length work, American history, and race, not to mention contemporary American taste as exemplified by The Painter of Light.

The narrator of the tale is Chris Jaynes, an African-American scholar of American Literature, who can’t hack it in the tenure track of Academe.  He confronts the president of the small college that has canned him in a very funny scene, only to retreat, humbled, after ripping off the man’s bow-tie. It’s a clip-on job:  appearances, appearances.  Obsessed by Poe’s tale of Pym and his perilous adventures in Antarctica,  and convinced it has a profound racial subtext, he strikes pay dirt when he comes into possession of an authentic manuscript written by one of the tale’s characters.  It isn’t fiction, it’s fact!  What a scoop!  He manages to scrape together the funds for an expedition to Antarctica to get to the bottom of it all.

The story of Arthur Gordon Pym involves cannibalism, and the drawing of straws to determine the victim, strange, gigantic figures of perfect white, devilish black natives of a strangely warm land in the antarctic, known as Tsalal, who fiendishly dispose of most of the white visitors, and it is enigmatically broken off at the end.  Pym cleverly mimics and inverts much of the narrative, substituting street-wise jive for Poe’s absurdly melodramatic prose.  It also displays much wonderful deadpan humor: In this passage, the narrator, having discovered the real Arthur Pym, miraculously still alive after more than a century, tries to talk to him:

“I’m a Natucketer,” he replied.

“Well, are your family landowners?”  At this, the supposed Nantucketer shook his head with enthusiasm and then annoyance that I would even question that fact.

“Well, you’ve been gone awhile, things have gone up in value,” Nathaniel followed, and this time Pym deigned to hear him directly.  “Land in Nantucket sells for about two million, two hundred thousand an acre on today’s market.  You probably have quite an estate to attend to.”  Already growing a bit more alert, at the sound of the figure Pym’s eyes seemed to gain a greater level of consciousness.  The ghost of a man leaned in toward me.

“Is this true?” he muttered.

“Yes, it is,” I told him, relieved that we finally seemed to be getting closer to an actual conversation.

“In a world where people would pay so much for sand,” Pym started, clearly awed by the thought of this, “how much did these niggers cost you?”

Pym, who is a caricature of Poe himself, in this story at least, generates a lot of humor by saying in a completely nonchalant way things that are, today, completely outrageous – but they weren’t in the ante bellum USA.  And among some people today, they probably are not yet.  The characters on the expedition, all black, are thrown up against their own notions of race and class, and their status as free men and women when they are taken on as slaves by a race of giant, antarctican white hairy ape creatures.  And then there is that painter who has created his own pleasure dome down there, but who becomes part of the conflict.  It all gets pretty crazy:  it’s reminiscent of the best parts of The Planet of the Apes.

Well, race, and slavery based on race, is a crazy idea, but as we like to forget, it is what the Hispanic and Anglo empires built North American civilization with.  And though it ended with the Civil War (not really with the Emancipation Proclamation, but with the abolition of slavery by individual states, starting with, of all places, Texas, as commemorated this week with Juneteenth), Reconstruction saw to it that much of its cultural apparatus remained intact for another hundred years.  And what was it all based on?

As the narrator of Pym reflects on the One Drop Rule at several points, it is clear that it is based on power pure and simple.  What can you make of a rule that says that a person is “black” if they have one drop of black blood in them, no matter how white they look?  Logical, in a sick way, on the face of it, but why does it run only in one direction?  In today’s NYTimes, there was an article about Michelle Obama’s ancestor in the ante bellum South, a woman slave who had a child by the son of her owner.  So, why isn’t Michelle Obama white by a One Drop Rule?

Weelll…the One Drop Rule only goes one way, except, perhaps, in a society where everyone is black…like Tsalal, for example.  Which is where the expeditionary crew in Pym ends up, with predictable consequences for Arthur Gordon Pym.  It’s the ultimate literary irony of the book.  And just how did the writer ever get his manuscript to print, anyway..?


Our Civil War

April 13, 2011

This week is the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War.  Also known as:  The War Between the States; The War of Succession; War of Southern/Northern Agression; and The War for Southern Independence, among others things.   I prefer The War of Southern Rebellion or The Slave Society Rebellion Against the Union.  No matter how you spin it, and the spins are mighty, the cause of the war was slavery.

The South was a society built on slavery, and it could not coexist with the industrializing North.  The southerners rebelled to preserve their way of life, a plantation economy ruled by an elite of large slave owners, and a rabble of whites (antecedents of the storied “white trash“)  who at least weren’t black slaves.  After the war smashed the South, the former slaves enjoyed a brief period of freedom during Reconstruction, but the North made a deal that allowed it to reap the benefits of the South’s resources of agriculture and cheap labor, and left the African-Americans to fend for themselves in the neo-slavery of Jim Crow.  Slavery was done, and that was enough for most in the North.

Not everyone felt this way.  Thaddeus Stevens and his fellows understood that the South had rebelled, and left the Union.  He wanted the leaders of the Confederacy rounded up and shot, or at least imprisoned.  He wanted the plantations confiscated and parceled out to the former slaves, and used to compensate Union veterans.  He wanted the rebel states to be denied congressional representation until they could demonstrate that they deserved it yet again.  His view did not prevail, and the torrent of self-serving, sentimentalizing, dishonest, distorted and reactionary narratives began to pour forth from the North and South.  Today, the Confederate flag flies proudly in many locales – it’s just a cultural thing.  Yep, and I’m sure there are some old Germans who would like to display the swastika and SS skulls, just to preserve that culture…

You cannot understand American culture and politics today if you don’t contemplate the Civil War and its aftermath.


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