On Slavery

Note: This post was written following the Charleston shooting.


 

When I was young, I loved reading history books about the early United States from the time of the colonies to what we call the American Civil War. It was not that my family was interested in it, or that friends were, but rather that I just picked up different books and that’s what I happened to get hooked on. As I’ve gotten older my interest hasn’t waned so much as expanded, and now what time and energy I have is typically invested in other things.

However, with the recent terrorist attack in Charleston, South Carolina – and make no mistake, I do consider it an act of domestic terrorism – there are a number of thoughts that have been weighing on me heavily. There seem to be so many “sides,” and frankly the talking points of all of them are enough to make me nearly lose my temper. Some want to remember history, some want to forget it and move on. I think there are a number of things that needs to be acknowledged by people of all sides, and until that occurs all attempts to move forward as a society will be handicapped.

First of all, there is no justification for slavery. We can all go back and forth about whether or not the slaves were treated well, that some slaves voiced the wish to not leave their masters, or about how the majority of the slaves were in the South. We could even go on about whites who were indentured slaves in the colonies or about Europeans that were each other’s slaves for centuries. We should treat each other well no matter what, but treating a slave well did not make them any less a slave. Likewise, the lack of many slaves in the North does not change the fact that they continued to profit from the slave trade in very real ways. In Rhode Island, there were no slaves by the mid 1800s. However, they were responsible for half of all U.S. slave voyages.[1]  Abolitionists were not the majority in the North, and frequently those who supported the abolition of slavery in their state were less worried about the freedom of blacks and more concerned about not wanting any blacks around them whatsoever. It has been documented many times, including in the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville, that while more in the South owned slaves, racist attitudes were more widespread in the North. There is even the discussion of free blacks and Cherokee owning slaves. Tell me, does the color of your master’s skin, or the color of your own, make you any more or less a slave?

As an additional example, there were cases of slave owners raping slaves. Nobody in their right mind will deny that happened. Problem is, during Sherman’s campaign known as Sherman’s March to the Sea, he knew his Union soldiers were raping and murdering slaves that refused to join the Union army and he made no attempt to stop it. Even before the war, black women were raped on either side of the Mason-Dixon line:

“That’s the other thing: both the North and the South rarely thought it was rape when it was a black woman. It wasn’t until the Civil War when black women were actually able to come forward and call it rape. Before that time, even in the North, they would make it a lesser charge [for black women], if at all. I do have at least one record where a black woman was able to testify about a sexual assault in New York or someplace like that, but that was very rare. For the most part, black women’s voices went unheard.”[2]

Even later on in the war, once the North as a whole actually developed an interest in abolition, it was a tool of war rather than a sudden development of conscience. There were even early discussions of ways to keep northern whites from having to live near the newly freed blacks, to the point of considering deporting all freed blacks to Haiti.

There is no moral high ground here. None. Not on either side. There were people who were good, and people who were bad, and people who were good part of the time and bad at other times.

I would like, at some point, to get further into the causes of the war once getting this much out of the way, but I find I don’t have the mental energy for it right now.

To say that the Confederate battle flag (it was not, in fact, the national flag of the Confederacy) originally stood for racism is absurd because racism was prevalent on both sides. It was later appropriated for that meaning by people who wished to further their racist ideologies and made assumptions about the war so that it would fit in with those ideologies. If the flag bothers someone because it reminds them of this nation’s history of slavery, I understand where the thought comes from. If the flag is important to someone (including me) because of certain other aspects of our past, I understand that too.

To the assholes like Dylann Roof who latched onto the Confederate battle flag like it somehow justifies committing murder on people who never wronged you, there isn’t a level of hell good enough to punish you for your remorseless actions and you can stop hiding behind symbols you think you know the meaning of.

 

[1] Northern involvement in the slave trade. (n.d.). Traces of the Trade. Retrieved from http://www.tracesofthetrade.org/…/northern-involvement-in-…/

[2] Beck, J. (2014, February 20). Gender, race, and rape during the Civil War. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/…/gender-race-and-rape-d…/283754/

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