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Former Slaves Speak Across Time and the NY Times Recycles the Myth of the Black Confederate Soldier

“My name is Fountain Hughes … My grandfather belonged to Thomas Jefferson.” Hughes then begins a wily standoff with his white interviewer, Hermond Norwood, digressing into his opinions about babies wearing shoes (-22:00) and buying things “on time [credit],” decrying the Yankees throwing flour into the river (-11:10) and, finally, declaring he would shoot himself rather than go back to slavery, where “you are nothing but a dog.” (-10:00)
As part of its series commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, the Opinionator section of the NY Times is featuring a piece by Karenna Gore Schiff. Out of Time explores the politics surrounding the WPA's efforts to record the oral histories of former slaves during the 1930s and 1940s. There are some great nuggets here: the fights over memory and representation; the Dixiecrats hold over the WPA and its various artistic and historical projects; the fears of now freed people of suffering retaliation from whites in the Jim Crow South if their stories about the evil ways of white folks were too honest; and how the very idea of "documentary" projects were part of a broader populist turn towards everyday people--as opposed to "great" men and women--and the importance of their life stories and experiences to understanding the grand American narrative. While it is fashionable in Republican circles to bemoan the federal government as a source of all evil, a bogeyman to be drowned in the bathtub, the WPA projects in particular, and the New Deal more generally, are powerful examples of how the State can do so much good. It is chilling and inspiring to hear the ancestors speak across time. History is real. It ain't even past. Some would urge us to forget the past, to embrace Whiteness' necessary forgetting, and hold close an American political culture that is both amazingly nostalgic and also being grossly amnesiac. However, many of us are "political" by birth and identity in this country; we do not have the luxury of willful naivete or denial about the realities of power. What many white folks were surprised to see at OWS--where the protesters received an iota, a small dose of what people of color have been getting for centuries at the hands of the police--black kids learn as a life survival skill at 3 years old.
Caught Out of Time is not without its problems. As a teachable moment, it reaches back to the past and meditates on how the voiced experiences of former slaves are almost "Homeric" in the power. And lest we forget, it has not even been 50 years since Jim and Jane Crow white supremacy was formally undone in the United States. But in reaching back decades, Schiff recycles a near-lie about the Confederacy and the role of black Americans in the Civil War, one that is popular even into the present:
However, some slaves’ disapproval of the Northern army was genuine. Ward writes of “astonishing empathy” for masters and mistresses and documents touching and deeply humane instances of slaves acting beyond the constraints of bondage, like carrying their masters’ bodies over long distances to be buried at home. Furthermore, in the immediate human context of war, slaves’ interests overlapped with those of slaveholders; they wanted to protect food and livestock from incoming troops not only because they had been ordered to, but because their own sustenance was at stake.Not to mention the fact that, however cruel and twisted, intimate family bonds existed between black and white throughout the South. Adam Goodheart points out that at the dawn of the war, mixed-race slaves were more likely to join the Confederate effort (technically, the Confederacy never accepted them as enlisted troops but gladly put them to work): ”Human nature is a complicated thing.”
While an appeal to "human nature," and a desire to go beyond "good guys" and "bad guys" in our historiography is laudable, this yearning for Black Confederates is a broken record that plays to the white, racist, neo-confederate crowd, a group which is desperate to rehabilitate the image of the South as something noble, their war of Secession a great struggle for "State's Rights." In reality, blacks who "served" in the Confederate Army were the human property of their white owners, virtual mules and horses, and in few cases worked exclusively in non-combat roles as "free" laborers. As has been well documented, the Confederacy was a white supremacist, terrorist, military State, where the very idea of black men bearing arms was anathema to its foundational beliefs. The South would rather cease to be, than to offer up guns to black people, of any racial admixture, to fight in its defense. Caught Out of Time continues with its near-lie here:
Harriet Smith’s soft, melodic voice conjures up the image of her as a girl, sitting atop a white fence watching the troops go by, surprised by the sight of “colored soldiers in droves,” and filled with wonder when a black orphan girl neighbor (who had had her arm cut off while operating a molasses mill) ran off with one of them. (-:55) (Part 2 of 4, -4:00) Approximately 300,000 black men would serve in the Union army (and thousands would also join the Confederate effort, including Fountain Hughes’s father, who was killed at Gettysburg) but the sight was particularly shocking to all Southerners in the early days of the war.
Again, "the thousands" who joined the Confederate Army did so not as free men, soldiers, fighting to "protect" the "Southern way of life." This yearning to find the Black Confederate in the attic is also a sign of a bigger cultural, political, and intellectual malaise in America. We live in a moment where all opinions are framed as being equal; this culture of narcissism is advanced by a news media, one that on a daily basis, feels obligated to offer up both sides of a story in a twisted game of false equivalence. The 21st century, opinion journalism driven 4th Estate, elevates stupid-talk and foolishness to the level of reasoned and principled discourse. For example, Birthers are given opportunities to peddle their smut, those "experts" who believe that tax cuts create economic growth are presented as legitimate authorities when the consensus is that trickle down and the Laffer curve are fictions, propagandists from the Heritage Foundation, the Hoover Institute, and the American Enterprise Institute are presented as "value neutral." And when the Palins, Perrys, Bachmanns, Cains, of the world offer up some specious claim about the environment, the economy, or science, their "I believe it to be true, that is my opinion, and how dare you tell me otherwise you elitist!" is treated as fact. In all, Caught Out of Time is an exercise in the power of outliers. How much weight do we give to inconvenient facts that stand outside and apart from the consensus on a topic, of the narrative generated by the other data points? Ideal typical cases are handy; there is also much to be learned by those which do not neatly fit into our existing models. Yes, there were a few African Americans who held other black folks as slaves in the South. But, what does this tell us about the institution as a whole? Sure, there may have been a few Blacks, who for their own reasons, tried to find a way to join the Confederate Army. But what does that tell us about the totality of the Civil War, a struggle to defend white supremacy and human bondage as a way of life? Imagine this helpful counter-factual or alternative scenario: should a journalist covering the Civil Rights Movement present the defenders of white supremacy as being "equal" to those little black boys and girls who simply wanted to attend an integrated school? Should a journalist elevate those who would blow up abortion clinics and kill doctors as being equivalent to those advocates who believe that a woman should have the right to control access to her own body? Caught Out of Time, and the cult of false equivalence, is a cousin to these puzzles. A yearning for black Confederates, and folksy Gone with the Wind Song of the South stories about loyal slaves who carried their masters home on their backs, are outliers which tell us nothing about the story as a whole. These details are chaff for racism deniers, and those invested in the Lost Cause and "nobility" of the white supremacist, Secessionist struggle called the Confederate States of America. The editors of the NY Times--a journal of record, containing "all of the news fit to print"--would have better served such a great piece on the voices of the ancestors, and the WPA's efforts to preserve them, by deleting such distracting and unnecessary fodder. [The editorial choices made relative to the Times' piece also begs the following question. Where are those many more common examples of slaves who poisoned their masters and his/her family, burned down barns, destroyed property, killed their overseers, served as Union spies, kicked their owners off of the plantations, or whipped whites in the street when the Union Army finally liberated an area? I guess those stories are not a neat fit for the "human complexity" presented by Caught Out of Time.]