Well Fed and Housed

Michelle Obama: I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.

Bill O’Reilly: Slaves that worked there were well fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government, which stopped hiring slave labor in 1802.

If he used a weasel word like “some” to say slaves had relatively decent treatment, then I would be okay with what he said. One of those who worked on the Capitol building, Philip Reid, was paid $1.25 a day but only on Sunday (the other six days his owner received pay for his work). Once freed due to Lincoln, this same man was a highly sought after craftsman. Because of his high desirability, he probably was well treated. Others building in DC with sought after skills probably were also pretty well treated.

But, those slaves doing the worst jobs probably got terrible treatment. Both are common narratives in stories about slavery. Those serving in the house or providing special skills were clean, well fed, and slept in nice houses. Those serving in the fields were dirty, barely subsisting, and slept in terrible conditions.

As an eye witness Abigail Adams observed in a letter slaves working on the White House were so malnourished and weak 2 Northern whites could do the work of 12 slaves. My 2nd cousin 8x removed, John C. Calhoun, was a great defender of slavery describing owners and caretakers of those who would otherwise be destitute. The story that slaves had good lives is a popular propaganda of those  who lovingly long for the South to return to its great glory. Dylann Roof’s manifesto contained writings about how slaves positively viewed their lives under it. So I read the Georgia narratives and found the opposite.

Let’s say they were well treated…

  1. They were still slaves.
  2. Meaning, they were still considered less than a full person at 3/5ths.
  3. As slaves they were still forced to work for the benefit of others not themselves.
  4. As slaves they had no option to decide they would rather do something else.

Pretty sure if I made Bill my slave, then he would be constantly trying to escape like Kunta Kinte to the point of needing to torture him and chop off part of his foot to hobble him. He would ungratefully do this even though I would feed him well and set him up in a nice house. He would bristle under not being free. He talks lots and lots about how great are the Bill of Rights because he appreciates freedom. Even if a slave owner treats the slaves well, they are… still. not. free.

Not all slave owners were terrible people. At least, a few slave narratives of blacks I read revealed some thought their owners treated them better than most did. The common narrative from the worst to the best is they were all still were glad to receive their freedom. Even those who found their circumstances onerous during Great Depression were thankful to be free.

What Bill said though is dog whistle politics. The underlying coded language here is that blacks were better off under slavery than they are now. Freeing my ancestors was a mistake because we could be still benefiting under that vile institution as slaves instead of what we have today. Those Southern conservatives who dream the South Will Rise Again ate that up and totally agree with him. A couple Confederate fanboy blogs I read yesterday even lament that Bill was not more explicit about what he meant.

Review: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself by Harriet Jacobs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book accounts for Harriet Jacobs’ life as a slave, hiding for several years in the South, escaping to the North, and finally obtaining her freedom. She presents some letters documenting the tale. Given the current events of recent weeks where a self-taught white supremacist in his manifesto setup before committing terrorism to start a race war that according to the slave narratives he had read people like me were happy under slavery and there was no need to free my ancestors. Other books I have read like Twelve Years A Slave and Up From Slavery seemed not to portray this, but I did read them a while ago.

Harriet really disliked her time as a slave. Her “official” owner was a minor whose father assumed the role. This man who already fathered several children with his slaves seemed to desire the same for this fifteen year old girl. When she had children with another (white) man, he as the owner of them sought to use babies as leverage to compel her to obey his salacious wishes. Oddly enough this guy’s wife forced the sale to distant places the products of her husband’s infidelity. To me, the idea that one’s own children are chattel boggles my mind. But, also Solomon Northrup and Booker T. faced less cruelty under slavery than Harriet as the contempt facing her was that of both an African and a woman. Her master underestimated her intelligence which allowed her to escape.

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Review: Twelve Years a Slave

Twelve Years a Slave
Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An autobiography about a mixed race free man kidnapped into slavery hit a little too close to home. His experience being free made acclimating to the difficult masters more challenging. More amazing me is he did not break under the weight of the life and give up on ever finding a way home.

Some of the quotes I highlighted:

Suffice it to say, during the whole long day I came not to the conclusion, even once, that the southern slave, fed, clothed, whipped and protected by his master, is happier than the free colored citizen of the North.

There may be humane masters, as there certainly are inhuman ones—there may be slaves well-clothed, well-fed, and happy, as there are surely those half-clad, half-starved and miserable; nevertheless, the institution that tolerates such wrong and inhumanity as I have witnessed, is a cruel, unjust and barbarous one.

Ten years I toiled for that man without reward. Ten years of my incessant labor has contributed to increase the bulk of his possessions. Ten years I was compelled to address him with down-cast eyes and uncovered head—in the attitude and language of a slave. I am indebted to him for nothing, save undeserved abuse and stripes.

They are deceived who flatter themselves that the ignorant and debased slave has no conception of the magnitude of his wrongs. They are deceived who imagine that he arises from his knees, with back lacerated and bleeding, cherishing only a spirit of meekness and forgiveness. A day may come—it will come, if his prayer is heard—a terrible day of vengeance, when the master in his turn will cry in vain for mercy.

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Review: Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Uncle Tom's Cabin
Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

No idea why it took me so long to get around to reading this. It felt good to read something that portrayed slavery in the United States where the slaves were both treated as property and subhuman. Books like Gone With the Wind treat slaves as secondary family members.

Uncle Tom bothered me throughout the book. While maybe there were people who maintained such loyalty to both God and master. Pretty sure I would have been more of a George and figured a way to escape.

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Labels

This started out as a comment to Adrian, but I it got so long it may as well be a post on its own….

The significance of racial labels is not in identifying the genetic makeup of individuals. The significance is in how the labels were used to enforce segregation long before the American Revolution. Before slaves in the United States were freed in 1865, defining who was Black was to identify who was eligible to be held in slavery and have ownership of property. There were grave concerns about mixing owners and slaves resulting in slaves gaining their freedom, especially once capturing them from Africa was no longer allowed. Defining race was about control then. Even in the more than one hundred years after the slaves were freed, defining who was Black was about control. Instead of who could be forced into slavery, the definitions of who is Black identified who could be excluded from power.  The fear was mixed people using the laws to somehow get access to power. Only since Affirmative Action has it become in any way beneficial for others to have less than pure European descent.

Adrian remarked many of us have ancestors which keep us from being purely from one or another group. Chatting with George and Lorenia yesterday, George pointed out even in Europe, southern Spain and Italy confounds the stereotype. Our increasing understanding of genetics and culture invalidates race as a useful means of describing individuals. Individuals have genetic markers linking them all over the globe. We are one species. My favorite example PBS show indicating the women described as Amazons moved to western Mongolia.

“The earth is but one country and mankind its citizens.” – Baha’u’llah

Bicentennial for the Abolition of Slave Trade to US Tomorrow

An Even Better Reason to Celebrate has a nice longer version of this quote from a NYT OpEd piece on tomorrow being the bicentennial for the ablution of slave trade to the United States.

WE Americans live in a society awash in historical celebrations. The last few years have witnessed commemorations of the bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase (2003) and the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II (2005). Looming on the horizon are the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth (2009) and the sesquicentennial of the outbreak of the Civil War (2011). But one significant milestone has gone strangely unnoticed: the 200th anniversary of Jan. 1, 1808, when the importation of slaves into the United States was prohibited. Forgotten Step Toward Freedom – New York Times

Please read this article. It mentions the British celebrated their abolition of slave trade last year. Also, the lack of celebration may be due to the distinction here in the US between the end of importing of slaves vs the end of slavery. I found it a fascinating and well written article. Eric Foner has a several books on United States history between the American Revolution and the Civil War. I'll have to pick up some of them? I'm already 83 books behind reading everything I own.

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Bicentennial for the Abolition of Slave Trade to US Tomorrow

An Even Better Reason to Celebrate has a nice longer version of this quote from a NYT OpEd piece on tomorrow being the bicentennial for the ablution of slave trade to the United States.

WE Americans live in a society awash in historical celebrations. The last few years have witnessed commemorations of the bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase (2003) and the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II (2005). Looming on the horizon are the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth (2009) and the sesquicentennial of the outbreak of the Civil War (2011). But one significant milestone has gone strangely unnoticed: the 200th anniversary of Jan. 1, 1808, when the importation of slaves into the United States was prohibited. Forgotten Step Toward Freedom – New York Times

Please read this article. It mentions the British celebrated their abolition of slave trade last year. Also, the lack of celebration may be due to the distinction here in the US between the end of importing of slaves vs the end of slavery. I found it a fascinating and well written article. Eric Foner has a several books on United States history between the American Revolution and the Civil War. I’ll have to pick up some of them? I’m already 83 books behind reading everything I own.