What’s in a Name? When It Comes to the History of American Slavery, the Stakes Are High

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Enslaved people in Georgia, 1850s.

Last week in my lectures on evangelicalism in the nineteenth century, I never used the word “plantation.” Inspired by Edward Baptist and this recent article from the Smithsonian Magazine, I relentlessly referred to “slave labor camps.” For example: “Many enslavers built churches at their slave labor camps to promote a theology of submission to authority.”

In my lectures, “masters” did not “own slaves” who worked on “plantations.” Instead, they enslaved people and compelled them to work in brutal conditions.

Now here’s the interesting thing: I made this interpretive move unannounced and did not draw attention to it. None of my students commented on it or asked any questions about it. Indeed, it’s not even clear to me that they understood I was talking about plantations.

Now, it seems to me we need to have a debrief about last week’s lectures. We need a conversation about how language shapes historical interpretation and our remembrance of the past. I think I need to ask my students directly what words I might have used instead of “slave labor camp,” and ask them why they think I used the words I did. Perhaps I could ask them what words or images or associations the word “plantation” brings to their minds, and then ask the same of the phrase “slave labor camp.”

Depending on how they answer those questions, I may ask them to think about whose perspective is foregrounded depending on which phrase we use. Neither phrase is neutral.

I don’t know how this little debrief will go, but one possible point of conclusion is to take this in the direction of memory and culture through the lens of something like Gone with the Wind. My concluding point of emphasis is that only in a white supremacist society could something as awful and barbaric as the 19th century southern plantation become encrusted in layers of nostalgia and romance.

Because of white supremacist memory, “plantation” no longer actually signifies that to which it refers. A place of inhumanity has become a symbol of a lost world of southern gentility. I intend to keep using “slave labor camp” instead, but I’m very curious to hear my students’ thoughts about it tomorrow.

Readings for Juneteenth

Today is Juneteenth. Here’s a roundup of good stuff to read. First, what is Juneteenth and why is it important? Jemar Tisby explains:

Juneteenth is the oldest celebration of the end of slavery in the United States. It is recognized on June 19th every year. In Texas, where it is a state holiday, slaves learned of the Emancipation Proclamation on June 19, 1865, two and a half years after the initial announcement…

Juneteenth matters because in the United States freedom  has always come with an asterisk. While the founding documents of the nation declare “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” not all people were free and not all people enjoyed their unalienable rights. White supremacy asserted its power through the institution of race-based chattel slavery. The legacy of this heinous practice continues into the present. America has still not fully gripped the devastation slavery caused for both the enslaved and the free.

Celebrating Juneteenth gives citizens the opportunity to remember the ways freedom has always been circumscribed for people of color and it serves as motivation to press for continual emancipation from all forms of slavery.

One way to celebrate Juneteenth is to make sure it becomes a day that all Americans commemorate. Sign the Color of Change petition to make Juneteenth a national holiday.”

Celebrating Juneteenth can be one piece of a broader effort to bury the Lost Cause and reclaim a more accurate history and life-giving memory. Westenley Alcenat explains:

Leon Trotsky once noted that “what has been written with the sword cannot be wiped out by the pen.” And yet, that is precisely what took place; the accomplishments of Reconstruction were in fact rewritten and its memory overthrown by white nationalists. Academic historians derided abolitionists, praised the Confederacy, and adorned their books with admiration for Confederate generals and slaveholders. For generations thereafter, the country buried the achievements of the pioneering abolitionists who also helped usher the women’s movement. Meanwhile, the African-American chronicle of slavery to freedom and citizenship was seen by many as a misbegotten adventure.

In place of slavery and Reconstruction, the so-called “Lost Cause” took precedence throughout the former Confederacy. In fact, today Tennessee has more monuments to Nathan Bedford Forrest, a slave trader and founder of the Klu Klux Klan, than to President Andrew Jackson, a native Tennessean…

To value African-American history is to validate a politics of knowledge and resistance. Black history, in particular, exposes the poverty of memory and the injustices of a past burdened by white identity politics — one that was predicated on epistemic violence. Like the architects of Confederate monuments, racist historians from the Dunning School used their pens as weapons for knowledge destruction. Hoping to redeem white supremacy, they deployed racial terrorism by omission. This violent erasure is a challenge for today’s historian: how to write the history of a paradox — American freedom as defined by slavery? How should historians reconcile the legacy of the American Revolution, which professed natural rights but overlooked women, and especially Black and Brown persons? For many decades before the Civil Rights Movement, many white academics as well as public historians refused to answer these questions.

But there were a number of countervailing Black voices that protested the silence. As historian Albert Raboteau explained, Black congregations “articulated a theology of history in which they lambasted American Christians for turning Christianity into a clan religion…[and] for worshipping Anglo-Saxonism.” That this criticism stems from the ranks of Black Christians is notable: no other people have been more abused by American history and yet insist more persistently on their rightful place in it…

At its core, the contribution of African-American history is to at once liberate and expand the national conscience, holding the nation to the litmus test of what it professes to value. The story of the strivings of Black souls ensures that America does not forget the nightmares that tormented Martin Luther King’s Dream. Indeed, this task is more urgent today as we are confronted by the Black Lives Matter movement and efforts of Native Americans for self-determination.”

Read the whole thing.

Many Americans still have no idea what Juneteenth is about. Ben Baxter takes a look at Alabama’s state calendar and sees a problem:

For many of us, we have lived through June 19 or Juneteenth year after year without any hint of its significance in American history.

At its essence, Juneteenth is a day set to commemorate the abolition of slavery. But that detail is not widely known despite Alabama being a former slave state.

If we want to know why we have maintained this oblivion, we should look no further than the State of Alabama’s official state holiday calendar.

A quick glance will show that Juneteenth is not listed as an official state holiday. That wouldn’t be so bad if three other holidays weren’t given top billing as paid off days for state employees in 2017–Robert E. Lee Day (January 16), Confederate Memorial Day (April 24), Jefferson Davis Day (June 5). See a predicament there?”

That’s grotesque. We don’t remember well without the aid of holidays, special events, and physical spaces. We need to change our calendars and our built environment. Ed Hooper reports on the challenges of preserving a special civil war fort in Nashville as redevelopment threatens the site:

This space contains the remnants of the largest inland stone fort built during the American Civil War. Mayor Barry’s administration has instead chosen to award a developer the right to build condominiums and office spaces on a 21-acre section of it – a move that’s stunned preservationists and park supporters. The Civil War fort is unlike any other. It was constructed by black hands, staffed with some of the nation’s first black soldiers, and evolved from a campsite into a historic African-American community in the city.

Following the fall of Forts Henry and Donelson in 1862, Confederate forces retreated south evacuating Nashville to Union troops. Because of the access to railroads and rivers, Nashville quickly became the second most fortified city outside of Washington, DC. Then military governor Andrew Johnson ordered the city be fortified to defend against a Confederate counter-attack.

More than 2,700 free black tradesmen, newly-freed slaves, both men and women, were pressed into service to assist. The 12th U.S. Colored Troops Regiment that later organized in Nashville contained many of the laborers who built the fort. Union Engineer Capt. James Morton chose a rise southeast of Nashville for the largest structure. A “contraband” camp was established at the construction site to house laborers. The result four months later was a star-shaped limestone fort. The four-acre structure was named after Nashville Post Commander General James Negley. It didn’t come without cost. Historians estimate that between 600-800 died building it and were buried nearby.”

Let us remember. Happy Juneteenth!

A Foreign Policy of Slavery

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Matthew Karp, This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016).

For decades, historians portrayed American slavery as a backward institution destined to wither in the onrushing tide of modernity. In the 1970s, Eugene Genovese’s Roll Jordan Roll conjured images of a lost feudal world of master and slave. In the 1930s, even Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction argued that slavery “would have disintegrated of its own weight” had the Civil War not intervened. Whatever it was, American slavery was not modern, progressive, or efficient.

Based on anecdotal conversation with those who are not historians, my guess is that this is still the popular consensus. But in recent years historians have challenged this view. In the work of Walter Johnson, Edward Baptist, and Sven Beckert, we see a system of slavery that is adaptable, modern, capitalistic, and forward-looking. This Vast Southern Empire bears the imprint of the new scholarship on American slavery, but it’s really a book about foreign policy.

It has often been pointed out that the South dominated the federal government until 1860. Usually, a slaveowner sat in the White House, and the South enjoyed disproportionate power in congress and the judiciary. But what exactly did white southerners do with that power? In Karp’s narrative, it’s not just that southern elites sought to maintain a stranglehold on the federal government in a sectional battle for supremacy between North and South. They had bigger ambitions. From the broader perspective of foreign relations, the entire American state was a vehicle for the promotion of slavery. Southern slaveholders were not narrow sectionalists, but nationalists who skilfully used the federal government to promote a foreign policy of slavery.

The same southerners who feared federal power at home counted on its vigorous application abroad to advance a “hemispheric defense of slavery.” It was no coincidence that southerners led the effort to modernize and enlarge the army and navy in the 1840s and 1850s. Southerners annexed Texas, spurred the invasion of Mexico, and engaged in diplomatic intrigues in Europe and South America to thwart British abolitionist aims. Their vehicle for these endeavors was, simply, the American state.

Karp convincingly shows that the filibuster invasions of Nicaraugua and Cuba in the 1840s and 1850s are the wrong place to look for the global ambitions of southern slaveholders. Why turn to private armies and hapless adventurers when the vast powers of the federal government lay at their disposal?

Karp shows that southern elites were not reflexive supporters of expansionist schemes. Theirs was a foreign policy that regarded sovereignty as less important than social organization. Cuba would make a nice addition to the American union, but a slave-based Cuba under Spanish rule was better than an American-ruled emancipated Cuba. Southern slaveholders regarded monarchist Brazil and Spanish Cuba as allies and parliamentary Britain as a dangerous foe. Differences in governance aside, Brazil, Cuba, and the United States shared a common interest in protecting racial slavery from the influence of British abolitionism after 1833.

In this light, the crisis of 1860 looks different. Karp writes that Lincoln’s election was a revolution not just in the domestic balance of power between North and South, but in global power relations. For over two decades, the United States had acted as the pro-slavery counterweight in the western hemisphere to abolitionist Britain. With Lincoln’s election, the world’s leading promoter of slavery had effectively–and suddenly–switched sides.

Southern elites’ headlong rush into self-destruction in the crisis of 1860-1861 has long been a cause of fascination and debate. What was the source of their hubris? Karp demonstrates that slaveholders’ confidence was not only based on the narrow calculation that British mills could not forgo southern cotton. More broadly, many southern elites looked around the globe and persuaded themselves that the world was trending in their direction.

The most respected scientists on both sides of the Atlantic seemed to have established beyond reasonable doubt the fact of white racial supremacy, and the influence of scientific racism was growing by the day. Economically and geopolitically, too, southern slaveholders had reasons for optimism. Britain had passed its emancipation bill in 1833, and then watched as the economic value of its Caribbean colonies promptly collapsed. Britain’s subsequent resort to various forms of coerced labor was seen among southern elites as a kind of vindication. Europe’s imperial powers might have been opposed to slavery, but they were self-consciously white supremacist empires using the labor of people of color and violently extending their rule over new territories. They were, in other words, groping toward the economic and scientific “truths” the slaveholding South had already discovered.

Good historical scholarship allows us to see the past in new ways and imagine what might have been. After reading This Vast Southern Empire, it is easier to see why southern slaveholders believed they were on the right side of history, and it is almost surprising that their bold and despicable plans failed.