Tag Archives: African-American History

Slavery, The Economist, and the Worship of Capitalism

The Economist was dissapointed that historians are negelcting the many jolly slaves who were grateful for white folks' charity.

The Economist was disappointed that historians are neglecting the many jolly slaves who were grateful for white folks’ charity.

There are plenty of sanctimonious idiots in the world, and one of those idiots writes for the Economist. You’ve heard of that magazine, right? It’s pretty well-known, and despite its right-wing leanings, it generally publishes some reasonable content — I mean, it ain’t a shameless agglomeration of conservative verbal circle-jerkitude like the National Review, right? Maybe so, but the Economist still employ some idiots, and one of those idiots wrote an idiotic review of historian Ed Baptist’s non-idiotic new book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.

Yep, an unnamed Economist troll caused a major internet ruckus when he wrote a review titled “Blood Cotton” (which has since been officially taken down but is still available for archival viewing) in which he criticizes Baptist for attributing the southern cotton boom of the late antebellum era to planters who pushed slaves to the limits of human endurance and beat the shit out of them (via the concept of “calibrated pain”) when they failed to produce the targeted cotton quotas. But this point didn’t sit well with the Economist’s intrepid reviewer. “Another unexamined factor may also have contributed to rises in productivity,” the unnamed doofus states, “slaves were valuable property, and…Slave owners surely had a vested interest in keeping their ‘hands’ ever fitter and stronger to pick more cotton. Some of the rise in productivity could have come from better treatment.” Continue reading


Oklahoma’s Botched Execution and the Death Penalty’s Rough Justice History

The execution table used to administer lethal injection. Damn, it's actually pretty scary-looking.

The execution gurney used to administer lethal injection. Damn, it’s actually pretty scary-looking.

Clayton Lockett’s last minutes on this earthly plane were, by any stretch of the imagination, rough. The state of Oklahoma executed Lockett by lethal injection on April 29, 2014, but something went wrong, and he apparently struggled for over a half-hour before finally dying of a drug-induced heart attack. Lockett’s botched execution has raised more concerns about what constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment” as prohibited by the Constitution, and rekindled the long-running debate over whether America should still administer the death penalty.

But the legitimacy of capital punishment isn’t so easily dismissed or endorsed. In America, execution is the direct result of a long historical proclivity towards brutal, racially motivated rough justice — lynching — and the later attempts to contain and satisfy the primal human need for vengeance within a civilized legal framework. Basically, humans wanna’ kill each other — heck, they often enjoy killing each other — and capital punishment in America exists to satiate that blood lust.

Now, as long as we’re talking about blood lust, it’s easy to conclude that Clayton Lockett deserved his wriggly, torturous last few minutes on earth. After all, he was sentenced to death for kidnapping, beating, gang-raping, and eventually murdering eighteen-year-old Stephanie Neiman during a 1999 robbery-escape gone haywire. And how did Lockett and his accomplices dispatch their victim, you ask? Well, when Neiman refused to give Lockett the assurance that she wouldn’t go to the police, the scumbag spent a good twenty minutes digging Neiman’s grave before shooting her twice with a sawed-off shotgun. I go back and forth when it comes to supporting the death penalty. For one thing, there’s plenty of evidence that it doesn’t deter crimes. But Clayton Lockett was clearly what we might call, in legal parlance, a piece of slime, and I have to admit, my own inner vigilante thinks that he deserved his fate.

But therein lies the thorniness when it comes to capital punishment: it exists to satisfy that primal need to seek vengeance, and in the process, it runs the risk of sanctifying in the administers of justice the same brutal thoughts that lead men like Lockett to commit their horrendous crimes. Historically, the sanctification of blood lust caused some real problems when it came to administering justice in America, especially when we throw in the equally thorny issues of racism and individual rights.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, capital punishment was usually administered extralegally, in the form of lynching (aka “rough justice”). Historian Manfred Berg writes in Popular Justice: A History of Lynching in America, that the term “lynching” came out of the American Revolution (though the actual practice existed since time immemorial) and defines lynching as “extralegal punishment meted out by a group of people claiming to represent the will of the larger community and acting with an expectation of impunity.”* That’s right, at its core, lynching is execution by mob law. But lynching never respected due process — when the mob decided that you were guilty of a crime, you were gonna’ die regardless of whether or not you committed that crime.

The lynching of Rubin Stacy, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 1935. For a long time, this was what the death penalty looked like in America.

The lynching of Rubin Stacy, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 1935. For a long time, this was what the death penalty looked like in America.

Now, this might have been all well and good if the victims of lynching were, in their heart of hearts, guilty, but if not, the result was community-sanctioned murder. But there was even more to it than that. Americans have never been ones to employ a tactic without running roughshod over some non-white people, and their approach to lynching was no exception. In his somewhat dense, but still fascinating book Roots of Rough Justice: Origins of American Lynching, historian Michael J. Pfeifer explains how white Americans used lynching to suppress minority rights. By lynching blacks, Mexicans, Native Americans, and even poor whites, white Americans “rejected growing legal reforms that offered the promise of legal fairness to the unpopular and powerless by protecting the rights of those accused of crimes.”*

Indeed, in nineteenth century America, lynching was at the heart of debates between those who favored locally administered rough justice characterized by swift (and trial-less) retribution, and those who favored due process characterized by reform of the criminal, the right to lawyer, and the state as the ultimate administer of justice. Proponents of due process, including an Illinois lawyer named Abraham Lincoln, recognized that white mobs tended to lynch people whom they deemed inferior and unworthy of equal rights — especially African-Americans.

While lynching was national in scope, in was most prevalent in the South. It was common for slaves to be lynched in the antebellum era, but the number of black lynchings not coincidentally exploded alongside the enactment of late-nineteenth century Jim Crow laws that relegated blacks to second-class citizenship by denying them suffrage and severely curtailing their rights in private and public facilities. Whereas southern whites initially used slavery as a system for controlling blacks, slavery’s demise necessitated other forms of racist control, and since Jim Crow laws said that blacks were fundamentally not equal to rights, whites justified the lynching of blacks through community approval. The result was rough justice run amok.

Historians estimate that between 1898 and 1968, roughly 4,743 blacks were lynched in the South, although the number was likely higher since many lynchings went undocumented. Lynching victims were most commonly accused or murder and the rape of white women. And the methods of lynching were brutal. Victims were burned alive, disemboweled, tortured with hot brands and pokers, mutilated, shot, and hanged. One mob in Georgia tore a woman’s unborn infant from her abdomen and stomped it with their boots. In far too many instances, this was how the death penalty was administered in America.

National outrage against lynching couldn’t stop it, since criminal justice was the purview of the states, not the federal government. But the eventual decline in lynching coincided with a more legal form of justice: the death penalty. Anti-lynching activists recognized the need to offer swift, harsh, and legal criminal justice in order to stem the popular tide of mob law, and that’s just what happened. By the 1930s and 40s, capital punishment gradually replaced lynching in the South, and with more executions came fewer instances of rough justice. The 1930s in the South, for example, saw 60 percent fewer lynching than the previous decade, but legal executions increased by 44 percent. By the 1940s, the number of legal executions rose up to 61 percent.

Plenty of Americans still have a problem with the death penalty, and often for good reason, given it's historical connection to rough justice.

Plenty of Americans still have a problem with the death penalty — often for good reason, given its historical connection to rough justice.

As Manfred Berg notes, “the death penalty appeared to be the appropriate cure for lynching. If the people could be certain that murderers and rapists would end up promptly on the gallows, they would no longer see the need to take the law into their own hands.”* Of course, this didn’t mean than the racial component of lynching vanished. Blacks accused of crimes continued to suffer swift (and not always just) convictions defined by short trials, shoddy evidence, and convictions by all-white juries thrown together to appease pitchfork and torch-wielding mobs outside of courthouses.

Even today, the issue of race is inextricably bound to the death penalty issue. Scholars Charles Ogletree Jr. and Austin Sarat note that decades of capital punishment studies have shown the “powerful race-of-the-victim effects in the decisions about who will receive a death sentence,” and they point out that of all the American executions since 1976, 43 percent of the defendants were black or Hispanic.* Commenting on a Pew Research poll showing that more whites than blacks support the death penalty, Slate’s Jamelle Bouie casts these findings as springing from the intertwined history of capital  punishment and “racialized ideas on crime and criminality.”

The historical connection linking the death penalty to racially motivated lynching demonstrates why the justice of state-sanctioned execution is anything but blind and far from morally clear-cut. There’s no question that Clayton Lockett was a nasty SOB who deserved to be punished for his crimes, but whether or not he deserved death and torture — however unintended the latter may have been — is a question worth ruminating over. After all, if we demand the swift murder of criminals, no matter how vile they may be, we place ourselves in uncomfortable company with the raving lynch mobs of days gone by. And while our intentions may be theoretically purer than theirs, the emotions are the same. Rough justice has largely been stamped out of American society, but the deep human desire for vengeance remains, and that blood lust is something worthy of continued discussion — and wariness.

* See Manfred Berg,  Popular Justice: A History of Lynching in America (Lanham, MD: Ivan R. Dee, 2011), ix, 159.

* See Charles J. Ogletree Jr. and Austin Sarat, eds., From Lynch Mobs to the Killing State: Race and the Death Penalty in America (New York: New York University Press, 2006), 2.

“12 Years a Slave,” the “American Spectator,” and the Historical Legacy of Paternalism

A scene from Steve McQueen's Oscar-winning film, 12 Years a Slave, which reminds that slaves were proprty no matter how they were treated, and that was truly awful.

A scene from Steve McQueen’s Oscar-winning film, 12 Years a Slave, which reminds us that slaves were property no matter how they were treated.

In the year 2014, most people would agree that slavery was – and is – a very, very bad thing. In an American context especially, slavery and its proponents flouted supposedly sacrosanct ideals such as freedom, equality, and liberty – you know, the really important stuff. Moreover, the “peculiar institution” caused unmeasurable human misery and left a cultural scar on U.S. society that still hasn’t fully healed. So if historians’ work hasn’t been in vain – and I think it hasn’t – then most of us will have long been informed about the nature of slavery and why it was (one of) the greatest atrocities ever committed by the United States.

Few films in recent memory have depicted the horrors of slavery better than Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, a picture based on the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northup: a New York-born free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana for over a decade. McQueen’s movie received widespread critical acclaim from both film critics and historians (a group known to be understandably finicky about how Hollywood depicts the past) and won the Academy Award for Best Picture at the 2014 Oscars.

But alas, James Bowman, culture critic for the conservative American Spectator magazine, has the brass gonads to stand above the consensus and claim slavery wasn’t all that bad, and that 12 Years a Slave should be viewed as “propaganda” because it fails to show any kind-hearted slaveholders or well-treated slaves. In a review for the Spectator that’s one part stupid, two parts asinine, Bowman argues that despite the film’s “considerable virtues,” 12 Years a Slave ultimately reflects “the politicization of historical scholarship in our time” because, maybe, just maybe, there were happy slaves, and director Steve McQueen only shows us the negative aspects of human bondage! I’m not kidding. Here’s the most offensive part of Bowman’s considerably offensive piece:

If ever in slavery’s 250-year history in North America there were a kind master or a contented slave, as in the nature of things there must have been, here and there, we may be sure that Mr McQueen does not want us to hear about it.

You get all that? Bowman accuses the film of being politically correct and reflecting the so-called “Marxist-Leninist war of exploiters against exploited” academic agenda that conservatives are convinced is a real thing. Sort of like the way some people are convinced that they see Jesus in a potato chip. Now, given the pseudo-intellectual flavor of his Spectator piece, Bowman likely thinks that he’s making an original observation. But the thing is, he’s invoking a very old – and very discredited – defence of slavery, and in so doing he’s also demonstrating an odious conservative preference for paternalism.

In asserting that there must have been the occasional “kind master” and “contented slave” – and thus, a good side of slavery – Bowman is echoing a nineteenth-century pro-slavery defense that historians call the “positive good” argument. Proponents of this argument claimed that slavery was a benign institution because white people were the supposedly superior race, and that black people, as members of an “inferior” race, by nature needed the civilizing influence of white guidance. In this view, blacks were to accept their lot as social and racial inferiors in exchange for all the perks that came with white dominance; including Christianization, protection, food, clothing, free room and board, and a very full-time job.

The idea of Paternalism underlay every facet of the “Positive Good” argument. Paternalism is a relationship in which a state or an individual forcefully asserts their will over another person and limits that person’s freewill and autonomy under the pretence that the person being dominated will be better off under the heel of a superior individual. Basically, “paternalism” boils down to the idea that “it’s for your own good,” which was the favored argument of pro-slavery ideologues.

This 1946 Disney film is perhaps more fitting to James Bowman's ideas about slavery.

This 1946 Disney film is perhaps more fitting to James Bowman’s ideas about slavery.

The paternalistic “Positive Good” argument for slavery was most famously articulated by South Carolina pro-slavery demagogue, John C. Calhoun. In an 1837 speech titled (natch) “The ‘Positive Good’ of Slavery,” Calhoun argued that “the present state of civiliza­tion [in the South], where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil…a positive good.”

Other southern pro-slavery advocates elaborated on Calhoun’s basic premise that slavery was good for both those in bondage and their masters. Many cited the bible’s approval of slavery as justification for the institution’s prominence in the Old South. Moreover, southern religious writers claimed that slavery made masters kinder and slaves more obedient through a mutually beneficial relationship that existed only in the bullshitting minds of slavery apologists.

For example, in an 1851 essay titled The Duties of Christian Masters, the Rev. A.T. Holmes wrote that “the master should be the friend of his servant” because “friendship implies good will, kindness, [and] a desire for the welfare of him for whom it is entertained.”* Holmes then asserted that kind, Christian masters were a boon to slaves. “The servant, under such a master, knows his condition, and understands that, while he is restricted to certain privileges and required to perform certain duties, he is not held in subjugation by an unfeeling tyrant, nor driven to his work for a heartless oppressor.”* With those types of assurances in mind, it’s a wonder more black people didn’t submit their resumes to the slaveholders’ HR department! 

Indeed, Holmes argued that slaves got real benefits from being dominated by masters who acted as both protectors and teachers. “The servant should feel [sic] that the superior wisdom, experience, power and authority of his master, constitute his [the slave’s] abiding security,” Holmes wrote.* Moreover, the good Reverend also claimed that masters should act as teachers to their slaves because “ignorance, in a peculiar sense, attaches to the negro.”* Of course, education shouldn’t extend to stuff like literacy, knowledge of Enlightenment law, and biblical stories like the Exodus, because then slaves might get the idea that they were entitled to basic human rights and start getting all uppity, which would be bad for slavery’s PR as a “benevolent” institution.

And so, when James Bowman of the American Spectator insists that films like 12 Years a Slave should, in the spirit of avoiding political correctness, depict “a kind master or a contented slave” to show that slavery wasn’t all that bad, he is, whether consciously or unconsciously, referencing the exact same argument that slavery apologists used to justify human bondage in the Old South. Bowman essentially claims – as did pro-slavery ideologues – that benevolence softened an institution otherwise predicated on the most extreme form of paternalism. Yet while this argument is wholly repugnant, it’s not unexpected given that paternalism is central to conservative ideology.

The Americcan Spectator's James Bowman. To prove his point about slavery, he's willing to auction his freedom off to teh highest bidder - provided that said bidder treat him kindly.

The American Spectator’s James Bowman. To prove his point about slavery, he’s willing to auction his freedom off to the highest bidder – provided that said bidder treats him kindly.

I’ve already detailed the common ideological threads that link the paternalistic slaveholders of the Old South to modern-day conservatives in a previous post, which you should read – right after you finish this post. But it bears repeating that paternalism is essential to conservatism. As Corey Robin observes in The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, “conservatism is about power besieged and power protected.”* As an ideology, conservatism acts to defend the power of the ruling classes in both public and private spaces against “the agency of the subordinate classes.”* Throughout history, the subordinate classes have risen up against their rulers in the name of labor rights, feminism, abolition, and other like causes; and in each instance, conservatives have fought back under the banner of submission for the lower orders; agency for the elite.*

Conservatives believe that those in power (a group that, not coincidentally, includes themselves) are by nature superior to, and know what is better for, the people in subordinate positions. Conservatives are consummate paternalists. This is why they favor the power of employers over organized labor; it’s why they’re hostile to women gaining reproductive rights over their own bodies; it’s why they once argued that whites were permitted to enslave blacks, and it’s why James Bowman can find a supposed silver lining in the horrors of slavery. Conservatives have historically defended the agency of those in power, and they continue to do so today.

It isn’t that James Bowman supports slavery; rather, as a conservative, he can’t understand why paternalism is antithetical to freedom. He’s incapable of comprehending the full meaning of slaves’ status as property, and that as such, no amount of kind treatment could mask their inherent status as human beings deprived of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness by self-interested paternalists. A person who is under the total control of another person can never be truly free, regardless of their material conditions.

Thus, what Bowman laments is not the end of slavery itself, but American culture’s gradual rejection of paternalism – the idea that underpinned slavery – as an acceptable condition in society. If and when paternalism ever goes the way of the dinosaurs, you can rest assured that plenty of other conservatives will lament the triumph of an “exploiters against exploited” worldview: after all, if paternalism goes, so goes the power of the exploiters.

* See Reverend A.T. Holmes, “The Duties of Christian Masters,” in Paul Finkelman, ed., Defending Slavery: Proslavery Thought in the Old South (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003), 103, 104, 105.

* See Corey Robin, The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 28, 3, 7.

Slavery’s Legacy: Why Race Matters in America

A protester at a Tea Party rally holds a sign demonstrating both the continued importance of slavery's legacy in U.S. political discourse, and the continued erosion of some white folks' self-awareness.

A protester at a Tea Party rally holds a sign demonstrating the continued importance of slavery’s legacy in U.S. political discourse. Notes: this is how NOT to have a “conversation about race.”

What does it take for that contradictory, opinionated, but not always informed, ethnically amorphous mass of sputtering, super-sized humanity known collectively as the American public to have an honest conversation about race? Heck, what does the phrase “conversation about race even mean?” Henry Louis Gates, esteemed Harvard professor of African-American history, thinks it’s utterly meaningless, and that talking about race means recognizing how race is interwined with U.S. History. In an interview for Salon, Gates emphatically states that “since slavery ended, all political movements have been about race.”

This is a statement that, on its face, seems provocative. Indeed, American conservatives have for years made hay out of the idea that since slavery ended a century and a half ago, Americans, especially American liberals, need to get over it, move on, and embrace what they see as a majestic, benign American exceptionalism. Meanwhile, liberals, a group admittedly known for their propensity towards excruciating self-analysis and hand-wringing neurosis, have, in recent years, attempted to justify the value of “white guilt.” White guilt constitutes the nagging feeling that modern enlightened white people need to somehow make amends, if only through the process of realization, for their ancestors’ racist treatment of African-Americans, Native-Americans, and other minorities. Whereas white conservatives often don’t worry about white guilt, given their tendency to intentionally simplify history to the point of obtuse neglect, white liberals seemingly need to qualify every discussion about race by apologizing for the sins of the past.

Contemporary Americans of all backgrounds still struggle with the issue of race — how to define it, how public policy should reflect it, etc. — because the country’s history has largely been a painful process of self-reflection and self-denial about how race affects all aspects of American life. In his Salon interview, Gates suggests that in order to meaningfully talk about race, honest reality needs to trump feel-good triumphalism:

I’m talking about the economic role of slavery in the creation of America. The fact that the richest cotton-growing soil happened to be inhabited by five civilized tribes, what they called themselves, and that had to be exterminated, removed and or exterminated for the greatest economic boom in American history to occur. The Trail of Tears, the cotton boom from 1820 to 1860. I’m not talking about politically correct history, I’m talking about correct history.

As Gates notes, the cotton boom, among the defining events that shaped 19th century American history, happened because of slavery. Cotton was valuable. Slaves were valuable. Cotton needed harvested. Slaves could harvest it. The southern cotton belt was inhabited by native tribes, so those tribes had to be expelled to make way for plantation slavery. Plantation slavery drove the demand for more slaves. The presence of these slaves caused the Civil War. These are neither sugar-coated apologetics for American exceptionalism, nor are they full-throated demonization of the American past. Rather, they are plain historical facts, and Americans have been trying to deal with them ever since.

Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates correctly thinks that talking about race means learning about America's often sordid racist past.

Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates understands that talking about race means learning about America’s often sordid racial past.

Gates gave the Salon interview in part to promote his new PBS series “Many Rivers to Cross,” which covers the 500 year-long black historical experience in America. Slavery, of course, played a tragic, but all-important role, in that experience, for both black and white Americans. When Gates says that “since slavery ended, all political movements have been about race,” he is not claiming that a literal debate over race and/or racism is the sole driving element of over a hundred years of American political debate. What Gates is suggesting, I think, is that slavery was such an integral institution in American life from the Constitutional convention to the Civil War, that it branded the burning legacy of racial tension and discord into the American body politic. The scar from this racial branding has yet to fully heal.

The central role of slavery in founding the American republic has been well-documented by historians. In his book Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson, noted constitutional historian Paul Finkelman documents the extensive role slavery played in shaping the constitutional convention and therefore, nearly all of U.S. history. Five provisions in the Constitution explicitly protected slavery. The famous three-fifths clause counted three-fifths of all slaves for the purpose of boosting southern representation in Congress. Other provisions upheld the legality of the slave trade until 1808, when the issue could be amended, ensured that slaves were taxed at three-fifths the rate of whites,  and prohibited the states from emancipating fugitive slaves.*

As Finkelman documents, the Constitution was, for all intents and purposes, a pro-slavery document. Southern delegates at the Constitutional Convention demanded protections for slavery in exchange for its ratification, and the resulting compromise between northern and southern delegates sanctioned slavery in the country’s founding document. This compromise over slavery, however, haunted the United States for decades. By the mid-19th century, the rise of abolitionism spurred a stringent southern pro-slavery defensiveness, and arguments over the federal government’s constitutional role with regards to limiting the spread of slavery erupted into Confederate secession and Civil War.

The would-be Confederate States of America was founded on slavery. Mississippi’s Declaration of the Immediate Clauses of Secession makes this abundantly clear:

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth…a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.

But if the Confederate South fought to preserve slavery, the Union North was often ambivalent — if not outright hostile — to ameliorating the issue of racial subjugation that underpinned slavery. Plenty of Abolitionists saw no contradiction in simultaneously believing that slavery was immoral and that blacks were inherently inferior to whites. This fact only further highlights the tragedy of a four-year conflict that relegated half of the country to a husk of decimation, death, and rubble and claimed the lives of over 600,000 — while leaving the lingering issue of racial equality unresolved. The Civil War is the defining event that shaped modern American identity, and it is impossible to separate the issue of slavery, and by extension, race, from that event.

Slavery’s legacy runs so deep in the American psyche because it was a highly personal institution first; a major political and economic system second. The essence of American slavery was one of domination: that because of differences in skin color, whites had the inherent right to subjugate blacks, deny them human freedom and dignity, and, through violent coercion, use their laboring bodies as commodities unto themselves. This is why contemporary debates over just how “bad” slavery really was are so utterly loathsome and besides the point. At its core, it was a system that gave one group of humans total domination over another group. Slavery denied the very notion of individual autonomy, regardless of how many lashings slaves received. Given the role of social dominance psychology in human behavior, when one group of humans gains power over another, they don’t easily give up that power.

The loss of this system of economic and social domination in 1865 necessitated other methods of racial control in the minds of white supremacists. The rise of the Ku Klux Klan during the Reconstruction era sought to continue the practise of violent racial subjugation that had underpinned slavery. Likewise, the decades long wave of brutal lynchings that swept the South and parts of the North during the era of Jim Crow combined with laws relegating blacks to second class citizenship to assuage white Americans that even with slavery long gone, African-Americans should still “know their place.” During the Civil Right era, southern white supremacists carried on this crusade against “uppity blacks” via “massive resistance” to integration, while white northerners enacted de facto segregation through red lining and urban white flight. Despite these reactionary efforts, when blacks finally regained suffrage, it seemed that Americans might finally take steps to leave the ghost of slavery and race in the past.

Despite the real and positive social changes for the better that have occurred in the thirty plus years since the Civil Rights revolution, the smudge of race hasn’t been fully wiped from the American slate. Strong contemporary feelings over gun control, affirmative action, welfare, voting rights, and, as the picture at the top of this post shows, protests over tax policy, continue to invoke racially charged feelings, even as the U.S. has elected its first African-American president and its national demographics are becoming more racially mixed. Such contradictions exist because even well-meaning Americans have difficulty reconciling such idealistic concepts like “All men are created equal” with the system of American slavery and its legacy of racial conflict.

Many folks, understandably so, wonder how the U.S. can be an exceptionally good country while harboring such an ugly past with regards to race-relations, especially as embodied in the institution of slavery. The wonderment, for example, has inspired recent films that examine the memory of slavery from different standpoints.

Quentin Tarantino's ultra-bloody, Django Unchained (2012) is one way to remember slavery...

Quentin Tarantino’s ultra-bloody, Django Unchained (2012) is one way to remember slavery…

Quentin Tarantino’s unabashedly ahistorical Django Unchained takes an eye-for-an-eye, revenge fantasy approach to slavery. In Tarantino’s film, the titular slave Django (Jaime Foxx) rains down Dirty Harry style retribution against white slaveholders in a truly gratuitous cinematic bloodbath that led commenter Henrik Hertzberg to accuse Tarantino of using the memory of slavery as “an excuse for wallowing in sadism.” By contrast, Steve McQueen’s recent film 12 Years a Slave, based on the slave narrative of Solomon Northrop, shows slavery’s horrors as everyday realities, not the stuff of action set pieces. Policymic’s Elena Sheppard even declared McQueen’s movie to be the “perfect answer to Tarantino:” a film that “takes the incomprehensible violence of slavery and personalizes it,” in a way that is “gut-wrenching” and “palpable.”

These films embody two contrasting ways that many Americans try to reconcile the ugly history of American racism: it’s either something to be rejected forcefully, or its something that must be consistently examined and remembered in all of its injustice, violence, and degradation. Or, if you’re Rush Limbaugh, racism is something white people never engaged in. Nonetheless, the role of race in American society can’t be discussed in simple black and white terms (sorry, I couldn’t resist). Whether we like it or not, the legacy of slavery is central to American identity itself, even if its real effects remain controversial and painful to discuss.

How Americans of various political and social backgrounds remember and interpret their country’s history of slavery and racism should continue to be a major part of public discourse. This is why Henry Louis Gates sees education about the legacy of America’s racial past as essential to achieving a society where “you could wear your ancestry, your sexual preference, your gender orientation, your religion, your color…without penalty.” As a Harvard professor who was wrongfully arrested for trying to enter his own house while black, Gates knows better than most that such a society may be a pipe dream. But then again, that’s what some Americans used to say about an America without slavery. The best way to talk about race is to acknowledge its importance in shaping American history, learn from the mistakes of the past — and for Pete’s sake, try not to repeat those same damn mistakes.

* See Paul Finkelman, Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2001), 7.