Tag Archives: slavery

Wendell Berry on Racism: The Hidden Wound

Wendell Berry The Hidden WoundIn 1968, Wendell Berry wrote The Hidden Wound — a fascinating look at U.S. racism and its connection to land and work from this incredible environmentalist who grew up in a family that still remembered owning slaves. I’ve been trying to get my head around the way that the current terrifying onslaught of policies of hate and fear are so closely tied to Christianity — and yes I know Crusades and witch burnings and pogroms and the Inquisition and… I know. But this helped explain the particular moment we are in as Americans better than anything I’ve read in while from a point of view that I don’t often read.

It opens with a frank admission:

I have been unwilling, until now, to open in myself what I have known all along to be a wound–a historical wound, prepared centuries ago to come alive in me at my birth like a hereditary disease, and to be augmented and deepened by my life….If the white man has inflicted the wound of racism upon black men, the cost has been that he would receive the mirror image of that wound unto himself. As the master, or as a member of the dominant race, he has felt little compulsion to acknowledge it or speak of it; the more painful it has grown the more deeply he has hidden it within himself. But the wound is there, and it is a profound disorder, as great a damage in his mind as it is in his society. (3-4)

This damage now erupted brutally into the open keeps me up at night.

Berry writes of the casual stories told by his family, remembering the past. There is one story in particular of a slave that had to be sold because he would not be good (and how much Black pain lies in that white concept of ‘good’?):

The story has passed from generation to generation in flight from its horror. It has been told and retold, surely, because in the depths of our souls we all have recognized in it an evil that is native to us and that we cannot escape. (8-9)

Still, slave owners tried to escape its consequences, and this required particular habits and manners of thought. Berry describes the double nature that had to exist in religion, for example. We all know the Bible says to turn the other cheek, to love your enemies, to ‘lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth’, to do unto others as you would have done unto you — all things Southern society would be glad that slaves (and their descendants) should live by. But whites clearly did not, could not live these beliefs, without freeing slaves (or returning all that land to Native Americans rather than attempting their total destruction). This shaped white Christianity in very particular ways, and Berry’s description of it resonates so strongly today…

Thus the moral obligation was cleanly excerpted from the religion. the question of how best to live on the earth, among one’s fellow creatures, was permitted to atrophy, and the churches devoted themselves exclusively and obsessively with the question of salvation. (17)

I think current events have been ripping the covers off, revealing the fruit of this.

Berry also shares thoughts on language, how this double nature existed there too and shaped the words people used, how they thought.

Within the context of prejudice and segregation, the two races had to get along, and so there was an etiquette of speech that one learned from the cradle: one “respected the feelings” of Negroes, when in their presence one did not flaunt one’s “superiority” or use the word nigger… But more important, within the language there was a silence, an emptiness, of exactly the shape of the humanity of the black man; the language I spoke in my childhood and youth was in that way analagous to a mold in which a statue is to be cast. The operations, then, were that one could, by a careful observance of the premises of the language, keep the hollow empty and thus avoid the pain of the recognition of the humanity of an oppressed people and of one’s own guilt in their oppression; or one could, willing or not, be forced by the occasions of sympathy and insight to break out of those premises into a speech of another and more particular order, so that the hollow begins to fill with the substance of a life that one must recognize as human and demanding. (19)

Later he writes:

The word nigger might be thought of as rattling around, with devastating noise and impact, within the silence, that black-man-shaped hollow, inside our language. (50)

This is so chilling, makes so much sense. There is so much to undo, and Wendell Berry writes about the difficulties of undoing it:

I am trying to establish the outline of an understanding of myself in regard to what was fated to be the continuing crisis of my life, the crisis of racial awareness–the sense of being doomed by my history to be, if not always a racist, then a man always limited by the inheritance of racism, condemned to be always conscious of the necessity not to be a racist, to be always dealing deliberately with the reflexes of racism that are embedded in my mind as deeply at least as the language I speak. (48-49)

This is a process deeply rooted in history, in the origins of the country, in the ways that whites sought to take what was not theirs, and then to force others to work on it.

From the beginning also, as the white man made his drive into the continent, to take it from its wilderness and its original inhabitants and possess it, there were two great necessities: one was to own the land, to establish and maintain a legal claim; the second was the enormous and continuing labor it took to convert such ownership into the profits which would preserve and augment it. In the parts of the country where there was a black labor force these necessities were divided, in theory at least; the white man was to be the owner, the black man was to be the laborer. (80)

The results could only be a twisted and misshapen society whose ultimate values had been conquest and profit. Berry writes:

The white man, preoccupied with the abstractions of the economic exploitation and ownership of the land, necessarily has lived on the country as a destructive force, an ecological catastrophe, because he assigned the hand labor, and in that the possibility of intimate knowledge of the land, to a people he considered racially inferior; in thus debasing labor, he destroyed the possibility of a meaningful contact with the earth…The history of the white man’s use of the earth in America is a scandal. (105)

He also writes:

Whereas the whites, as a group, have produced here only a pernicious value system, based on greed and egotism and the lust for status and comfort, without either an elemental knowledge on the one hand or a decent social vision on the other. What the whites have produced of cultural value had come into being in the face of either indifference or opposition on the part of most whites… (81)

And yet for so many years, race has been seen as the ‘Negro Problem’ (or the Mexican problem, or the Asian problem…), when not only is it a problem of all Americans, but resonates through each and every one of our relationships:

It seems to me that racism could not possibly have made merely a mechanical division between the two races; at least in America it did not. It involves an emotional dynamics that has disordered the heart both of the society as a whole and of every person in the society. It has made divisions not only between white people and black people, but between black men and black women, white men and white women; it has come between white people and their work, and between white people and their land. It has fragmented both our society and our minds. (91)

This not least because

Whites fear what they feel, secretly or otherwise, to be the righteousness of the anger of blacks; as the oppressors they feel, secretly or otherwise, morally inferior to those they have oppressed. (92)

Where does wholeness lie? A better future? In recognising that

…no man is alone, because he cannot be; he cannot arrange it so that either the good or the bad effects of his life will apply only to himself; he can only live in the creation, among the creatures, his life either adding to the commonwealth or subtracting from it. Men are whole not only insofar as they make common cause with each other, but also insofar as they make common cause with their native earth, which is to say with the creation as a whole, which is to say with the creator. (104)

It involves recognizing the crimes against native peoples, and in all humility learning from them.

For examples of a whole and indigenous American society, functioning in full meaning and good health within the ecology of this continent, we will have to look back to the cultures of the Indians. That we failed to learn from them how to live in this land is a stupidity–a racial stupidity–that will corrode the heart of our society until the day comes, if it ever does, when we do turn back to learn from them. (107)

It involves recognising the humanity of all.

As soon as we have filled the hollow in our culture, the silence in our speech, with the fully realized humanity of the black man–and it follows, of the American Indian–then there will appear over the horizon of our consciousness another figure as well: that of the American white man, our own humanity, lost to us these three and a half centuries, the time of all our life on this continent.

It is not, I think, a question of when and how the white people will “free” the black people and the red people. It is a condescension to believe that we have the power to do that. Until we have recognized in them the full strength and grace of their distinctive humanity we will be able to set no one free, for we will not be free ourselves. When we realize that they possess a knowledge for the lack of which we are incomplete and in pain, then the wound in our history will be healed. Then they will simply be free, among us–and so will we, among ourselves for the first time, and among them. (108)

There is more here I want to write about, about race and land, work, memory… but later. For now I will end with a quote from the Afterward, written in 1988, a plea to recognise the only things that could possibly make us truly safe and secure:

There is no safety in belonging to the select few… If we are looking for insurance against want and oppression, we will find it only in our neighbors’ prosperity and goodwill and, beyond that, in the good health of our worldly places, our homelands. If we were sincerely looking for a place of safety, for real security and success, then we would begin to turn to our communities – and not the communities simply of our human neighbors but also of the water, earth, and air, the plants and animals, all the creatures with whom our local life is shared. We would be looking too for another another kind of freedom. Our present idea of freedom is only the freedom to do as we please…But that is a freedom dependent upon affluence, which is in turn dependent upon the rapid consumption of exhaustible supplies. The other kind of freedom is the freedom to take care of ourselves and each other. The freedom of affluence opposes and contradicts the freedom of community life.

Our place of safety can only be the community, and not just one community, but many of them everywhere. (129)

[Berry, Wendell (1989, 2010) The Hidden Wound. Berkeley: Counterpoint.]

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Septima Clark — The Glorious Complexities of Identity

Ready From Within - Septima ClarkSeptima Poinsette Clark’s background is found in the second part of Ready From Within, you can read more about the first on her life and work here. Once again I found myself bumping against my own unconsciously contained ideas of identity.  The editor Cynthia Brown noted her own surprise when she saw Rosa Parks let her hair down and it fell below her waist… Rosa Parks smiled at her, and said kindly she was part Native American. How had I never heard that before? Septima Clark’s background is just as wondrously complex — exactly the complexity that the U.S. brand of racism strips away by reducing everything to the absurdity of a drop of blood defining a status that whites have long tried to hold forcibly down at the bottom.

Clark writes that her mother was born free, and that she:

…had three distinct sets of brother and sisters. The first set was mulatto, two girls with soft curly brown hair. then came three ginger-colored boys with soft black hair. Then came three girls including my mother, Victoria. They were medium-brown with soft straight black hair. Their father was Indian, from the Muskhogean tribes who lived on the sea islands from Charleston to Savannah, Georgia.

Born free, her mother, and then raised in the heart of the 3rd great revolution (and much more revolutionary than the US revolution if we’re at all honest):

My mother was born in Charleston but reared in Haiti…those three little girls were sent to Haiti to be raised by their older brothers, who were cigar makers there. (89)

Her mother was very proud of this claim, that she never was in slavery. Very unlike Clark’s father who was freed by the civil war as a teenager, and remembered this freedom as a worrying time. His surname Poinsette came from his former master, a botanist for whom the Poinsettia is named.

I think about the connections between language, culture and place embodied in the intertwinings of this single family’s history — and the simple identity assigned to Septima Poinsette Clark fairly boggles the mind. How soon can we leave these damn binaries behind us?

There are also fascinating insights here into the early traditions of education and how they play into these complexities. There was a local public school, but Clark would have been one of 100 students for the one teacher. Her mother worked to get her into a private school:

There were lots of black women who had little schools in their homes–in their kitchens, in their dining rooms, or in little shed rooms. (98)

These schools ran on their own hierarchies — and this whole story of education resulted in a class pride that Clark had to work hard to undo through the rest of her life in struggle. She remembers that her teacher:

didn’t take  just anybody who had the money for tuition. She chose her pupils from the blacks who boasted of being free issues, people who had never been slaves. These people constituted a sort of upper caste. (99)

From there she went on to the Avery Institute, getting her teaching certificate in 1916. The Avery Institute is hell of fascinating — itself emblematic of the complexities of identity and the immense possibilities opened up by Reconstruction. Francis Louis Cardozo founded it, his father the Jewish editor of a newspaper, his mother half black and half Native American. They sent their son Francis to school in Europe; after his return he became the first black Secretary of State for South Carolina during reconstruction. (101)

The racist laws against marriage meant Cardozo’s parents never officially married — two such interracial families lived on Clark’s street while she was growing up, but her mother always looked down on them for living together outside of wedlock. Not everything was nice and friendly back in the day.

Clark’s first job was on Johns Island, part of a network of islands along the South Carolina coast. It took nine hours in a boat to get there from Charleston. She talks about the prevalence of African words, Gullah. She taught how that idiom as spoken related to ‘correct English’ (de to be written down as the…). She worked there several years, and then moved back to teach in Charleston.

How did she become fully radicalized? It took a little while:

I want to start my story with the end of World War II because that is when the civil rights movement really got going, both for me personally and for people all over the south. After World War II the men were coming home from fighting in Europe and Africa, and they weren’t going to take segregation any more. (23)

It was still some time before a fellow teacher introduced her to Highlander, the kind of space that encouraged her to step into her full potential and change the course of the growing civil rights movement. From there she never looked back, and never lost her faith in the ability of people to develop:

You know, the measure of a person is how much they develop in their life. Some people slow down in their growth after they become adults… But you never know when a person’s going to leap forward, or change around completely. (103)

One of my favourite quotes from her, and I’ve used this once already, is on growing old, and the opportunities that change and chaos bring:

But I really do feel that this is the best part of life. It’s not that you have just grown old, but it is how you have grown old. I feel that I have grown old with dreams that I want to come true, and that I have grown old believing there is always a beautiful lining to that cloud that overshadows things. I have great belief in the fact that whenever there is chaos, it creates wonderful thinking. I consider chaos a gift, and this has come during my old age. (125)

Maybe if more righteous elders were like her and celebrated such things, we would be in a better place. To end, the one thing we all have to remember:

The only thing that’s really worthwhile is change. It’s coming. (126)

You want to see my new favourite photos?

Septima Clark and Rosa Parks:

Image Courtesy of Highlander Research and Education Center
Image Courtesy of Highlander Research and Education Center

parks-and-clark-sitting

Senior power!

 

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John Akomfrah: Vertigo Sea at Bristol’s Arnolfini

John Akomfrah Vertigo SeaVertigo Sea, a solo exhibition of two films showing through 10th April, 2016 at Bristol’s Arnolfini, its UK premiere. Where better to see such films exploring the connections between oceans and Empire, slavery and migration and the killing of our natural world than this city built with slavery’s profits?

We saw Vertigo Sea first, sat confronting the sea and movement and death and forced migrations on film across three screens. The sounding of waves. The vastness of ocean. The smallness of our own stature in the face of it. The wonder of the creatures who live within it. I imagine the feeling of always being held, wonder if that sounding of waves is something that lives within you if you live within the ocean, if your heart beats to it. Birds, thousands and millions of birds swirl across its surface, like algae, like the shoals of fish that dive and spin.

John Akomfrah Vertigo Sea
John Akomfrah “Vertigo Sea” (2015). Installationsview. Nikolaj Kunsthal. Foto Léa Nielsen

Water is here too in the form of snow, vast expanses, glaciers, landscapes we all know are fast disappearing.

John Akomfrah Vertigo Sea
John Akomfrah: Vertigo Sea © Smoking Dogs Films. Courtesy Arnolfini. Photo Stuart Whipps

Always the vastness of the world, the ocean, the water. Moisture as great banks of cloud upon the earth. Then the vastness of death we ourselves leave behind. The killing of wild things, the carving up of whales, the rivers of blood.

John Akomfrah Vertigo Sea

There are those who travel oceans to kill alongside the desperation of others traveling the oceans prised lose from land by war and famine and searching for life and hope. The desperation of others traveling the oceans ripped from all they know, plundered for work and death in lands far away. The oceans connect us in so many ways. Look how we have moved across them, look how we have died in them, look how we have hunted and killed in them. This is a unique meditation on human violence in the face of great, impersonal force.

John Akomfrah Vertigo SeaFrom the exhibition guide:

The inspiration for the work came from a radio interview with a group of young Nigerian migrants who had survived an illegal crossing of the Mediterranean. They expressed the feeling of being faced by something vaster and more awesome than they had thought possible. While the sea is mesmerising, universally compelling and beautiful, it is also a uniquely inhospitable environment. It is difficult for us, as humans used to having control over our surroundings, to grasp the enormity of this constantly changing element, and the word ‘vertigo’ perhaps refers to this unfathomable reach.

Maybe it’s because I grew up in the middle of the desert, but I love the feeling of being small, love the feeling of being just a tiny part of the world, in the world rather than in control of the world. We are never in control of the world. But I imagine this installation feels different to me than to others, I wonder if it does provoke a sense of control being absent. An overwhelming. I hope so.

But how I mourned through this film, mourned the death and all of those lost. Now and then, too, I turned my eyes from the killing.

We couldn’t see both installations the same day, seemed to us Vertigo Sea was too powerful. So we went back to watch Tropikos two weekends later.

Situated in Plymouth and the Tamar Valley – locations with significant, though largely forgotten connections with the expansion of European power and influence – Tropikos is an experimental drama set in the 16th century.
Akomfrah’s starting point for the film was the connection between the waterways of the South West and the slave trade. In this film, the river landscape is transformed into an historic English port to re-imagine some of the first British encounters with people from Africa.
Again, the pounding of oceans. Elizabethan costumes vs white draped simplicity, the deep roar of passage and rending, black skin in water and warmth but there is the looming English presence behind and you long to call out, to warn. Too late.
John Akomfrah, Tropikos,
John Akomfrah, Tropikos, 2016 | Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Black faces are seen in frigid English landscapes, floating still and silent down the Tamar, landscape passing in emerald fields and grey skies behind these people stolen and surrounded by goods stolen with them. Bowls overflow with pearls and precious things, corn, roots and tubers. Dressed first in simplicity, but later boxed into new finery.

Tropikos-John-Akomfrah-Smoking-Dogs-Films-Courtesy-Lisson-Gallery1
Tropikos, John Akomfrah, Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Always there is the sounding of oceans.

Only one table shows what England gave in return: wildflowers, a bible, a sword.

Death is here too, it is hanging. Birds and fish with glassy eyes and bodies cut to let them bleed. Other trees hung with pineapples and daikon radishes. Always the cold arrogant English faces in contrast, husband and wife unable to speak to touch to share the same spaces. Sidelong glances at the others come among them.

Words from Hakluyt, Shakespeare, Milton, Gaston Bachelard….they mingle with Melville from Vertigo Sea. Both are powerful, both had moments so reminiscent of his other work, particularly Last Angel of History, but perhaps it is because I saw that not too long ago. But there are these stills, posed, surreal elements of physical things with a huge weight of symbolic meaning. The detritus of our lives washed up on the stones, yielded by the water. The ending of time.

john_akomfrah-vertigo-sea_2015_still_c_smoking-dogs-films_courtesy-lisson-gallery_3_0
John Akomfrah Vertigo Sea (2015). Still. © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy

Go see them if you can.

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The Mysteries of Paris (a la Eugène Sue )

Poster announcing the publication of Les Mystères de Paris (1843), a French language novel by Eugène Sue (1804-1857)
Poster announcing the publication of Les Mystères de Paris (1843), a French language novel by Eugène Sue (1804-1857)

Eugene Sue has raised himself above the horizon of his own narrow world view. He has delivered a slap in the face of bourgeois prejudice.
–Karl Marx

How could anyone resist a back-cover blurb like that? Along with a slap, Sue also delivered a fairly rip-roaring story of good and evil and murder and love and hate and an immensity of sentimentality as it involves both princes and thieves, but really, you can’t care too much about that because it is what it is and it’s entirely enjoyable.

Well, until the last few chapters, maybe even the last third. Sue was just dragging shit out by then. You can tell it was published in 90 installments as one of the first serial novels, but there is something quite wonderful about this sprawling art form published in the Journal des débats from 19 June 1842 until 15 October 1843.

I am so glad Karl Marx found it irresistible.

It opens on the streets in the cité:

a labyrinth of obscure, crooked, and narrow streets, which extend from the Palais de Justice to Nôtre Dame.

Wretched houses, with scarcely a window, and those of worm-eaten frames, without any glass; dark, infectious-looking alleys led to still darker looking staircases, so steep that they could only be ascended by the aid of ropes fastened to the damp walls by iron hooks; the lower stories of some of these houses were occupied by sellers of charcoal, tripemen, or vendors of impure meat; and notwithstanding the little value of these commodities, the windows of the miserable shops were barred with iron, so much did the owners fear the bold robbers of this quarter. (9)

cite_1862

And so we come to the Rue aux Fèves, where our hero Rodolphe saves our heroine La Goualouse (but wait, it’s probably not quite what you think):

Theodor Josef Hubert Hoffbauer - Le cabaret du Lapin Blanc, rue aux Fèves, 1875-1882
Theodor Josef Hubert Hoffbauer – Le cabaret du Lapin Blanc, rue aux Fèves, 1875-1882 (after it had been demolished through Haussmanisation around 1860)

and they go to the Lapin Blanc:

It was a long, low room into which they entered, with smoky ceiling and black rafters, badly lighted by the murky rays of a miserable lamp. The whitewashed walls were covered with vulgar sketches, or with sentences in slang; the floor of beaten earth and salt was covered with mud; an armful of straw was placed at the foot of the counter or bar of the Ogresse instead of a carpet, and this was situated near the door, and under the lamp on each side of this room there were placed six tables, one end of each, as well as the benches, nailed to the walls. (15)

lapin_blanc_avant_demolition-f2e70

They just don’t build shit like this anymore. Nor would it remain standing much longer. Of course, Sue was probably paid by the word and thus paid to describe in detail, but I am so glad he did. The ogresse watches the bar, rents rooms, and rents clothes to young women — the book never calls her a procures but it is clear she also plays this kind of role. But I won’t give the plot away, wikipedia does that quite well.

This all takes place only a few years before the uprisings and barricades and attempts at revolution in 1848, those heady years fomented in just such small cafes in the cité. It is why Haussman was so determined to demolish them, along with the narrow labyrinths of streets so easily defended. But that all comes later.

There is no hint of revolution here, just greed and some terribly involved crimes and some very simple ones. This is, in fact, rather a reactionary tale — like in the way that blood defines character for example, so when La Goualouse ends up back in prison

I asked some of them who slept in the same room with her what was the cause of the difference [deference? Sic] shown her. ‘That’s more than we can tell,’ they answered: ‘it is plain she is not one of us.‘ ‘But who told you so?’ ‘No one told us: we see it in a thousand things. For instance, lat night, before she went to bed, she went on her knees and said her prayers; as she prays, as La Louve said, she must have a right to pray. (218)

God, the good old days when only the better classes with their blameless lives had the right to pray.

There is a black physician, rescued from American slavery, who is kind and good and wise. That’s a nice change, and almost undoubtedly a jab at America (this nationalist pride probably also explains the English nobleman in humble service of the European Prince). This book is reactionary on the subject of race in every other respect — there’s noticably no mention of Haiti here and I’ll get to Algiers in a bit. But first there is David’s wife who is a creole light enough to pass, and of course she is beautiful and unbalanced and Sue makes a fine art of insulting people here:

Her detestable predilections, for some time restrained by her real attachment for David, were developed in Europe; civilisation and the climactical influence of the North had tempered the violence, modified the expression. Instead of casting herself violently on her prey, and thinking only, like her compeers. to destroy as soon as possible their life and fortune, Cecily, fixing on her victims her magnetic glances, commenced by attracting them, little by little, into the blazing whirlwind which seemed to emanate from her… (283)

There is a great deal more in this vein and she causes an evil man to lose his reason entirely as part of a plot of vengeance on the side of good. That gets a bit confusing, but she’s clearly just in here to ratchet up the sex quotient (hard to do with everyone so good and pure). This involves some quite extraordinary detailed descriptions of her Alsatian costume (she’s in disguise involving a shortish skirt showing some leg and a laced up bodice) that would please the most OCD of fetishists. I know a lot more about race, class and corsets in 1840s France than I did before this book.

There is a whole lot here about female purity and the ways that shame can never be forgotten nor forgiven, the infuriating view that rape is always somehow the woman’s fault and she is never pure as a woman should be after. In fact, she’s better dead or in a nunnery. There’s a whole lot of stupid aristocratic nonsense. The Saxe-Gotha almanach makes an appearance. Another unbalanced woman. Once this story starts heading for these exalted shores it becomes much less interesting I confess. But given my interest in the intertwined histories of Europe and its colonies, it is fascinating that Rodolphe sends the thieves who have repented of their past off to Algiers to forge their new future.

I think in some ways this is the dream that Europeans and white Americans (and white Africans and Australians and etc etc) held to most — that opportunity to go somewhere, find some land, leave behind what you were and reinvent yourself anew. A new chance, a new and better future you define for yourself rather than entrapment into the one you were born into.

…they mutually congratulated each other on the agreeable prospects before them in Algiers.

And so everything was sacrificed, above all those occupying the land that financed and made reinvention possible. Those original occupants had to be made less. Even the infamous empathy of our heroine does not even give a quiver at this:

To end your family of protégés, my lord, I will add that Germain has read in the papers that Martial, a planter in Algiers, has been spoken of with great praise for the courage he has shown in repulsing, at the head of his farmers, an attack of thievish Arabs, and that his wife, as intrepid as himself, had been slightly wounded in the side while she was discharging her gun like a real grenadier. From that time…she has been called Madame Carabine. (365)

That’s one for the women, but only in defense of white privilege to take over farms by conquest. Here the roots of the pied noirs and the bloody conflict stretching across years and decades and as formative of France as it would be of Algeria. As a footnote, but I am always fascinated by just how much the colonies infuse the consciousness and the stories of the colonisers when you look.

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The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole

Mary Seacole's House, Soho SquareThey are wonderful indeed, and surprising in their content. I knew Mary Seacole only vaguely as a Black nurse — as brave as Florence Nightingale in service of the soldiers in the Crimea, but too-much forgotten by history because of her race. I found her plaque in Soho Square ages ago, which is when she went onto my reading list, moved up by encounters at the Black Cultural Archives and thinking about Empire. I read this seeking London and Black experience here as much as anything else, and didn’t find it at all but I was not sad about that.

London seems most tame, a stopping place between New Granada and the Crimea, which is a novel place for this city, and not a bad one at all.

709969In her life she did everything possible to burst the constraints placed on her by gender and race, while also clearly enjoying her own femininity — I love that she redefines an understanding of ‘feminine’ to include long and dangerous travels, courage under fire, intense compassion for all human beings, immense curiosity about the world, and a love of beautiful dresses and home comforts.

I cannot forget her temper, either. It carries her through swashbuckling-wise.

In this she subverts other long-held feminine conventions in her love of war and its pageantry, which she sees as adventure even after experiencing it — had she been born a man in this period she would have been a soldier as her Scottish father was I am sure. That was one boundary she was not prepared to cross as a handful of other women did by giving up their identity as women all together. So instead she learned how to heal, and sought out adventures — the Crimean War being only one of them — where her talents would do the most good.

A watercolour painting of Mary Seacole (c. 1850)
A watercolour painting of Mary Seacole (c. 1850)

Restless and wishing to see the world (while also fleeing tragedy in the death of her mother and husband), she follows her brother from Jamaica (her place of birth) to New Granada — a centralist republic that has since been divided into pieces of modern-day Colombia, Panama, and Ecuador (I knew this old history of South America once, but it was a jolt to recover it again, I had forgotten these older divisions, a good reminder of how shifting nations and boundaries really are).

New Granada
New Granada

Her story reminded me so much of the works by B. Traven — but without that discomfort I sometimes get, that feeling of just another European slumming (though he was better than most, I know). There, in Cruces then Gorgona, Panama, she opened up a hotel and restaurant, while also battling outbreaks of cholera.

The early ties between this country and the US are fascinating — many Estadounidenses travelled from the East Coast to California by sea, making the hard trek across Panama to travel by sea once more. This included both US troops and the goldrushers seeking California.

I knew some of this, vaguely, but before reading this I had no sense of what that might entail. I am newly fascinated by the slaves who fled South to freedom — we never learned about that road in school. Seacole writes:

I may have before said that the citizens of New Granada Republic had a strong prejudice against all Americans. It is not difficult to assign a cause for this. In the first place, many of the negroes, fugitive from the Southern States, had sought refuge in this and other States of Central America, where every profession was open to them; and as they were generally superior men–evinced perhaps by their hatred of their old condition and their successful flight–they soon rose to positions of eminence in New Granada. In the priesthood, in the army, in all municipal offices, the self-liberated negroes were invariably found in the foremost rank; and the people, for some reason–perhaps because they recognised in them superior talents for administration–always respected them more than, and preferred them to, their native rulers. So that, influenced naturally by these freed slaves, who bore themselves before their old masters bravely and like men, the New Granada people were strongly prejudiced against the Americans. And in the second and third places, they feared their quarrelsome, bullying habits — be it remembered that the crowds to California were of the lowest sorts, many of whom have since fertilised Cuban and Nicaraguan soil–and dreaded their schemes for annexation (51).

She gives a particular example of a toast from a Southern man — and it gives a sense of her spirit and character. The toast:

So, I say, God bless the best yaller woman He ever made…I calculate, gentlemen, you’re all as vexed as I am that she’s not wholly white —, but I du reckon on your rejoicing with me that she’s so many shades removed from being entirely black —; and I guess, if we could bleach her by any means we would —, and thus make her as acceptable in any company as she deserves to be… (47)

Her response:

…I don’t altogether appreciate your friend’s kind wishes with respect to my complexion. If it had been as dark as any nigger’s I should have been just as happy and as useful, and as much respected by those whose respect I value; and as to his offer of bleaching me, I should, even if it were practicable, decline it without any thanks. As to the society which the process might gain me admission into, all I can say is, that, judging from the specimens I have met with here and elsewhere, I don’t think that I shall lose much by being excluded from it. So, gentlemen, I drink to you and the general reformation of American manners. (48)

The round goes to Mother Seacole.

In Gorgona she ran a hotel for women only. She returned to Jamaica, came back, still restless. On Navy Bay she writes:

my friend Mr. H—- … carefully piloted me through the wretched streets, giving me especial warning not to stumble over what looked like three long boxes, loosely covered with the débris of a fallen house. They had such a peculiar look about them that I stopped to ask what they were, receiving an answer which revived all my former memories of Darien life, “Oh, they’re only three Irishmen killed in a row a week ago, whom its nobody’s business to bury.” (63-64)

That hurt my heart. Her descriptions are wonderfully evocative of place — her restlessness drives her to a tiny town called  Escribanos, 70 miles from Navy Bay, and here follows the most surprising adventure, at least to me:

As I was at this place for some months altogether, and as it was the only portion of my life devoted to gold-seeking, I shall make no apologies for endeavouring to describe the out-of-the-way-village-life of New Granada. (65)

She writes:

And I once did come upon some heavy yellow material, that brought my heart into my mouth with that strange thrilling delight which all who have hunted for the precious metal understand so well (67).

She became a prospector! I and my family know that delight, and this resonated curiously with the two African American women who were prominent prospectors in Arizona’s Superstitions.  This was only ever a brief sideline however, her central occupations as always being running a comfortable(ish) place offering room and board, and healing all those who came to her. Charging those who could pay, but never failing to attend those who could not. A good thing too, as she had found what must have been pyrite.

Her descriptions of life there are wonderful, and here is a glimpse, too, of the lives of those who escaped slavery — Carlos Alexander, the alcalde:

He was a black man; was fond of talking of his early life in slavery, and how he had escaped; and possessed no ordinary intellect. He possessed, also, a house, which in England a well-bred hound would not have accepted as a kennel; a white wife, and a pretty daughter, with a whitey-brown complexion and a pleasant name — Juliana. (66)

Hers is a curious matter-of-factness, especially around race, and is not untainted by the racism of the times. She has a servant she calls Jew Johnny, there are numbers of uncomfortable descriptions of Greeks and Turks and her own black servants (she saw herself as creole). There is no way to know, now, if this was just part of an easy and joking familiarity, if there was a sense of shared oppression, or if her relations were as regulated by the strict hierarchy of skin colour and nationality as any others.

We won’t know in part because this book is not just a description of her life, as she says, but a defense of it — and a defense of her own capacity both as a nurse and a woman (and it still needs defending from the likes of the Daily Mail). I cannot help but feel she believed she was defending the capacity, courage and intelligence of all women of colour, along with traditional medicine and the knowledge that comes with experience rather than Oxbridge.

We are still fighting all of these things.

She had her own battles every step of her journey, especially to get to the Crimea where she felt called. She marshals a number of short and formal notes of recommendation from important men as credentials in her support. She highlights this near the end:

Please look back to Chapter VIII, and see how hard the right woman had to struggle to convey herself to the right place. (134)

But my favourite letter is from a common soldier, it is warm and personal and gives you a true sense of her courage and compassion and what she meant to those fighting. Makes me wish she had not been under those constraints of bankruptcy along with general disrespect and disbelief both for her gender, and for her race.

Sketch of Mary Seacole's "British Hotel" in the Crimea, by Lady Alicia Blackwood (1818-1913).
Sketch of Mary Seacole’s “British Hotel” in the Crimea, by Lady Alicia Blackwood (1818-1913).

A last photo of her:

The only known photograph of Mary Seacole, taken for a carte de visite by Maull & Company in London (c. 1873)
The only known photograph of Mary Seacole, taken for a carte de visite by Maull & Company in London (c. 1873)

And a final note that Mary Seacole recommended butter in coffee over a century before the hipsters did.

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On Slavery and Abolitionists: The History of Mary Prince

mp-book-204x300Autobiographical yet co-produced, this is as much an autobiography of the indomitable Mary Prince in all that is said, as the evangelical abolitionists who supported her bid for freedom in all that is left unsaid.

Mary Prince–born into slavery in Brackish Pond, Bermuda in 1788, she lived with her mother and siblings with the Williams family, helping take care of a little girl named Betsy who ‘used to lead me about by the hand, and call me her little nigger’ (57).

prince372
No images survive of Mary Prince herself, but this is the photo that has often been used to illustrate her story.

But with the death of Mrs Williams the family split, as a young girl she was auctioned away from her family (though she maintained contact with them, even as her mother retreats into madness), and into a string of homes where she would be worked and starved and suspended naked from the ceiling and whipped. Every day there is a stream of abuse, of name-calling, pinching, slapping, beating that is said, and a subtext of sexual abuse that goes unsaid. She is almost killed by one master, falls ill and is essentially left to die by another. All of it is heartbreaking, horrific, rings with truth, yet few of her time wished to believe it.

My favourite sentence:

Mrs. Wood was very angry — she grew quite outrageous — she called me a black devil, and asked me who had put freedom into my head. ‘To be free is very sweet,’ I said… (86)

This is a graphic tale of oppression and a proud spirit pushing back against it as hard as she could, making her stands where possible, working always towards buying her freedom. It is also clearly stripped of all sexual content. Some of this is perforce put back in again, through the lawsuit of her last owners the Woods against Thomas Pringle, the abolitionist who had taken Mary Prince in as a servant and published her life history.

Her bad moral character becomes part of their case against her in defending their own good name after Mary Prince leaves them in London and petitions Parliament to force them to sell her her freedom. She testifies before the judge, and thus emerges in the frigid light of Victorian morality some of what was left unsaid by those who helped her share her life–but surely not all. It initiated a small level of discussion of slavery and morality (but of rape nothing is said of course), and the defense submitted a letter from Joseph Phillips of Antigua stating the following:

Of the immoral conduct ascribed to Molly by Mr. Wood, I can say nothing further than this — that I have heard she had at a former period (previous to her marriage) a connexion [sic] with a white person, a Capt.– which I have no doubt was broken off when she became seriously impressed with religion. But, at any rate, such connexions are so common, I might almost say universal, in our slave colonies, that except by the missionaries and a few serious persons, they are considered, if faults at all, so very venial as  scarcely to deserve the name of immorality. Mr. Wood knows this colonial estimate of such connexions as well as I do; and however false such an estimate must be allowed to be, especially when applied to their own conduct by persons of education, pretending to adhere to the pure Christian rule of morals… (letter from Mr Joseph Phillips of Antigua,1831,  p 111)

I found this somewhat jaw-dropping, I don’t know why. Perhaps its openness in comparison to the brutal public adherence to Victorian morals by everyone else, even though guilty of so much. There is a great deal in here — beyond what is censored from Mary’s account — showing the abolitionists in all their moral high-handedness and racism as well. Moira Ferguson (the editor) shares an anecdote from Peter Fryer in Staying Power:

When members and friends of the African and Asian society dined at a tavern in 1816, with Wilberforce in the chair, the token Africans and Asians invited to the gathering were separated from the other guests by a screen set across one end of the room.

And this is from the letter of Thomas Pringle in Mary’s defense:

Her chief faults, so far as we have discovered them, are, a somewhat violent and hasty temper, and a considerable share of natural pride and self-importance; but these defects have been but rarely and transiently manifested and have scarcely occasioned an hour’s uneasiness at any time in our household  (p. 115-116)

She had every right to be proud, had survived more and won more than Mr Pringle could have ever dreamed of. Yet he still relegated her to her ‘place’ as servant obedient to his will. It says more about his character than anything else I think, and his wife and her sister also, who themselves examined and testified to the terrible scarring of her body and still expected her to serve them.

His letter ends with a comparison with Brazil — to underline the moral contamination of slavery, the dehumanization of the owner wherever it is found in words more trustworthy because not those of a former slave:

I never walked through the streets of Rio, that some house did not present to me the semblance of a bridewell, where the moans and the cries of the sufferers, and the sounds of whips and scourges within, announced to me that corporal punishment was being inflicted. Whenever I remarked this to a friend, I was always answered that the the refractory nature of the slave rendered it necessary, and no house could properly be conducted unless it was practiced (Dr Walsh, ‘Notices of Brazil’ quoted on p 122)

This is a queer mix of Mary Prince’s own voice, her own recounting of horrors suffered and resistance waged, and a considered petition to the consciences of the British. It is unclear how much of that is shaped by the Pringles themselves and how much by Mary’s understanding of what they wanted. I imagine that was quite acute, who could better gauge the realities of her life and desires and their distance from what the Pringles and others would accept? I just hope she was able to find her own peace beyond their condescension and their judgments of all she had been through and all she had done not just to survive, but to break free.

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Black Marxism – Cedric J. Robinson

Black MarxismBlack Marxism is a book of immense scope and impressive in its immensity. It felt absolutely overwhelming as I read it, but going back over it, it feels more like some kind of treasure trove that will continue to yield new things every time I open its cover — so some initial lengthy yet also paradoxically brief notes…

The European Roots of Capitalism

It begins at the European beginning of Capitalism, going through the rise of the bourgeoisie through first cities, then absolutist and colonial states. As Robinson states: “European civilization is not the product of capitalism. On the contrary, the character of capitalism can only be understood in the social and historical context of its appearance.” [25] And because this is true, the age-old conceptions of race, enemy and exploitable other simply translated itself into new terms as the world changed: “As an enduring principle of European social order, the effects of racialism were bound to appear in the social expression of every strata of every European society no matter the structures upon which they were formed. None was immune. [29]”

He moves on then to look at the English working class, and how their formation was also entwined with racialism. Marx and Engels both acknowledged the existence of racial divisions, but believed that these would be erased as capitalism developed, even though there did not appear to be signs of it happening. As Robinson pointedly notes:

Neither Marx nor Engels were unaware of the proletariat’s failure to become a universal class.76 Both studied the Irish Question closely, were active in the attempt to resolve its destructive impact on the historical processes of English working-class formation, and commented on its import for future proletarian organization. Nevertheless, the impact of their experience with the English proletariat on their theory of the proletariat’s historical role appears to have been slight. [51]

He’s scathing of the whole Socialist tradition really, particularly in its early stages, and in my opinion entirely rightly. Its solid basis lies in the bourgeoisie itself, with no connection to the working classes:

It is a period dominated by eccentrics, visionaries, and didacts. The wistful trails of Godwin, Paine, Fourier, Saint-Simon, Cabet, Pecquer, lesser and grander lights, preoccupy the historians, along with the most often short-lived utopian communities associated with some ofthem. The agitations, rebellions, riots, and struggles of artisans, wage laborers, peasants, and slave laborers are largely irrelevant to the tradition in the early nineteenth century and mostly constitute a background “noise” in this the era of the socialist writer. … Their work becomes a demonstration of the independence of socialist theory and social movements from one another. When once again they collide, in the 1840S, 1870S, and early 1900S, each had assumed forms and prerogatives only slightly tolerable to those of the other.

He returns Marx to his time and place, from 1848 to the rise of Bismarck in 1862. He traces the ambiguities of Marx and Engels’ positions on nationalism, and argues that they did not understand it, in the same way that they failed to understand racialism: that it was neither an aberration nor a stage, but something as determined by history as their world revolution failed to be. He argues that ideologies have in fact “helped to abort those social and historical processes believed to be necessary and inevitable; have catalyzed rebellions and revolutions in often unlikely circumstances and among unlikely peoples; and have assisted in extraordinary historical achievement where failure was “objectively” immanent.” [82]

Only then do we return to race:

In short, there were at least four distinct moments that must be apprehended in European racialism; two whose origins are to be found within the dialectic of European development, and two that are not:

1. the racial ordering of European society from its formative period, which extends into the medieval and feudal ages as “blood” and racial beliefs and legends.
2. the Islamic (i.e., Arab, Persian, Turkish, and African) domination of Mediterranean civilization and the consequent retarding of European social and cultural life: the Dark Ages.
3. the incorporation of African, Asian, and peoples of the New World into the world system emerging from late feudalism and merchant capitalism.
4. the dialectic of colonialism, plantocratic slavery, and resistance from the sixteenth century forward, and the formations of industrial labor and labor reserves.

It is now a convention to begin the analysis of racism in Western societies with the third moment; entirely ignoring the first and second and only partially coming to terms with the fourth. … In each instance, the root of the methodological and conceptual flaws is the same: the presumption that the social and historical processes that matter, which are determinative, are European. All else, it seems, is derivative.

Black Marxism is a refutation of such a framework.

Moments of Black struggle

And so on to rebellion and uprising in Africa and its diaspora flung across the world by the European slave trade. He writes:

Black radicalism, consequently, cannot be understood within the particular context of its genesis. It is not a variant of Western radicalism whose proponents happen to be Black. Rather, it is a specifically African response to an oppression emergent from the immediate determinants of European development in the modern era and framed by orders of human exploitation woven into the interstices of European social life from the inception of Western civilization: [97]

Robinson finds how this was ignored in a deep historical look at previous contacts between Blacks and whites, the shift of Blacks being seen as Islamic militants and soldiers to slaves and a very different set of stereotypes. From there he looks at the long history of the slave trade, mentioned earlier was the Italian trafficking of ‘Tartars’ and ‘Poles’ and ‘Cathays’, but now it has expanded into the extraordinary movement of tens of thousands of people in the trans-Atlantic trade. Thus we arrive at black radicalism. As he states at the opening of chapter 6:

However, Marx had not realized fully that the cargoes of laborers also contained African cultures, critical mixes and admixtures of language and thought, of cosmology and metaphysics, of habits, beliefs, and morality. These were the actual terms of their humanity. These cargoes, then, did not consist of intellectual isolates or deculturated Blacks-men, women, and children separated from their previous universe. African labor brought the past with it, a past that had produced it and settled on it the first elements of consciousness and comprehension.
This was the embryo of the demon that would be visited on the whole enterprise of primitive accumulation. [173]

And thus follows a whole splendid history of Black resistance through the ages, uprisings and revolts, some of the marron comunities you might have heard of like Palmares but many that you probably have not. It ends with Africa: Revolt at the Source. In delving deeper into the nature of the Black radical tradition, he finds in fact that “one note has occurred and recurred: the absence of mass violence.” [242], in contrast to the ‘massive and often indiscriminate’ brutality of the Europeans in quelling such revolts. He claims that such an absence shows that

This was a revolutionary consciousness that proceeded from the whole historical experience of Black people and not merely from the social formations of capitalist slavery or the relations of production of colonialism.
It becomes clear, then, that for the period between the mid-sixteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries, it was an African tradition that grounded collective resistance by Blacks to slavery and colonial imperialism.

He goes on to argue for a particularly African tradition of granting primacy to the metaphysical, not the material. A tradition of resistance through collectivity. I’m not entirely convinced by the psychology of it, but there’s definitely something there. “They lived on their terms, they died on their terms, they obtained their freedom on their terms.” He argues that this cast doubt on the idea that capitalism was able to ‘penetrate and reform’ all social life, or strip life down to bare survival.

The Formation of the Black Intelligentsia:

Black Marxism then moves on to the third section to look at W.E.B. Du Bois, C.L.R. James and Richard Wright. It is an immensely rich look at Du Bois, my favourite passage distilling some of the wealth in Black Reconstruction:

And in every instance, peasants and agrarian workers had been the primary social bases of rebellion and revolution. Nowhere, not even in Russia, where a rebellious urban proletariat was a fraction of the mobilized working classes, had a bourgeois social order formed a precondition for revolutionary struggle. Revolutionary consciousness had formed in the process of anti-imperialist and nationalist struggles, and the beginnings of resistance had often been initiated by ideological constructions remote from the proletarian consciousness that was a presumption of Marx’s theory of revolution. The idiom of revolutionary consciousness had been historical and cultural rather than the “mirror of production.” The oppositions that had struck most deeply at capitalist domination and imperialism had been those formed outside the logic of bourgeois hegemony. [324]

C.L.R. James loved fiction! Who knew. This section looks more at his critiques of Marxism, some interesting reflections on Black Jacobins and this interesting passage: “It implied (and James did not see this) that bourgeois culture and thought and ideology were irrelevant to the development of revolutionary consciousness among Black and other Third World peoples. It broke with the evolutionist chain in, the closed dialectic of, historical materialism.” [386]

And the section on Wright, so rich on how writing and experience and political consciousness fold together, there is so much here, I can’t sum up. There’s this:

For Wright, it was not sufficient for Black liberation that his people come to terms with the critique of capitalist society. He had observed: “Marxism is but the starting point. No theory of life can take the place of life.”55 As a critique of capitalist society, Marxism was necessary, of course, but it was ultimately an internal critique. The epistemological nature of historical materialism took bourgeois society on its own terms, that is, presuming the primacy of economic forces and structures.56 As such, the historical development from feudalism of the bourgeoisie as a class served as a logical model for the emergence of the proletariat as a negation of capitalist society. Wright appeared quite early to have understood this thesis as a fundamental error in Marxist thought. Even as early as 1937, he had begun to argue that it was necessary that Blacks transform the Marxist critique into an expression of their own emergence as a negation of Western capitalism.

Brilliant stuff on ideology and violence, the importance of experience, but I will let Robinson himself do the final summing up of the contributions of each to a valid theory of liberation:

Du Bois

It was, Du Bois observed, from the periphery and not the center that the most sustained threat to the American capitalist system had materialized. … Just as important for him, however, was the realization that the racism of the American “white” working classes and their general ideological immaturity had abnegated the extent to which the conditions of capitalist production and relations alone could be held responsible for the social development of the American proletariat. The collective and individual identities of American workers had responded as much to race as they had to class. The relations of production were not determinant. [448]

James

No revolutionary cadre, divorced from the masses, ensconced in state bureaucracy, and abrogating to itself the determination of the best interests of the masses, could sustain the revolution or itself. [449]

Wright

Wright evoked in his writings the language and experience of”ordinary” Black men and women. In this way he pressed home the recognition that whatever the objective forces propelling a people toward struggle, resistance, and revolution, they would come to that struggle in their own cultural terms. [449]

And my final quote which I believe deserves much thought:

Western Marxism, in either of its two variants-critical-humanist or scientific-has proven insufficiently radical to expose and root out the racialist order that contaminates its analytic and philosophic applications or to come to effective terms with the implications of its own class origins. As a result, it has been mistaken for something it is not: a total theory of liberation. [451]

Roediger on How Race Survived US History

7986411This was quite a brilliant look at how and why the idea of race has developed in the United States. I haven’t read Roediger before so I can’t really compare it to his previous work, but given it’s written for a more popular audience, which I think is important, I did not mind the lack of footnotes. While it was reasonably short, I confess it took me a long time to get through and I’m not sure if that was because of the language or the weight of the ideas, but I didn’t regret a second.

It begins with a definition of race. For Roediger race is not a natural category, it is something new. It has been laboriously constructed to divide and sort people and thereby define how they relate to property, management, punishment and citizenship. The first of the two clearest examples of how this works is of course slavery, which took many different people of many different languages and cultures and defined them as black, as uncivilised and less than Europeans if not less than human, and only worthy of being slaves. The second is in the conquest and genocide of the Native Americans. Initially seen in the period of British rule as tribes with whom to ally with or fight against in the wars against other European powers, as a new nation began to create itself and push its boundaries they quickly became defined as red, as savages, as shiftless and lazy, and therefore worthy of being dispossessed of their lands. When they fought back? Jefferson himself argued shortly before his death that they be exterminated.

Through these stories we begin to come to grips with the two other key ideas about race contained in the book. The first is that of ‘whiteness as property’. Skin colour comes to define almost everything about an individual: where they live and work, what they can aspire to, the texture of their everyday life. When all else fails you can still cling to whiteness to put yourself above other people. You are a citizen. You cannot be enslaved. You are better than others. Your skin colour has a value, whiteness comes to be worth something in itself, something that distinguishes you and puts you above others. There was a time before this was true, when indentured servants and slaves escaped together, when the mixing of races was voluntary rather than from the rape of slaves. Laws made of whiteness something to be defended: banning interracial marriage, penalizing indentured servants who run in the company of a non-white, ruling that children share the freedom or the servitude of their mother, ruling people of color less than human and non-citizens. It was a combination of enticement and terror, whites either acted to their own benefit by buying into it or were punished severely for its transgression.

On the opposite side you found a law in Barbados from 1668: “An Act declaring the Negro-Slaves of this Island to be Real Estates.”

The second point is based on Stuart Hall (who I love). As Roediger says of him, he “acutely points out that racism emerges and is recreated from the imperatives of new sets of realities, not just from the bad habits of the past” [xiii]. The first key is that there are imperatives that drive this social construction of race, such as the desire for free labor to develop open land, the greed for land and expansion both in terms of speculation and profit, and to vent the building anger of the working white classes who are not finding in America their promised prosperity and demanding free land while threatening revolution. The second: that these imperatives do not just happen in some past time and continue on through inertia or habit (though the weight of the past cannot be treated lightly). The key is that racism still exists because new imperatives exist to ensure that it does. Until we understand them, we cannot end racism.

In a nutshell: “White supremacy persisted not only by working against the forces of freedom, of openness, and of economic rationality in US history, but also by working through them. Such complexities complicate the verb ‘survive’ in this book’s title, in that many of the forces pushing against the logic of racism at the same time validated, created, and recreated white supremacy.” [xv]

He goes on to explore and draw out these ideas through American history, looking at 4 key points where racism could have ceased, but didn’t. In very simplified terms:

How did it survive a revolution? Because honestly, it’s a bit ingenuous to revolt in the name of ideals of liberty and self-determination against British oppression while you yourself hold slaves. This is the classic ‘American dilemma’, which Roediger argues to be false. The revolution was funded by slavery, and Du Bois noted that the Constitution was in fact a huge blow to the slave liberation movement, Roediger sums it up succinctly: “[the constitution] made even indentured whites (their race unnamed) into “free persons”, it read Indians (who were named) out of citizenship, and it counted enslaved “other persons” (named neither racially nor in their servile position, by what one delegate called an “ashamed” constitutional convention) not as holders of political power, but as sources of such power for their own enslavers.” [51] Thus America becomes a white man’s country, welding together large and fractious class divisions through the imperative of expanding into Indian territory and maintaining race status.

How did it survive capitalism? Because even the Marxists argued that race would dissolve in the crucible of the working class. But in fact capital thrives on having different groups of workers in a hierarchy and in competition with each other, and it became policy to play these groups off one another. And slavery was not some pre-capitalist formation, it grew up with capitalism.

How did it survive jubilee and the abolition of slavery? That was the moment there was the most hope…but “Jubilee did not collapse under the weight of internal contradictions, but under extended assault.” The rise of the KKK, in one small town in Louisiana 60 republican party members were murdered during reconstruction. And then the fateful election where the Republicans gave up reconstruction all together and abandoned blacks to their fate for an uncontested election. Hayes almost certainly lost the popular vote, but he became president anyway.

How did it survive the immigration of those white Europeans most discriminated against? Through a process of coercion and aspiration and immense exploitation they slowly became accepted as white. In a sense they thus agreed to accept the rules of privilege rather than struggle against them.

And so it is still with us, Obama notwithstanding. The main point is “how unlikely it is that a force so longstanding, formative, and persistently recreated as white supremacy has been in United States history will be abolished by accident, as a result of the momentum of forces like capitalism or immigration that themselves have no anti-racist agenda.” [xv] We have to actively fight it, and to do so we have to understand it. This book takes us a great deal of the way I think. It is very US specific, while the drama of race has played out globally (as has the US role) and yet none of that is connected here which I found an absence. But this is an important book.

C.L.R. James on History and the Haitian Revolution

775985This is an in depth examination of Haiti and the splendour of its revolution, while at the same time James writes the history of places the way they should always be written, as playing a part on a world-wide stage, deeply influenced by and deeply influencing other countries. France’s wealthiest colony, San Domingo funded the French Revolution, it diverted a sizeable number of (and bested) British forces from the war against Napoleon for years, and in turn decimated the immense flotilla that Napoleon himself sent against it.

To my shame, and a history of willful ignoring by the world, I knew very little about the Haitian Revolution. I had never heard or read of the immense importance this small island played in ‘European affairs’. The other side? “The blacks were taking their part in the destruction of European feudalism begun by the French Revolution, and liberty and equality, the slogans of the revolution, meant far more to them than to any Frenchman.” [198] It makes the key point that to write of a colonial power in the absence of the influence of its colonies makes as little sense as to write of colonies without connecting that history to the struggles within the Colonial power. An insight still ignored by too many who split knowledge and importance, cause and effect, by geography. The slave trade and mercantilism connected the world and its events in ways rarely acknowledged with any depth.

James rarely rises above his text to make this point (or the others), he simply makes the connections in the way he writes history. This is a strength in terms of thinking through how history is studied, but frustrating also, as I wanted a bit more filling out of these more theoretical insights, and the ones that follow, but they must be pieced together.

He is a key thinker on race and colonialism, of course, and here we see him putting together how race was constructed, and it is clearly constructed in his account, and how race and class intersect. The first chapter is titled “The Property” followed by “The Owners”, beginning with the economic relationship of profit, but not ignoring the many factors at play in this complex society. On the class differences between the white settlers:

“This was the type for who race prejudice was more important than even the possession of slaves, of which they had few. The distinction between a white man and a man of colour was for them fundamental. It was their all. In defence of it they would bring down the whole of their world.” [34]

“The higher bureaucrats, cultivated Frenchmen, arrived in the island without prejudice; and looking for mass support used to help the Mulattoes a little. And mulattoes and big whites had a common bond — property. Once the revolution was well under way the big whites would have to choose between their allies of race and their allies of property. They would not hesitate long.” [44]

On the mulattoes and free blacks:

“In a slave society the mere possession of personal freedom is a valuable privilege … Behind all this elaborate tom-foolery of quarteron, sacatra and marabou, was the one dominating fact of San Domingo society — fear of the slaves” [38]

“The advantages of being white were so obvious that race prejudice against the Negroes permeated he minds of the Mulattoes who so bitterly resented the same thing from the whites [42-43]

Mulatto instability lies not in their blood but in their intermediate position in society. [207]

This was no question of colour, but crudely a question of class, for those blacks who were formerly free stuck to the Mulattoes. Persons of some substance and standing under the old regime, they looked upon the ex-slaves as essentially persons to be governed.” [166]

A sophisticated analysis of race and class and political expediency, the idea of whiteness as privilege and property, a tale of how racial categorisations and boundaries were devised and then cemented into place. So impressive. A final quote on race and revolution:

Political treachery is not a monopoly of the white race, and this abominable betrayal so soon after the insurrection shows that political leadership is a matter of programme, strategy and tactics, and not the colour of those who lead it, their oneness of origin with their people, nor the services they have rendered.” [106]

Unknown - NYPL Digital Gallery
Unknown – NYPL Digital Gallery

Of course, most of this book is about how Toussaint alone, ex-slave, genius, of inexhaustible physical stamina, and incarnation of the desire for freedom, could have led the struggle to end slavery.

Which leads into James’s thinking on revolution itself, and I suppose that’s where I break with him most. What I most fundamentally disagree with are statements like this, on Dessalines’ betrayal of a fellow commander to the French just before he rose up in rebellion:

“It was a treacherous crime, but it was not treachery to the revolution.” [346]

It’s the old question of ends and means of course, and so what I find most chilling is this combination of ends justifying the means with an emphasis put on individual leadership. But that’s always what I’ve found most chilling about Lenin and Trotsky.

This is activist history, which I much appreciate. I think it’s vital that radical history should interrogate what went wrong and what we can learn, which C.L.R. James does openly (again thinking through race as it intersects with class):

Criticism is not enough. What should Toussaint have done? A hundred and fifty years of history and the scientific study of revolution begun by Marx and Engels, and amplified by Lenin and Trotsky, justify us in pointing to an alternative course. [282]

It was in method and not in principle, that Toussaint failed. The race question is subsidiary to the class question in politics, and to think of imperialism in terms of race is disastrous. But to neglect the racial factor as merely incidental is an error only less grave than to make it fundamental. [283] … Whereas Lenin kept the party and the masses thoroughly aware of every step, and explained carefully the exact position of the bourgeois servants of the Workers’ State, Toussaint explained nothing, and allowed the masses to think that their old enemies were being favoured at their expense. … and to shoot Moise, the black, for the sake of the whites was more than an error, it was a crime.” [284]

Toussaint’s error in this description was that he lost touch with the masses, which was a tactical mistake. It was not his bid for power. James plays down the constitution that appointed Toussaint governor for life with the power to name his own successor with the curious phrase, “Constitutions are what they turn out to be…”

Jean-Jacques Dessalines
Jean-Jacques Dessalines

I suppose my own belief is that an individual will always go wrong, will always fail, will always make mistakes, will always be corrupted by power. This is a good portrait of a man who was undoubtedly most extraordinary, but I believe revolution has to be a collective activity to continue to be revolutionary. That seems to be just a political difference until you realise how little in this book there is about Dessalines or Moise or any of the other ex-slave leaders, what they thought and how they fought and how they worked together day in and day out with Toussaint (or not as the case was).

Of course, what I love about James is that he seems to be continuously interrogating his own orthodoxies and challenging his own statements, there’s a brilliant footnote on page 338 drawing parallels with a quote from George Lefebvre on the fact that we shall never know the real names of the leaders of the French Revolution, the ones who did most of the work and actually raised the masses far from the orations of the figureheads. James writes that “the tragedy of mass movements that they need and can only too rarely find adequate leadership.” [25], the question becomes what that leadership should look like and how it carries out its role.

My last caveat is just that James definitely seems to share some of the Western and white prejudice floating around, although more critical of it than most. He writes:

“It is probable that, looking at the wild hordes of blacks who surrounded him, his heart sank at the prospect of the war and the barbarism that would follow freedom…” [107]

Always he supports and rationalises Toussaint’s own defense, not to say courting, of the whites, his refusal to redistribute land or government position:

“It is Toussaint’s supreme merit that while he saw European
civilisation as a valuable and necessary thing, and strove to lay its foundations among his people, he never had the illusion that it conferred any moral superiority.” [271]

So again you see a very orthodox Marxist sense of civilisation as being European, the march of history in a material though not moral sense. The clear descriptions of not simply the amorality, but the true barbarism of the Europen slavo-owner, the stripping of that moral superiority is incredibly important however, and undeniably differentiates him from almost all other historians. I think there is plenty of places in the rest of the book where James arguably undercuts some of these same ideas on progress and civilisation as well to some extent.

A classic. Just a couple more choice quotes to end with, not because I necessarily agree with them, but because they are both punchy and provocative, and a final rumination on the character of Toussaint that I’m not quite sure I understand and am still pondering:

That calm confidence in its capacity to deceive is a mark of the mature ruling class. [294]

The rich are only defeated when running for their lives. [78]

But in a deeper sense the life and death are not truly tragic. Prometheus, Hamlet, Lear, Phedre, Ahab, assert what may be the permanent impulses of the human condition against the claims of organised society. They do this in the face of imminent or even certain destruction, and their defiance propels them to heights which make of their defeat a sacrifice which adds to our conception of human grandeur.

Toussaint is in a lesser category. His splendid powers do not rise but decline. Where formerly he was distinguished above all for his prompt and fearless estimate of whatever faced him, we shall see him…misjudging events and people, vacillating in principle…

The hamartia, the tragic flaw…was in Toussaint not a moral weakness. It was a specific error, a total miscalculation of the constituent events. [291]

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