There is a push by both liberal and conservative white circles to reimagine – and now, to rewrite – the devastating effects that slavery had on the Black family unit. I first became aware of this trend (one that is part of a larger effort to whitewash horrors of the Trans Atlantic slave trade) when a University of Tennessee student named Kayla Parke posted a Facebook live rebuttal to the assertion that Black families held in bondage were led by two parent families. In a quiz administered by now retired (or fired, depending on who you ask) professor Judy Morelock, the ONLY question regarding slavery asked, “Historical research on African-American families during slavery shows that…”
Parker answered “C”: “Black family bonds were destroyed by the abuses of slave owners, who regularly sold off family members to other slave owners.” Professor Morelock marked the answer as wrong, stating that the correct answer – according to ‘research’ revealed that the correct answer was D: Most slave families were headed by two parents.
Anyone who’s read slave narratives published the Federal Writers Project, or read Frederick Douglass’ account of his years spent in bondage (from which he eventually escaped), or read Booker T. Washington’s ‘Up From Slavery’, or hell, spent time talking to an auntie over the age of 70, you’d know that answer D on this multiple choice quiz was some mayonnaise slathered BULL. It is not unlike that time McGraw-Hill referred to African American slaves as “workers” under its 9th grade textbook discussing patterns of migration.
To refer to a person restrained by the bonds of generational chattel slavery as a ‘worker’ gives room to reimagine that that person had rights and more importantly the capacity to decide whether or not he/she put their efforts towards labor. The word “worker” allows the student to imagine that the laborer had the freedom to determine the conditions under which they worked. None of this was the case. Slaves – human property – were roused for work well before the sun came up and toiled until long after the sun went down. They were not “immigrants”…they were people kidnapped from their native lands and forcibly displaced across the Atlantic. To call an African slave an immigrant is about as accurate as referring to the Trail of Tears a cross-country marathon.
And yet, adherence to these sorts of historical inaccuracies (read: lies) is what separates students from a passing grade and possibly, graduation.
A quick search on slavery’s effects on the strength of familial bonds and how the institution and Jim Crow contributed to the creation of a welfare state will yield some interesting results. I came across at least five right-wing outlets (none of which will I link on my blog) that advance the idea that the institution of slavery honored and fostered strong filial bonds among African Americans and that surge in single parent households is largely due to misguided liberal policies. Did FDR’s New Deal have unforeseen consequences for the poor and Negro populations? Absolutely. But to place blame for the plight of the African American family today solely at the feet of Democrats is ludicrous and disingenuous. The institutions and laws that have contributed to the erosion of the Black family are not linear and are tentacular in nature.
So why this push by the white majority to repaint the scarred image left on the Black family by slavery? The question is rhetorical, of course. History shows Europeans as the conquering victors over almost everywhere they invaded (Ethiopia a noted exception), but it also reveals them to be inhumane barbarians who meted out unspeakable human rights atrocities during their conquests. This truth flies in the face of the romance that white people have told themselves and sold to the people that they’ve dominated over the centuries in the process. ‘Whiteness’ equates to purity, goodness, niceness, heroism and holiness. How therefore could one be white and then separate a child from his mother at the auction block and then go home to nurture one’s own children? How is that goodness? How could one rape a woman while her husband stands helpless outside, privy to every agonizing moment of the attack and still deign to call oneself heroic?
Said George Wallace in his first inaugural speech as Governor of Alabama,
“It is very appropriate that from this cradle of the Confederacy, this very heart of the great Anglo-Saxon Southland, that today we sound the drum for freedom as have our generations of forebears before us time and again down through history. Let us rise to the call for freedom-loving blood that is in us and send our answer to the tyranny that clanks its chains upon the South. In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.”
Notice the language. Southerners, Anglo-Saxon southerners in particular, are referred to as the greatest people that have ever trod the earth. This is a theme that repeats itself throughout the teaching of white history. Let us not forget that President Woodrow Wilson – a staunch supporter of the Ku Klux Klan – referred to the portrayal of completely fictional events in the film The Birth of a Nation as historical fact. Said Wilson, “It is like writing history with lightning.” In the film, Black men were portrayed as lascivious, rape-driven brutes while their white, male Klan counterparts were genteel and valiant. The thousands of unprovoked and documents lynchings, church burnings and rapes of African Americans do not reconcile this portrayal.
Of course, it is easier to deny that any of this ever took place and to rather craft a story that suits the agenda of the oppressor. This tactic is one well adopted by cowards who are unable and unwilling to face the gravity of the sins of their forebears, sins that have benefited them socially and financially. Thomas Jefferson, master of Monticello bears this out. Historians have described him as a man ‘trapped’ in the system of slavery, however any ambivalence he was feeling about the institution and his role in it was soon tucked away in the wake of the exorbitant profits he made as the owner and driver of human chattel. In his book ‘Notes on the State of Virginia’ he says:
Jefferson, a respected statesman and businessman was a revered subject matter expert in his day. His notions about race and observations about human behavior helped inform and shape the future of slavery in the antebellum South. He has been credited with conjuring the idea of the African as both superhuman and subhuman, as a being that is power but whose power is a danger unto himself if not contained and controlled. The Black slave is ‘helpless’ in this way, and it is the white man’s burden to ‘guide’ the African. Jefferson needed to believe this to justify his role as jailer to several generations of families. The language of this narrative may have changed today, but idea remains the same. (See Donald Trump and his repeated references to Law and Order on the campaign trail.)
The white need to believe that slavery did not destroy the familial bonds of an entire population of people who did not request residence in the United States is understandable. The moral obligations to repair what was lost are heavy and the spiritual ones more so. And so it becomes imperative for a professor like Judy Morelock to refer to Frederick Douglass as an “articulate man” when confronted with the reality that he was separated from his mother in his infancy and only saw her 4 or 5 times thereafter than to deal with the meat of that real trauma. The casual observances of a privileged white male concerning disparity and injustice in America carry more weight than the testimonies of those who have had to endure. Because again, in whiteness there is imputed truth and honesty, whereas people of color have the burden of proving that truth. It’s easier to dismiss the anecdotal evidence from slave narratives about husband and wife discovering that they are brother and sister precisely because their parent(s) were sold away to another plantation and they grew up with little-to-no knowledge about their genealogy. Its easier to pretend that the Vagrancy Act of 1866 did not exist because African Americans were desperate in their search for displaced families following the Civil War, but rather because Black people are given to idleness and truancy. And then of course, there is my personal favorite from America’s newest Secretary of Education, Betsy Devos, who must’ve been in a coma during conversations about Plessy vs Ferguson and the unique challenges children of color have faced in education from Reconstruction to 3 o’clock this afternoon.
In a White House statement to HBCU presidents, she says: “HBCUs are real pioneers when it comes to school choice. They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality. Their success has shown that more options help students flourish.”
She’s exactly right.
…And then Ma and Pa left the plantation with their earnings from agricultural work and paid out of pocket for the tuition(s) of their 2.5 kids (family planning y’all!) without ever having had to take out a student loan. And then the Daughters of the Confederacy served everyone tea. (Insert quip about white lies here.)