US History

2
Sep

By GEORGE YANCY
NYT Opinionator, Sept 1, 2012

I.

“Man, I almost blew you away!”

Those were the terrifying words of a white police officer — one of those who policed black bodies in low income areas in North Philadelphia in the late 1970s — who caught sight of me carrying the new telescope my mother had just purchased for me.

“I thought you had a weapon,” he said.

The words made me tremble and pause; I felt the sort of bodily stress and deep existential anguish that no teenager should have to endure.

This officer had already inherited those poisonous assumptions and bodily perceptual practices that make up what I call the “white gaze.” He had already come to “see” the black male body as different, deviant, ersatz. He failed to conceive, or perhaps could not conceive, that a black teenage boy living in the Richard Allen Project Homes for very low income families would own a telescope and enjoyed looking at the moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn.

A black boy carrying a telescope wasn’t conceivable — unless he had stolen it — given the white racist horizons within which my black body was policed as dangerous. To the officer, I was something (not someone) patently foolish, perhaps monstrous or even fictional. My telescope, for him, was a weapon.

In retrospect, I can see the headlines: “Black Boy Shot and Killed While Searching the Cosmos.”

That was more than 30 years ago. Only last week, our actual headlines were full of reflections on the 1963 March on Washington, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and President Obama’s own speech at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to commemorate it 50 years on. As the many accounts from that long ago day will tell you, much has changed for the better. But some things — those perhaps more deeply embedded in the American psyche — haven’t.  In fact, we should recall a speech given by Malcolm X in 1964 in which he said, “For the 20 million of us in America who are of African descent, it is not an American dream; it’s an American nightmare.”

II.

Despite the ringing tones of Obama’s Lincoln Memorial speech, I find myself still often thinking of a more informal and somber talk he gave. And despite the inspirational and ethical force of Dr. King and his work, I’m still thinking about someone who might be considered old news already: Trayvon Martin.

In his now much-quoted White House briefing several weeks ago, not long after the verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman, the president expressed his awareness of the ever-present danger of death for those who inhabit black bodies. “You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son,” he said. “Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.” I wait for the day when a white president will say, “There is no way that I could have experienced what Trayvon Martin did (and other black people do) because I’m white and through white privilege I am immune to systemic racial profiling.”

Obama also talked about how black men in this country know what it is like to be followed while shopping and how black men have had the experience of “walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars.” I have had this experience on many occasions as whites catch sight of me walking past their cars: Click, click, click, click. Those clicks can be deafening. There are times when I want to become their boogeyman. I want to pull open the car door and shout: “Surprise! You’ve just been car-jacked by a fantasy of your own creation. Now get out of the car.”

The president’s words, perhaps consigned to a long-ago news cycle now, remain powerful: they validate experiences that blacks have undergone in their everyday lives. Obama’s voice resonates with those philosophical voices (Frantz Fanon, for example) that have long attempted to describe the lived interiority of racial experiences. He has also deployed the power of narrative autobiography, which is a significant conceptual tool used insightfully by critical race theorists to discern the clarity and existential and social gravity of what it means to experience white racism. As a black president, he has given voice to the epistemic violence that blacks often face as they are stereotyped and profiled within the context of quotidian social spaces.

III.

David Hume claimed that to be black was to be “like a parrot who speaks a few words plainly.” And Immanuel Kant maintained that to be “black from head to foot” was “clear proof” that what any black person says is stupid. In his “Notes on Virginia,” Thomas Jefferson wrote: “In imagination they [Negroes] are dull, tasteless and anomalous,” and inferior. In the first American Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1798), the term “Negro” was defined as someone who is cruel, impudent, revengeful, treacherous, nasty, idle, dishonest, a liar and given to stealing.

My point here is to say that the white gaze is global and historically mobile. And its origins, while from Europe, are deeply seated in the making of America.

Black bodies in America continue to be reduced to their surfaces and to stereotypes that are constricting and false, that often force those black bodies to move through social spaces in ways that put white people at ease. We fear that our black bodies incite an accusation. We move in ways that help us to survive the procrustean gazes of white people. We dread that those who see us might feel the irrational fear to stand their ground rather than “finding common ground,” a reference that was made by Bernice King as she spoke about the legacy of her father at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

The white gaze is also hegemonic, historically grounded in material relations of white power: it was deemed disrespectful for a black person to violate the white gaze by looking directly into the eyes of someone white. The white gaze is also ethically solipsistic: within it only whites have the capacity of making valid moral judgments.

Even with the unprecedented White House briefing, our national discourse regarding Trayvon Martin and questions of race have failed to produce a critical and historically conscious discourse that sheds light on what it means to be black in an anti-black America. If historical precedent says anything, this failure will only continue. Trayvon Martin, like so many black boys and men, was under surveillance (etymologically, “to keep watch”). Little did he know that on Feb. 26, 2012, that he would enter a space of social control and bodily policing, a kind of Benthamian panoptic nightmare that would truncate his being as suspicious; a space where he was, paradoxically, both invisible and yet hypervisible.

“I am invisible, understand, simply because people [in this case white people] refuse to see me.” Trayvon was invisible to Zimmerman, he was not seen as the black child that he was, trying to make it back home with Skittles and an iced tea. He was not seen as having done nothing wrong, as one who dreams and hopes.

As black, Trayvon was already known and rendered invisible. His childhood and humanity were already criminalized as part of a white racist narrative about black male bodies. Trayvon needed no introduction: “Look, the black; the criminal!”

IV.

Many have argued that the site of violence occurred upon the confrontation between Trayvon and Zimmerman. Yet, the violence began with Zimmerman’s non-emergency dispatch call, a call that was racially assaultive in its discourse, one that used the tropes of anti-black racism. Note, Zimmerman said, “There’s a real suspicious guy.” He also said, “This guy looks like he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs or something.” When asked by the dispatcher, he said, within seconds, that, “He looks black.” Asked what he is wearing, Zimmerman says, “A dark hoodie, like a gray hoodie.” Later, Zimmerman said that “now he’s coming toward me. He’s got his hands in his waist band.” And then, “And he’s a black male.” But what does it mean to be “a real suspicious guy”? What does it mean to look like one is “up to no good”? Zimmerman does not give any details, nothing to buttress the validity of his narration. Keep in mind that Zimmerman is in his vehicle as he provides his narration to the dispatcher. As “the looker,” it is not Zimmerman who is in danger; rather, it is Trayvon Martin, “the looked at,” who is the target of suspicion and possible violence.

After all, it is Trayvon Martin who is wearing the hoodie, a piece of “racialized” attire that apparently signifies black criminality. Zimmerman later said: “Something’s wrong with him. Yep, he’s coming to check me out,” and, “He’s got something in his hands.” Zimmerman also said, “I don’t know what his deal is.” A black young male with “something” in his hands, wearing a hoodie, looking suspicious, and perhaps on drugs, and there being “something wrong with him,” is a racist narrative of fear and frenzy. The history of white supremacy underwrites this interpretation. Within this context of discursive violence, Zimmerman was guilty of an act of aggression against Trayvon Martin, even before the trigger was pulled. Before his physical death, Trayvon Martin was rendered “socially dead” under the weight of Zimmerman’s racist stereotypes. Zimmerman’s aggression was enacted through his gaze, through the act of profiling, through his discourse and through his warped reconstruction of an innocent black boy that instigates white fear.

V.

What does it say about America when to be black is the ontological crime, a crime of simply being?

Perhaps the religious studies scholar Bill Hart is correct: “To be a black man is to be marked for death.” Or as the political philosopher Joy James argues, “Blackness as evil [is] destined for eradication.” Perhaps this is why when writing about the death of his young black son, the social theorist W.E.B. Du Bois said, “All that day and all that night there sat an awful gladness in my heart —  nay, blame me not if I see the world thus darkly through the Veil — and my soul whispers ever to me saying, ‘Not dead, not dead, but escaped; not bond, but free.’ ”

Trayvon Martin was killed walking while black. As the protector of all things “gated,” of all things standing on the precipice of being endangered by black male bodies, Zimmerman created the conditions upon which he had no grounds to stand on. Indeed, through his racist stereotypes and his pursuit of Trayvon, he created the conditions that belied the applicability of the stand your ground law and created a situation where Trayvon was killed. This is the narrative that ought to have been told by the attorneys for the family of Trayvon Martin. It is part of the narrative that Obama brilliantly told, one of black bodies being racially policed and having suffered a unique history of racist vitriol in this country.

Yet it is one that is perhaps too late, one already rendered mute and inconsequential by the verdict of “not guilty.”

George Yancy is a professor of philosophy at Duquesne University. He has authored, edited and co-edited 17 books, including “Black Bodies, White Gazes,” “Look, a White!” and (co-edited with Janine Jones) “Pursuing Trayvon Martin.”

Category : Culture | Hegemony | Racism | US History | Blog
30
Aug

BOOK REVIEW: Two Volume study shows how the ‘White Race’ was invented, racial slavery became established in colonial America, and the consequences for working class organizing in the USA

By Sean Ahern

Via Substance News,  August 28, 2013

“I ask indulgence for only one assumption, namely that while some people may desire to be masters, all persons are born equally unwilling and unsuited to be slaves.” –The Invention of the White Race (I, 1).

BOOK REVIEW: Review of The Invention of the White Race, Volume I: Racial Oppression and Social Control and Volume II: The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo America by Theodore William Allen (1994, 1997, New Expanded Edition, Verso 2012)

 The "White Race" was invented by colonial slave owners in order to thwart the alliance between British, Scottish and Irish and African indentured servants. The first big division say black skin as dooming a man to lifetime servitude, while "White" servants could be "free" after usually 21 years. As the centuries passed, the privileges of white working people, meager as they were, were often enough to head off any alliances against slavery — or later, in the South especially, against industrial and then finance capitalism.

Introduction

Theodore W. Allen’s ‘The Invention of the White Race’ (2 Vols., I: Racial Oppression and Social Control and II: The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America), has been recognized by increasing numbers of scholars and activists as a seminal work since it was first published by Verso Books in the 1990s. The second edition offers a number of entry points and is designed to attract a broader audience. It features an expanded index, an internal study guide, a selected bibliography and a biographical sketch of the author all prepared by Jeffrey B. Perry, Allen’s literary executor and author of the acclaimed Hubert Harrison The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918, and editor of A Hubert Harrison Reader. The Invention of the White Race is a scrupulously documented, fairly argued, and profoundly radical history. Given the central place that race occupies in the corporate assault on public education and teacher unions, it will be of particular interest to readers of Substance, educators, students and working people interested in understanding the role of white supremacism and the white identity in the defeat of popular movements in our nation’s history. It contains the root of a general theory of United States history and the basis for a revolution in US labor history and in social history. Students of African American history, political economy, Irish American history, gender studies and colonial history will find in Allen’s work much of interest to recommend. For those considering the projected impact of demographic change in the 21st century, The Invention offers a lens through which to assess how the “white race” was invented and reinvented in the past and the ways in which ruling class-interests may seek to adjust, adapt or reinvent it in the present. After 300 years of functioning as a ruling class social control buffer, the US bourgeoisie will not, in this writer’s opinion, willingly abandon its tried and trusted guardian, the so called “white race.”

Genesis of the thesis

 Theodore Allen.Allen’s view of the history of class struggle in the U.S. was radically altered by his reading of W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in the early1960′s. Dubois described Black Reconstruction as a “normal working class movement, successful to an unusual degree, despite all disappointments and failures.” Its final defeat was due to “the race philosophy” of white supremacy, which made labor-unity or labor class-consciousness impossible. Together with Esther Kusic, to whom the Invention is dedicated, Allen developed a new approach that placed the struggle against white supremacy and the white skin privilege system at the center of a strategy for proletarian revolution in the US.

Two quotations from Black Reconstruction identify key sparks of insight that eventually led Allen to write The Invention of the White Race:

“The south, after the war [Civil War], presented the greatest opportunity for a real national labor movement which the nation ever saw or is likely to see for many decades. Yet the labor movement, with but few exceptions, never realized the situation. It never had the intelligence or knowledge, as a whole, to see in black slavery and reconstruction, the kernel and meaning of the labor movement in the United States.” [emphasis added]

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Category : Marxism | Racism | US History | Working Class | Blog
1
Aug

By Bob Wing*

___________________________________________________________

*Bob Wing has been a social justice organizer and writer since 1968. He was the founding editor of ColorLines magazine and War Times newspaper. Bob lives in Durham, NC and can be contacted through Facebook. Special thanks to my lifelong colleagues Max Elbaum and Linda Burnham and to Jon Liss, Lynn Koh, Carl Davidson, Ajamu Dillahunt, Raymond Eurquhart and Bill Fletcher, Jr. for their comments, critiques and suggestions.

_________________________________________________________

August 1, 2013 – The heartless combination of the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act, the House Republicans flatly shunning the immigration bill and the Trayvon Martin outrage should be a wake up call about the grave dangers posed by the far right and may give rise to a renewed motion among African Americans that could give much needed new impetus and political focus to the progressive movement.

The negative policies and missteps of the Obama administration are often the target of progressive fire, and rightly so. But these take place in the context of (and are sometimes caused by) an extremely perilous development in U.S. politics: an alliance of energized rightwing populists with the most reactionary sector of Big Business has captured the Republican Party with “the unabashed ambition to reverse decades of economic and social policy by any means necessary.” (1)

The GOP is in all-out nullificationist mode, rejecting any federal laws with which they disagree. They are using their power in the judiciary and Congress to block passage or implementation of anything they find distasteful at the federal level. And under the radar the Republicans are rapidly implementing a far flung rightwing program in the 28 states they currently control. They have embarked on an unprecedented overhaul of government on behalf of the one percent and against all sectors of the poor and much of the working and middle classes, undermining the rights of all.

The main precedent in U.S. history for this kind of unbridled reactionary behavior was the states rights, pro-slavery position of the white South leading up to the Civil War. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called out the attempts at nullification in his famous “I Have a Dream Speech,” and the movement of the sixties defeated it. As shown in the ultra-conservative playground that is the North Carolina legislature, the new laws and structures of today’s rightwing program are so extreme and in such stark contrast to the rest of the country that I believe both their strategy and their program should be called “Neo-Secession.”

This nullification and neo-secession must be met by a renewed motion for freedom and social justice. The great scholar-activist Manning Marable, the leader of the powerful fightback in North Carolina NAACP President Rev. William Barber II, MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry and others have called for a Third Reconstruction that builds on the post-Civil War first Reconstruction and the Civil Rights/Second Reconstruction. (2)

We are now at a pivotal point in this fight. The battlelines are drawn: Reactionary Nullification and Neo-Secession or Third Reconstruction?

Like the first secession, this second neo-secession is centered in the South even though it is a national movement with unusual strength in the upper Rocky Mountain and plains states in addition to the South. (3) Similarly racism, especially anti-Black racism, lies at its foundation even as the rightwing assaults all democratic, women’s, immigrant and labor rights, social and environmental programs. Progressives in the South are rising to the challenge. But, deplorably, most Democrats, unions, progressives and social justice forces barely have the South on their radar and rarely invest in it. This must change, and change rapidly.

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Category : Elections | Fascism | Racism | Strategy and Tactics | US History | Blog
27
Mar

By Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Monthly Review

We were like Custer. We were surrounded.

—Sgt. James J. Riley explaining why he ordered surrender in an engagement in Nasiriyah, Iraq on March 23, 2003. 1

At the onset of the U.S. military invasion of Iraq, Senator Robert Byrd emotionally queried: “What is happening to this country? When did we become a nation which ignores and berates our friends? When did we decide to risk undermining international order by adopting a radical and doctrinaire approach to using our awesome military might? How can we abandon diplomacy when the turmoil in the world cries out for diplomacy?”

As a historian, I would have to respond to Senator Byrd that 1776 or thereabouts was when. Many admirable U.S. anti-imperialists have been making the same point as Senator Byrd. An erasure of history is at the heart of some of the most anti-imperialist critiques of the Bush administration’s foreign policy. Continuity is hidden, and a small departure is exaggerated. From Gore Vidal to Manning Marable to Michael Moore “lost democracy” is a refrain. Edward Said writes: “The doctrine of military pre-emption was never voted on by the American people or their representatives… It seems so monumentally criminal that important words like democracy and freedom have been hijacked, used as a mask for pillage, taking over territory and settling scores.” Said ends his essay by, correctly, stating: “Bush looks like a cowboy.”2

That observation is also common to critics of the war around the world. Although it is meant to be understood as a bad thing, in fact, the cowboy is not a negative metaphor for many U.S. citizens, particularly those who are descendants of the old settler class, as are the majority of the ruling class and officers of the military. How many generations of children now have grown up gleefully playing cowboys and Indians?

Perhaps the fact that I grew up as a child of a cowboy father and Indian mother narrows my view of this metaphor, making it loom too large and out of perspective. Then again, maybe that experience brings with it some insider knowledge.

The Rise of White Supremacy and Imperialism/Capitalism

To allow no dissent from the truth was exactly the reason they had come to America.3

Are your garments spotless?Are they white as snow?

Are they washed in the blood of the lamb?

As this traditional evangelical Christian hymn suggests, whiteness as an ideology is far more complex than mere skin color, although skin color has been and continues to be a key component of racism within the United States. The origins of white supremacy as it is now experienced and institutionalized—and denied—in the United States (and, due to colonialism and imperialism, throughout the world) can be traced to the prior colonizing ventures of Christian Crusades into Muslim-controlled territories, and to the Calvinist Protestant colonization of Ireland. These were the models for the colonization of the Western Hemisphere, and are the two strands that merge in the genetic makeup of U.S. society.

The Christian Crusades against Islam/Africa gave birth to the law of limpieza de sangre, cleanliness of blood, which the Spanish Inquisition was mandated to investigate and determine. The Christian Crusades, particularly the Castilian conquest of the Iberian Peninsula and expulsion of Jews and Muslims, created the seed ideology and institutions for modern colonialism with its necessary tools—racist ideology and justification for genocide. The law of limpieza de sangre was perhaps the most important cargo on the 1492 voyage of Christopher Columbus, sailing under the flag of Spain.

Great Britain emerged as an overseas colonial power a century later than Spain, and absorbed aspects of the Spanish caste system into its colonialist rationalizations, particularly regarding African slavery, within the context of chosen people/New Jerusalem Calvinism and Puritanism.

In the pre-formation of the United States, Puritanism and Calvinist Protestantism uniquely refined white supremacy as a political/religious ideology (a covenant with God) requiring the shedding of white blood for purification. The Ulster-Scots Calvinists were the settler/colonizers of Northern Ireland and constituted a majority of settlers in the western lands over the Appalachian/Allegheny spine of English North America. Their origin story became the origin story of the United States. It tells of pilgrim/settlers doing God’s will and forging into the promised land, being surrounded by savages, and killing the heathen (first the Irish in Ulster, then the Native Americans in North America). Thereby, the sacrifice and blood shed is perceived as proof of the sanctity and purity of the nation itself. All the descendants of those who made such sacrifices are the true inheritors of the land.

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Category : Capitalism | Racism | US History | Blog
18
Mar

Legacies of the Musical Cultural Front:

Robeson, Guthrie, and Seeger [1]

By Harry Targ
Purdue University

This paper was a presentation at “Woody at 100: Woody Guthrie’s Legacy to Working Men and Women”, a conferences at Penn State University, September 8-9, 2012 [2]

Introduction

Several key concepts in the Marxian tradition influenced the consciousness and political practice of Paul Robeson, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger. First, all three were historical and dialectical materialists. They conceived of the socio-economic condition of people’s lives as fundamental to the shaping of their activities and consciousness. They were historical materialists in that they understood that the material conditions of people’s lives changed as the economic system in which they lived changed. And they were dialectical in that they were sensitive to the contradictory character of human existence.

Second, class as the fundamental conceptual tool for examining a society shaped their thinking. Increasingly they realized that class struggle was a fundamental force for social change. Given the American historical context they saw that class and race were inextricably interconnected.

Third, all three addressed a theory of imperialism which they regarded as critical to understanding international relations. Living in an age of colonialism and neo-colonialism all three performer/activists, but particularly Paul Robeson, saw imperialism as a central structural feature  of relations between nations, peoples and classes. They were inspired by those resisting the yoke of foreign domination.

Fourth, Robeson, Guthrie, and Seeger saw that community, harmony, and socialism would represent the next stage of societal development. They believed that the vision of socialism had the potential for improving the quality of life of humankind. Robeson’s experiences in the Soviet Union led him to a greater degree to regard the experience of existing socialist states as free of the kind of racism endemic to the United States.

Fifth, Robeson, Guthrie, and Seeger emphasized the connection between theory and practice. Each artist in his own way articulated what Robeson proclaimed in 1937 in the context of supporting the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War that every artist must take a stand. The artist (i.e., the intellectual) must act in the context of a world of exploitation. One was either on the side of the ongoing oppressive order or on the side of change.

Armed with these insights, the three folk artist/activists discussed below committed themselves to action; action grounded in the struggles of their day. In Gramsci’s terms, they were organic intellectuals. They joined anti-racist, anti-colonial, labor and peace struggles. They walked picket lines, entertained Spanish Civil War loyalists, striking workers and other protesters, and sought to lend support to international socialist solidarity. Being an organic intellectual in the 1930s and 40s, and in the case of Pete Seeger the 1940s and beyond, meant participating in what Michael Denning called “the cultural front.” The ambience of the CIO, the Communist movement, civil rights and anti-war struggles, and building the New Deal provided the social forces out of which Robeson, Guthrie, and Seeger could thrive and grow.  The three,–Robeson, Guthrie, and Seeger–artists and activists, were both agents and products of Marxist ideas engaged in practical political work as organic intellectuals participating in a broad cultural front.

Each artist/activist projected an image of human oneness. They saw the connections between the defense of democracy in Spain and the U.S. South and the necessity of building a peaceful and democratic post-World War II order to achieve justice for the working classes of all lands.  Robeson’s consciousness was shaped by the vision of a common pentagonal chord structure in the world’s folk music; a metaphor that privileges difference and unity. The musical visions of Guthrie and Seeger celebrated what was common in the human experience as well.

In sum, the remarks below address the implicit Marxist lens that shaped the consciousness and behavior of three giants-Paul Robeson, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger. It addresses how their artistic and political work was shaped by and shaped the social movements of the period from the 1930s to the present. It draws upon cultural theory, particularly Michael Denning’s idea of a multilayered “cultural front.” And it links the theory, practice and context to the political strategy of the “popular front.”

Finally, the paper suggests that the theory and practice of Robeson, Guthrie, and Seeger represent a model for building contemporary mass movements in the face of economic and political crises. Over the past two years the world has seen mass mobilizations against dictatorship in Middle Eastern regimes; emerging new socialist forces in France, the Netherlands, and Denmark; mass movements against wars on workers, women, and minorities in the United States; and the emergence of grassroots mobilizations, particularly the Occupy Movement, all across the North American continent. The framework of struggle-the 99 percent versus the one percent-while not expressly Marxist, can have the same animating effect on workers, youth, minorities, and women, that the songs of Robeson, Guthrie, and Seeger did from the 1930s to the present time.

Marxist Ideas: Historical and Dialectical Materialism

Marxist analysis begins with the presupposition that humans create the conditions for the production and reproduction of life. These involve the satisfaction of basic needs. To do so requires the organization of production: of human labor, technology, science, and society. “This connection is ever taking on new forms, and thus presents a ‘history’ independently of the existence of any political or religious nonsense which in addition may hold men together.” [3]

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Category : Culture | Hegemony | US History | Working Class | Blog
24
Feb

The Shocking Savagery of America’s Early History

Bernard Bailyn, one of our greatest historians, shines his light on the nation’s Dark Ages

By Ron Rosenbaum
Smithsonian magazine, March 2013

It’s all a bit of a blur, isn’t it? That little-remembered century—1600 to 1700—that began with the founding (and foundering) of the first permanent English settlement in America, the one called Jamestown, whose endemic perils portended failure for the dream of a New World. The century that saw all the disease-ridden, barely civilized successors to Jamestown slaughtering and getting slaughtered by the Original Inhabitants, hanging on by their fingernails to some fetid coastal swampland until Pocahontas saved Thanksgiving. No, that’s not right, is it? I said it was a blur.

Enter Bernard Bailyn, the greatest historian of early America alive today. Now over 90 and ensconced at Harvard for more than six decades, Bailyn has recently published another one of his epoch-making grand narrative syntheses, The Barbarous Years, casting a light on the darkness, filling in the blank canvas with what he’s gleaned from what seems like every last scrap of crumbling diary page, every surviving chattel slave receipt and ship’s passenger manifest of the living and dead, every fearful sermon about the Antichrist that survived in the blackened embers of the burned-out churches.

Bailyn has not painted a pretty picture. Little wonder he calls it The Barbarous Years and spares us no details of the terror, desperation, degradation and widespread torture—do you really know what being “flayed alive” means? (The skin is torn from the face and head and the prisoner is disemboweled while still alive.) And yet somehow amid the merciless massacres were elements that gave birth to the rudiments of civilization—or in Bailyn’s evocative phrase, the fragile “integument of civility”—that would evolve 100 years later into a virtual Renaissance culture, a bustling string of self-governing, self-sufficient, defiantly expansionist colonies alive with an increasingly sophisticated and literate political and intellectual culture that would coalesce into the rationale for the birth of American independence. All the while shaping, and sometimes misshaping, the American character. It’s a grand drama in which the glimmers of enlightenment barely survive the savagery, what Yeats called “the blood-dimmed tide,” the brutal establishment of slavery, the race wars with the original inhabitants that Bailyn is not afraid to call “genocidal,” the full, horrifying details of which have virtually been erased.

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Category : Racism | US History | Blog