|Accurate History often isn't pretty. 1863
photograph that became known as “The Scourged Back”’|
shows the whipping scars on Gordon, a former slave in Louisiana who escaped to Union lines.
For the record, I despise Kanye West. I hold his no-talent, constant self-promoting wife, Kim Kardashian in even lower regard. Typically, I avoid even commenting on them other than bitching about them to my husband when he has on Entertainment Tonight so that he can be current in the latest gossip among clients at the salon he owns. But Kanye West's batshitery about slavery being a "choice" set me off. Indeed, it's even more outrageous than the Christofascist meme that sexual orientation is a choice. Living in a former Confederate state and having lived in the South for the majority of my life, I am way past the point of giving a pass to bigots and/or idiots who refuse to face the ugly aspects of America's history. Kanye West, like far too many black pastors here in Virginia has allowed himself to be played for a fool by white story tellers who ultimately trace their roots back to proponents of the Jim Crow laws and "Massive Resistance" which closed public schools rather than integrate. The whole phenomenon underscores the need for a knowledge of true, accurate history (yes, I confess, I was a History major). An op-ed in the New York Times looks at the whitewashing of slavery - no pun intended - that has seemly suckered Kanye West, who I view as not the brightest bulb on the shelf. Here are excerpts:
A video of the rapper Kanye West discussing slavery is a sad reminder of America’s historical amnesia about the brutal realities of that institution. “When you hear about slavery for 400 years,” he said in the clip, which was widely circulated on Twitter, “that sounds like a choice.”Mr. West seemed to suggest that enslaved African-Americans were so content that they did not actively resist their bondage, and, as a result, they bear some responsibility for centuries of persecution.
He’s not alone in his thinking. In 2016, the former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly asserted that slaves were “well fed and had decent lodgings.” Last September, the Alabama senatorial candidate Roy Moore deemed the antebellum era the last great period in American history. “I think it was great at the time when families were united,” he declared. “Even though we had slavery, they cared for one another.”
Modern scholarship has debunked such whitewashing, accurately depicting slavery as an inhumane institution rooted in greed and the violent subjugation of millions of African-Americans.
Yet countless Americans have not learned these lessons. They cling, instead, to a romanticized interpretation of slavery, one indebted to a book published 100 years ago.
In the spring of 1918, the historian Ulrich Bonnell Phillips published his seminal study, “American Negro Slavery,” which framed the institution as a benevolent labor agreement between indulgent masters and happy slaves. No other book, no monument, no movie — save, perhaps, for “Gone With the Wind,” itself beholden to Phillips’s work — has been more influential in shaping how many Americans have viewed slavery.
After earning his doctorate in 1902, Phillips set out to correct the slanted picture of the Southern past that he believed prevailed at the time. “The history of the United States has been written by Boston and largely been written wrong,” he lamented. “It must be written anew before it reaches its final form of truth, and for that work, the South must do its part.”
Phillips certainly did his. During his 30-year career, he published nine books and close to 60 articles, earning a series of prestigious professorships that culminated in a “very flossy job,” as he put it, at Yale University. This 1930 appointment reflected his stature as the country’s leading historian of slavery and the South, as well as the influence of his most important book, “American Negro Slavery.”
Phillips found evidence in plantation records and Southern travelogues that bolstered the book’s benign interpretation of slavery, while downplaying evidence that did not. In his hands, plantations became idyllic sites where white families had modeled the habits of civilized life for their childlike black charges. “The plantations,” Phillips wrote, “were the best schools yet invented for the mass training of that sort of inert and backward people which the bulk of the American negroes represented.”
According to Phillips, slaveholders provided the enslaved with comfortable living quarters and plentiful rations and eschewed physical discipline. . . . Enslaved African-Americans, in turn, displayed gratitude and loyalty to their masters. Phillips concluded that, while slavery may have been economically inefficient, “the relations on both sides were felt to be based on pleasurable responsibility.”
In the words of the historian John David Smith, an expert on Phillips, the book served as “the definitive account of the peculiar institution” from World War I into the 1950s.
The book set the tone for the treatment of slavery in classrooms and textbooks across the country. “There was much to be said for slavery as a transition status between barbarism and civilization,” maintained a 1930 best seller, echoing Phillips almost verbatim. “The majority of slaves were … apparently happy.”
W.E.B. Du Bois wrote a scathing review of “American Negro Slavery,” observing, “It is a defense of American slavery, a defense of an institution which was at best a mistake and at worst a crime.” Drawing on interviews with ex-slaves, sources Phillips rejected, the historian Frederic Bancroft published a 1931 book that exploded Phillips’s misrepresentations of the domestic slave trade.
Phillips’s critics grew more vocal in the 1950s and 1960s, as a new generation of scholars challenged his benign reading of slavery and the racism that stained almost every page of “American Negro Slavery.”
According to a new Southern Poverty Law Center report on how slavery is taught in public schools, current pedagogy continues to focus on slavery from the perspective of whites, not the enslaved, while failing to connect the institution to the white supremacist beliefs that supported it. Textbooks often ignore slaveholders’ desire to make money and too easily slip into grammatical constructions — Africans “were brought” to America — that absolve enslavers of their actions.
We must confront mischaracterizations of the nature of slavery, whether nurtured in the classroom or broadcast on Twitter. After all, historical accuracy on this topic is not just about getting the past right; it is also about understanding the challenges of the present.
The persistence of racial inequality in America — from police brutality and school segregation to mass incarceration and wealth disparities — reflects, to some degree, the persistence of the Phillipsian take on slavery.
Very, very sad and disturbing. Even sadder that West, a black man, albeit a wealthy one, feel for this bashitery.