Saturday, April 29, 2017

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2017, April 29: Antislavery and white racism

In this year's "Heritage" posts, my annual counter-observance of Confederate "Heritage" Month celebrated by neo-Confederates and still officially commemorated by a few states in the form of Confederate History Month, I've talked about the diverse attitudes about race among antislavery advocates. Including that of the famous Southern antislavery figure, Hinton Rowan Helper (1829-1909).

Jeffrey Brooke Allen makes some helpful distinctions among various white racist perspectives and actions in The Racial Thought of White North Carolina Opponents of Slavery, 1789-1876 North Carolina Historical Review 59:1 (Jan 1982):

Another key term, "racism," will be used interchangeably with the expression "ideological racism." "Racism" will refer to the belief that one or more racial groups is inherently and therefore permanently inferior to another group in terms of mental capacities and moral tendencies. "Social environmentalism," "environmentalism," and "antiracism" will each be used to indicate the contrary belief that racial inferiority is only apparent and is attributable not to biological inheritance but to an unfavorable social environment characterized by racial prejudice and discrimination. "Racial prejudice" will refer to feelings of contempt or aversion, especially aversion for physical or sexual contact between the races. Finally, "racial discrimination" will be used to indicate actions that are designed to affect members of a particular racial group adversely precisely because they belong to that group.
Any delimiting categories like this on some complex and messy a subject as white racism will inevitably by a little ragged around the edges. But they are helpful in looking at early American and antebellum racial ideas and practices in the US, not least because the ideology of scientific racism really began to flourish only in the early 19th century, although it had distinct roots in Enlightenment ideas of "civilization," identified with western Europeans.

Helper is a prime exhibit for the complex relationship of antislavery advocacy and white racial attitudes.

Henry Wilson (1812-1875) rightly describes the perspective taken in Helper's most famous book, History of the rise and fall of the slave power in America, Vol 2 (3rd edition, 1876). Here he's describing an anti-Helper resolution proposed in Congress in 1859:

This stormy debate was introduced by a singular resolution, offered by John B. Clark of Missouri, to the effect that the doctrines of a book just published, written by Hinton R. Helper of North Carolina, and styled "The Impending Crisis of the South," were insurrectionary and hostile to the domestic tranquillity [sic] of the country; and that no member who had indorsed [sic] it was fit to be Speaker. The impertinence of that intrusive measure was indicated, not simply by its conflict with freedom of speech and action, but by the fact that the book condemned was not distinctively an abolition work, but was written not so much in the interest of the black as of the white population, for prudential rather than philanthropic reasons, more in behalf of the master than the slave, and more to help the non-slaveholding whites than either. A compendium, prepared for general circulation, had received the recommendation of a paper signed by nearly seventy members of the House of Representatives, and by such men as Horace Greeley, William C. Bryant, Thurlow Weed, and John Jay. The special point of the resolution was directed to the fact that Mr. Sherman, one of the candidates for the speakership, was among these signers ; and the demand was made by the mover that his name should be withdrawn. [my emphasis]
Allen gives an example of a Southern critic of slavery who argued for some kind of basic equality among blacks and whites:

Another early white critic of slavery who believed that blacks were good "from nature" was James O'Kelly, initially a friend and colleague of James Meacbam in the Methodist Episcopal church and later a founder of the Christian church. Like Meacham, O'Kelly was born in Virginia, but his ministerial circuit included parts of North Carolina, the state in which be settled in the 1790s and in which he spent the remaining thirty years of his life. In 1789 O'Kelly published an Essay on Negro Slavery, a bitter indictment that ignored the disadvantages slavery held for white people and assailed the institution for its cruelty to black people. Citing the biblical injunction that God made all men of 'one blood, O'Kelly repeatedly attacked racist denunciations of black people and explained their apparent shortcomings in patently environmentalistic terms. Confronting charges that blacks were by nature lazy, ignorant, and criminal, O'Kelly proclaimed that blacks labored indifferently only because slavery gave them no inducement to industry or hard work. "As for their ignorance," he reminded his readers, "it is surely your shame and sin, that they have received so shocking an education." "Your children," he continued, "would have been as foolish, bad they been raised after the same manner. Disgrace and want have brought them to be thieves." Turning to the argument that black women were inherently lascivious, O'Kelly observed that when African females were first crowded on the slave ships, they heroically resisted the blandishments of white males, only to fail and be "exposed to the brutish, filthy sailors." By no means natural slaves, many Africans had escaped the "brutish" sailors and "leaped into the friendly sea ... choosing strangling and death rather than the dreadful life of slavery!"
This is important in showing that there were whites who explicitly advocated for the equality of blacks and whites.

Although here's where Allen's distinctions among types of white racism quoted above are also important. Abstract expressions of equality could be sharply stated and even sincerely so, without those expressions leading to advocacy or practice of full equality toward black men and women. We see classic examples of that from the Declaration of Independence to the Lincoln-Douglas debates to Republicans today declaring their pristine lack of white racism while making minority voter suppression a key element of their electoral strategy.

But that doesn't mean their were any the less serious about their antislavery ideas and convictions. This is why it's so important to avoid projecting the predominant narratives on race in the present onto antebellum debates over slavery. Slavery and antislavery were complicated.

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