At the same time as the election of Barak Obama, in GCSE history we are covering race relations in the United States 1929-90. I’ve never taught this in an American school, but imagine the approach of the syllabus would be roughly the same. We look at the KKK, lynchings, Jim Crow laws, the effect of the Depression on blacks, segregation in the Second World War, Brown v. Board of Education, Little Rock, Ole Miss, Rosa Parks, MLK, and the key events of the Civil Rights Movement. The key idea is that white people, especially but exclusively Southern white people, hated black people (though we aren’t authorised to cover that they were only called “black” for a brief moment in time in the shifting language from Colored to Negro to black to Africa-American). Whites were mean and evil to them, but somehow the black people passively resisted all the white people and eventually Barak Obama was elected. That last bit falls outside the time period, but it is too good to not mention.
I was commenting on another blog about the relationship between Obama and the legacy of slavery, an institution which the blog owner referred to as an atrocity, saying the same thing I told my students when introducing the background of slavery in the US: we have to be careful in imposing the values of the present day upon the past. People in the mid-19th century lived within a completely different frame of reference. It is very possible that people living 130 years from now will be tempted to condemn aspects of the present day which we cannot imagine would be any other way.
C.S. Lewis says as much in his well-known introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation:
Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook – even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united – united with each other and against earlier and later ages – by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century – the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?” – lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth.
Thus I think about my cousin Melba. Melba was my dad’s first cousin, born in Kentucky in 1915. I got to know her before she died and I don’t think there was an unkind bone in her body. I don’t think I ever heard her speak an unkind word.
Melba and her husband were tobacco farmers. Her husband had died not long before I met her as an adult (we had visited in their home when I was a very young child) and she was winding down the farming. Being the family genealogist that I am, you can imagine that I took in every story I could about living through the 20th century as a tobacco farming family. Tobacco farming is very labour-intensive. Melba spoke with affection about the niggers that worked for them, especially one man who worked for them for many years.
My late 20th century ears were a bit shocked at first. After all, this was a word for which I received corporal punishment from the school principal when I was in the second grade back in 1972. (In my defense, even then, I didn’t habour any ill feelings for the black pupil. I was only saying it because my friend Scott was saying it, but it was a offense of strict liability.) Then she referred frequently to a nigger woman that had been her domestic help until recently.
I don’t for a minute think that she thought of any of these people as equals. But neither did she habour any ill will. It was just the society in which she was raised. She probably supported segregation as long as it lasted in the Bluegrass State. I don’t remember her speaking about it in any negative way. That was just the way it was. On the other hand, I never heard her complain about integration. Maybe she did at the time, but by the time we talked, that was just the way it was.
At the same time we can be glad that everyone in the United States has the same civil rights and participation in the political process, and appreciate that common attitudes have changed, we need to be careful how we characterise the nature of those developments and the broad strokes with which we tend to paint history.