Keeping History in Context

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.

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6 Responses to “Keeping History in Context”

  1. Nomi Says:

    Very interesting post! However, while I can see your point, I have to say that just because “that’s the way it was” 75 years ago (or 300 years ago) doesn’t make it any less wrong or offensive today. It’s wrong now and it was wrong then…and it always will be wrong. Treating ANY person like an animal, a lesser being, forcing them to work for nothing, live in squalor, eat pig intestines and other scraps and waste – subject them to punishment and torture, to take children from their mothers, to strip an entire people of their culture, language, religion, and home…IS wrong. It doesn’t matter if that’s just the way things were, it doesn’t matter if it was accepted, it’s wrong.

    “I don’t think I ever heard her speak an unkind word.”

    You don’t think “nigger” is an unkind word?

    “Whites were mean and evil to them, but somehow the black people passively resisted all the white people and eventually Barak Obama was elected.”

    Um…though I won’t say there was some definite passivity going on, there was nothing passive about the Civil Rights Movement. And if you think that people who were lynched didn’t go kicking, screaming, and fighting, I think you might want to rethink that.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking read!

  2. sol Says:

    I’m not saying that slavery wasn’t wrong, particularly as it developed in the Peculiar Institution of the American South. Slavery as a social standing has existed from the beginning and still exists in places in the world today, despite pressure by the United Nations, individual countries, and other organisations.

    My point is that while we now condemn the institutition of slavery, we have to reserve our condemnation of the slavocracy within the context of the day. We cannot condemn those who did not see the light.

    This is entirely separate from a discussion of what the reality of slave life was life. I think that the special evils that were done by some individuals within the institution get magnified and outside the world of academia we rarely see a balanced view – not balanced as to whether slavery was inherently good or bad, but as to how people behaved with the culture that they knew.

    Likewise, “nigger” was not an unkind word when my cousin used it, because she meant no unkindness by it. It was the only vocabulary word in that culture used to refer to a black person. It was, in fact, used within the community of black people as well. Now it is used in certain circles within the black community almost as a badge declaring “I can say this, but you can’t”. It has a similar development in the English language as the terms “Colored” or “Negro” which may now be confined to the NAACP and the UNCF, but were formally quite accepted. You only have to listen to the speeches of MLK to realise that. Like any other word, it is cultural changes in language that have turned it into the “N” word that dare not speak its name.

    When I refer to the passive resisitence of the Civil Rights Movement, I refer to the tactics perfected by Martin Luther King. The mainstream of the Civil Rights Movement did not support rioting or violence to achieve results. It was sit-in and marches and boycotts that allowed the Civil Rights Movement to make the progress that it did.

    Integration in Little Rock was not achieved by a frontal assault on Central High School or blowing up the building. It was Elizabeth Eckford and her compatriots walking up calmly in the face of abuse and even the National Guard. When thoses working for civil rights let those who opposed them be the aggressors, they won the day.

    This has nothing to do with the murder of black individuals by lynching, which I don’t consider a part of the Civil Rights Movement, but rather one of the many catalysts of it.

  3. Nomi Says:

    “We cannot condemn those who did not see the light.”

    So, because Hitler was blissfully (and hatefully) ignorant, we’re not supposed to condemn him for the atrocities he was responsible for? It seems to me what you’re saying is that, as long as people thought it was right and okay, it was – or as long as they didn’t know better or another way, it was okay. Sorry, but I still disagree. It works for kids and people with mental illness or diminish capacity, but that’s about it. Yes, I understand what you mean about assessing things by today’s standards – it’s the same as judging other cultures based on one’s own…it really can’t be done. However, some things transcend time and cultures to always be wrong, even if they were “normal” or “accepted”. Slavery may have been around since the dawn of man, but that still doesn’t make it right or okay.

    As for the use of the word “nigger”, it doesn’t wash that because it wasn’t intended to be mean-spirited it wasn’t perceived as mean-spirited. You seem to forget that the other part of intention is perception, and you cannot control that. If you think that Black people really didn’t mind being called “nigger” back then, you are sadly mistaken. I would caution you to be careful about assuming that passivity or apparent acceptance by Black people meant they thought it was okay. Until the Civil Rights Movement, and even after, Black people suffered terrible consequences for speaking out against such things, and were beaten, whipped, tortured, raped, and murdered for it. And in the south? Come on…even the concept of “learned helplessness” can explain why Black people put up with that crap for so long, but never, ever, EVER will it be deemed “okay” simply because it was a long time ago and that’s just the way things were.

    Finally, to speak to the use of the word now within the Black population…first, to be sure, not all Black people use the word – I know MANY who do not. Just like not all Black people drop out of school, commit crimes, eat watermelon, or listen to rap. And, just as with anyone else using the word, it’s wrong…just like the whining I hear from people that “It’s okay for them to say it but not us?” is childish. White people need to get over the fact that Black people claimed the word and, in doing so, it lost some of it’s power.

  4. sol Says:

    First of all, Hitler was not blissfully ignorant. If he – or those who followed his orders in perpetrating the Final Solution – were ignorant, they would not have worked so hard to cover up their crimes.

    Perception is not a part of intention; it is separate from it, but I’m about to write an entire post about that.

    I think you are confusing what I said about passivity. I was referring to the passive resisitance tactics used in the Civil Rights Movement. It did not mean they thought discrimination was okay. That was the point. They resisited, but they did so in such a way as to maintain and emphasize the moral high ground.

    If you look at what I said, the word “nigger” is used in certain circles, primarily within certain genres of the music industry and the fans of those genres. I haven’t heard any of the whining you hear from (presumably) white people. However, it is no doubt similar to my use of the word “cripple” for myself, which would be inappropriate for others (particularly outside a certain level of personal acquaintance) to use. It is also similar to the adoption of the word “Mormon” by members of the Latter Day Saints, or even the word “Christian” which was adopted after it was used as a term of derision.

  5. Michael Says:

    Brother Sol, I think you’ve seen the name “Barack” enough times by now to be able to spell it right.

  6. sol Says:

    Brother Michael,

    Apparently not. I haven’t intentionally misspelled it.

    I must be getting the spelling confused with Barak from the book of Judges and Ehud Barak, the former Israeli prime minister.


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