A Sesquicentennial Anniversary That Gets Lost in the Present

Reading Edward Ball’s, Slaves in the Family, when it was first published in 1998 was a transformative experience. The book was as much about the history of the master-slave relationship as it was about the author’s struggle to come to terms with his connection to this past. It spawned a genre of books about authors coming to terms with their slave-owning ancestors and, in some cases, the journey to re-connect with the descendants of the slaves they once owned. None of these books (at least the ones that I read) was ever quite as good as Ball’s.

Today in The New York Times Ball writes about the sesquicentennial anniversary of the arrival of the Union army and the end of slavery on his family’s plantation outside of Charleston, South Carolina. The editorial begins with such promise as he describes the entrance of Colonel James Beecher (brother of the famous slave narrative author) into the house and the announcement made by a regiment of USCTs to the slaves that they are now “free as birds.” Ball plays with the meaning of the moment by referencing these men as both “invaders” and “liberators.”

I assumed Ball would proceed to dig deeper into this moment in time and possibly the aftermath of the war and its impact on former slave and master. Unfortunately, Ball’s editorial takes a sharp detour and runs right off the road, beginning with a reference to WWII and the Holocaust.

Early 1865 was the season when millions were freed from slavery, as Yankee armies crisscrossed the Deep South and unlocked the gates of a thousand plantations. I imagine these scenes were similar to ones at the end of World War II in Europe, when American and Soviet armies arrived at the gates of the German camps in Central and Eastern Europe. In popular memory — in white memory — the plantations of the antebellum South were like a necklace of country clubs strewn across the land. In reality, they were a chain of work camps in which four million were imprisoned. Their inhabitants, slaves, were very much survivors, in the Holocaust sense of that word.

Ball is just getting warmed up.

In place of the rural incarceration of four million black people, we have the mass incarceration of one million black men. In place of laws that prohibited black literacy throughout the South, we have campaigns by Tea Party and anti-tax fanatics to defund public schools within certain ZIP codes. And we have stop-and-search policing, and frequently much worse, in place of the slave patrols.

And after a quick reference to the presence of his ancestor on slave patrols, he offers the following:

Earlier this month the Justice Department found the police in Ferguson, Mo., culpable for conducting a continual dragnet in which they stopped, harassed and took into custody black citizens in disproportionate numbers. African-Americans make up approximately 90 percent of traffic stops and tickets, and nearly 95 percent of arrests, in Ferguson. Furthermore, according to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., the courts of the largely black and yet white-run town use arrests and fines against African-Americans to raise revenue and keep the city budget from falling into deficit. It’s hard to imagine that Ferguson is alone among American cities in applying this strategy.

Ball concludes with a word of caution, that he does not wish his reader to infer a direct connection between past and present, but he insists that, “lying behind such recent events is a mentality that originates during the slave period, and provides police action with an unconscious foundation.” Too late.

I understand that our need to find meaning in the past is necessarily captured through the lens of the present, but we still have an obligation to be careful in the connections we make. At some point they become so watered down that they are rendered meaningless. No, slavery is not the same thing as mass incarceration. And there is absolutely no justification in drawing a connection between black literacy laws and Tea Party “fanatics.”

Last week my survey classes took an in-class essay exam in which they were asked to interpret a set of primary sources about the life of former slaves during Reconstruction. We spent some time in the previous class reviewing possible strategies. The question focused specifically on how former slaves experienced freedom. I reminded them more than once to be weary of interpreting the sources through their own understanding of what freedom means. Rather, I encouraged them to think hard about the transition these people experienced at the time and what they may have emphasized as they considered their new status.

I do this because I don’t want my students to simply judge the past based on their own normative assumptions. To do so is to risk using historical actors as a means to an end rather than trying to understand them on their own terms. I fear that with this editorial Ball inadvertently has done just that and with the very people he originally sought to come to terms with.

8 comments… add one
  • Ethan Kytle Mar 15, 2015

    Kevin: I certainly agree that we must be cautious about the connections we make between the past and the present lest “they become so watered down that they are rendered meaningless.” But I also think that you must approach Ball’s piece for what it is–an op-ed. As I am sure you know, opinion pages like the NYT’s will not publish an op-ed on a historical topic or anniversary unless the author connects his or her historical work directly to the present. There are, of course, plenty of venues–most of them digital–that accept work that approaches the past solely on its own terms. But not traditional opinion pages.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 15, 2015

      Hi Ethan,

      Thanks for the comment. Now that I think about it, perhaps I missed the mark in my response. I agree with the thrust of your comment. At the same time I believe that we learn nothing about the liberation of and challenges faced by the Ball family slaves by drawing connections to police departments and the Tea Party. I have no problem with trying to find meaning in the present by looking at the past, but at one point do we say that this does nothing but distort both?

  • Ethan Kytle Mar 15, 2015

    Fair point, Kevin. And I do agree that some of the connections that Ball makes are a bit thin. One thing his piece underscored for me is the challenge of writing an op-ed on historical developments that are hundreds of years old. Ball’s point about mass incarceration would have been stronger if he’d spent time on vagrancy laws under the Black Codes and the emergence of the convict-lease system during Jim Crow. But I am sure he didn’t have the space….

    • Kevin Levin Mar 15, 2015

      Ball’s point about mass incarceration would have been stronger if he’d spent time on vagrancy laws under the Black Codes and the emergence of the convict-lease system during Jim Crow.

      Now that I agree with. I don’t think it was a matter of space for Ball. The goal was to mark the anniversary of the arrival of Union soldiers and its significance. In the end, it was too big and too easy a jump for my taste.

  • London John Mar 16, 2015

    Why have you illustrated this post with a painting of a plantation in Brazil? And is it a bit sad that I bothered to check? (googled “Painting of sugar cane plantation” and it was first up).

    • Kevin Levin Mar 16, 2015

      I simply looked for an appropriately sized image.

      • Jerry McKenzie Mar 17, 2015

        One sugar labor camp pretty much looks like the other sugar plantations. Nice choice!

  • Rob Baker Mar 18, 2015

    Ball’s article sort of reminded me of Tony Horwitz’s confrontation with the Civil Rights proponent in Selma, the one he wrote about in Confederates in the Attic. It was the one where he got into that heated argument over human rights which focused on slavery, civil rights, and the Holocaust; all with a modern perspective.

    I’m sort of torn over the usefulness of the article in a historical sense. Like you said, focusing on history with a modern schema is not advisable when attempting to understand the past. I sometimes refer to this as “the trap” when teaching history. We have a habit of projecting our modern baggage onto history which can hinder an understanding of the past. In this article Ball goes beyond a focus on the African-American experience, though perhaps unknowingly, and forces us to look at that racial superiority ideology that exists in the world. He takes the topic from micro to macro, and then back again. Perhaps there is something to be said about the human condition and our cultural baggage of dehumanizing one another.

    I’ll give Ball’s article this much…great conversation piece.

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