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.