I’ve spent most of the day in a sort of funk having gone from watching the unfolding protests and violence in the streets of Baltimore on the mainstream news to reading thoughtful commentaries from Ta-Nehisi Coates and others. All the while I’ve been doing my best to try to understand the situation and its larger context rather than allow myself to get drawn into premature judgments that do little more than push the tough questions aside. There is way too much of this on my own social media feeds from people who express more fear and ignorance than anything approaching thoughtfulness.
Along the way I managed to do a little reading about camp servants and came across one of the more fascinating obituaries re-published in The New York Times in 1886. That year Levy Carnine died at the age of 76. He lived most of his life as a slave to the Hogan family of Alabama. The obituary stresses the loyal service that Hogan extended to the family, having served both father and son in two separate wars as a camp servant. In both cases Levy cared for the bodies of both masters – the elder Hogan having fallen in battle in the Seminole Indian War in 1837 and the son in the battle of the Wilderness in 1864. Even after the death of latter, Levy remained with the Second Louisiana Infantry until the end of the war.
Following the war, according to the obituary, “this black Confederate became a Democrat, and labored earnestly for the overthrow of Republican Government in Louisiana.” Levy Carnine’s identity and character extended no further than his having fulfilled the expectations of the white community in which he lived.
One way to read this obituary is as an object lesson to the black community in New Orleans and beyond. It outlines what the white community expected of African Americans at a time of great racial unrest. Levy’s character and behavior is what commanded the respect of whites and would go far in guaranteeing peace in the streets of New Orleans. His life functioned as a model of what whites expected of their former slaves, their children, grandchildren, and so on. It also functioned as a marker by which behavior that threatened this peaceful picture could be judged and dealt with.
The obituaries intended final word of praise, to our ears, points to the very heart of American racism.
Nothing except his birth and color prevented his being master among men.
White Americans cannot watch what is taking place in the streets of Baltimore in a historical vacuum. The fear, anger, and judgments that simmer to the surface themselves have a history. Levy Carnine’s obituary reinforced the belief that black compliance and peaceful race relations could be achieved. It was ultimately an illusion that left white Americans with a belief that blacks were content.
Our reactions to the sights and sounds from the streets of Baltimore and other places around the country reflect the half-life of this illusion.