Monday, November 21, 2011

A History Too Personal: The Slave Master Forced Her to Drink A "Pint of Piss" as Punishment...

I have a colleague who is an astrophysicist. He is also the only African American in his laboratory, and is quite fond of joking that he is "free of all that identity and race stuff" because he studies the stars, dark matter, and black holes. Of course, race matters in his career path--the STEM fields can be none too kind to people of color and women--but he is spot on in the observation that his work isn't "personal" to him in the same way that research and teaching can be to many folks who are in fields related to gender, race, sexuality, or other matters of identity and power.

Sometimes, one's research can take them to a dark place where critical distance is upset and disqualified. For example, I have read about professionals who study genocide, and the problem of evil, who were quite literally consumed by the darkness of their work. Sadly, the great Iris Chang is one of those people. I was/am also friends with someone who could not escape the demons of his own research on the relationship between genocide and ontology--and took his own life as a result.

At present, my "fun" reading is the The Ruling Race by James Oakes, a classic text on chattel slavery in the United States. Oakes is a master historian, and this work does much to get beyond a narrow and simple depiction of white elites in the South's Slaveocracy. Oakes goes beyond if they were "good" or "bad" people (most certainly many were more of the latter than the former), by highlighting how white slaveowners rationalized that "the peculiar institution" was a cultural, economic, political, and in many cases, religious and moral imperative.

There are sections of The Ruling Race that are just too personal to me; I can certainly reconcile and contextual Oakes' work within a broader literature on Southern slave systems, but I could never do so much, making a living by looking at original source materials where folks like me, my kin and people, are routinely debased, objectified, and subject to gross cruelty.

I do not have the emotional or mental discipline. I hold those who do in the utmost of respect, and with the highest regard.

In the interest of sharing found bits of knowledge, as I often do, here is a particularly potent passage from Oakes' compelling work:

William Pitman shocked even his family when he came home in a drunken rage one night and tied up a young slave by the neck and heels, beat the boy with a vine, and then "stomped him to death." Pitman's children testified against their father, and one newspaper editor declared that the convicted murderer had "justly incurred the penalties of law."

Yet the open condemnation of extreme cruelty standsin contrast to the pervasive silence on the widespread use of harsh physical punishment. Even the best masters accepted whipping as essential to the maintenance of discipline. When William Dunbar found one of his slaves drunk, he had the bondsman "confined to the Bastile." The following day Dunbar "ordered him 500 order to draw a Confession from him." The slave acknowledged his misdeed and was promptly chained about the ankles. After several days, Dunbar had the irons "taken off, his leg being swelled, as I intend carrying him up to Point Coupee, where I shall see him if I find an opportunity." Dunbar skillfully employed public punishment in an effort to terrorize all of his slaves. At one point he "ordered the Wench Bessy out of Irons, & to receive 25 lashes with a Cow Skin as a punishment & Example to the rest."

It did not take much provocation for William Byrd to raise the lash. He whipped slaves for not reporting their illnesses, for "laziness," for wetting the bed, for "doing nothing." Byrd branded one slave with a hot iron and put a bit in her mouth. He forced another to take "a pint of piss to drink." That Byrd does to appear to have been a particularly cruel master reinforces the conclusion that physical abuse was not an aberration, but rather a hallmark of slavery. As such, it contributed to the dehumanization of the slaves in the masters' eyes.

Such cruelty followed logically from the nearly universal goal of the slaveholders--material advancement.


CNu said...

Of course, race matters in his career path--the STEM fields can be none too kind to people of color and women--but he is spot on in the observation that his work isn't "personal" to him in the same way that research and teaching can be to many folks who are in fields related to gender, race, sexuality, or other matters of identity and power.

OMG..., the brother doing astrophysics has at least 30 full points of intellectual quotient over and above the innumerable mediocrities in the "personal" fields of whining for hire.

Thank GAWD the contracting economy is going to absolutely erase those non-disciplines from the academy once and for all..., {now if only it promised to pick up all the other oxygen-thieving fields, like political "science", law, religious studies, and abomination of abominations "education"}

chaunceydevega said...

damn historians and social scientists.

you are such fun subreal.

dude is cool folks, but by his own admission not very intellectually curious--his words not mine.

i think we need all types for when the big reboot is necessary.

fred c said...

I agree that, odds are, the "physical abuse was not an aberration," and that it was part of the process of dehumanization. Faced with the obvious humanity of their property, the owners brutalized the slaves as a kind of self-fulfilling manifestation of their stated position. An unsupportable, and thankfully unsustainable position that the Africans were not human beings at all.

Except for the brutality enthusiasts, like Byrd evidently. The game was worth more than money to them.

For me, though, the greatest indictment of slavery remains the fact that, after imposing sexual demands on slave women, the owners cheerfully accepted ownership of the offspring, who in fact were their own children. I never got that one, that's a leap of understanding that I can't make.

So yes, "material advancement," blood may be thicker than water, but money is thicker than blood.

Do you think they laughed about it around the fire? A little illicit excitement and, viola! Property creation. Or did that one give even those cruel monetists pause? No, I don't want to give them too much credit, they thought it was great.

You might say that "Space Mountain" brings its own logic into play. The whole thing was such a Gordian Knot that it took a sword to break it, as we found out the hard way.

Anonymous said...

I have been in and out this week. I would just like to wish everyone here a Happy Thanksgiving before I forget to do so. CD I was hoping for some thought on Hell on Wheels. I'll wait.

Anonymous said...

Fred, I doubt if the brutality gave the majority of them pause. No doubt it gave some but too few to matter in any significant way. I get a kick out of those that point the finger towards inner city atrocities, as if the most heinous and depraved of acts are not contributed to their bloodlines. They want to be portrayed as the paragons of civility. Whereas given today's climate, I have no Illisions that in fear of threat to the master race, they would not be those who have no problem crossing that line from civilized to monstrous.

CNu said...

i think we need all types for when the big reboot is necessary.

we clearly needed more astrophysicists, nuclear physicists, mathematicians, and engineers in positions of leadership during the past 40 years over which the innumerable mediocrities in the "personal" fields of whining for hire have managed to phuk things up beyond all recognition with their unproductive and useless domination of the academy and the public intellectual sphere.

mebbe hip-hop philosophers can do more with a shovel or a rifle than they can do with a keyboard and soapbox, but I doubt it...,

littlepitcher said...

Thacker Vivian, long in the habit of raping his cook in the kitchen, found her (and possibly his) daughter there and raped her, too. When both objected, he sold mama as a field hand and sold Mary Ann, 14, to a South Alabama whorehouse. Mary escaped two brothels by marriage, killed one husband and a slave seller when she was found to be black and not Mexican; the second husband found her out, called the pattyroller and she died fighting him.
She's my GGGgrandmother by the second SOB.
I kept my mixed-race ancestry secret through marriage. No, it's not paranoia, they really are out to get us.