Wednesday, December 7, 2011

With Dignity Former Slaves Speak Across Time and the NY Times Recycles the Myth of the Black Confederate Soldier

“My name is Fountain Hughes … My grandfather belonged to Thomas Jefferson.” Hughes then begins a wily standoff with his white interviewer, Hermond Norwood, digressing into his opinions about babies wearing shoes (-22:00) and buying things “on time [credit],” decrying the Yankees throwing flour into the river (-11:10) and, finally, declaring he would shoot himself rather than go back to slavery, where “you are nothing but a dog.” (-10:00)
As part of its series commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, the Opinionator section of the NY Times is featuring a piece by Karenna Gore Schiff. Out of Time explores the politics surrounding the WPA's efforts to record the oral histories of former slaves during the 1930s and 1940s. 

There are some great nuggets here: the fights over memory and representation; the Dixiecrats hold over the WPA and its various artistic and historical projects; the fears of now freed people of suffering retaliation from whites in the Jim Crow South if their stories about the evil ways of white folks were too honest; and how the very idea of "documentary" projects were part of a broader populist turn towards everyday people--as opposed to "great" men and women--and the importance of their life stories and experiences to understanding the grand American narrative.

While it is fashionable in Republican circles to bemoan the federal government as a source of all evil, a bogeyman to be drowned in the bathtub, the WPA projects in particular, and the New Deal more generally, are powerful examples of how the State can do so much good.

It is chilling and inspiring to hear the ancestors speak across time. History is real. It ain't even past. Some would urge us to forget the past, to embrace Whiteness' necessary forgetting, and hold close an American political culture that is both amazingly nostalgic and also being grossly amnesiac. However, many of us are "political" by birth and identity in this country; we do not have the luxury of willful naivete or denial about the realities of power. What many white folks were surprised to see at OWS--where the protesters received an iota, a small dose of what people of color have been getting for centuries at the hands of the police--black kids learn as a life survival skill at 3 years old.

Caught Out of Time is not without its problems. As a teachable moment, it reaches back to the past and meditates on how the voiced experiences of former slaves are almost "Homeric" in the power. And lest we forget, it has not even been 50 years since Jim and Jane Crow white supremacy was formally undone in the United States. But in reaching back decades, Schiff recycles a near-lie about the Confederacy and the role of black Americans in the Civil War, one that is popular even into the present:
However, some slaves’ disapproval of the Northern army was genuine. Ward writes of “astonishing empathy” for masters and mistresses and documents touching and deeply humane instances of slaves acting beyond the constraints of bondage, like carrying their masters’ bodies over long distances to be buried at home. Furthermore, in the immediate human context of war, slaves’ interests overlapped with those of slaveholders; they wanted to protect food and livestock from incoming troops not only because they had been ordered to, but because their own sustenance was at stake. 
Not to mention the fact that, however cruel and twisted, intimate family bonds existed between black and white throughout the South. Adam Goodheart points out that at the dawn of the war, mixed-race slaves were more likely to join the Confederate effort (technically, the Confederacy never accepted them as enlisted troops but gladly put them to work): ”Human nature is a complicated thing.”
While an appeal to "human nature," and a desire to go beyond "good guys" and "bad guys" in our historiography is laudable, this yearning for Black Confederates is a broken record that plays to the white, racist, neo-confederate crowd, a group which is desperate to rehabilitate the image of the South as something noble, their war of Secession a great struggle for "State's Rights." In reality, blacks who "served" in the Confederate Army were the human property of their white owners, virtual mules and horses, and in few cases worked exclusively in non-combat roles as "free" laborers. As has been well documented, the Confederacy was a white supremacist, terrorist, military State, where the very idea of black men bearing arms was anathema to its foundational beliefs. The South would rather cease to be, than to offer up guns to black people, of any racial admixture, to fight in its defense.

Caught Out of Time continues with its near-lie here:
Harriet Smith’s soft, melodic voice conjures up the image of her as a girl, sitting atop a white fence watching the troops go by, surprised by the sight of “colored soldiers in droves,” and filled with wonder when a black orphan girl neighbor (who had had her arm cut off while operating a molasses mill) ran off with one of them. (-:55) (Part 2 of 4, -4:00) Approximately 300,000 black men would serve in the Union army (and thousands would also join the Confederate effort, including Fountain Hughes’s father, who was killed at Gettysburg) but the sight was particularly shocking to all Southerners in the early days of the war.
Again, "the thousands" who joined the Confederate Army did so not as free men, soldiers, fighting to "protect" the "Southern way of life." This yearning to find the Black Confederate in the attic is also a sign of a bigger cultural, political, and intellectual malaise in America. We live in a moment where all opinions are framed as being equal; this culture of narcissism is advanced by a news media, one that on a daily basis, feels obligated to offer up both sides of a story in a twisted game of false equivalence.

The 21st century, opinion journalism driven 4th Estate, elevates stupid-talk and foolishness to the level of reasoned and principled discourse. For example, Birthers are given opportunities to peddle their smut, those "experts" who believe that tax cuts create economic growth are presented as legitimate authorities when the consensus is that trickle down and the Laffer curve are fictions, propagandists from the Heritage Foundation, the Hoover Institute, and the American Enterprise Institute are presented as "value neutral." And when the Palins, Perrys, Bachmanns, Cains, of the world offer up some specious claim about the environment, the economy, or science, their "I believe it to be true, that is my opinion, and how dare you tell me otherwise you elitist!" is treated as fact.

In all, Caught Out of Time is an exercise in the power of outliers. 

How much weight do we give to inconvenient facts that stand outside and apart from the consensus on a topic, of the narrative generated by the other data points? Ideal typical cases are handy; there is also much to be learned by those which do not neatly fit into our existing models. Yes, there were a few African Americans who held other black folks as slaves in the South. But, what does this tell us about the institution as a whole? Sure, there may have been a few Blacks, who for their own reasons, tried to find a way to join the Confederate Army. But what does that tell us about the totality of the Civil War, a struggle to defend white supremacy and human bondage as a way of life?

Imagine this helpful counter-factual or alternative scenario: should a journalist covering the Civil Rights Movement present the defenders of white supremacy as being "equal" to those little black boys and girls who simply wanted to attend an integrated school? Should a journalist elevate those who would blow up abortion clinics and kill doctors as being equivalent to those advocates who believe that a woman should have the right to control access to her own body?

Caught Out of Time, and the cult of false equivalence, is a cousin to these puzzles. A yearning for black Confederates, and folksy Gone with the Wind Song of the South stories about loyal slaves who carried their masters home on their backs, are outliers which tell us nothing about the story as a whole. These details are chaff for racism deniers, and those invested in the Lost Cause and "nobility" of the white supremacist, Secessionist struggle called the Confederate States of America.

The editors of the NY Times--a journal of record, containing "all of the news fit to print"--would have better served such a great piece on the voices of the ancestors, and the WPA's efforts to preserve them, by deleting such distracting and unnecessary fodder.

[The editorial choices made relative to the Times' piece also begs the following question.

Where are those many more common examples of slaves who poisoned their masters and his/her family, burned down barns, destroyed property, killed their overseers, served as Union spies, kicked their owners off of the plantations, or whipped whites in the street when the Union Army finally liberated an area?

I guess those stories are not a neat fit for the "human complexity" presented by Caught Out of Time.]


princss6 said...

My great-great-grandfather "served" the Confederate army. He was a body servant.

His slave narrative paints a complex story of how the enslaved felt about the Civil War. It is also true that after the Civil War. From what I gather, the enslaved were being told many different things. They had mixed feelings and emotions. At least my great-great-grandfather did. He went to the war with the person who held him as property as a teenager, after having spent his entire life with this person. His parents were also held as property by the same person. Rich and complex and regretfully most of the information we do have are from slave narratives which may or may not be the true feelings of the enslaved given they were giving these narratives in the 1930s and many still lived near those who use to hold them as property.

Plane Ideas said...

What is so complex about slavery???What narrative works that even begins to make it humane, rich and complex??

The NY TIMES as well as this entire nation insults the souls of Black folks by offering up yet another white liberal racist spin on slavery enough of the LOST CAUSE bullshit and happy nigger slaves content with the reality that their white owner raped and fucked the minors of the female off spring of Black woman held in bondage and beat down into submission the dignity of Black men..

We had a fucking domestic holocaust on this soil we call America and as a FREE BLACK MAN I will never posture and articulate some noble narrative for slavery..

Not now..Not ever..

Thank you yet again CD for having the audacity in the age of Obama the era of a post racial forced amnesia where immunity and a intentional racial blindspot is rewarded instead of condemned as it related to the truth about the pathlological legacy and reality of white racism in America..

My ancestors deserve the recognition of the truth and my respect to never discount their humanity in the face of raw hate and contempt for their very esence and being..

Fuck the NYTIMES and any white or Black apologist that offers up excuses for the alleged complexity of slavery and the fiction of states rights...

princss6 said...

Was that a response to me?

I didn't say slavery was complex. What I tried to convey was that the feelings THE Enslaved had about slavery was complex. AND the slave narratives may not accurately reflect those feelings. There were many rumors swirling and you can imagine how horrible those rumors were.

Sure in 2011, it is easy to pump out your chest and woulda coulda shoulda. However, I don't think that is prudent nor fair. Reading the narratives and understanding the subtext points to this fact. Applying 21st Century thinking the formerly enslaved, also does not reflect the recognition of truth and respect our ancestors deserve.

Finally, I'm no apologist. But as I said, the feelings imparted by the Enslaved in their narratives highlights the complexity of their feelings about enslavement and freedom.

Plane Ideas said...


Yep directly at you if you are an apologist for slavery and the domestic holocaust against Black folks on this soil..

Nothing you have posted speaks for nor on behalf of the ENSLAVED...

I don't need to imagine anything about slavery nor give any worth to rumors nor a lecture from you about prudence and what kind of body posture I should take..

BTW your tired deflection and excuse about employing 21st century to past events has zero standing with me..Slavery and it's related inhumanity has no statute of limitations nor the immunity and defense of time relativity excuse..

Your intial comments and now these latest comments reflect not only the nonsense of an apologist but insults our ancestors..There is nothing in these narratives that speaks to the complexity of slavery and freedom..What part of inhumanity and slavery is so hard for you to comprehend??

You don't have to reply from my vantage point it is apparent yu lack the depth and insight to understand this truth..

Enjoy the nite..

princss6 said...

Such hyperbole...look it up. Simon Durr Slave Narrative, cited in several books. I've read it dozens of times. It is my great-great-grandfather. I'm sure you will be oh so respectful of our ancestors history and my ancestor after reading his highly complex and nuanced feelings about Slavery and Freedom. I won't hold my breath for a course correction from you.

But, I understand...posturing is much easier than actually researching what the actual Enslaved said.

Take care and miss me with the over the top histrionics. Because everything isn't all black and white in our ancestors history. Deal with it. And you owe them the respect to know this and not judge from the pinnacle of the 21st Century.

princss6 said...

To answer the authors' question...

"Where are those many more common examples of slaves who poisoned their masters and his/her family, burned down barns, destroyed property, killed their overseers, served as Union spies, kicked their owners off of the plantations, or whipped whites in the street when the Union Army finally liberated an area?"

One of the criticisms of the slave narratives is that the interviewers led the interviewees. They weren't really trying to hear about all of the things you listed. There were three or four questions that they asked. Nothing of resurrectionary leanings.

In addition, given the time and proximity to those who formerly held them as property, their relatives, the patronage system and white racist violence, it is highly unlikely that any of the slave narratives would contain the information you seek. Maybe newspaper accounts, oral history shared among other African Americans but to even speak of it, probably meant death.

I understand what you are saying about the false equivalencies but at the same time, the slave narratives ARE limited by time and space and place. They came through Slavery and weren't going to be suicidal regarding what they told white outsiders. Not near Jackson, Mississippi or anywhere near the South. And too, keep in mind, there are only about 2,000 narratives out of 4 million formerly Enslaved. I think you may be seeking what would have been impossible to have articulated at that time. But I've not read all of the slave narratives but I don't it is there.

Anonymous said...

*Raises the question.

chaunceydevega said...

@princ. I get that. My point, perhaps poorly conveyed, was about the article in the Times. Why didn't the author highlight those realities as opposed to picking outliers in the interest of presenting a falsely "balanced" story.

Plane Ideas said...


What research have you offered here other than flashing your generational claim about your great great grandfather was a body slave...Welcome to the club the majority of black folks in america have slave ancestors...

Please spare me your posturing and chest bumping and your shinning of a confederate body servant ...I don't insert words or excuses about the alleged complexity of slavery ino the mouths of our dead ancestors..

You are correct of course I am not like you and I will not be engaging in making excuses as you have the horrors of the inhumanity of slavery from your 21th century,lol,lol...Nor do I need to rely of your ancestor's legacy I have my own ancestors to respect and value

princss6 said...

@chauncey - I think the article was based on the Slave Narratives. I don't think you will find the information you cited in your other article about Black Confederates in the Slave Narratives. I see no problem with presenting both sides of the coin side-by-side. While the author didn't cite the events that you did and yes, I can agree that is problematic and does feed the meme of slaves that were happy and content, it is what is to be expected. That is why it is important that we use the same venue to discuss and highlight the "hidden" history. I blog about slavery here:

My blog postings are fueled by my genealogy research and the whitewashing of slavery and combatting that narrative. The narratives presented in the NY Times article are true. The information you present is equally true. Side-by-side and that is the COMPLEXITY of where our ancestors found themselves trying to survive. Both sides should be highlighted and RESPECTED in my opinion especially by us who live in a decidedly different time. At any rate, I hope you check out my blog postings. I'm not waiting for the NY Times to present an accurate or balanced view of what our people experienced. I suspect, like you, when I see some mess, I blog the counter-narrative based on the hidden history.

princss6 said...

@Thrasher - Right, right...because I've engaged in making excuses for Slavery, where?

Go educate yourself. Funny. I just knew you would come back with some nonsense about not having to respect ALL of the ancestors. Typical, hyperbole grounded in false bravado.

Plane Ideas said...


Yeah I knew you would react to my comments and try to appease CD and then of course direct us to your site where you post the exclusive truth about slavery and of course your great,great,,lol,

I will parrot a part of your post nevertheless..." Typical, hyperbole grounded in false bravado..'..That is all I observe in your comments as,lol,lol


Plane Ideas said...


BTW..I will paint you with the same post I direct to TNC

"Without question Ta-Nehesi Coates 's is a brilliant writer and talent yet he suffers from the tragic shortcoming of always making apologies on why Black folks don't react and model themselves after white folks.

The reason for Black folks rejection of the conflict is clearly an intentional collective cultural posture. Our detachment from an interest of the Civil War does not require a long winded esoteric and scholarly narrative. It is a simple mindset the majority of Black Americans are not interested in drive by visits, reenactments, monuments of a war by whites regarding how they waged a war over our humanity and personhood.

Black folks don't need to marvel and give praise and create monuments to the insanity of white depravity . The horror. legacy and our continued existence on America's soil encompasses our perspectives.

Instead of people like Coates and others lecturing to us about our posture towards the Civil War perhaps he should acknowledge and respect the fact that we have already taken a position for centuries.

I am not interested in researching the nuances and tales of thecivil awr..I got folks like you to lean on..Go for it...

Plane Ideas said...


BTW I did visit your site and read your materials...Very impressive, informative and allows me to better understand your talking points with me in part as a Black woman interacting with the Black men and the universe..

I will revisit often..


chaunceydevega said...

@Princss. " I see no problem with presenting both sides of the coin side-by-side. While the author didn't cite the events that you did and yes, I can agree that is problematic and does feed the meme of slaves that were happy and content, it is what is to be expected."

It may be expected; it does not mean that it right or proper. On presenting material side by side, what qualifiers do you offer? My problem with the Times and other pieces that dig up this black confederate nonsense is that we have millions of case X but 2 of case Y. If I don't have the time to develop what the two latter cases tell me they are dropping out of the story. How would you manage that?

nomad said...

As you have said yourself, Chauncey, "It's complicated". There's liminal land. I found your post very interesting princss6. This here is the truth:It's not just black and white. I will certainly be visiting your blog.

Silky Soul Singer said...

Chauncey, I've been reading your blog off and on for a while now, and honestly this might be (in my humble opinion) your best post... by far.

(You'll forgive the minor criticism, but I thought you got a little stuck on the "Cain Train". He was always low hanging fruit, and not worth all the attention.)

Thank you. You provided me with an excellent read this morning.

Actually I'm a little curious about the willingness of some Black people to believe that slavery was "complicated".

Is it really shocking that people who had known no other existence would be willing to fight to defend what they perceived to be their way of life?

If you'd been born into bondage and your owner told you every day that you were a lesser being whose continued existence depended on his (or her) largesse, what would you believe if you knew nothing else?

The question of whether or not there were Black confederates is meaningless. The racist power structure under which they lived precluded there being any semblance of "choice". (Hence my utter and total disdain - I'm being kind here - for those people who claim that Jefferson's slave mistress was a fully empowered human being who "chose" to be with - and bear children for - her white master.)

The fact that any sane Black person in America would even entertain the idea that there was some grey area in regards to slavery is sad and depressing beyond belief.

I often joke with friends that we've been in a race war for 400 years, but that only one side has known it.

If Black people are giving credence to the idea that slavery was in any way morally and ethically anything short of unadulterated evil...

...then we've already lost.

fred c said...

Is there a term paper for this course? I'm a little fearful about my grade, but I'm enjoying the presentation.

chaunceydevega said...

@nomad. Is liminal land like the doldrums?

@silky. do feed the best, offer complements often. we need them!

@fred c. you can be the proctor. assign some grades. i think thrasher is a good but overly excited student. what grade would you assign him?

just kidding mr. thrasher.

fred c said...

I was just wondering: is this comment string what happens when one encourages discussion in the lecture hall? Got to be ready for what happens next, I suppose.

Myself, I'm an easy grader, and Greg would do fine even if I weren't.

Plane Ideas said...

In the new educational paradigm they don't give letter grades,lol,lol

fred c said...

We give a G, a P, or an F. We also feature the "Re-Test," a second bite at the apple for anyone who fails the final on the first try. No "incomplete F" either, drop out at any point and it's no harm, no foul. No term papers, and a total of twenty-four class hours for a three credit class. All very popular with students, I'm sure it'll all catch on.

nomad said...

Liminal land would not be the doldrums except for the dead. It's more like nomad's, I mean no man's land.

Anonymous said...

Bravo Chauncey. I get so sick of the false equivalence being served to us by an apathetic or conspiratorial media. Leaning more towards the latter. I suppose the NY Times piece is the same with all history that has been pushed, especially in terms of where it reflects negatively upon this country. "Who controls the past controls the future, who controls the present controls the past... " Nineteen Eighty Four, George Orwell

Constructive Feedback said...

Brother Chauncey:

It is my opinion that the Street Pirate who stuck a gun into the belly of a young Black female on "Dr Joseph Lowery Bvld" - threatening to blow out one of her ovaries if she did not give up her iphone did a BLACK CONFEDERATE ACT against our community that is far more relevant to our present existence than anything that a Black who was raised in slavery was compelled to do 130+ years ago in an attempt to continue his normalcy.

Brother Chauncey - just 6 years ago "Rev Joseph E Lowery Bvld" was named "Ashby Street" - named after the Confederate General Ashby.

In as much as your body of work is a critical block of information in my attempts to understand Black Progressive-Fundamentalism, I am made to wonder why these actions so long ago are more worthy of study than is the indoctrination that is happening TODAY.

I have some advice to ask of you. As a resident of Metro Atlanta I listened to Rev Lowery claim that the reason that the Vine City area of Atlanta is so violent is because the people living within see their oppressors represented on the street signs. After renaming all of these streets after "Civil Rights Heroes" the assaults and murders continue.

How do we get Street Pirates to RESPECT the Civil Rights Heroes?

Since Rev Lowery got a sign named after him but no redress - should we pressure him to produce or risk losing his trophy atop the signs?