In earlier posts, we’ve touched on several aspects the Civil War and how it’s been remembered and memorialized, but it is important to remember how pervasive and unshakeable that mythologizing is among those in “the North.”
A spectacular example of appeared in the Republican American, a paper out of Waterbury, CT, an old industrial city on the Naugatuck River. It’s one of the regional papers for people who grew up in Litchfield County like I did. Matt DeRienzo, a local publisher, photographed the piece for our benefit, as part of his response. Before you read John White’s “Slavery and liberal outrage,” make a list of all of the tropes of slavery apologism you can think of, and tick them off as you read.
DeRienzo’s response is excellent, but it barely scratches the surface, not because it’s not thorough, but because White’s piece is chock-a-block full of ahistorical and deeply offensive thinking. I don’t intend to critique it point by point, because I’d spend months on it, because other people have done it better, and because I’d probably quit in rage trying to tackle that horrific family story about how “nice” his ancestors were to the people whose bodies they exploited and whose labor they stole.
Frankly most of the points I’d make are already known, even by people like White. He just desperately doesn’t want them to be true, and has the social power to insist that his reality – one devoid of facts and historical interpretation – is the right one.
There is one passage I’d like to dig into, though. I’ll excerpt it here.
Now, I do not condone slavery; there is no justification for it whatsoever. But slavery was not the whole of Southern culture. The South deserves respect and appreciation for being much more than the Confederacy. For example, Southern music and cuisine were around long before the war. And Southern courtesy and hospitality are legendary. The Confederacy is long gone, but they’re still with us.
Put simply, White gives away the game with that last sentence. He very much wants “slavery” to be separable from “the South” and even further, from “the Confederacy,” and yet can’t successfully separate them in his own mind or writing because they’re inseparable.
He claims slavery is not the whole of Southern culture, but I challenge him to find an aspect of the Southern music and cuisine he claims to celebrate that wasn’t deeply shaped by slavery, if not wholly appropriated from the culture of enslaved people.
And claiming Southern courtesy and hospitality is culturally separate from the history of slavery? Seriously? SERIOUSLY?
It’s clear that the “culture” of the South isn’t just the parts where he imagines slavery didn’t exist, it’s a version of the South in which enslaved people, their labor, and their culture were plundered with impunity and erased, and his arguments attempt to perpetuate that plunder and erasure.
There’s a reason he wants to erase the realities of slavery. The heartwarming family story he tells reveals why. His family story is the story of the Lost Cause. Enslaved people were happy, loyal, and finally had the chance to find Jesus. The war ruined all of that, but his family kindly offered the “opportunity” of participating in an exploitative labor system to the people they were no longer able to exploit fully, people who were mysteriously “uneducated” (and therefore incapable of self-governance).
Ultimately, despite his meager protestations, White doesn’t think slavery was bad for Africans and African-Americans. His perspective is fundamentally rooted in and shaped by what DeRienzo correctly identifies as white supremacy. There’s no getting around that.
One reason why White’s piece undoubtedly found a sympathetic audience in Connecticut is that, even as it tries to separate Southern culture from slavery, it plays on the idea that slavery was a discrete system that happened somewhere else and then ended. I have no doubt that view shaped the poor decision to run this piece.
There are lots of ways to respond to this willful refusal to confront the historical reality. I could point out that slavery existed in “the North,” though I’m sure he knows that. Maybe he doesn’t know that in the 1790 census, every town in Connecticut had at least one slave. Maybe he, unlike children in Connecticut schools today, never learned of Venture Smith. Maybe he doesn’t know that because of the gradual nature of emancipation in Connecticut, the 1850 census was the first one in which New Haven County, in which Waterbury sits, didn’t record the existence of any enslaved people. Given that the town’s website talks about the effects of King Phillips’ War without acknowledging what the war was about, I’m sure he has no idea that it resulted in the sale of defeated Native Americans into slavery by pious Christian New Englanders.
And maybe, just maybe, he’s never heard “Molasses to Rum.”
More problematic, though, is the refusal to acknowledge the way that slavery was the economic system of the United States, whether you personally held someone in bondage or not. To say people in Connecticut didn’t participate in slavery is like saying in 2017 that you don’t participate in the minimum-wage economy. It’s the economy, stupid. It’s one of the reasons radical abolitionists found it so difficult to extract themselves from the slave economy; how do you “boycott” something that is part of everything you buy?
But it’s more than that. It’s not just about whether or not white Americans who didn’t enslave people bought goods produced by enslaved laborers. Slavery drove the American economy in the 19th century, it was the American economy, and its profits were central to the continued existence of the new republic. The United States was established on and survived through a system that depended on the forced, uncompensated productive and reproductive labor of enslaved black Africans and African-Americans.
Why does White think his family “could not afford to pay them to farm” after the war? It wasn’t just because they were “broke,” it was because the business model of plantation agriculture depended on not paying for the labor. White wants us to see his family’s story as white benevolence; we should read it for what it is: his family’s attempt, fully supported by Northern white Americans who were “tired” of thinking about newly-free African-Americans and who liked their cheap cotton clothing, to establish a system as close as possible to the one they were now barred from using by the Constitution.
White insists we can separate slavery from Southern culture, but we can’t even separate it from Northern culture. We can’t separate it from American culture, and his insistence that his readers should, as a way of forgiving and moving on, is as historically inaccurate as it is offensive and injurious.
There’s lots of good new research lately about slavery and American capitalism, if White would like to dive into it. Ed Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism and Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A Global History are two different takes.
 His absolute refusal to acknowledge the ways that Christianity was used to justify enslavement is one of the most perverse elements of this piece, and unsurprisingly misses the fact that there were Catholic and Muslim Africans among those enslaved by his beloved white saviors.