[Marxism] Myth of the happy slave

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Mar 28 11:57:44 MST 2006


Horowitz, Genovese, and the Varieties of Culture War: Comments on the 
Continuing Unpleasantness in Idaho
By William L. Ramsey

Perhaps the institution of slavery as it existed in the antebellum South 
was permitted by the Bible, as my Fundamentalist and Neo-Confederate 
opponents insist. I rather hope not, but I have never challenged them on 
that point. It strikes me as a nineteenth-century coffin they are welcome 
to continue nesting in if they like. But it never ends there. They must 
always go on to recast the South's "peculiar institution" as a positively 
"pleasant" and worthwhile experience for southern blacks, and I, perhaps 
foolishly, have felt obliged as a professional historian to explain that 
such views are not in agreement with the documentary record.

The very public controversies surrounding these encounters have produced 
some interesting results. My opponents have learned, for their part, to use 
increasingly clever arguments to arrive at their foregone conclusions, and, 
just as important, to enlist the expertise of conservative scholars like 
Eugene Genovese to assist them in that effort, while I have become 
increasingly inured to a broad range of personal attacks, character 
assassination, and efforts at political intimidation. None of it has helped 
me professionally in my quest for academic recognition and tenure, and it 
might well be asked whether the cost of public engagement is worth the 
withering punishment that can sometimes come with it. The question seems 
all the more pertinent as the academy finds itself increasingly under 
assault from conservative activists such as David Horowitz, whose 
credentials as a former Marxist turned conservative are not far different 
from Genovese's (I will leave the significance of this to the 
prosopographers). Yet rightwing offensives against mainstream scholarship 
do not all operate from a common ideological foundation, and I feel that 
our challenges to Neo-Confederate historical fraud have helped reveal some 
of the fault lines that distinguish those co-belligerents on the right from 
each other. Most importantly, I argue that scholars can put such fault 
lines to work in the public square as they seek to defend the mission and 
value of the academic enterprise.

Even so, the benefits of public engagement can be slow in coming and 
frustratingly subtle. For two years after a colleague and I issued our 
initial challenge to Pastor Douglas Wilson and Steven Wilkins (co-founder 
of the League of the South, identified as a hate group by the Southern 
Poverty Law Center), they clung to the myth of a righteous and beneficent 
slave system with a tenacity that we never expected. In their notorious 
Biblical defense of racial slavery, Southern Slavery, As It Was (please be 
aware: the booklet is being hosted by a "kinist" website that includes what 
I regard to be racially offensive material), they had made a pretense of 
grounding their celebration of slavery on historical data, especially the 
narratives collected from former slaves in the 1930s, but that was intended 
for a select audience of believers. For objective readers, we reasoned, the 
slave narratives simply did not support Wilson's contention that former 
slaves remembered the experience of forced labor in "overwhelmingly 
positive" terms, or that "the majority of those interviewed complain that 
they would rather be slaves again than to be free." So it seemed 
inconceivable that they would prolong the farce in full view of their 
neighbors. But they did. Wilson in particular had a great deal to lose in 
material terms if he acknowledged his errors, especially in his role as 
founder of the Classical Christian School movement and president of the 
Association of Classical and Christian Schools (he was recently interviewed 
by an admiring Pat Robertson on CBN). At no time in the three years since 
we issued our book review have Wilson or Wilkins acknowledged any 
substantive flaws in their pro-slavery booklet, aside from foot-noting and 
citation mistakes. Indeed, Southern Slavery As It Was continued to be 
assigned in high school history classes at member schools in Wilson's 
Association of Classical and Christian Schools as late as November 2004. It 
was finally withdrawn after the North Carolina News and Observer published 
an expose about its continued use at Cary Christian School, along with 
extensive quotes from the booklet.

Behind his public intransigence and propaganda, however, Wilson knew the 
booklet was flawed and, worse, that the obvious nature of the flaws made 
the core argument more difficult to sell to a mainstream audience. He 
discontinued publication of it (easily done since he published it himself) 
and privately sought the advice of scholars who were sympathetic toward his 
religious views and his classical school movement in order to revise it. 
Bancroft prize winning historian Eugene Genovese, famous for his 
groundbreaking study of slavery, Roll, Jordan, Roll, helped Wilson find 
ways of answering the critical obstacles that we had put in his way, and 
Wilson's revised and expanded (and still self-published) version of the 
book, Black and Tan: Essays and Excursions on Slavery, Culture War, and 
Scripture in America, is a testament to Genovese's skill as an editor and 
mentor. It is trumpeted as Mr. Wilson's triumphant response to "liberal" 
academics like me who criticize southern slavery as a harsh system, and 
Genovese's blurb on the back cover drives the point home by denouncing 
"most professors of American History, whose distortions and trivializations 
disgrace our college classrooms." So has anything really changed over the 
last three years? Were we foolish to challenge Neo-Confederate historical 
misinformation in the first place, and what, if anything, can be learned 
from it all?




More information about the Marxism mailing list