by Jeremy Young | 1/08/2008 06:37:00 PM
[Cross-posted at Daily Kos and My Left Wing.]

The past isn't dead. It isn't even past.

-- William Faulkner

What struck me most clearly about David Blight's magnificent new book A Slave No More, which I recently reviewed, was just how close to us the nefarious effects of slavery remain. John Washington and Wallace Turnage, the two former slaves whose escape narratives Blight published in his book, passed down their manuscripts to their children and grandchildren, whose own same-generation heirs in turn passed them on to Blight. The scholar was, in essence, receiving the manuscripts from people whose parents and grandparents were enslaved, right here in our own country. To bring the events of America's sordid past even closer to home, consider the case of the last two Civil War widows, who died less than five years ago. If you think about that, it means that there were women alive in our own time who were married to men who fought over the question of slavery. (And if you're one of those folks who thinks the Civil War wasn't really about slavery, read Blight's book -- he disproves that notion with aplomb.)

I know I shouldn't be surprised by all this, but I am. We learn about the Civil War in history classes as if it's something in our distant past, as remote as the Black Death or Caesar's conquest of Gaul. It's very jarring to realize that most of us probably know people who knew people who were enslaved, or at the very least who knew people who were. And for some inequalities, the "distant past" is even less distant than for slavery. Though I have not discussed it with her, my ninety-four-year-old great-aunt likely remembers a time when women could not vote in this country. Her mother certainly did.

So it shouldn't surprise us that American racial and gender attitudes are far from the egalitarian ideal so many think they are. It takes far more than a century and a half for people to get used to treating as people those whom their ancestors viewed as property. It takes far more than a century for people to recognize as equals those whom their ancestors viewed as unworthy to choose their own leadership.

Of the two men whose stories are retold by Blight, Turnage's case is particularly poignant. As a teenager, he survived five harrowing escape attempts and intervening beatings that left him in one case unable to stand for days. Yet once he finally escaped and was resettled in Washington, Turnage's life was spent in a daily struggle for survival. A few photos taken of him in the 1880's, showing a dashing man in a fine suit, were the closest he ever came to middle-class respectability. Despite his obvious courage and ability, Turnage's skin color was enough to ensure his perpetual relegation to the workhouse. The memory of slavery was still too near.

As it was for Turnage, so it is, though in differing degree, for today's victims of inequality. For BrownFemiPower, who's assailed with specious historical arguments about black slaveowners in the antebellum South (note to BfP's commenter: read David Blight's book!). For Shanikka, who must refute a white blogger who assured her dad that Barack Obama wasn't one of "those" blacks because he had "advanced degrees." For my co-blogger, Elle, who has to deal with ignorant white people who make racist comments about her appearance and academic qualifications. They are fighting the same fight Turnage fought, only now their battles are against a hidden and far more insidious form of racism: the Racism Nobody Thinks Is There.

Some of my readers may argue that these "insights" aren't really new, and they're not. But it's only recently that I've begun to see these things. I was that guy who thought he was a progressive but was ambivalent about affirmative action, who once infamously argued as a freshman in college that modern-day feminists were "hammering on a nail that's already been driven all the way in." Only now do I recognize how offensive that comment was, and sadly, it took a white guy to show me -- historian Thomas Sugrue, whose book The Origins of the Urban Crisis shocked me to my core when I read it this past November. Suddenly I couldn't close my eyes to racism any more, somehow -- and I also couldn't deny that if we're going to fix anything in this country, traditional "liberals" don't go nearly far enough. I'm still trying to pick up the pieces of my ideology after reading that book, but I do know that I'll never look at inequality in America in quite the same way again.

I remarked the other day that I wish we lived in a society where men and women were born equal, instead of one in which we have to achieve equality. I know very well that we don't live in such a world; the very fundaments of how I understand myself affirm that it is the case. As an example, when I first read Hugo Schwyzer's comment that "the opposite of rape is not consent; the opposite of rape is enthusiasm," I experienced a series of emotions in succession. First, I was stunned because the idea of obligatory mutual enthusiasm seemed so true and so obvious; and second, I was shamed because I had never even considered the notion before Schwyzer said it. And then, long afterwards, I experienced a third emotion: anger, rage that such terrain should even be contested. What woman would dare to suggest that it was all right if a man merely refrained from saying no but failed to express any enthusiasm? Yet here we are, having to learn that the same standard applies to men that applies to women, that we are not some superclass that has the right to do whatever we want to women so long as they don't object. Similarly, just this evening I was reading these excellent black women writers and caught myself thinking, what would it take for these women to break into the big time of blogging? I was immediately angry with myself and with society at the same time. Why should black women have to "break into" anything? Why shouldn't they be welcomed into the big time of blogging, and everywhere else? Why should I even think these thoughts? Are these the fruits of a society in which equality persists? Are these the marks of a people who are born equal to one another?

We are most certainly born more equal than John Washington and Wallace Turnage were, because they were slaves and we are free. Turnage wrote of his successful escape across Mobile Bay to Union lines, "I Now dreaded the gun, and handcuffs and pistols no more. Nor the blewing [sic] of horns and the running of hounds; nor the threats of death from the rebel's authority. I could now speak my opinion to men of all grades and colors, and no one to question my right to speak." His words show us that the freedom that was won in 1865 was true and real. But just because we are more equal does not mean we are equal enough. Every one of us bears the curse an unequal society gifts to us: we look at others through inborn lenses tinted with prejudice, our minds poisoned from birth with the unspoken dictum that those upon whom we look are somehow lesser than we are. The more I realize how far we are from the kind of mutual respect that goes with true equality of difference, the more discouraged I become.

This may not seem like a very "historical" post, but I think these issues are all about history. Our history has bequeathed to us a legacy of inequality, and it is our job to combat it as best we can. There are no slaves in America any more, yet each of us remains a slave to prejudice and inequality. Every moment we choose to change the subject, to refrain from challenging our inborn prejudices, is a moment in which neither we nor anyone else is truly free. We must pledge zero tolerance for inequality in all contexts. But first, we must realize that inequality remains, not obvious but no less real for its hiddenness. A critical part of that process is, I think, to realize that our own hidden inequality is only a scant few generations removed from the overt inequality of slavery and gendered voting rights. For racism, sexism, and other inequalities in our society, the past, as Faulkner wrote, isn't really even past.



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Blogger Ahistoricality on 1/11/2008 2:08 AM:

I use Marc Bloch's Historian's Craft in my historiography course and one of the bits which always strikes students is how he explains the transmission of culture as coming from grandparents -- who did a lot of the child-care in traditional societies -- rather than from parents. We live in such a generationally shallow society that we often don't see how our grandparents matter to our own understanding of the world.

The exception, and this is where we might be able to link inequality with modern psychology, is in the case of family dysfunction, which is often traced back two or three generations and which people find convincing as an explanation. If we see racism and sexism as a psychological dysfunction, the involuntary perpetuation of it becomes more comprehensible.

[Perhaps. Disclaimer: jet-lag and fever may well be clouding my judgement..... but this is a great post, of that I'm sure.]


Blogger Jeremy Young on 1/11/2008 6:56 AM:

The old blogging engine sputtering back to life, I guess. It's so hard for me to get anything completed for this site any more, although when I do, it tends to be a little more thought out than before.

At any rate, thanks for your comment -- I didn't know any of that stuff. Much left I still need to learn about history before I'm ready to teach it, I wager.


Blogger elle on 1/11/2008 1:19 PM:

I'm still trying to pick up the pieces of my ideology. As am I.

Thank you for this post. The eye opening experiences you've had, I think many of us have. And the wonderful thing is, some of us are receptive rather than resistant to them.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 1/11/2008 3:41 PM:

Elle, thanks for your comment. The thing is, I was resistant too. But this book was assigned for my class, and I couldn't help but read it, and there the evidence was staring me in the face. I wouldn't be a very good historian if I let my ideology get in the way of the evidence, I think. And when I let the evidence win, the ripple effect in my ideology was enormous.

BTW, we miss your writing over here. Even just general professional stuff would be welcome, if the muse of Clio doesn't happen to strike you. Or really, anything you're interested in saying.


Anonymous Anonymous on 1/12/2008 6:55 PM:

If you don't mind, may I say that it's interesting the way that Mr. Turnage expresses himself. He was a relatively uneducated man, yet he doesn't use language that is often called Ebonics.

I'm currently reading Leon Litwack's book "Trouble In Mind: Black Southerners In The Age Of Jim Crow", and I've noticed the same thing about the language, sentence structure and so forth used by many of those beautiful, highly sympathetic people who traveled the dark journey with courage and so many more tears than most of us could bear.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 1/12/2008 7:39 PM:

Anonymous, I'm going to have to disagree with your comment. First of all, it's not accurate to suggest that Turnage was a "relatively uneducated man." Teaching slaves to read had been illegal since the 1831 Nat Turner uprising, so a black man who could write was highly unusual in the South; the ability to write with Turnage's eloquence was particularly surprising and indicates that he was a highly educuated man for his time. Second, since we're looking at a written document, we don't have any idea how Turnage spoke -- and remember, "Ebonics" (more respectfully termed African-American English) is a spoken, not a written, dialect.

While I'm sure you meant no offense, your comment strikes me as similar to Joe Biden's description of Obama as "clean." If we could go back in time and heard Turnage speak in African-American English, would that make his mind any less searching, or his facility with language any less exceptional? The mere fact of speaking African-American English does not make one "low" or inarticulate. It is simply a different form of speech, rather like speaking Catalan. We would not compliment a native Catalan speaker on his decision to write in the king's English; we should afford Turnage the same courtesy.


Anonymous Anonymous on 1/15/2008 8:00 PM:

Mr. Young, I believe you may have just left Starbucks whenever you wrote your comment to me.

Without a definition of what you mean by "a highly educated man for his time", my comment that Turnage was a "relatively uneducated man" isn't refuted by your supposition.

Nowhere in my comments did I say, suggest, or even imply that Mr. Turnage's mind isn't searching, nor did I say, suggest, or imply that he was (your words) "low" or "inarticulate".

After your caffeine wears off, maybe you'll reread my post and come to understand that the main point I made is how interesting Mr. Turnage expresses himself and that it's unlikely that he had much if any formal education.

I have a question for YOU: would you please name a few authors who write in Ebonics? I've yet to run across any. Even in the book that I cited which contains literally hundreds of statements and writings by former slaves, it would be a stretch to find one whose form of speech is what today would be called by some, Ebonics.



Blogger Jeremy Young on 1/15/2008 9:40 PM:

Anonymous, perhaps you missed the part where I said this:

"Ebonics" (more respectfully termed African-American English) is a spoken, not a written, dialect.

So no, I don't know of any published documents written in African-American English. The proletarian literature movement of the 1930's attempted to write literature in primarily spoken dialects, but those documents would have been written predominantly by white people.

If you're complementing Turnage on his rhetorical prowess, then more power to you -- I agree wholeheartedly.


Anonymous Anonymous on 1/16/2008 9:54 AM:


Perhaps you didn't grasp my point about Ebonics.

You said "If we could go back in time and heard Turnage speak in African-American English...".

Do you have any basis for believing that Mr. Turnage spoke in Ebonics?
If so, what is it?

My whole point is that I found it quite interesting that Mr. Turnage, a relatively uneducated man, did not use language in his writing that most people would describe (if they were being polite) as Ebonics.

For whatever reason, you seem to be of the belief that he SPOKE in Ebonics, but didn't WRITE using similar language.

I don't believe there's much evidence at all, if any, that there are many, if any, African-Americans who write using standard English but SPEAK using Ebonics.

You agree with that, right?


Blogger Jeremy Young on 1/16/2008 2:05 PM:

No, I don't. Just about every African-American today who speaks in African-American English (what you call "Ebonics", which is an outdated term) writes in standard English. As I say, it is a spoken, not a written, dialect. As for Turnage, I haven't the foggiest idea how he spoke -- I was simply making a hypothetical proposition in my first response to you.


Anonymous Anonymous on 1/16/2008 3:03 PM:

Would you kindly provide a list of some African-Americans who use Ebonics when speaking but standard English in their writing.

I'm sure there are "some", or a few, but not many. At least not that I'm aware of. Maybe you could name a few prominent African-Americans and maybe I would have an idea about your viewpoint.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 1/16/2008 3:51 PM:

Jesse Jackson. Al Sharpton. Any high school student who speaks African-American English at home.

I could as well ask you to provide a list of ANYONE who writes in African-American English, save the authors of obvious folktales or the white authors of the proletarian literature movement. It would be a lot harder.


Anonymous L on 1/19/2008 5:44 PM:

Um...regarding the AAVE argument, it's called code-switching.