The Baby and the Bathwater: A Few More Thoughts on the Slave Auction

     As Ulysses S. Grant closed in on the final days of his life he reflected on the war that had catapulted him to fame and the Presidency, and on the future of the nation he had helped preserve. Rather than dwell on the heart rending tragedy of 620,000+ lives lost, Grant argued for a more positive interpretation:

    “It is probably well that we had the war when we did. We are better off now than we would have been without it, and have made more rapid progress than we otherwise should have made. The civilized nations of Europe have been stimulated into unusual activity, so that commerce, trade, travel, and thorough acquaintance among people of different nationalities, has become common; whereas before, it was but the few who ever had the privilege of going beyond the limits of their own country or who knew anything about other people. Then, too, our republican institutions were regarded as experiments up to the breaking out of the rebellion, and monarchical Europe generally believed that our republic was a rope of sand that would part the moment the slightest strain was brought upon it. Now it has shown itself capable of dealing with one of the greatest wars that was ever made, and our people have proven themselves to be the most formidable in war of any nationality.”

     Since witnessing the re-enactment of the slave auction Saturday morning, I have been reflecting on my own response and the responses of others. One blogger suggested that “white Civil War bloggers” should “shut the f— up and listen,” and suggested checking out this blog where African-Americans are voicing their opinions. I said in my last post that because I am not African-American I would not presume to tell anyone how to feel about this. But, I do think it is fair to explore my own reaction, and ask what an appropriate reaction would be. As one of my readers said, this was not just black history, it was white history too; it was American history. As Abbi wrote, this is our shared history.

     My friends and colleagues who attended said that they were drawn into 1861. Abbi had a much more visceral response than I did. She was closer to the re-enactors. I was trying to observe the program and the crowd. I could not drown out the modern urban surroundings and the fact that the auctioneer had a headset microphone. But, obviously, the program has had me thinking ever since, even if I didn’t have the emotional response others had.

     So how should a middle aged white man respond? Should I feel guilty? Abbi wrote that she came across a commenter who said he/she was tired of being made to feel guilty. I don’t think this response should be easily dismissed. This led me to explore the concept of white guilt, and to some interesting articles (here and here). I don’t know where I stand on this, but I have been struggling with some of the responses I have read that indicate some people would like to see America destroyed.

     Kevin Levin asked why we feel a need to remember a war to end slavery. It’s a good question. Abbi said, “We have a responsibility to our past to understand it and a responsibility to our future to do better.” I couldn’t agree more, but how does that translate into action and to public policy? During the post re-enactment discussion in the Old Courthouse rotunda, one man said remembering our history is great but we need to concentrate on today. In his opinion African-Americans are still not free; there is still no equality. He pointed out that black unemployment is over 16%; double that of the rest of the population. Does this mean more social programs? More affirmative action/ diversity programs?

     No doubt there is still racial discrimination. There are also many other forms of discrimination; gender discrimination; class discrimination. Recent studies have shown that just being less than beautiful affects one’s prospects in life. Most of us, whatever our skin color, scratch and claw and struggle to maintain a middle class lifestyle (whatever that is). Fair or not, our society is built on competition. Competition has made America the greatest nation on earth, but just how unrestrained should that competition be? The free labor ideology of Abraham Lincoln’s Republicans avowed that all people should have a fair chance in the race of life; that no one should be given an unfair advantage. It was this ideology that forced a confrontation with the institution of slavery. Slavery was the antithesis of free labor. Free labor was and is a noble idea, but putting it into practice has been more than challenging to say the least.

     On a more personal level, I know there are thousands of people out there who would love to have my job. I hope this doesn’t sound too defensive, but, I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth, so I need to make a living too.  I try every day to treat all people with respect. Beyond that, I’m not sure what the answers are to all the questions I’ve raised here. Greater minds than mine have wrestled with them and the answers are still elusive. But, I still believe in America. I still believe in the American people, in all their various shades of skin tone, and I believe that an honest examination of our past should make us stronger. And, no one can convince me that destroying the United States of America would be good for anyone. To use an old metaphor, “You don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

4 thoughts on “The Baby and the Bathwater: A Few More Thoughts on the Slave Auction

  1. This is such a complex issue to try and tackle; through all of the interpretations of slavery and the way some people are using the slave auction to bring attention to current racial discrimination I see a continued discomfort over how exactly to go about properly interpreting the “warts”, if you want to call them that, of American history, and how we can use that information to our collective benefit today. I think that you are on the right page by stating that our history is “shared”, not split between certain racial and ethnic groups.

    I think one fights an uphill battle when they proclaim to know more about a certain subject simply because they were born a certain way (race, gender, region of birth) or that they “own” a certain part of the past that others can never claim to “own” or understand. We see this through people like Richard Williams who state that people born in the North can never understand Southern culture or the role of the Confederacy during the Civil War (or more importantly, his views on those topics that he assumes all southerners have), we see it through Russell Means when he states that “histos and anthros” only destroy Indian culture and that white people can never understand that culture, and we see it through a blogger who tells a certain racial group to “shut the f up”, ostensibly because he/she thinks they are noisy, loud, and can never understand slavery. I’m all for people of a certain culture group doing research on their own culture and educating the public about their findings, but to say that a certain racial group needs to shut up or stop researching a certain topic that might not be related to their blood relatives seems rather arrogant and ethnocentric to me. Does this line of thinking mean that only Germans can truly understand Hitler and judge him for his choices? What about those non-Jews who have researched Jews during that time, can we throw out all of that scholarship? At the end of the day, it’s about controlling the narrative with some people, even if it means not being historically accurate, excluding certain voices from the discussion, and/or ending rational discourse altogether.

    I’d be curious to see what a white historian like David Blight or Eric Foner — historians who have made a living studying race in American culture — think about all of this, and if they feel comfortable commenting on a topic like a slave auction in St. Louis in 2011. I’m assuming the aforementioned blogger wants them to shut up too.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful comment Nick. Prof. da Silva said African-Americans should be proud of their ancestors and their past; proud that they survived the ordeal of slavery. I think we all want to be proud of our past and our ancestors. If you clicked on the articles I linked to, one said, “Every individual, I would argue, needs to feel a connection to community, to a history, and to a human project larger than his or her own life. Without this connection, we are bereft of a concern for the future or an investment in the fate of our community.” But you also saw the title, “History as a Weapon.” That’s where part of the problem lies. Some folks self-indentify too much with their ancestors, and let’s face it, not all of our ancestors were wonderful people. In fact, they were all human, and therefore even the best of them had their flaws. We should study the past so that we aren’t “doomed to repeat it,” but, again, how that translates into present and future policy is where the really hard part comes in.

    • Thanks for the response. I agree wholeheartedly with your sentiments. I am proud of my ancestors and like you I believe in the American people as a whole. I also realize that we are all human, and our challenge of reaching racial equality while maintaining liberty for all remains to be seen all the way through. We still continue to strive for that, however. I also agree with Prof. da Silva when she says people need to connect with something larger than themselves, but I hope that also means people of all colors having the chance to connect with something they find important, regardless of content or a person’s background; I’ve taken a renewed interest in African-American and Indian-American history over the past few months, and I hope that I can be allowed to take something from the study of those topics without being judged about my background.

      Finally, I’ll add that another important reason for us to push for history to be a “shared” concept is the fact that there has been interracial breeding since the creation of the U.S., and it would be wrong to exclude these people from something that is rightly theirs; they shouldn’t be removed from a certain part of their diverse past because they aren’t black, white, yellow, or red enough.

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