Memory  /  Argument

*The South*: The Past, Historicity, and Black American History (Part II)

Exploring recent debates about the uses–and utility–of Black history in both the academic and public spheres.

Interventions like the 1619 Project and Thirteentherism are darker expressions of the practice of attending to the past for allegorical purposes. They are extreme extensions of a disposition to abjure historical complexity out of commitment to producing accounts of unremitting brutalization and oppression of black people at the hands of “whites” or an abstract White Supremacy, which sometimes seem like oppression porn. This tendency militates against nuanced historical understanding, as in a moralizing inclination to reduce slavery and Jim Crow to what my historian son exasperatedly describes as “white people’s permanent sadistic camp” for blacks. He has noted also that in recent years undergraduates, both black and otherwise, take issue with description of slavery as a labor system, as though thus describing it makes light of slaves’ suffering and the moral opprobrium the institution merits, and resist considering whether it’s accurate as a historical characterization. Prof. Barbara Jeanne Fields has remarked similarly that much current discussion of slavery presumes that its point was to produce white supremacy, not cotton, cane, rice or indigo. She has also observed that, if racism were the cause and purpose of black slavery, a much simpler solution to racial aversion would have been simply to leave blacks an ocean away in Africa.

The punch line of these darker allegorical accounts is that nothing has ever improved black Americans’ circumstances meaningfully and that, moreover, efforts to make things better have only made blacks worse off. A bracing early encounter I had with this interpretive inclination came in the 1990s, when I was teaching a fairly large enrollment (I remember that because it was one of those courses in which I had to lecture from a stage) black politics course. My lecture was on the thirty years of contestation between Emancipation and the descent of the Jim Crow order, and I noted that the sharecrop system took shape as a compromise, albeit one that reflected the asymmetrical power of planters and tenant farmers, between the freedpeople’s desires to work on their own without immediate planter supervision and the landowners’ preference for instituting a labor system as close as they could get to slavery. My point was that to that extent, the sharecrop system, though hardly ideal, was something of an improvement for black southerners. An earnestly perplexed student raised her hand and noted that her professor, whom she named, in an African American Studies course had insisted that sharecropping, and the Jim Crow regime, were indeed worse than slavery for freedpeople. I was flummoxed, partly because of the constraining guild imperative to avoid criticizing or disparaging a colleague in front of students, but also because I couldn’t for the life of me understand what objective would justify imposing such a defeatist – and inaccurate – argument onto students. And it was one that hardly qualifies as inspirational or shows any regard for actual black people’s “agency,” which is another shibboleth of the history as allegory tendency.