Friday, December 4, 2015

Letters and Feedback: A Friendly Rebuttal To Last Week's Letter

Last week I shared a feedback letter I received from KB on my take on the college protests. In this post, I'd like to address KB's key counterpoints.

Here's her first one:

"...I wholeheartedly disagree with this notion. "the only power he has is the power his "victims" give him". This to me is an argument that is too simplistic for the complicated racial realities that we face today. Bubba has power because "bubba's" great grandfather had power at the expense of others. Victims did not give him power--Institutionalized racism and white privilege did. Bubba can go to class and not ever have to think about whether or not he should get upset about what someone said. He never has to question whether or not he should speak up for fear of presenting the "Black perspective". Bubba will never question whether or not he is overreacting to something someone said--that is work that only his black peers must do."

Presumably, on this point about Bubba's great grandfather, the author is alluding to the impact of slavery.  My literal interpretation of the argument she's making is that at some point in his history, Bubba's ancestors were slave owners, so that gives Bubba, in the present day, power over the black people he encounters.  That argument seems a bit flimsy, but it has somehow managed to withstand scrutiny.  Still, I wonder if some of the facts collected by Henry Louis Gates, the famed black historian and college professor, might cause KB to rethink her position. In an article titled, "Did Black People Own Slaves", Mr. Gates delves deeply into the subject.  I have included some excerpts for your examination below:


"One of the most vexing questions in African-American history is whether free African Americans themselves owned slaves. The short answer to this question, as you might suspect, is yes, of course; some free black people in this country bought and sold other black people, and did so at least since 1654, continuing to do so right through the Civil War. For me, the really fascinating questions about black slave-owning are how many black "masters" were involved, how many slaves did they own and why did they own slaves?

The answers to these questions are complex, and historians have been arguing for some time over whether free blacks purchased family members as slaves in order to protect them -- motivated, on the one hand, by benevolence and philanthropy, as historian Carter G. Woodson put it, or whether, on the other hand, they purchased other black people "as an act of exploitation," primarily to exploit their free labor for profit, just as white slave owners did. The evidence shows that, unfortunately, both things are true. The great African-American historian, John Hope Franklin,states this clearly: "The majority of Negro owners of slaves had some personal interest in their property." But, he admits, "There were instances, however, in which free Negroes had a real economic interest in the institution of slavery and held slaves in order to improve their economic status....

Perhaps the most insidious or desperate attempt to defend the right of black people to own slaves was the statement made on the eve of the Civil War by a group of free people of color in New Orleans, offering their services to the Confederacy, in part because they were fearful for their own enslavement: "The free colored population [native] of Louisiana … own slaves, and they are dearly attached to their native land … and they are ready to shed their blood for her defense. They have no sympathy for abolitionism; no love for the North, but they have plenty for Louisiana … They will fight for her in 1861 as they fought [to defend New Orleans from the British] in 1814-1815.

These guys were, to put it bluntly, opportunists par excellence: As Noah Andre Trudeau and James G. Hollandsworth Jr. explain, once the war broke out, some of these same black men formed 14 companies of a militia composed of 440 men and were organized by the governor in May 1861 into "the Native Guards, Louisiana," swearing to fight to defend the Confederacy. Although given no combat role, the Guards -- reaching a peak of 1,000 volunteers -- became the first Civil War unit to appoint black officers....

So what do the actual numbers of black slave owners and their slaves tell us? In 1830, the year most carefully studied by Carter G. Woodson, about 13.7 percent (319,599) of the black population was free. Of these, 3,776 free Negroes owned 12,907 slaves, out of a total of 2,009,043 slaves owned in the entire United States, so the numbers of slaves owned by black people over all was quite small by comparison with the number owned by white people. In his essay, " 'The Known World' of Free Black Slaveholders," Thomas J. Pressly, using Woodson's statistics, calculated that 54 (or about 1 percent) of these black slave owners in 1830 owned between 20 and 84 slaves; 172 (about 4 percent) owned between 10 to 19 slaves; and 3,550 (about 94 percent) each owned between 1 and 9 slaves. Crucially, 42 percent owned just one slave....

Pressly also shows that the percentage of free black slave owners as the total number of free black heads of families was quite high in several states, namely 43 percent in South Carolina, 40 percent in Louisiana, 26 percent in Mississippi, 25 percent in Alabama and 20 percent in Georgia. So why did these free black people own these slaves?

It is reasonable to assume that the 42 percent of the free black slave owners who owned just one slave probably owned a family member to protect that person, as did many of the other black slave owners who owned only slightly larger numbers of slaves. As Woodson put it in 1924's Free Negro Owners of Slaves in the United States in 1830, "The census records show that the majority of the Negro owners of slaves were such from the point of view of philanthropy. In many instances the husband purchased the wife or vice versa … Slaves of Negroes were in some cases the children of a free father who had purchased his wife. If he did not thereafter emancipate the mother, as so many such husbands failed to do, his own children were born his slaves and were thus reported to the numerators."

Moreover, Woodson explains, "Benevolent Negroes often purchased slaves to make their lot easier by granting them their freedom for a nominal sum, or by permitting them to work it out on liberal terms." In other words, these black slave-owners, the clear majority, cleverly used the system of slavery to protect their loved ones. That's the good news. 

But not all did, and that is the bad news. Halliburton concludes, after examining the evidence, that "it would be a serious mistake to automatically assume that free blacks owned their spouse or children only for benevolent purposes." Woodson himself notes that a "small number of slaves, however, does not always signify benevolence on the part of the owner." And John Hope Franklin notes that in North Carolina, "Without doubt, there were those who possessed slaves for the purpose of advancing their [own] well-being … these Negro slaveholders were more interested in making their farms or carpenter-shops 'pay' than they were in treating their slaves humanely." For these black slaveholders, he concludes, "there was some effort to conform to the pattern established by the dominant slaveholding group within the State in the effort to elevate themselves to a position of respect and privilege." In other words, most black slave owners probably owned family members to protect them, but far too many turned to slavery to exploit the labor of other black people for profit.

Who Were These Black Slave Owners?

If we were compiling a "Rogues Gallery of Black History," the following free black slaveholders would be in it:

John Carruthers Stanly -- born a slave in Craven County, N.C., the son of an Igbo mother and her master, John Wright Stanly -- became an extraordinarily successful barber and speculator in real estate in New Bern. As Loren Schweninger points out in Black Property Owners in the South, 1790-1915, by the early 1820s, Stanly owned three plantations and 163 slaves, and even hired three white overseers to manage his property! He fathered six children with a slave woman named Kitty, and he eventually freed them. Stanly lost his estate when a loan for $14,962 he had co-signed with his white half brother, John, came due. After his brother's stroke, the loan was Stanly's sole responsibility, and he was unable to pay it.

William Ellison's fascinating story is told by Michael Johnson and James L. Roark in their book,Black Masters: A Free Family of Color in the Old South. At his death on the eve of the Civil War, Ellison was wealthier than nine out of 10 white people in South Carolina. He was born in 1790 as a slave on a plantation in the Fairfield District of the state, far up country from Charleston. In 1816, at the age of 26, he bought his own freedom, and soon bought his wife and their child. In 1822, he opened his own cotton gin, and soon became quite wealthy. By his death in 1860, he owned 900 acres of land and 63 slaves. Not one of his slaves was allowed to purchase his or her own freedom.

Louisiana, as we have seen, was its own bizarre world of color, class, caste and slavery. By 1830, in Louisiana, several black people there owned a large number of slaves, including the following: In Pointe Coupee Parish alone, Sophie Delhonde owned 38 slaves; Lefroix Decuire owned 59 slaves; Antoine Decuire owned 70 slaves; Leandre Severin owned 60 slaves; and Victor Duperon owned 10. In St. John the Baptist Parish, Victoire Deslondes owned 52 slaves; in Plaquemine Brule, Martin Donatto owned 75 slaves; in Bayou Teche, Jean B. Muillion owned 52 slaves; Martin Lenormand in St. Martin Parish owned 44 slaves; Verret Polen in West Baton Rouge Parish owned 69 slaves; Francis Jerod in Washita Parish owned 33 slaves; and Cecee McCarty in the Upper Suburbs of New Orleans owned 32 slaves. Incredibly, the 13 members of the Metoyer family in Natchitoches Parish -- including Nicolas Augustin Metoyer, pictured -- collectively owned 215 slaves.

Antoine Dubuclet and his wife Claire Pollard owned more than 70 slaves in Iberville Parish when they married. According to Thomas Clarkin, by 1864, in the midst of the Civil War, they owned 100 slaves, worth $94,700. During Reconstruction, he became the state's first black treasurer, serving between 1868 and 1878.

Andrew Durnford was a sugar planter and a physician who owned the St. Rosalie plantation, 33 miles south of New Orleans. In the late 1820s, David O. Whitten tells us, he paid $7,000 for seven male slaves, five females and two children. He traveled all the way to Virginia in the 1830s and purchased 24 more. Eventually, he would own 77 slaves. When a fellow Creole slave owner liberated 85 of his slaves and shipped them off to Liberia, Durnford commented that he couldn't do that, because "self interest is too strongly rooted in the bosom of all that breathes the American atmosphere....."


So, black great grandfathers in America owned and exploited slaves too.  How are we to reconcile that with the argument that in today's society,individual whites have power over individual blacks because their grandfathers did?

And what about the fact that before eventually ending up in America, most Africans slaves were sold to Europeans by other Africans?  

Contrary to the widely held belief, the coastal raids where Africans were captured by European slave hunters, like the ones portrayed in Alex Haley's masterpiece, Roots, were the minority method.  

How does that square with the premise that whites originally stripped blacks of their power? 

There is no denying that slavery existed.  It was horrible and it caused great harm to generations of black people.  But anyone one who takes the time to examine the records will have to conclude that there is no race that hasn't, at some point in it's history, been complicit - including blacks.  That said, blacks were indeed "powerless" at times throughout history. But not now.  Now we do have the power to order our own steps and determine the courses of our own lives by our daily behaviors.  I still maintain that Bubba really doesn't have that power unless we give it to him. So we would do well to properly consider and incorporate the following idea put forth by Plato,

"Human behavior flows from three main sources, desire, emotion, and knowledge."

Much of the behavior we see today (on college campuses, at protests, etc.,) flows from emotion and it's destructive, certainly for the individual, but ultimately for society. I say we check our emotions and let knowledge and desire lead the way.

As for KB's other argument,

"...I appreciate Keenan sharing his personal story...I agree for the most part. I just think what is expected in environments of higher education is different than what may be true in your neighborhood or your street."

This is an idea that is starting to do considerable harm as more and more people come to see merit in its adoption.  The only place I've ever seen the 'everybody smiling, everybody happy, ethnically diverse, everything in harmony' theme work without friction and conflict is Disney World.  But fantasy is their stock-in-trade.  It's what they're selling and it's what their customers are buying.

Though we may live in a small, small world, college campuses should not be trying to emulate Disney.  Our small world can also a cold world, a mean world, a racist world, and a competitive world too.  Better to spend the precious time that is the college years learning how to live in all those worlds rather than trying to create campus based police states where they don't exist.  Isn't it?


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