New World Slavery was not “Biblical”

2 11 2008

Many things posted on the Internet are ridiculous and merit no response. One should thus not waste one’s time on them. However, there are certain things that come from quarters that are perhaps too important to ignore. One of them is the admittedly right-wing conservative Catholic site, Inside Catholic, which I do read from time to time. Since the Catholic Internet is dominated by the conservative right, and most progressive Catholics on the Internet and elsewhere are too busy questioning the Church to contribute to any constructive conversation, you can think that the majority of Catholics in this country are white, middle class, card-carrying members of the Republican Party. This of course is not the case, but it can mean that any kooky idea right of center is given a hearing, no matter how absurd it is.

H.W. Crocker III’s article, Why Jefferson Davis Opposed Roe vs. Wade is one such propaganda piece. Since part of me suspects that this essay is really the shabby work of an agent provocateur who wants to make Catholics look worse than we can sometimes appear, I don’t think the essay is worthy of any real consideration. The only point that I wish to address here is the old canard that the antebellum South was a Christian place since slavery is accepted in the Bible. While what passes for slavery in the Bible and the barbaric institution of more recent times bear the same name, to think of them as being the same is a pernicious myth.

Slavery in the New World was not a political question, but was rather an ontological question. The indigenous people and the Africans who were brought over to work on the plantations of the New World were not enslaved for anything they did, as in the ancient institution, but for what they were: inferior, “unintelligent”, and sub-human. While many conservatives despise political correctness and the questioning of the dominance of European culture, there is no easy way of separating this culture from the ideology of the past 500 years that treated most of the rest of the world as beasts of burden only fit to serve the machine of European progress. Slavery in the Bible was never about race; it never brought up metaphysical issues of what constituted a human being and whether or not the color of the skin signified that a people could be enslaved in perpetuity. What arose after 1492 in the Western Hemisphere was a new order of technocratic evil, a radical enshrining of systematic violence in the name of progress the affects of which we continue to feel to this day.

If anything, Jefferson Davis, or at the very least his confreres, would have demanded an abortion in the case of any sort of black male on white female miscegenation, and opposed it for slave women on the grounds of depriving the slave owner of his property. In this sense, Jefferson Davis would have been very “pro-life” in the case of Margaret Garner, an escaped slave who chose to kill her young children rather than let them be recaptured and taken back into slavery. In his eyes and in the eyes of any slave owner, it was a matter of property. Indeed, any “states’ rights” argument in this context was a matter of property in the sense that whether or not you could rape or whip a person you owned was an issue of your rights as a business owner. Such arguments are beyond grotesque.  This type of naivete is beyond words and worthy of very little consideration.

One thinks at times in reading these things that people like this are Catholic only because it serves their right wing agenda. Any real sense of history, compassion, or common sense is thrown out the window in the name of ideology. Like I said, the Internet can be a veritable cesspool of ignorant ideas. The only problem is that some of them appear to come from reputable sources. Caveat lector.


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9 responses

3 11 2008
Walt C

Leah,

Your comments about Mammy stories also reminds me a lot about the roles black characters play in contemporary films i.e. the Magic Negro. Plenty of black characters are always there simply to help the white characters out with some sort of moral dilemma and seem to have no purpose to their own character other than that.Their own hopes, dreams and personal conflicts never seem to get aired on their own terms but only in relation to the white characters story. I was told by a reliable friend that was what Morgan Freeman’s role in the movie Million Dollar Baby was as was Will Smith’s in the Legend of Bagger Vance although I can’t personally vouch for it being that I haven’t seen either of these films. One I recall is the old black man, I can’t recall the actors name, who helps a young Ralph Macchio find the lost Robert Johnson blues song in a 1980’s era film Crossroads, although there is many other examples to pick from. FWIW, Crossroads ,if anyone reading this comment recalls this film, was a skewed portrayal of the blues as a musical style and the black culture it came from. An informative read on this was Elijah Wald’s book Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues for anyone interested.

I guess it has something to do with what Arturo ,you’re referring to in that non-European peoples are seen as victims or side players and not agents of history. This perception still shows up in popular culture quite a bit.

I also agree with the comments regarding that the pro life movement has never gained much traction among minority communities in this country in that it has hitched its wagon to close to one political party.During the aftermath of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, I don’t how many obnoxious e-mail forwards I got from people who always vote pro life ,blaming the suffering in New Orleans all on the residents there being dependent upon gov’t handouts and not being able to take care of themselves.That most of the poor in New Orleans were working poor and not on public assistance didn’t seem to make much of a difference to these e-mailers. It’s stuff like this that only cements the stereotype that pro lifers only care about people during the first nine months of life.

As always Arturo , you write one of the most thoughtful blogs out here on the Net.

3 11 2008
AG

“I don’t doubt that Robert E. Lee and others like him loved their mammys, but that always seemed to me to be the kind of love that one bestows upon a beloved pet.”

Thank you, Leah. I don’t understand how one can speak of “love” when referring to your own property, your beasts of burden. (And slave caregivers were often separated from their own children in order to raise their owners’ kids.) Real love for mammy would have demanded her freedom and the fight for political and social recognition of her as a human being. I have affection for my cat and delight in her sometimes human-like behavior – I also make sure she’s fed, warm on cold nights, and has the best health care I can afford – but that doesn’t mean I no longer consider her an animal. This seems to me a more accurate description of the kind of “love” for their slaves felt by even the ‘nicest’ slaveholders. God spare me the kind of “love” and “care” that in the end still regards me and my children as non-persons in the system.

The posters above also have started in on the typical defense – the change the subject tactic. “Slavery here wasn’t nearly as bad as elsewhere” – as if evil somewhere else helps to excuse evil in one’s own backyard. I don’t think the old “almost everyone was doing it, and look, some people were even worse” flies as an argument, especially since even at the time of the founding of the U.S., there were vocal opponents to slavery throughout the Western world. It’s much more truthful to acknowledge that a number of the early American “heroes” were indeed dishonorable men (and I include the Founding Fathers here) who were, through action and inaction, complicit in grave evil, no matter how much such an acknowledgement shatters the myth of the United States as the city on the hill.

The RC Church was, as others have pointed out, also complicit in this evil. Both myself and A.V. have written harshly about the historical treatment of non-whites in RC in the Americas. But spreading the guilt doesn’t excuse it.

I have no idea why we should invoke a 21st century athlete and a political figure as examples of blacks making history. (Lewis Hamilton, of course, is British.) Why not Prince Hall, or James Forten, both of whom fought for the Colonists during the American Revolution? Those are just two of numerous others that speak to blacks playing a role – even from an oppressed position, and beyond the economy grown through their burden – in this country since before its founding, just like the white people have. But such facts are often treated as inconvenient to a lily-white portrayal of American history, where, as A.V. stated, the white man is the only permissible agent of history.

I don’t know that we can say that A.V.’s hypotheses of Davis’ actions are wrong. I certainly know that we can say that Davis’ thoughts on Roe v. Wade re states’ rights are impossible to determine. Southerners invoked states’ rights when it was convenient for them – rather, convenient for maintenance of their peculiar institution – and invoked federalism when it was convenient for them (see the Missouri Compromise, the campaign for federal censorship of abolitionist publications, Fugitive Slave Laws, the Dred Scott Decision). Whatever side of the fence allowed slavery was the side they wanted to be on. No matter how much a few Confederate leaders may have personally despised slavery (and I’ve never seen evidence that Lee, Davis, or Jackson were participating in abolitionist movements in their down-time), they obviously didn’t consider it a grave enough evil to not participate in a fight for it when a number of the seceding states were acknowledging slavery as the primary reason for their secession from the Union. And then they started the Civil War.

Back to the Republican Party. I think there are a number of areas where non-whites are in agreement with Republican positions, but the over-heated rhetoric out of the Republican party, particularly in its appeals to amnesia and revisionist history to fan the emotional flames of its overwhelmingly white base, make it a no-go. What black person wants to be a member of a political party that all too often, in its rhetoric for its base, treats us as only having appeared on the scene at the time of LBJ’s Great Society in order to be a further burden on the white person’s tax dollars? Very few, and it requires turning a really blind eye to the persons one has figuratively gotten into bed with to do so.

3 11 2008
Leah

I don’t doubt that Robert E. Lee and others like him loved their mammys, but that always seemed to me to be the kind of love that one bestows upon a beloved pet. Somehow I don’t think that Lee thought about Mammy X as an actual human being that was capable of the same kind of rationality and emotions as he. I could be wrong, but in all of the accounts I’ve read about the mammy mythology, never once is she portrayed as a person who has a life outside of making her white family happy.

Racism is also one of the primary reasons why there aren’t more American black Catholics (3 million out of approximately 30 million). Many black Catholics who had been baptized into the Church as slaves, either by masters who were white or free people of color, become Protestant after the Civil War. Part of this was probably to spite their ex-masters. Another reason is that the black Protestant churches were one of the few institutions where blacks had autonomy over their own lives. It was also very difficult for black men to be ordained to the priesthood, as the seminaries refused to admit them. This is why the first black priests were originally ordained in Rome. Since white priests generally weren’t interested in ministering to black parishes, this limited the possibilities of converting blacks to Catholicism. Even for those blacks who remained in the Church couldn’t always receive the sacraments, as they were often barred from frequenting white parishes. Sometimes blacks could sit in a segregated spot in the choir loft, but in other instances they were just out of luck. Reconstruction would have been a great period to attract black converts, but it was a wasted opportunity. The South was tolerant to Catholics up to a point. Genteel Catholics with antebellum roots were accepted, but Catholic immigrants were not, particularly if they had darker skin. There was also the common belief that Catholicism was not “American” however that term is being defined. These two reasons are probably why the KKK has traditionally been against Catholicism.

3 11 2008
Lord Peter

Indeed, lest any doubt that black persons can make history, I suggest one few contemporary name that shall go down prominently in the books of lore whether written by pasty pale skins (like myself) or otherwise: Barrack Obama; (though personally I am more enthralled with Tiger Woods, and most recently, Lewis Hamilton — google this exciting kid!.

Lord Peter

3 11 2008
Arturo Vasquez

The main problem that I have always had with reactionary revisions of history is that they continue to treat non-European peoples as victims and not agents of history. Slavery was a “peripheral” subject in the game of “great [white] men” playing out “great [white] ideas”. W.E.B DuBois refutes this in his work on Black Reconstruction, showing that slaves leaving the plantations served as a form of general strike against the Confederacy, and of course the radical experiments in mass democracy by freed black slaves is a far cry from the “carpetbagger” mythology of Southern lore; a racist assumption that the only way non-white people can make history is if they are manipulated by whites. There is so much rancid and false history behind the “South shall rise again” legends that only a very ignorant white person can profess any of it.

3 11 2008
Lord Peter

Arturo,

While I generally agree with your post, your specific invocation of Jeff Davis is of the mark. Davis was first educated by RC Benedictine Monks (who were slave holders) in central Kentucky and even wanted to convert. The brothers persuaded him to the catholic wing of the Episcopal Church so as to avoid scandal, not to mention the loss of future tuition money, which was coming largely from Protestant planters.

Davis remained staunchly catholic in his views, and to the extent he was wrong about “our peculiar institution” (which he of course was), his error was co-extensive with the contemporaneous RC practice in the South. Indeed, most monasteries and convents in the deep South held slaves with the full approval of the RC primates domestic and abroad. Of course, religiously observant slaver holders, like Davis and Robert E. Lee, did not treat their “property” as mere chattel, unlike most of their countrymen (including Yankees such as Ulysses S. Grant, whose personal slaves were only emancipated by operation of law — the ratification of the 13 Amendment!)

Finally, by way of illustration, I note that the Vatican informally supported the Confederacy during the War of Northern Aggression (probably because the South was more tolerant of Roman Catholics). And, while Davis was jailed in D.C. pending a treason trial (that ultimately never occurred to avoid wide dissemination of facts indicating Northern hypocrisy), the Pope sent him a crown of thorns in sympathy.

It was not Davis, or even the Conferate South that was the MOST abusive in unGodly, New-World Slavery (which BTW was most vocally criticized by Anglicans — not Roman Catholics). to the contrary, the main culprits were in chronological order:

1) the Asanti tribe in Ghana which actually did the vast majority of enslaving other West African tribes and “pitting them” awaiting a Roman Cathiolic Portugese Slave ship. The largest loss of life occurred in the pits. (Listen to Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.”

2) the Roman Catholic Portuguese slavers, as well as many shippers from still-prominent, Lilly-White Boston families, then were responsible for the middle passage, where another significant loss of life occurred.

3) the Plantation Owners in the Caribbean and East South America, and also the deep South, a mixture of Protestants and Catholics, worked the salves to almost certain death in malaria ridden sugar cane fields.

Yes, the whole sordid tale was almost all about a source for refined sugar for dainty Western Europeans. And, it only came to an end when they figure who to refine sugar from beets at lower cost. (The Anglican vocalism only greased the wheels of abolition.)

Still, Artuto’s overall point that the South was unkind to blacks in an understatement. On whole, we were brutal — white Protestants and Catholics alike. (Also, many Northern slave holders — yea it was legal. But especially Boston shippers.) But, the Caribbean Basin was beyond brutal — it was genocidal and extensive. This is why the phrase “sold down the (Mississippi) river” is prerogative and indelibly etched in English argot, even if folks who employ it don’t know its etymology.

Sincerely,

Lord Peter Wimsey

3 11 2008
athanasius

Here I must “half” agree with you. On the one hand, I see exactly your point on right wing Catholicism which nestles itself in the bosom of the Republican party as surely as the USCCB was within the Democratic party in the 70’s. There are what I find seriously unCatholic responses to immigration (shoot them, fence everyone in, etc.) and simply non-Catholic thought vis a vis the war on transitive verbs, pollution and the environment, economics etc. It is a phenomenon which I call Catholic nationalism. There are “libertarian Catholics” who feel it is possible to ignore and in fact dissent from the clear and unbroken papal teaching from Pope Leo XIII to John Paul II on social teaching (which itself draws from Aristotle and St. Thomas) yet oppose progressives who do the same on life issues.

Nevertheless, the issue of the south and slavery was much more nuanced. Indeed, it was evil, and slavery in the south bore no resemblance to what was understood in the bible. Slavery as it was inflicted on africans and latin americans alike was inhuman and based on the false doctrines of racism, which are a denial of the book of Genesis.

Yet, Robert E. Lee owned no slaves and despised slavery, the same with Thomas (stonewall) Jackson. Jefferson Davis likewise did not own slaves, and set free all the slaves he ever inherited. He recognized as many others did that slavery as an institution was dying out, and would die out. This of course does not justify it, and I think it is stupid to say something that is evil will “die out”, I should rather end it now. But men in the south in positions of leadership believed and expected this. Moreover, blacks cooked for Confederate armies, and even the strongest proponents of slavery loved their Mammy (black wet nurse) as much as they loved their own mothers. Bl. Pope Pius IX not only made the Papacy the only world body to recognize the Confederacy, but also kept a cordial correspondence with Jefferson Davis. The north on the other hand was just as racist if not more than the south, and Lincoln believed that black men were inferior to whites, a position that Davis did not hold.

However, none of that changes the fact that Crocker’s piece is quite absurd. The South was not some libertarian’s paradise and the mass of men owned their own property and prized their self-governance and freedom in terms of their property, which was free from the competition of “agri-business” which today the libertarian turns a deaf ear to. The Southern equivalent of agribusiness was exporting cotton to England. The sad truth, even though in the war between the states I generally find sympathy with the Confederates, is that not only were atrocities committed against blacks who were likewise human beings made in the image and likeness of God, but the wealthy class made no apology for it and wanted to revive the slave trade, which all civilized nations had put a stop to. Furthermore, there was nothing libertarian about the south. Its leaders sponsored high tariffs to protect the plantation owners from competition from the North and other countries.

So while the American civil war is more nuanced than the conventional history books, you are quite correct that it was not kind to blacks, and Crocker’s piece is frankly more than a little embarrassing.

2 11 2008
Ben George

H.W. Crocker III’s work is always fuzzy headed triumphalist nonsense, and is the main reason I let my subscription to Crisis magazine lapse.

2 11 2008
Leah

This entry states a lot of things that I’ve been thinking but couldn’t figure out how to articulate. There seems to be a stream of thought in the Catholic blogosphere that believes that everything was great in America, until the Civil Right Movement. Such individuals draw a straight line from fight against Jim Crow to abortion, the gay rights movement, and any number of modern maladies. Consequently, black history by its very nature is inherently illegitimate, since it challenges accepted notions of history. Incidently, I don’t disagree with the notion of a Western canon, I just think that significant works like “Up from Slavery” and “The Soul of Black Folk” should be integrated into it.

I’ve also seen another school of thought that considers traditionalist Roman Catholicism to be the “racial religion” of whites. Because the Catholic Church was responsible for many of the greatest works in Western civilization, it is the only bastion against the colored hordes. This view conviently forgets that, not only are most Catholics not white, but it is in non-Western countries that the Church is actually growing. Hence, blacks and other non-whites become perpetual metics, who have no place in secular or church history, except as savages to be taught whatever our “betters” deem worthy. What’s particularly interesting is how the Africans in the Anglican Communion are being called “savages” as well for upholding traditional Christian views on sexuality and the Bible. So we’re savages when we’re Christian and savages when we aren’t. You just can’t win.

I really think that part of the reason why the pro-life movement has not made many inroads among non-whites has to do with the racial politics of the immediate post-Civil Rights era. The fact that the pro-life movement became so strongly associated with the New Right prevented it from getting support from other quarters. An essay about why Jefferson Davis was anti-abortion certainly isn’t going to be attracting blacks anytime soon. If anything, this election shows how isolated pro-lifers are. For most Americans, abortion is not seen as an important issue. If anything, it’s considered the pet cause of a small sub-segment of white evagelicals and Catholics, something no “thinking” person should be concerned about in this troubled period of war and recession.

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