Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Sunday, July 17, 2016

No, There Were No "White Slaves" in America

I keep seeing these articles and memes going around about how there were “White slaves”, usually Irish, in the New World. I am attaching a link to a good article that debunks this idea –which is hogwash –but I want to take a couple of minutes to talk about why this myth has become so popular. It first hit the radar in a noticeable way in the 1990s –around the same time as another myth, that there were large numbers of black soldiers in the Confederacy –and, like that myth, has gained steam in the last few years. I constantly have students on exam essays talking about “white slaves” instead of indentured servants, which is what they were. How are the two different? Unlike slavery, indentured servitude was not permanent- it was limited to seven years (or adulthood, if the servant was a child). In most cases, the person signed a contract willingly, often to gain passage to the colonies. In some cases indentured servitude was forced on criminals or people in debt, and during the Cromwell years on Irish captives. But even if not entered willingly, it was not slavery: a slave did not have a contract, he was a slave until he died, and if a woman her children would be lifelong slaves as well. Plus, no one volunteered for slavery. It IS true that indentured servants had miserable lives, and many were worked to death, but those who survived for a few years went free and often even had a small monetary bonus.

So why do so many people want to insist this was actual slavery, and that there is a conspiracy to keep the public from knowing about it? Well, the conspiracy part is to counteract actual historians who would debunk it as inaccurate. But why slavery? It is no accident that this myth and the one about black Confederates have blossomed simultaneously (note: the “Irish slaves” meme proliferated on Facebook right after the event in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014.) Part of the white slavery thing is a form of ethnic pride for people of Irish descent, telling how their ancestors endured suffering. Well, the Irish certainly suffered a lot in America, but they were never slaves. And there is a deeper reason that even non-Irish white people have sustained these myths.

Here’s why: If I can say that white people were slaves TOO, then I can minimize the legacy of slavery and racism. Why, we had it as bad as you people did, and you don’t hear us still whining about it. Similarly, if I can say that large numbers of black men fought for the Confederacy, then I can go on believing that the Civil War –and said Confederacy –were not REALLY about slavery. Thus can we salve our collective conscience, while simultaneously de-legitimizing the complaints of the black community about racism.

[click HERE to see a list of "white slavery" tweets collected by Irish historian Liam Hogan in the wake of the Ferguson protests]

Now, I’m not saying that everyone who re-posts one of those articles/memes has these goals in mind. To most people it just seems like a fascinating story, and it is presented as verified fact. But you have to check the sources. You’re not going to find any credentialed, trained historians making such claims –well, maybe I should say 99.9% of them don’t, since there’s always that one wacko out there somewhere. No, most of this pseudo-history is presented by amateurs and are self-published. One notable exception is a book released by NYU Press called White Cargo, by two television documentarians. The authors make it a matter of semantics, arguing that forced servitude is slavery no matter what the circumstances or duration. People who use this argument to assert that indentured servants were slaves, in my experience, rarely agree that convict labor is slavery. The idea is also propagated a lot on white supremacist blog sites. In fact, the most cited book on the subject is 1993’s They Were White and They Were Slaves (also the first book on the subject that I’m aware of); it was self-published by a Holocaust denier who blamed the Atlantic slave trade on the Jews.

Bottom line: if you’re interested in the history, read some books about indentured servitude (which really could be a horrible experience). But when you see things framed as “white slavery” in the Americas, be aware of what’s really going on. It may seem like only a matter of semantics, but words matter... because of the ideas behind them.

By the way, here are a few quotes from readers’ reviews of White Cargo on amazon:

I assume since America was founded by the British the history books were ‘edited’ not to mention this time in history or ‘edited’ to use lighter language like ‘indentured servants’ instead of slaves.

“It is significant that two journalists wrote this extremely important book. Many professional historians don't want much attention paid to white slavery for fear that it will take something away from black slavery or make whites feel less compassion for black slaves.” [this person goes on to recommend a long list of books defending the Confederacy or denying racism]  

“Euphemistically white slavery was referred to as `indentured servitude'. Indentured servitude however was in fact slavery.

You can find my essay about forced labor on colonial plantations HERE.

You can find a well-researched essay –part of a longer piece in progress (not by me, by the aforementioned Liam Hogan) –HERE.

Note: you will find references to "white slavery" in relation to the pirates of the Barbary Coast (in North Africa). This is a completely different subject; Barbary pirates were known to capture Europeans in the Mediterranean and sell them into slavery.

List of Previous Historical Essays

I first started blogging almost a decade ago, first on my author's homepage and then, beginning in 2011, here. It was something I did to promote my writing, and most of the posts reflect that: announcing award nominations and new releases, interviews, promoting other writers in my genre(s), and a lot of blogs about the western genre, including book and film reviews.

But every once in awhile I also would write, sometimes at length, about history, culture, and world events, bringing to bear my perspective as a historian of race and a labor activist. Such essays were rare, but in the last couple of years have largely replaced self-promotion in this space.

For those who may have read some of these and found them interesting, I thought it might be helpful to provide a list of such essays in case you want to read further. And here they are, in reverse chronological order.
England, Japan, and Race (July 17, 2016)
Black Lives Matter: Historical Perspective (July 14, 2016)
On Independence Day (July 11, 2016)
Swimming Against the Tide in Higher Education (February 4, 2016)
How to Speak Southern Appalachian (December 30, 2015)
On the Confederate Flag (June 25, 2015)
The Tragedy in Charleston: What Should We Do? (June 18, 2015)
Labor Day Musings: Why Unions Still Matter (Sept. 1, 2014)
Race in Ferguson, MO – Race in America (August 24, 2014)
Writing about Indians When You’re Not One (July 28)
High Noon, Gary Cooper, and the Cold War (April 27, 2013)
Barack Obama, Race in America, and the Significance of 2012 (November 9, 2012)
Some Thoughts about Trayvon, Zimmerman, and Race in America (March 29, 2012)
History, Memory, and the American Civil War (May 16, 2011)
Race, Immigration, and New York City (February 28, 2011)
Why It Matters to Me: Gender and Sexuality (December 16, 2010)
Why It Matters to Me: Class (October 29, 2010)
Why It Matters to Me: Race (October 19, 2010)
Is There a Difference between Racism and Prejudice? (August 1, 2009)
Two Americas? (July 27, 2009)
Thoughts on Healthcare (July 23, 2009)
What I Believe: Or, Why I Am a Democrat (November 13, 2008)
Reflections on Jena, by a White Southerner (October 3, 2007)

England, Japan, and Race

This is the first of several topics I have been mulling over for a few years, which I will probably not pursue in an academic article (as I have a long queue of such articles to do.)

By presenting it in this format, I am essentially throwing a rough idea out there, not making an argument with attendant evidence. This first effort, which involves some historical similarities I have noticed in English and Japanese history where race is concerned, is no doubt full of weak points and scholars in the appropriate fields can no doubt poke a lot of holes in my loose theory. BUT, it's still interesting to think about.

First, a little background. I earned my Ph.D at the University of Illinois in 2011. My three examined fields were U.S. History (post-1815), Race and Ethnicity (with a focus on Native American and African American), and Southern U.S. History. My dissertation was entitled Race, Slavery, and Nationalism in Indian Territory: 1830-1866. I had to have a non-Western comparative element in my fields, and chose Japanese history, which has always fascinated me and which I almost chose as my graduate focus. I took Japanese history classes in both my undergrad and graduate studies, and was a teaching assistant in East Asian Civilization classes for two semesters. Nowadays I co-teach an upper division Japanese history class at Tennessee Tech.

Japanese history was a good fit for comparison when studying race in America for a couple of reasons. First, there is an indigenous, traditionally tribal people in the Japanese islands called the Ainu (genetically distinct from the Yamato or Wajin, or modern ethnic Japanese.) For centuries (along with other related groups like the Emishi) they were known as the "northern barbarians" and were eventually the focus of discrimination and efforts at forcible assimilation, not unlike Native American Indians.

Another reason to compare Japan and the English colonies/United States is the fact that, like that latter culture, Japan has developed a very strict racial hierarchy, with ethnic Japanese at the top (who also had a class-based inner hierarchy, with a group of Japanese "untouchables" called the eta), and the bottom segmented among the indigenous peoples like the Ainu, the Okinawans/Ryukyuans, and all foreigners (with Koreans probably bearing more stigma than other Asian groups.)

Studying Japanese history while also being immersed in American race studies, I noticed something else. When Japan entered their colonizing, imperialist period -much later than England had -they had similar attitudes about the "inferiority" of the groups they colonized, and were less than permissive about local rules and customs in the areas they occupied. These broad similarities started me thinking about a lot of other similarities, and how to explain them.

First, let me make a point about the European colonial powers in North America. Each major power had its own set of priorities in the New World, and those priorities would determine how they interacted with the natives. FRANCE was primarily after trade, especially the fur trade (this could be said of the Dutch, as well.) For that reason, they were not as likely as other powers to engage in full-scale settler colonialism (where you replace the natives with your own people, essentially). They tended to have more peaceful relations with Indians, establish fewer permanent settlements, and French traders frequently lived among Indians and freely adopted their customs and intermarried with them (bear in mind, this is a broad statement, and is meant primarily in comparison with the other European groups.) This is why most Indian tribes preferred the French over the English (though they all leveraged one European power against the others, to get the best deal.) Is this because the French are just naturally nicer people than other Europeans? Of course not. This only holds true in North America. In other places (such as the Caribbean), where the French had different goals, it was a completely different story and they could be just as vicious as anyone else.

SPAIN was primarily after resources, especially mineral resources. Right off the bat, Columbus set the tone by his horrible treatment of the gentle Taino people of Hispaniola, whom he enslaved and forced to provide him with gold. But contrary to The Black Legend, an idea propagated by the English that the Spanish were overwhelmingly cruel to native peoples compared to the English, the truth was more nuanced. A lot of Columbus's contemporaries were outraged by his cruelty. Bartolome de Las Cassas provides a good counterbalance: a clergyman (and contemporary of Columbus) who worked tirelessly for native rights, with considerable success. As with the French, we can say that the Spanish developed racial hierarchies of their own, but that they differed significantly from those established by the English, with considerable fluidity within them.

ENGLAND, though certainly after trade and resources, was primarily after land. The land in their colonies was quickly filled up, and there was always a desire for more land to the west, which brought them into conflict with the French and the Indians. Hence, as demonstrated in this map, the French (in blue) had a territory vastly larger then the English (in red), but there were many times more English than French colonists.

In addition to having a stronger desire for land, England differed from France and Spain in another very significant way. Spain and France were a lot more accepting of the mixed offspring of Europeans and Indians. While it is true that French plantation owners in the Caribbean colony of St. Domingue (later Haiti) had strict race laws where "mulattoes" were concerned, the French in general were more accepting than the English, who had anti-miscegenation laws for both blacks and Indians and who would called the mixed offspring of an English colonist and an Indian a "half-breed." Of all the European groups involved in North American colonialism, the English had the strictest race hierarchy, and -unlike the French, whose attitudes varied depending on their regional goals (and they weren't so "nice" in Africa and Asia) -the English carried these attitudes with them wherever they went, establishing strictly stratified racial hierarchies in all their colonies: North America, Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa (though much of that was in place when the English took control of the country from the Boers, the English made it much more formalized), and so on.

In short then, the English and the Japanese, in their colonial ventures, were noticeably more prone to racial hierarchy and xenophobia.

And here are some factors which I believe contribute to the similarities.

1. England and Japan are both island nations. Their inhabitants would be less likely to regularly encounter other peoples  than if they lived on mainland Europe or Asia, and strangers stood out more.

2. Both countries "unified" their island groups by striving against "primitive" northern "barbarians". The Emishi, Ainu, etc. in Japan -the very term shogun is short for sei-i taishogun, or "commander-in-chief of the expeditionary force against the barbarians" -and the Scots and Irish etc. in England (in both cases there were large barbarian groups to the north also smaller groups in need of subduing to the south, and of course in England's case the Emerald Isle to the northwest.) In fact, now that I think about it, in both cases the dominant group was composed of migrants from the mainland who took the islands away from their original inhabitants. In other words, the English and Japanese defined themselves against the "barbarians" with whom they struggled for their island home.

3. Both countries were attacked by a huge armada from the mainland which was miraculously defeated (against the odds). The Spanish Armada attacked England in the 16th century, and the Mongols/Chinese did the same thing (twice) to Japan in the 13th century, with similar disastrous results. For the Japanese, these huge victories against the great conquerors were a sign of divine favor, and the same can probably be said for the English. It added to their sense of being special and blessed.

It seems to me that these similarities would indicate that inhabitants of a beleaguered island nation might have a predisposition toward establishing racial hierarchies. As I said at the outset, I am no doubt missing a lot of things that a specialist in these two cultures would immediately see that could deflate my loose theory. Plus, when it comes to establishing racial hierarchies, the economic stimulus of slavery looms very large, as I pointed out in a previous essay.

Still... it's interesting to think about.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Black Lives Matter: Historical Perspective

I have a wide range of friends. It is a blessing and a curse. Specifically, in trying times when racial tensions are on the rise, I have a bit of an advantage over some of my academic friends who are more insular: a steady stream of outraged and outrageous comments from people on the opposite end of the political spectrum from me comes pouring over my facebook feed. It’s like reading the comments section of a news article. On the plus side, you get to know what a lot of people are thinking. On the minus side, you get to know what a lot of people are thinking.

For example, today I saw that several of my ultra-conservative friends were passing around a meme saying that tomorrow, July 15, is the day that Black Lives Matter protesters (“don’t call them protesters, call them terrorists,” Sarah Palin advises us) across the country have a coordinated plan to go on a 37-city killing spree. And for every person sharing that meme, there are at least a dozen comments from scared white people freaking out. If you try to tell them that BLM is a peaceful movement, they remind you that BLM has called for a moment of silence for the guy who shot all those people in Texas last week. Except that is not true, it’s just something Donald Trump has been saying in his speeches and no one anywhere has been able to find a shred of evidence to support its veracity. Or they tell you the stories of all the little children who have died all around the country because they couldn’t reach the hospital in time, due to the fact BLM protesters had blocked the interstate. Which is also totally untrue; in fact, there is evidence of the opposite, protesters expediting emergency vehicles through. Several people have deeply disappointed me by spreading memes about how funny it would be to run over protesters with a truck and kill them.

I have unfollowed or blocked a lot of people this week.

I have to be honest, for over a week now I have been suffering conflicting feelings. On the one hand, I have felt a sense of duty, as a historian of race and as an ally and as a human being in general, to speak out about what’s been going on (the shootings of two black men by police, caught on video, and the mass shooting of police and bystanders at a protest rally in Texas.)

But on the other hand, I’m tired. It just keeps coming, an endless onslaught. And with each new wave, more of my white friends, relatives and acquaintances that I thought were relatively sane have joined the cacophony of condemnation for Black Lives Matter- a movement calling for an end to unprovoked police shootings of unarmed black men. I had just steeled myself up to address this very familiar topic yet again, for the umpteenth time, when the mass shooting happened and the meager wind was knocked completely out of my sails because I knew the flames were now going to be fanned even higher.

At the same time, I realize it is my very own position of privilege that allows me to choose whether to engage with this stuff or not –it is not cast upon me against my will day in and day out, as it is for my friends of color.

But I’ve remained silent long enough. Now I am going to do my small part to try to bring historical context into the fray. I have already gone over most of the pertinent information ad infinitum. I wrote a detailed history of why white America finds male black bodies threatening HERE two years ago. I wrote a brief history of how all this started HERE, recently. So today I am going to take a different tack.

Today’s historical context will be an examination of how white America has traditionally reacted to calls to end violence against blacks.

I’ll begin with a few examples.

For the quarter-century leading up to the Civil War, abolitionists (white and black) were calling for an immediate end to slavery, highlighting the institution’s cruelty and inhumanity to the general public, by means of newspapers, slave narratives, and works of fiction such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

White Southerners, however, insisted that this was a gross exaggeration. Slaves were taken care of and quite content, until those northern troublemakers stirred them up. The plantation system was an idyllic one, with everyone being one big happy family.

As abolitionists continued to undermine that narrative by publishing the accounts of successful runaway slaves bearing tales of torture and brutality, white Southerners became resentful. You insult our honor, O Damn Yankees, by implying that our way of life –that works fine for us and which everyone is happy with, even the slaves –is immoral, somehow. How dare you. We are not the immoral ones, you are, for trying to tell us what to do and implying the federal government could make it legal for you to do so, thus depriving us of liberty and proving yourselves un-American.

And then came Nat Turner. There had been other abortive slave revolt plots in the nineteenth century, but this one had teeth and a lot of white people were killed before the rebels were caught and executed. Paranoid white slave-owners around the South killed slaves they thought were “acting funny.” Slave patrols were increased and laws made stricter. Black men out alone on the roads without their papers were surely up to no good, and plotting to murder white folks.
And then the violence got worse. More murders of slaves, then Bleeding Kansas, then a Civil War (and if you think that conflict was not about slavery, I address that HERE).

Let’s jump ahead half-a-century, to the end of Reconstruction and the dawning of the Jim Crow era… the period of time that African American historians call The Nadir, because it was the low point of African American history. By the turn of the century, lynching black men had practically become a national pastime. Whole families flocked to watch the spectacle, with snacks and postcard mementos on sale.

Brave black leaders like Ida Wells worked tirelessly to get the general public to condemn this behavior, and to get the federal government to do something about it. Race riots had also become increasingly common –and in the 19th and early 20th century, “race riot” meant a mob of white people going on a murderous rampage against minorities. In the midst of all this, a historical novel (I use both terms lightly) called The Clansman was adapted into a film by D.W. Griffith- the first blockbuster, Birth of a Nation. It not only made a fortune, it spurred the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan, which by the mid-1920s was huge all around the country (by some estimates one out of every seven white men in the country were members.) The movie depicted brutish ex-slaves and their Yankee manipulators as ruining the South and wantonly raping Southern white women, with the valiant KKK arising to stop the injustice. This fed into real life, as the year after the end of WWI (in which many blacks served in France and saw a desegregated society, returning home with a military bearing and less patience for racial bullying) saw the “Red Summer” of 1919, in which black communities were attacked all around the U.S. with countless lives lost.

Half-a-century after that we have the Black Freedom Era (Civil Rights followed by Black Power). Same patterns: segregationists denied there was a problem, everybody’s perfectly happy down here until you liberals and communists start stirring them up. The segregationists got resentful. Then there was fear of social upheaval if the status quo was disrupted, especially when younger blacks like Stokely Carmichael moved from nonviolent resistance to calls for black self-defense. Then the violence escalated.

This, then, is the pattern:

1.      Blacks and their white allies accuse some whites, and especially the structured status quo, of being violent against blacks (or being in favor of same).
2.      Racist whites –usually not thinking of themselves as racist at all –deny that there is a problem. Or if there is, it is being caused by the agitations of blacks and their allies.
3.      Racist whites start to get defensive, insulted at the accusation they could be engaging in wrong behavior.
4.      Those defensive whites become increasingly paranoid and fearful, specifically that those uncontrollable blacks are going to come after them.
5.      Violence –especially violence against blacks by whites –gets much worse.
6.      Much like the aftermath of the Salem Witch trials, the mob starts to get a little embarrassed about the excesses they have gone to (though few would admit it), and it peters out. Some are apologetic. Then everything is back to normal, with the status quo continuing as always. The people who were so paranoid, resentful, and enraged have calmed down and take the new calm as evidence the problems have all been solved and now everything is great again. Let’s not bring it up anymore, it will only cause more trouble.

Note how much this sounds like an abusive marriage.

Note how much this sounds like events of the past four years.

The only way to ever break this cycle is for the majority of white people to step back and actually SEE what has been going on, see and acknowledge, instead of being defensive and fragile. To see what the momentum of the great American race machine has repeatedly led us into, and resolve to really do something about it. But it starts with acknowledgment, a step most white Americans somehow seem incapable of doing.

And those of us who are in that position of privilege and power who have figured it out? It is our duty to keep trying to make everyone else see, and to lend our utmost support to our brothers and sisters of color. That is not “white guilt”; that is white responsibility, the responsibility to use our very privilege in the system that intrinsically benefits us to work against that system and help dismantle it (to help do so, using our position, not to muscle our way into the role of telling our partners of color how to experience their own oppression or present ourselves as “white saviors.”)

Monday, July 11, 2016

On Independence Day

One week ago, on July 4th, I posted the message below as my Facebook status. With all the things that have happened in this tumultuous, tragic week, it seems even more relevant, date notwithstanding.


I tell my students that the United States was an idealistic project created by flawed and imperfect people, and that American history is the story of subsequent generations building on that project, trying through movements from the ground up to refine and perfect that original vision. RFK said that, while others see the world as it is and ask why, he saw the world as it never was and asked why not; or, as the lyrics to “America the Beautiful” put it: “America, America, God mend thine every flaw.” To me, that is the essence of true patriotism… to love your country and work to make it better. There are failures along the way, and you don’t have to be a professional historian to call them to mind; America’s is not a triumphalist story in which every bend in the road leads inexorably to progress and perfection (although many students come to my class trained by society to say that very thing, in their own words, in the concluding paragraph of every essay.) MLK said that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice… I believe that, but oh how long the bending.
The ideals of the United States of America were born in struggle, perpetuated in struggle, and are refined in struggle. But I believe in those ideals, and I believe in the value of the struggle. Like RFK, I believe in those ideals as they should be, with full recognition that they have not always been expressed with the purity they could have been, should have been. Our challenge is to never forget our history- to rise above the low points, to strive to emulate the high points –and to do our part to continue the project. This is what motivated Lincoln, the realization that the “noble experiment” of the Revolutionary generation rested in the hands of his generation to either uphold or destroy.
And what is that experiment? A nation founded, not on shared ethnicity or religion or tribe, but on a philosophy, the shared ideal of liberty. A nation such as that envisioned by Thomas Paine, that would provide inspiration for those living under oppression. As Paine described it, the existence of such a nation would prove to the downtrodden of the world that they, too, could effect change, and if they could not triumph in their corner of the globe, why, they could come to ours and join in our great venture. It turns out that much of that was easier said than done, and 240 years later we are still wrestling with it. But it is the ideal that sparked our nation, and one that I regard as sacred.
In the 21st century there are many countries around the world that can boast of a fine legacy of freedom, and their legacies, too, have usually been hard-fought and not cheaply won. Their citizens are proud, and justifiably so. Many of them surpass the United States in various categories, and there are always circumstances in which, by comparison, they have the moral high ground. We cannot, and should not, antagonize the world by constantly proclaiming our self-professed superiority. But nonetheless, there is no place quite like the U.S. And we did, 240 years ago, embark on something new that others were inspired to achieve as well.
If we as Americans truly love our country, if we truly believe in the revolutionary spirit, and in the Constitution, we will refuse to passively descend into tribalism and oligarchy. We will reflect that generation’s vision of liberty and inclusion, and work to expand it in ways that their eighteenth century minds could not even have imagined. Let us be yoked to their dreams without being yoked to their prejudices. Let’s love our country, and keep working hard throughout our years to “mend her every flaw.”
Happy Independence Day.