Commonplace
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Publick Occurrences 2.0

June 7, 2012

The Year of Mashing Up Slavery

Filed under: Civil War Era,Film,Popular culture — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 9:12 am

. . . with vampire slayers and western gunfighters

Historians of 19th-century America, the pop-culture trend of dressing up modern genre tropes in period-drama drag has finally reached us. A couple of weeks from now, the latest big summer action movie will be Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, from the mind of the man who brought you Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The plot posits a Lincoln who has secretly been using his rail-splitting ax skills on vampires his whole life; it seems that poor Nancy Hanks was actually murdered by bloodsuckers, and young Abe trained himself to become Whigman and fight back.  Slavery and the southern Confederacy are really vampire conspiracies to farm human beings and take control of a nation for themselves. It will take a vampire-aware chief executive to put a stake in their plans. There seems to be some kind of showdown between Lincoln and 20 vampires in a Gone With the Wind-style plantation Big House. Or at least that is what I can gather from the trailer. No time to read the book just now.

I wish had more hopes for the movie being any good — it looks like the kind of CGI-choked living cartoon that is typical of our current cinematic era — but I could not help but feel some bemusement at the trailer‘s opening narration. Abe the Vampire Slayer seems to be writing an historiographic essay in his diary about the superiority of social over political history: “History prefers legends to men, soaring speeches to quiet deeds. History remembers the battle, and forgets the blood. Whatever history remembers of me, if it remembers anything at all, it shall only be a fraction of the truth.”  So what we seem to have here is the labor history of vampire hunting — History from the Coffin Up, I guess you could call it.

For Christmas, well, I will let the eminent scholar of Caribbean slave rebellion Laurent Dubois give you the news, delivered via Twitter last night: “Tarantino does plantation slavery. What could possibly go wrong?” Quentin Tarantino of ultraviolent postmodern gangster movie fame, that is. You may remember his last movie, and first foray into history, Inglourious Basterds, the one where the magic of cinema and a band of Jewish commandos kill Hitler. In Django Unchained, a Roots-ish Jamie Foxx gets rescued from a slave trader’s coffle that seems to have accidentally wandered into Death Valley on its way from Virginia to Mississippi. Django then teams up with his rescuer, a strangely German-sounding bounty hunter, to rid the West of racist crackers and rescue his wife from the vicious planter-and-overseer combo of Leonardo DiCaprio and Don Johnson. We can only hope that some of the mayhem will be scored to anachronistic pop songs; James Brown sounds pretty good in the trailer.

What I find interesting about this new departure in historical action trash is the way both these films seem to represent a shift in a long-established pop-cultural convention regarding the use of the Civil War as “backstory” in adventure fiction. In popular westerns, especially, if the hero was a Civil War veteran, he was almost always an ex-Confederate, usually someone who had been victimized in some way by the Union and went west in exile . Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter of Mars, originally from Virginia, was one of the first. A common western scenario was vividly depicted in Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales, in which a marauding band of “redlegs” in Union army uniforms burn Clint’s farm and murder his family, throwing in the rape without which no ’70s revenge film was complete. He then spends the movie hunting and being hunted by glowering heavies in blue. Conveniently, the ex-Confederate hero never has a word to say about slavery and seems to be remarkably free of racial animosity for a man who had fought to preserve white supremacy. John Carter is the only unprejudiced creature on all of Barsoom, bringing Virginian tolerance and civilization to the Red Planet’s multi-hued warring savages.  (Carter also kills a considerable number of bigoted no-hopers with his low-gravity-enabled super powers.) Josey Wales ends with Clint defending a multi-racial group of social outcasts from a pack of degenerate Union veterans. The convention was going strong right into 2012, with Disney’s John Carter film and the AMC transcontinental railroad drama Hell on Wheels. The latter features yet another ex-Confederate hero who also happens to be the least racist guy around. American culture’s devotion to the idea of lone rebel as the only possible repository of decency, honesty, and freedom — as opposed to the seemingly inevitable perfidy and rigidity of any character who serves an institution like the U.S. government — always seemed to trump the question of which side in the Civil War had actually fought for freedom.

In these two upcoming films, however, the script seems to have been flipped: we get antislavery heroes wreaking bloody vengeance on monstrous southern slaveowners, some of them literally monsters.  It is doubtless unintentional but still symbolic of the shift that the actor who plays vampire-hunting Lincoln, Benjamin Walker, was previously best known for playing an inappropriately young and handsome version of a pro-slavery president in the stage musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.  It’s sad that it took lurid post-modern mash-ups of exhausted genres for Hollywood to finally get past its infatuation with Confederates, but with so much cultural recycling, I guess every idea has to come to the top of the pile eventually.

[UPDATE: YouTube embeds not working too well here lately, so instead I switched them out for images that will lead to trailers when clicked. NEW UPDATE: Testing new embed plugin below the jump. Let me know if it works.]

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August 14, 2009

Jim Downs: ‘The Interesting Narrative’ of President Obama’s Trip to Ghana

Filed under: Black history,Civil War Era,Colonial Period,Guest posts,Obama Administration — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 11:44 am
“Does President Obama need a history lesson?,” asks Prof. Jim Downs of Connecticut College. Quite possibly, I would have to agree, especially on matters besides the Lincoln Administration. Obama has got the hiring your rivals and frustrating moderation parts down, anyway, but there is no doubt about his penchant for bland, comforting, conventional history designed not to upset the suburban voter. (Unfortunately, the president’s recent experience commenting too honestly on the Gates arrest probably is not going to push him in more daring directions anytime soon.) Downs sent in the following comment, which I am happy to publish here as a guest post:

During his recent trip to Ghana, President Obama did not discuss the brutal history of the Atlantic slave trade that began in Ghana, and only mentioned the word slavery once during his speech. Instead, the President spoke in general terms about “oppression” and “evil.” In fact, in the opening sentence that he delivered standing outside the haunting Elmina Castle, Obama likened his trip to Ghana to his visit to a concentration camp in Germany.  For decades, historians have been trying to dissuade the American public from comparing the slave trade to the Holocaust, which often leads to explosive debates on which group suffered more, and to the imminent question: would the President standing on the grounds of a former concentration camp evoke the history of slavery?

By discussing the history of the slave trade in Ghana as part of larger history of “evil” and “cruelty,” the President missed the opportunity to educate the American public (and the world for that matter) about the actual history of the slave trade: the 2 million slaves who died en route to the Americas and the millions more who suffered in the crowded, disease-ridden, dark bowels of the slave ships. He also gave up the chance to discuss the effects of the international slave trade: the destruction of African cultural traditions, languages, and religious practices by New World slaveholders; the pain felt by African families torn apart by the hands of Dutch, Spanish, and English traders and merchants; the greedy profits gained by European nations and the burgeoning colonies in the Americas; and even the transformation of West African economies; political structures; and military strategies.

Throughout his speech in front the 15th century slave castle, Obama only mentioned the word slavery once and when he did invoke it, he made enormous historical leaps. He reflected on the 19th century abolitionist movement when whites and blacks fought together to end slavery. While white and black people did eventually work together in the early to mid-nineteenth century to terminate slavery, one cannot ignore that on the ground where the President made such a comment, whites and blacks worked together during the 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th centuries to send Africans into chattel slavery in the New World. While Obama more than likely made this remark in order to illuminate a moment of interracial solidarity with the hope of improving race relations, he forfeited the opportunity for Americans to actually reflect on the horrors of the slave trade—a cultural memory that most black people acknowledge but one that most non-black Americans know little about. A more informed reflection on the actual history of the slave trade could do more to improve race relations than cherry picking a moment in history that happened after the international slave trade ended and did not even lead to the abolition of slavery. President Obama ought to know that it was not just abolitionists who ended slavery, but enslaved people themselves. Southern blacks dismantled the institution of slavery by fleeing from plantations across the Confederacy and joining the Union Army, contributing mightily to the North’s victory in the Civil War and the collapse of the slaveocracy.

Jim Downs is a history professor at Connecticut College, focusing on African-American history and 19th century U.S. History. His books include Taking Back the Academy and Why We Write. His articles have appeared in History Today, the Chicago Tribune, The Southern Historian, Prologue, History News Network, and Reviews in American History, among other places.

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Now playing: Robyn Hitchcock And The Egyptians – The President
via FoxyTunes

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December 12, 2008

Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, Annette Gordon-Reed, and the “New York Times”

Filed under: Black history,Historians,Media,scandals,Women's History — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 5:41 pm

Belatedly, from over Thanksgiving, let me blog congratulations to my SHEAR colleague Annette Gordon-Reed on her recent National Book Award, for The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family.  It is always good to see these mainstream history book awards going to academic historian rather than journalists or popularizers, but in this case the award is particularly well-deserved.

I do feel obliged to comment on Gordon-Reed’s recent mentions in the New York Times, which have shown a strange discomfort with the basic approach of this book and her earlier one, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (University of Virginia Press, 1997). I would define that approach as treating Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and their relatives as a really complicated family rather than as a political scandal or national shame. Accordingly, Gordon-Reed is more inclined to see Tom and Sally as a real relationship rather than a simple matter of exploitation or victimization.

Though perfectly consistent with the dominant post-1960s strain of historical research and writing on American slavery, which has emphasized slaves’ ability to carve out spaces out of independence and resistance even within such an oppressive, coercive institution, Gordon-Reed’s approach to Jefferson and Hemings seems not to sit terribly well with some white liberals, possibly of a certain age. In early October, there was a rather back-handed (though officially positive) review by Eric Foner, then this odd interview from a few days ago:

Questions for Annette Gordon-Reed – History Lesson – Interview – NYTimes.com
Your book reminds us that black and white is not as clear-cut as separatists like to pretend. Sally Hemings was the daughter of a white father and a slave mother, and three of her children grew up to live as whites.
People talk about Obama as if he were some new thing.

Right, the first interracial man!
It’s astonishing. Sex between the races was more common in the 18th century than it is now.

How do you know?
Based on the children. Slave owners had children with enslaved women.

But the women were mostly raped, weren’t they?
Undoubtedly, the vast majority of enslaved women who had children by slave masters were raped. But there were also situations where men and women of different races genuinely liked one another. Where do people think the rainbow of colors of black people comes from? Most black people in America have some white ancestry.

In that regard, Jefferson and Hemings were pioneers of our increasingly mixed-race society.
I don’t think we are increasingly mixed-race. We’ve always been a mixed-race society.

Both the NYT interview and Foner’s review were a bit fixated on the idea of defining all interracial sex within slavery as violently coerced. While that view is probably accurate in the largest sense, and certainly consistent with the moral precepts most modern Americans believe and practice, it might not always be so helpful in understanding the messiness of human relations in a time before the equality and autonomy of all individuals had been legally and socially accepted. Foner’s recommendation in the review seemed to be, when faced with a situation as messy and ambiguous as the one between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, “punt”:

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October 26, 2008

Myths of the Lost Atlantis: Slavery as a Political Issue in Early Republic (Mason)

Filed under: "Myths of the Lost Atlantis",Early Republic,Historians — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 3:45 pm
In this fourth guest post in our new series, Prof. Matthew Mason gives a personal perspective on political historians’ long-standing habit of ignoring slavery as a major political issue before the traditional survey course opening of the “Sectional Crisis,” with the Missouri Compromise. Mason’s research on the so-called “Era of Good Feeling” showed that actually reading through the press of the time gives a very different impression.
See the introduction for an explanation of the “Lost Atlantis” series. Click the logo below to see all of the posts.

WAS SLAVERY REALLY NOT A MAJOR ISSUE IN AMERICAN POLITICS BEFORE THE MISSOURI CRISIS?

Debunking the Myth Without the Aid of a Method or an Online Database

At my dissertation prospectus defense, one of the committee members posed a question that vexed me even more than the others faced that day. “What,” he inquired, “is the method to your madness here?” He noted that I had listed a whole series of sources but proposed no research method other than to “just read these newspapers and sermons and congressional debates.” I stammered out some half-baked reply, he urged me to find a method, and we moved on.  At some point after this defense, I surely became a more efficient researcher.  But I’m not sure I’ve found a better method than “just reading” the sources with an eye to the research question at hand.

If I had actually obeyed the injunction to find some more selective or systematic approach to the sources, I may not have written this particular dissertation and book, Slavery and Politics in the Early American Republic, in the first place. This because I quite literally began this research by just sitting down and reading the newspaper: Niles’ Weekly Register, one of the very few truly national publications of the early nineteenth century.

My question was whether slavery really disappeared from national politics between the abolition of the slave trade in 1808 and the Missouri Crisis beginning in 1819.  The common wisdom was that the partisan and international fury surrounding Jefferson’s Embargo on foreign trade and the War of 1812 took slavery off the table in national politics.  I thought this national newspaper in particular would be a good place to inquire as to the truth of that historiographical consensus.

Hezekiah Niles published his Weekly Register in volumes and bound them with an index, but fortunately I did not discover that right away.  The lack of index entries for such terms as “slavery” or “negroes” would have confirmed the traditional take on this era, as would a glance at the headlines and topic headings on each page.  But here’s where just reading the thing paid off: I found slavery everywhere in Niles’s coverage of those headline events and issues, even though none of them had anything overtly to do with slavery.  Here was a prowar (Democratic-)Republican comparing the Royal Navy’s impressment of American sailors to Algerian or West Indian or even southern slavery.  There was a Federalist campaign to abolish the Constitution’s three-fifths clause – which they commonly branded “slave representation” – in response to a wicked war the “Virginia dynasty” ruling in Washington had brought on the country.  There in turn was Niles and other Republican editors casting about for good replies to this Federalist attack on the power of slaveholders.  Yet none of these tactics in the larger partisan struggle showed up in the index, which was quite naturally devoted to the main subjects at hand, like the war.

I found the same thing whether I sat down to “just read” fiery sermons from New England Congregationalist divines, antiwar or prowar pamphlets, or the Annals of Congress.  Indeed, ignoring the inadequate index and page headings to the congressional debates paid the same dividends as doing the same for Niles’ Weekly Register.  In the course of their diatribes against the war, for instance, various congressmen warned the southern warmongers that slave insurrection would be a natural and just consequence of their leaving their plantations to invade Canada.  One of the great moments came as I waded through an 1813 debate over expanding the army – yes, there was a bitter partisan dispute over such a radical notion in time of war – when I encountered Josiah Quincy of Massachusetts charging that the expanded army would march north to drag the administration’s political enemies into slavery, yoking them in with the black slaves over which the Virginia despots ruled.  And on and on it went in much this same fashion, as I encountered slavery everywhere in debates that should have borne no direct relationship with slavery whatsoever.  It became clear that the subject of slavery was never truly absent from American public life.

It also became quite clear why so many previous scholars had argued that slavery had subsided as an issue in these years.  The 1810s were manifestly not the 1850s, when slavery was the headline issue around which everything else revolved.  The whole exercise showed that unearthing new documents is not always the Holy Grail of historical scholarship.  In this case, as with so many others, examining old familiar sources with a new question in mind generated surprising conclusions.

While a blog post may be a strange place to air this particular moral to the story, the whole experience makes me tremble just a little for my profession as I see the proliferation of online databases make such sources as early American newspapers more widely available.  This development has undeniable payoffs, which even my (strong) inner Luddite is not inclined to dispute.  But researchers doing only word searches will miss not only context, but also what might lurk just beneath the headlines.

Matthew Mason
Brigham Young University

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June 16, 2008

Jefferson Whitewashers for Clinton and McCain

Filed under: 2008 elections,Black history,Founders — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 3:13 pm

Thanks to reader Ben Carp for pointing out the following item from The Politico that needed to be mentioned in this space:

Ben Smith’s Blog: From Jeffersons vs. Hemingses to McCain vs. Obama

A key organizer of John McCain’s meeting Saturday with former supporters of Hillary Clinton is best known for her role in another bitter American fight: The effort by some white descendants of Thomas Jefferson to keep his possible African-American descendants out of family gatherings.

Paula Abeles emailed Politico yesterday to complain that her group had gotten short shrift in a blog item, writing, “I initiated the teleconference with McCain on Saturday and was solely responsible for the guest list.” Another Clinton backer at the event, Will Bower, confirmed that she was “integral” to assembling the group.

But Abeles first made the news in 2003, when she and her husband, then-Monticello Association President Nat Abeles, led the fight to keep members of the Hemings family — descendants of Jefferson slave and, some historians believe, mistress Sally Hemmings — out of a gathering of the Monticello Association, which is made up of lineal descendants of the third president.

Abeles drew national attention for her role in an episode of online espionage.

The AP reported in May of 2003:

The wife of a Thomas Jefferson family association official said Friday that she masqueraded as a 67-year-old black woman on an Internet chat room in a bid to keep descendants of a reputed Jefferson mistress out of this weekend’s family reunion.

“It might have been somewhat unethical,” said Paulie Abeles of Washington, D.C., who participated for eight months in the Yahoo! message board created for relatives of Jefferson slave Sally Hemings.

“It might have been childish, but I really think I was working in the best interest of the majority of the family members to make the reunion a calm and civilized gathering,” she said.

The story goes on a bit from there. Many of The Politico‘s commenters made the obvious point that this would seem to confirm what many Obama supporters have suspected about the racial views of some of Clinton’s more diehard supporters. Abeles and her ilk probably don’t think of themselves as racists, but their fury at the very idea of connecting African Americans with something they revere like the presidency or their own family heritage says it all.

Also, one correction to Smith’s post is in order: the “some historians” are on the other foot. Perhaps people are just keeping quiet about it, but my sense is that the vast majority of historians (especially under age 60 or 70) now accept that Thomas Jefferson fathered some or all of Sally Heming’s children. And not just scholars who are bent on trashing Jefferson.

The turning point for me personally was Annette Gordon-Reed’s 1997 case history Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. In a very even-handed work written before the DNA testing, Gordon-Reed reached their conclusions by sifting carefully and logically through the then-available written records and the various arguments that had been made over the years. The clincher for me was the fact that Sally Hemings never conceived a child when Jefferson was not living on the same premises, during the height of his political career when he was away from home, and Sally, much of the time. The DNA testing just confirmed what already seemed very, very likely. Even the modern-day custodians of the Jefferson legacy at Monticello basically accept the Jefferson-Hemings relationship, if that is the term. Why some white Jefferson descendants cannot accept it, and why they would switch parties to support McCain, I leave to the reader to decide.

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