Friday, August 31, 2012

NBR: The happy slave?

I've just started graduate work at Western Kentucky University, working toward an MA in History degree. One of my first classes is entitled The African-American experience during the Civil War.
We were asked on our discussion board to what extent southerners were deluding themselves in claiming that slavery was a benign institution that the slaves themselves were content with.  My response:
I wonder, though, how much of the southern talk of the "happy, contented slave" was not a true belief but rather a conscious attempt to refute the claims about the horrors of slavery made by the abolitionists. In this sense, it may be that southerners were willing to tell the tales of happiness on the plantation for practical reasons and as propaganda, even if it wasn't a concept they honestly believed in.
Levine quotes Confederate congressman Henry S. Foote as asking the question "If this government is to destroy slavery, why fight for it?" (5). The basic idea here - that arming slaves would prove destructive to the institution - is very telling, I think, in that it disputes the very claim that the slaves were happy and content. For if they were indeed so happy with their masters and content with their station, why would it be a threat to arm them? Wouldn't one suppose that they would fight hard and well for a society that they loved?
Neither Foote nor any other anti-emancipation Confederates quoted by Levine couched their opposition in purely racist terms; there was fear not just that slaves would make poor soldiers for reasons of race, but that arming slaves would produce revolt. The modern observer must remember that a slave insurrection was the greatest fear of the Confederacy, moreso perhaps than Yankee domination.
The story of southern slavery - enforced illiteracy, the absence of freedom of movement and communication, the harsh discipline of the whip - all of these imply a slave population that must be forced into their societal role. The idea that the slaves embraced their lot in life is belied by the words and actions of their very masters. Levine quotes an Atlanta editor who refers to the condition of slavery as "an enviable one" (7), but a modern observer must question whether the editor a) truly believes this, b) is trying to rationalize and sanctify his own worldview or c) is cynically lying to make slavery seem more acceptable.
All three options mentioned above - a, b and c - could explain the words and deeds of many of the words spoken by southerners on the slavery question. I'm inclined to believe that explanations B and C may explain the actions of these people moreso than A. Or am I just being cynical? What do you think?
The text referenced is Confederate Emancipation by Bruce Levine, University Press of Kansas.

No comments: