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April 15, 2010 11:41 PM   Subscribe

In "honor" of Confederate History Month, The Atlantic blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates presents a contemporaneous indictment of the American institution of slavery in the form of a fund-raising letter for the education of freed slaves. The content is presented without editorial in the original post, but there is a very interesting discussion of related issues in the comments section below. (via)
posted by The Confessor (26 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
Regarding what some in the blog's comments noted as the ironically racist "framing" of the letter, in attempting to elicit sympathy (and money) by focusing primarily on individuals who could pass as white and highlighting such characteristics, I was reminded of the story of Prudence Crandall, which I discovered in doing research for a previous post. Slavery might have been almost entirely confined to the South by the time of the civil war, but racism was not.
posted by The Confessor at 11:57 PM on April 15, 2010


To all appearance she is perfectly white. Her complexion, hair, and features show not the slightest trace of negro blood....

She is a fair child, with blonde complexion and silky hair. Her father is in the rebel army. She has one sister as white as herself, and three brothers who are darker. Her mother, a bright mulatto,...

His complexion is very fair, his hair light and silky. Three out of five boys in any school in New York are darker than he. Yet this white boy, with his mother, as he declares, has been twice sold as a slave....

These three children, to all appearance of unmixed white race,...
It gets so confusingly hard to discriminate when The Other looks too much like People Like Us.
posted by orthogonality at 12:00 AM on April 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


Thank God we won.
posted by klangklangston at 12:02 AM on April 16, 2010


Aaargh.

The letter is racist only from our 20/20 hindsight 21st Century standpoint.

In terms of when it was written, it's a repudiation of racism.

We can't judge history in terms of our outlook/Weltanschauung; we have to understand history as it was lived by the people of the time we are considering.
posted by orthogonality at 12:04 AM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Why does he put the word "raised" in quotations?
posted by molecicco at 12:04 AM on April 16, 2010


Because a proscriptive grammarian of that era would explain that crops are raised, children are reared.

So "raised", in reference to children, is slave/Negro/(possibly lower class Southern white) dialect. The author is rendering the former slave's "own words", in scare quotes to indicate that it's dialect, not "proper" English. Probably to add verisimilitude, to indicate irt's slave testimony.
posted by orthogonality at 12:16 AM on April 16, 2010 [5 favorites]


With regards to the focus on the complexion of the children, later on in the comment section Te-Nahesi comes in to say, in response to a post by a white girl:

I can't tell but I thought the point was--"this could be you."
posted by molecicco at 12:16 AM on April 16, 2010


Ah, thanks orthogonality. I thought it was something like that, but when I checked the dictionary "raised" was listed as an OK Americanism for "to bring up".
posted by molecicco at 12:18 AM on April 16, 2010


And possibly to add Pathos to the account, in the Greek rhetorical sense of Pathos: "how sad it is that these slaves, themselves treated like livestock, refer to their own children as livestock/crops".

Recall that the author's intent is to raise money; it's the 19th Century equivalent of a Sally Struthers late-night infomercial appeal for the Christian Children's Fund.
posted by orthogonality at 12:22 AM on April 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


Hell, I'm wondering why you put the word "honor" in quotes.
posted by chronkite at 12:49 AM on April 16, 2010


There must be many tens of thousands of "white" Americans who have slave ancestors and don't know it, don't even think to suspect it. Harriet Hemings -- Thomas Jefferson's daughter with Sally Hemings -- was one of three of the six Jefferson/Hemings children who chose to pass for white. She eventually married a white lawyer and politician in DC whose name her brother Madison (who did not pass) purposely kept private from his memoir in 1873: "Harriet married a white man in good standing in Washington City...She raised a family of children, and so far as I know they were never suspected of being tainted with African blood in the community where she lived or lives." Harriet alone could easily have a few hundred descendants by now...
posted by Asparagirl at 12:56 AM on April 16, 2010


Harriet alone could easily have a few hundred descendants by now...

Which is scary, because (putting American racial judgments aside) Vitamin D supplements are great for whites, but calcify the arteries of blacks.
posted by orthogonality at 1:11 AM on April 16, 2010


Asparagirl: There must be many tens of thousands of "white" Americans who have slave ancestors and don't know it, don't even think to suspect it.

And many, many "black" Americans who have white ancestors.

Rebecca Huger is eleven years old, and was a slave in her father's house, the special attendant of a girl a little older than herself. To all appearance she is perfectly white. Her complexion, hair, and features show not the slightest trace of negro blood.

Rosina Downs is not quite seven years old. She is a fair child, with blonde complexion and silky hair.

Charles Taylor is eight years old. His complexion is very fair, his hair light and silky.


These three children, to all appearance of unmixed white race, came to Philadelphia last December, and were taken by their protector, Mr. Bacon, to the St. Lawrence Hotel on Chestnut Street. Within a few hours, Mr. Bacon informed me, he was notified by the landlord that they must therefore be colored persons, and he kept a hotel for white people. From this hospitable establishment the children were taken to the "Continental," where they were received without hesitation.

If the Civil War wasn't about slavery, it could easily have been about rape. Beecher-Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin presented a particularly grim picture of "almost" white girls being sold as sex slaves.
posted by three blind mice at 2:38 AM on April 16, 2010


Vitamin D supplements are great for whites, but calcify the arteries of blacks.

... not sure if serious?

This is exactly the reason race is an unreliable tool for genetic screening and should not be used this way.

If familial descendants have been passing as White for generations, and marrying into White families, their arterial phenotype is probably just as European as their skin. Race is a social construction, not a biological one. There are - of course - correlations between medical conditions and population heredity, but the effect of Vitamin D supplements isn't going to be determined by the "one drop rule". A single generation is a genetics lottery, and after several generations it's a game of plinko.

In many ways, race is only loosely tied to heredity, anyway. I can't think of a worse way to give medical advice than through categories determined by the American structures of race. They're overdetermined and underexamined.

All in all, if someone who is "White" has a "Black" ancestor they never knew about, then they may have a slightly elevated risk to carry some genes which may contribute to a risk of any number of medical conditions. If that ancestor were Irish instead, they'd be slightly at risk for different conditions, but their skin color might be totally unchanged. A single ancestor might potentially have a disproportionate effect, or might have none at all.
posted by Richard Daly at 3:05 AM on April 16, 2010 [6 favorites]


We can't judge history in terms of our outlook/Weltanschauung

I'm not a historian, but I can and do judge history that way -- I think that if the authors of that broadside knew what we know now, they'd be more than a little horrified. That's ok; it's a good reminder that even if you are a good person and do good things, there's always further to go.

Speaking of which, I am TOTALLY taken with the idea of memorializing the history of slavery during Confederate History Month. If any blogerati or memesters or social media snuffalupagi are watching, run with this. It's gold.
posted by Valet at 3:43 AM on April 16, 2010


Slaves of a different color (Stephan Talty, Salon.com), drawing out various criticism (Salon.com).
posted by kid ichorous at 3:49 AM on April 16, 2010


The letter is racist only from our 20/20 hindsight 21st Century standpoint.

In terms of when it was written, it's a repudiation of racism.


For what it's worth, I read it as a clear repudiation of racism today. Didn't even occur to me that it was anything else until I hit the comments section.

This man was accustomed to brand his negroes, and Wilson has on his forehead the letters "V. B. M."

Jesus.
posted by a little headband I put around my throat at 4:24 AM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Race is a social construction, not a biological one.

Vitamin D supplements are great for whites, but calcify the arteries of blacks.


Actually epidemiological data have clearly shown an epidemic of vitamin D deficiency among people with dark skin colour living in northern latitudes.

Indeed skin-pigment regulation of Vitamin D biosynthesis and the variation of solar ultraviolet radiation at different lattitudes is thought by some to have caused the racial differentiations in man.
posted by three blind mice at 4:46 AM on April 16, 2010


It must be hard for Neoconfederates to defend BRANDING YOUR INITIALS ON THE FOREHEAD of fellow human beings. Nice heritage you're defending there.
posted by Ron Thanagar at 4:55 AM on April 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


We can't judge history in terms of our outlook/Weltanschauung; we have to understand history as it was lived by the people of the time we are considering.

Understanding the context doesn't mean forgiving the context. I understand the racism in many old movies -- even in some movies I enjoy -- but that doesn't mean I will let it slip by unspoken or forgiven.

Understanding the context means you get why it was that way, but to look a second time through a modern lens at these things in history is equally vital.
posted by grubi at 6:14 AM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Thanks for the link, I am a total TNC fanboy.

The internet's a small place. Read the wikipedia page on Prudence Crandall to discover that a guy I ran a summer program with a few years back did a one-man show about her. Hi, Dexter!
posted by jtron at 6:28 AM on April 16, 2010


I immediately thought...I'd like to hear (not really) John Derbyshire obfuscate on his stance some more. My wife--and thereby our kids--are thought to be "one-drop" but their family has so buried any acknowledgement of their history that it is nearly impossible for them to find out.
posted by beelzbubba at 6:37 AM on April 16, 2010


I thought the focus on the whiteness of some of the children was to emphasize that men in the South enslaved their own children. And, it's also a common form of persuasion to try to put your reader/audience in the shoes of the people you're trying to humanize/help. I think TNC's point--this could be you--was what the author was going for.
posted by Mavri at 8:01 AM on April 16, 2010


These straightforward references to children being sold away from their parents are just heartbreaking. I can't imagine living like that. It would destroy me, at least the person I am now.
posted by alms at 8:11 AM on April 16, 2010


These straightforward references to children being sold away from their parents are just heartbreaking.

This is the one that blew my mind:

Augusta Boujey is nine years old. Her mother, who is almost white, was owned by her half-brother, named Solamon, who still retains two of her children.

I can't quite figure out the actual referent of her in the latter two instances. Obviously somebody is boinking the property and keeping the results, but it's not clear whether this was two generations boinking the same one. The semantics between owned and retains are interesting: were these children acknowledged? It was probably considered a kindness or sentiment to keep these quasi-relatives in the family.
posted by dhartung at 6:17 PM on April 16, 2010


Great find, thanks for sharing this.
posted by Daddy-O at 8:48 AM on April 17, 2010


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