The Delusions of Dixie: A Traveller’s View

Even a short visit to the Southern US is enough to see that it is still remarkably reluctant to face up to the horrors of slavery and the civil war

“In the momentous step which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.“

A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union.

A nation’s museums and historical sites often tell you less about its past than what it wants you to believe about that past.

For example, I spent a chunk of my gap year interailing across Eastern Europe with a particularly assiduous military history enthusiast. This meant that by the end I felt like I had visited every martial museum between the Rhine and the Urals. One thing that became abundantly clear was that the space these museums gave to events in the 1930s and 40s was inversely proportional to how closely the country they were in had been tied into the Axis. Thus what is often most informative about such places is what they neglect to cover.

This question of collective historical memory (or indeed amnesia) is presently rather current in the Southern United States. The victory of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave at the Oscars means slavery is again being discussed. And that’s not necessarily a comfortable experience for those who live in the former Confederate states. A BBC reporter quoted one Louisiana man descended from slave owners wondering “why, if slavery was so bad, so many freed slaves remained in the area” and arguing that it was time to move on because “we have enslaved ourselves to making right things that our ancestors have done, and we don’t need to do it anymore.”

Based on having been travelling south of the Mason-Dixon Line last summer, this seems a lot like wishful thinking to me. Even a short journey in the US makes it clear both that racial inequality remains very real and that the South has not faced its own history clearly enough to be able to move on from it.

To illustrate America’s ongoing racial divides we could just compare the two main means of getting from city to city without a car: Amtrak trains and the Greyhound bus. The former mode is the more expensive and I don’t think I set foot on one of their trains on which a clear majority of the passengers weren’t white. However, during my one trip by Greyhound, I was one of two white travellers: the other was my sister.

The problem with the way history is presented is more subtle. At no point did I encounter anyone who expressed support for the Confederacy or slavery. And I’m sure most of them would find those things deplorable. What I did see a lot of was that process of omission, I described earlier.

The Confederate White House

The Confederate White House

In Richmond, Virginia – the former capital of the Confederacy – you can take a tour of the “Confederate White House”, the townhouse where Jefferson Davis lived and worked for the duration of the Civil War. Attached to it is “a Museum of the Confederacy.” Someone looking to learn about the military history of the Civil War would be well served by this institution. However, a Martian visiting this institution could be forgiven for thinking that slavery was a small part of life in the Antebellum South rather than the essential underpinning of its society and economy. Nor are slaves given anything the prominence that their share of the population of the Old South (3.5 million out of 9 million) would have justified. And most concerning was its explanations of the origins of the Civil War seemed to minimise the role of slavery emphasising instead ‘states rights.’

While I was in South Carolina I went out to the gorgeous Magnolia Plantation:

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Now as you would expect this was a plantation whose owners had ‘owned’ slaves. And signs of their presence were visible to visitors. For example, I took this photo of the cabins where the slaves slept:

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But as you can probably guess from the foot and the seat in the photo, I didn’t get the chance to stop and look at them properly and consider their significance. I saw them from a road train carrying us around the grounds to see (the rather remarkable) wildlife. There was a tour that focused on these cabins but tellingly it wasn’t included in the package offered by the company I had to use to get their from Charleston. The only thing we were told about the slaves while being given a tour of the house was that their master had taught them to read and that this was a very risky thing for him to have done. It seemed that consciously or unconsciously slavery was being kept to one side: a fact that visitors could easily skip over if we did not wish to be troubled by it.

Another site we visited Colonial Willamsburg has only relatively recently began depicting the lives of slaves in the town and this has apparently been a difficult process in part because of some disturbing reactions from the overwhelmingly white visitors. And I have to confess I didn’t notice any of these efforts while visiting and have failed to spot any looking back through my photos.

I also found the way the Civil War was dealt with in the South uncomfortable. For example, it was almost invariably referred to as “The War Between the States” a term that seems to have been propagated by those seeking to avoid the assumption contained in the term “Civil War” that the Confederacy’s claim to have broken away from Union and created a new nation was incorrect. The only exception I remember to this was at Fort Sumter, which is probably not co-incidentally run by a federal agency rather than a local charity.

A recent book by Tracy Thompson argues that these version of history didn’t gain popular currency by accident: there was a concerted effort spearheaded by groups representing Confederate veterans to minimise both the horrors of slavery and its role in bringing about the Civil War. It often had the tacit approval of White Northerners who were often more interested in promoting reconciliation between themselves and Southern elites, than in justice for the victims of slavery.

The sad reality of this situation is that if White Southerners wish to take pride in their history they do not need to make excuses for the Confederacy. Rather they could point out the distinction between the Confederacy and the South. The Confederacy was home to many who rejected slavery: not only the slaves themselves but also by a small but determined group of White Abolitionists. Commemorating their real history would do Dixie more credit than telling a partial history of the Confederacy and Slavery.

Whichever film wins the Oscar tomorrow, 12 Years a Slave is the film we’ll remember

Steve McQueen’s film is a triumph not only as a piece of cinema but also as an account of slavery

So it looks like 12 years a slave will pick up the Best Picture Oscar. And so it should. The best way to explain how good a film this is, is not to point out how easy it is to praise. Rather it is to observe how difficult it is to criticise. It is that close to perfect.

In the video above the Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw explains elegantly not only why this is such a good film but also an important one: it is the story of black slaves rather than white abolitionists.

I’d add that it is also a film with real historical integrity. It follows closely the real life memoir on which it is based. This earns it an A+ from the Reel History column, where Alex Von Tunzelmann weighs up how accurate films are. She writes of the violence in the film:

Since this film first previewed, there has been some murmuring that Northup’s memoir itself may have been creatively enhanced in certain ways (it was co-written by a white man, David Wilson). Writer Imogen Robertson, who has been researching the Atlantic slave trade for her next book, disagrees: “Northup’s experience is corroborated by other memoirs of the period, by ex-slaves and even by masters.” For example, she cites Thomas Thistlewood, a Briton who ran a plantation in Jamaica from 1750-86 and kept a daily diary – “presumably not intended for publication,” says Robertson – recording the sadistic punishments he inflicted, and his thousands of sexual encounters with slave women. (Since the women had no choice but to consent, these may be considered rape.) “He spent time thinking about things he could put on whipping wounds to make the pain worse,” says Robertson, “like pepper, lime or salts.”

Thistlewood’s diary is horrific, but demonstrates that men like Edwin Epps [MM: Northup’s second owner played in the film by Michael Fassbender] did exist and were not necessarily exceptional in slaveholding societies of that period. As historian Trevor Burnard has pointed out, “Nothing in [Thistlewood’s] diaries signifies that he was at odds with his neighbours in his behaviour, personality, or values.” Robertson adds: “If anything, the film underplays what went on in slave plantations, because that was often so grotesque that it would be impossible to show.”

The film correctly highlights that slavery was not only about economic but also sexual exploitation. This was a grotesque reality that persisted even after Emancipation. Writing in the New Yorker about the memoirs Essie Mae Washington-Williams (the illegitimate* child of segrationist senator Strom Thurmond and his 16 year old servant), the historian William Jelani Cobb observes that:

James Baldwin once remarked that segregationists weren’t truly driven by the cliché concern of preventing black men from marrying their daughters. Rather, he said, “You don’t want us to marry your wives’ daughters—we’ve been marrying your daughters since the days of slavery.” This is a truth that is forgotten among whites and rarely spoken among blacks. Revelations of the type Washington-Williams made in 2003 were shocking only to those privileged enough to not have this knowledge inflicted upon them personally or etched into their lineage and shaded—literally—into their family history.

In 2003, when the hazy borders between current events and reality TV were still intact, we processed Washington-Williams story as a political scandal, albeit a posthumous one. But in truth this was an affair of an altogether different genus than the family-values pol caught in a brothel or the homophobic pastor found to be conducting a same-sex affair. Hypocrisy may be the price we pay for having our biases catered to in public, but Thurmond’s actions weren’t so much hypocritical as they were surreptitious: not uncommon, just unspoken.

The historian Darlene Clark Hine has written that a key if seldom-discussed factor in the Great Migration was the desire of black women to escape the sexual exploitation implicit in domestic work—a concern that had also driven enslaved women to run away.

[In] Black women’s migration across time, from the flights of runaway slaves in the antebellum period to the great migrations of the first half of the twentieth century…the most compelling motive for running, fleeing, migrating was a desire to retain or claim some control and ownership of their own sexual beings and the children they bore.

In the midst of Essie Washington-Williams’s unburdening it seemed callous to reflect upon the ways in which her story pointed to the sexual vulnerability of women domestic workers, how her mother’s story was something closer to a rule than an exception.

As well as the egregious and extreme cruelty, McQueen also highlights the smaller more insidious injustices slaves had to contend with. Whites are allowed to inspect slaves naked if they are considering buying them, they can steal from slaves safe in the knowledge they have no recourse and they can demand deference from people wiser and more intelligent than themselves. These are precisely the kind of facets of historical reality that are easier to grasp in a piece of fiction than a monograph or textbook.

Bradshaw observes that 12 years already feels like a classic. For decades to come it is likely to be the definitive cinematic depiction of slavery. When teachers want a film that will help their students grasp the experience of being a slave, this is the one they will chose.

I don’t know if 12 years deserves to win best picture. There are many other films which have been released this year and one of them might be better. But somehow I doubt it.