Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Less Stupid?

Out of the House of Bondage by historian Thavolia Glymph (published 2008) is a book rich in information and generous with details that are often overlooked. The principal focus of the book is the relationship of white women and black women in the Old South, both before and after the Civil War, especially the relationship of slave owners with enslaved women.

First-person accounts from individuals who experienced slavery are the main source of Glymph's narrative. She cites testimony from white slave owners, often letters; and finds an amazing amount of material from formerly enslaved blacks, mostly women, mostly from an oral history project done in the 20th century. The use of primary sources is incredibly effective. Glymph writes:
"Birthed in proslavery ideology and elaborated in prescriptive literature, southern white women's educational models, memoirs, and diaries of the Old South, the iconic image of the southern lady became a fixture of post-Reconstruction white supremacist campaigns. Generations of white southerners born after slavery, but trained in the tattered ideology of class and racial superiority that they inherited, took up the cause and reconstituted it on new ground. The white home was reinvented as a highly gendered and racialized sanctuary. There, white women would continue to be 'ladies' and managers of domestic spaces, both white and black. This message was conveyed in film, commercial product advertisements, federal programs, popular fiction, white women's social club agendas, and every sort of domestic efficiency and home alliance organization, whether targeted to black or white women." (pp. 19-20). 
In exploring this topic, Glymph included very revealing discussions of several topics. Above all, the brutality of white slave owners towards their chattel is documented in detail. The rationalization for white women to be so brutal while simultaneously they were supposedly so delicate etc. is a key point. The deep contradiction and social pressure for the white women to view black women as inferior and incompetent, while punishing them violently for every transgression, is well-documented here -- for example:
"Mistresses crossed and re-crossed the South's formally designated gender boundaries. They regularly contravened notions of white female gentility that undergird ideologies of race and class and southern domesticity, slipping in and out of the costume of the soft, gentle “southern lady.” In doing so, they acted on their power (as when Malvina's mistress slapped her) and their powerlessness (the smiling and simpering before men) at one and the same time. And their slaves were (intolerable) witnesses to the moral nakedness in between." (p. 46)
Domestic life on a plantation was very different from modern family life in many ways, both in terms of human relationships and in the quantity and difficulty of work that had to be done. When former owners found themselves forced to deal with their one-time slaves as potential employees with the freedom to say NO, they had to negotiate many things, which was an interesting power story. Forcing enslaved women to perform household tasks was very different from hiring women to do them after slavery ended, and the economic and social negotiations involved in this change are presented in a fascinating way. Glymph leaves the reader no room to be surprised that enslaved men and women couldn't wait to walk away from the plantations where they had suffered, no matter what risks they took in leaving, and no matter what their former masters had expected them to do.

Details of the changes in domestic work flow and responsibility as slavery ended were very revealing. Laundry, for example, required the making of both starch and soap from basic ingredients, the hauling of water and fuel, and many difficult tasks, such as starching and ironing delicate clothing -- when white women had to hire a worker to do these tasks, they became much more aware of the tasks and how long they took.

Cooking was also physically demanding, and white women had new views of it when they had to do it themselves:
"Kitchens moved inside, 'the ladies, not liking to bring dishes across the yard, as slave women had done when kitchens were detached from the main house.' And there was a dramatic increase in the number of white households with stoves: 'Not only stoves but sewing machines and other household utensils are much more common than before the war. The whites, having to do their own work, are clamorous for conveniences in which they would not indulge their slaves.'" (p. 195)
Subservience and power are two very key points in Glymph's book. "Impertinence" was an accusation of white women against black women, often used to justify terrible punishments such as subjecting enslaved women to beatings, blinding, and even death. Fear was an important weapon of white men against their wives and of white women against their slaves.
"Slave women simply failed to see their mistresses's needs as their own needs and sought within the confines of slavery to live their own lives. To get them to be slaves, Lizzie Bain Partin wrote from experience, 'requires force.'" (p. 64)
Another very interesting occurrence, retold in various accounts of the end of the war was when the white women were terrorized by Yankee soldiers, and their former slaves gave them advice on how to deal with the type of treatment they were mostly accustomed to dishing out.
"Much is made (and celebrated) in scholarly and popular writings of Confederate women's defiance of Union soldiers, to which is attributed the sparing of many homes from destruction. Perhaps many more were saved by the lessons the enslaved gave mistresses on the politics of language, posture, and subordination, a complex politics that has often been viewed simplistically as slaves’ 'loyalty.' 
"The scene on the Kirkland plantation in South Carolina upon the arrival of Union soldiers cautions against such simplifications. Even Mary Chesnut, who recorded it, seemed oblivious to its ironies. This is the advice the slave Monroe gave his mistress: 'Monroe, their negro manservant, told her to stand up and keep her children in her arms. She stood against the wall, with her baby in her arms and the other two as closely pressed against her knees as they could get.' Meanwhile, 'Mammy Selina and Lizzie stood grimly on each side of their young Missis and her children. For four mortal hours the soldiers surged through this room. ... And they taunted Mary with being glad of the protection of her poor, ill-used slaves.' 
"Monroe ... was not unaware of the profound changes the war had ushered in as underscored by the scene taking place before him. He further counseled Mary Kirkland: 'Don't answer ‘em back, Miss Mary. Let them say what they want to. Don't answer them back. Don't give them a chance to say you are impident to ‘em.' It was sage advice grounded in the realities of the enslaved. From an unaccustomed place, 'Miss Mary' gained new insight into the ways and defects of hegemony." (p. 130).

Out of the House of Bondage is a powerful book indeed! I heard of it from columnist Ta-Nehisi Coates, in "Five Books to Make You Less Stupid About the Civil War" (in the Atlantic dated November 1, 2017). He described: "A slim volume that dispenses with the notion that there was a such thing as 'good,' 'domestic,' or 'matronly' slavery."

Coates' reading list was put together in response to recent remarks by White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, who famously (and pig-headedly, say I) asserted that "the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War." Coates placed Kelly's claims in "a long tradition of endorsing stupidity in hopes of making Americans stupid about their own history. Stupid enjoys an unfortunate place in the highest ranks of American government these days. And while one cannot immediately affect this fact, one can choose to not hear stupid things and quietly nod along."

I hadn't read any of the books on the list -- though I had definitely been appalled by Kelly's construction of a false history to continue, after a century and a half, the persistent effort to revise the history of slavery and the Civil War. So I read Glymph's book, and I learned a lot.

I agree with Coates's description of the book's central point about the "stupid idea that white mistresses were somehow less violent and less exploitative than their male peers." I also found that, as Coates puts it: "stupid ideas about ladyhood and the soft feminine hand meant nothing when measured against the fact of a slave society. Slavery was the monster that made monsters of its masters. Compromising with it was morally bankrupt—and stupid."

Thavolia Glymph from
website of Duke University
where she is a Professor.
And as Glymph says: "I have tried in this book to insist on the importance of attending to relations of power between women, and contests over that power. Once 'home' is understood as a political space, those contests, once silent and unseen in the historiography become visible and public. Black women were determined to take control of their whole lives." (p. 235) Glymph leaves no room for revisions of the horror story of slavery!

Another current article about revising history is "Trump sounds ignorant of history. But racist ideas often masquerade as ignorance." by Ibram X. Kendi (Washington Post, November 13, 2017). Kendi asks the question: "What if the real 'national crisis' is not Trump’s ignorance, but rather our own ignorance of how racist ideas propagate themselves in American society?" By reading, maybe I can keep from being ignorant on both counts. I hope so. I don't know if I will manage to read one of the other books on Coates's list, but I'll probably try. Current events demand it.

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