My own people owned people, but they don’t own that
They say racism’s dead, man our President is black
Two terms in the White House, that don’t mean jack
If we still believe our present ain’t affected by our past–Andy Mineo “Uncomfortable”
One question I hear over and over again when I speak or write about the history of racism, subjugation, and oppression in the United States goes something like this: “Why can’t we just move on? The past is the past, so why keep bringing it up?” Embedded within this question lie the reasons we must keep reminding people of the past and how that past continues to imbue our current existence with racist thought. Ideas do not just disappear into thin air as time moves forward; they linger, mainly through imitation and learned experiences.
In Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson draws attention to the ways that we, as humans, imitate others. He begins, “There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery amongst us” which leads to “the most unremitting despotism” in the master and the “most degrading submission” in the slave. Jefferson keenly knows that children, seeing the institution of slavery play out in front of their eyes, “learn to imitate it” because “[f]rom the cradle to his grave he is learning to do what he sees others do.” When a child sees his mother or father let loose with tyranny, the child will learn from the experience and imitate the same actions.
While Jefferson speaks about a child observing a parent or someone in authority with his or her own eyes, David Walker points out the dissemination of ideas that can occur through the printed page. Walker, in his Appeal, confronts Jefferson’s ideas on race. Responding to Jefferson’s claim that nature, not environment, produces racial differences, Walker lets loose with a series of questions:
See this, my brethren!! Do you believe that this assertion is swallowed by millions of the whites? Do you know that Mr. Jefferson was one of as great characters as ever lived among the whites? See his writings for the world, and public labours for the United States of America. Do you believe that the assertions of such a man, will pass away into oblivion unobserved by this people and the world? If you do you are much mistaken–See how the American people treat us–have we souls in our bodies?
Writing about 45 years after Notes on the State of Virginia first appeared, and about 30 years after Jefferson’s death, Walker points out that Jefferson’s ideas concerning race, and by extension those who influenced his views, will remain within the public consciousness even after his death. Jefferson’s ideas “will [not] pass away into oblivion unobserved.”
Even “noble” men could fall into the pit of imitation and the mentality of “this is how it has always been done.” In Twelve Years a Slave (1853), Solomon Northup brings up this idea of imitation at various points in the narrative. When discussing William Ford, he repeatedly notes that his master was religious and “there never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man.” However, Ford participated in the institution of slavery by owning individuals. Northup continues his first description of Ford by saying that Ford’s environment “blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the pit of Slavery,” never questioning his right to hold “another in subjection.”
The environment, like the child’s parents in Jefferson, molds Ford and keeps him ignorant of his moral wrongdoing. Northup notes that Ford follows, essentially, his fathers’ path because “he saw things in the same light”; however, under different circumstances, and in a different environment, maybe things would have been better. Would they though? Or would Ford, as religious as he was, instill within himself the views of Jefferson, Cotton Mather, or others?
After relating Edwin Epps’ order for him to whip Patsey, Northup immediately turns his attention to Epps’ oldest son who witnesses, on a continual basis, scenes of violence and oppression towards the enslaved individuals. Like Jefferson and Walker, Northup sees that “[t]he effects of these exhibitions of brutality on the household of the slave-holder is apparent.” Northup observes Epps’ eldest son “chastising” Uncle Abram and “sentence him to a certain number of lashes” which the Epps progeny administers himself with “much gravity and deliberation.” He also rides into the fields whipping the slaves as an overseer and bringing delight to his father.
His education at the feet of Edwin Epps in central Louisiana produced within “Young Master Epps” an image of Northup, Patsey, Uncle Abram, Wiley, and others on the plantation as nothing more than animals, “differing in no respect from any other animal” and who should receive the same treatment as a mule. Northup does not spend much time of Young Epps, but what he does say speaks volumes because it shows that even a child, who “possessed some noble qualities,” became like his father, a brutal slave master before even becoming a teenager because he constantly saw the way his father treated his slaves and became indoctrinated with the belief that they were not humans but animals.
The “monuments” in New Orleans, the plantation houses, the building names on college campuses, the street names, and other public signs work in the same way as a continuation of the “assertions” that Walker speaks of. They remain as constant reminders of a past we have not moved on from. What does the woman who spoke with such pride at the statue of Alfred Mouton say to her progeny? What does the parent who “proudly” flies the Confederate battle flag say to the children in his charge? What does the Mississippi lawmaker who said Louisiana leaders should be “lynched” for removing Confederate “monuments” show his children through his actions? I would say these lead to incidents we’ve seen at American University, the University of Oklahoma, and elsewhere.
We cannot move on from the past and let it remain silent because we continue to face instances of behavior and ideology that arise directly from the past. Communicated through time and space, the racist ideas of our previous generations seep into our system through observation and imitation. What can we do about this? I seriously have no idea. All I can suggest is education, but even that becomes problematic if we recall the textbooks in Texas. We also have to consider that in order to educate someone, that person must have the desire to learn. How do we change people’s desires? How do we let people know that the veneer has changed, but the structure remains the same?
What are your thoughts and suggestions? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
This is a really great post, Matthew.
One thing I’ve thought a lot about in recent years is how to combine better remembering the darkest histories with finding more inspiring stories and connections, as I think almost no one is able to focus entirely on the worst for very long or very productively. That’s why I looked at the books I did in *History & Hope in American Literature*–because in their bodies they examined our darkest histories, but they all came to optimistic conclusions, hopeful final images that I argued they could come to through the historical engagement. I think reading such works can help us do both those things–remember and still hope–in meaningful ways.
I think we do need to hope in meaningful ways. In order for that happen, people need to confront the past in meaningful ways. I like the way you phrase this in your chapter on Chesnutt and Bradley where you note that we, as a nation, all to often engage in “unproductive” ways with our past, generally wanting to acknowledge the stain and just move forward. How do we get people to move past these was of looking at the past? I don’t know.
Pingback: “What are we teaching when __________?” Part II of “Why can’t we just move on? The past is the past.” | Interminable Rambling
Pingback: The Transmission of Racist Thought in Solomon Northup’s “Twelve Years a Slave” | Interminable Rambling