Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Post-slavery economics for evo-psycho bros: 40 acres & a mule

Jim & Huck from my adaptation of the novel.
Lorenzo Scott and Nick Fondulis
But somehow I couldn't seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I'd see him standing my watch on top of his'n, stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him agin in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had smallpox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he's got now; and then I happened to look around, and see that paper.
It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: 
"All right, then, I'll go to hell"- and tore it up.

~ Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Mark Twain
Samuel Clemens, growing up in the slave state of Missouri in the 1840s had first-hand experience in the ways white people talked about black people during the days of slavery, as recounted by Hilton Als in a New Yorker article in 2002:
But, while Huck has to acknowledge his relationship with Jim, he can distance himself in other ways. First, he can call him a “nigger”—a word whose etymology Huck likely knows nothing about. Then he can fill the word with meaning, with the meanings he learned from his Pap: about the unconscionable lives that niggers lead; how their very presence can make a bad situation worse; and how associating with them can stain a good man’s whiteness. 
"It was according to the old saying, ‘Give a nigger an inch and he’ll take an ell,’ 
"Give a nigger an inch and he'll take an ell" is not something you'd say of a group of people who are congenitally stupid. It sounds like something you'd say of people who are forever calculating to get an advantage. Which is certainly an understandable way to be if you're forced to live in squalor and toil endlessly and be constantly under threat of rape or beating and have every cent of your labor stolen from you for your entire life.

Before we continue, I should point out that there are many great things about Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, especially when Huck decides he'd rather go to hell than betray Jim and send him back into slavery. But Twain ruined the novel in its last third, in the section often referred to as "The Evasion." I wrote about it in this essay: What About Lil Lizabeth?

Jim was lucky, in the book he was set free ahead of general Emancipation and was given cash to start out his new life. The slaves who were set free at the end of the Civil War had it much harder: they were dumped into the countryside with nothing, which led to predictable results:

After combing through obscure records, newspapers and journals Downs believes that about a quarter of the four million freed slaves either died or suffered from illness between 1862 and 1870. He writes in the book that it can be considered "the largest biological crisis of the 19th century" and yet it is one that has been little investigated by contemporary historians... 
...Downs has collected numerous shocking accounts of the lives of freed slaves. He came across accounts of deplorable conditions in hospitals and refugee camps, where doctors often had racist theories about how black Americans reacted to disease. Things were so bad that one military official in Tennessee in 1865 wrote that former slaves were: "dying by scores – that sometimes 30 per day die and are carried out by wagonloads without coffins, and thrown promiscuously, like brutes, into a trench". 
So bad were the health problems suffered by freed slaves, and so high the death rates, that some observers of the time even wondered if they would all die out. One white religious leader in 1863 expected black Americans to vanish. "Like his brother the Indian of the forest, he must melt away and disappear forever from the midst of us," the man wrote.
The Southerners would have been happy perhaps if all the blacks died off, especially because some of the former slaves fought back against a fate of homelessness, poverty and starvation with some help from abolitionists and anti-slavery members of Congress:

According to Henry Louis Gates, Jr.:
The abolitionists Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens and other Radical Republicans had been actively advocating land redistribution "to break the back of Southern slaveholders' power," as Myers observed. But Sherman's plan only took shape after the meeting that he and Stanton held with those black ministers, at 8:00 p.m., Jan. 12, on the second floor of Charles Green's mansion on Savannah's Macon Street. In its broadest strokes, "40 acres and a mule" was their idea...

...Stanton had suggested to Sherman that they gather "the leaders of the local Negro community" and ask them something no one else had apparently thought to ask: "What do you want for your own people" following the war? And what they wanted astonishes us even today.
Who were these 20 thoughtful leaders who exhibited such foresight? They were all ministers, mostly Baptist and Methodist. Most curious of all to me is that 11 of the 20 had been born free in slave states, of which 10 had lived as free men in the Confederacy during the course of the Civil War. (The other one, a man named James Lynch, was born free in Maryland, a slave state, and had only moved to the South two years before.) The other nine ministers had been slaves in the South who became "contraband," and hence free, only because of the Emancipation Proclamation, when Union forces liberated them. 
In areas where there had been a great deal of enslavement suddenly there were free black people who thought it was only fair that they be given some of the property that they had labored on for free for so long.

Which if course fueled white racist resentment since the custom of the prior three hundred years was to consider most black people livestock. Suddenly their former livestock wanted a piece of the pie.