Patrick Rael on the 13th Amendment:
In response to the recent election, #ADPhD is sharing reflections, short takes, and responses from scholars of slavery. To submit yours, click here.
On November 12, 2016, Patrick Rael, professor of history and scholar of slavery at Bowdoin College, posted this reflection on Facebook. It is republished here with his permission:
I’ve spent most of my life now studying my country’s history, and in particular the ways it has so consistently, so systemically, failed to live up to its ideals. Those are the ideals that justified its bloody founding, the ideals Americans say make their country exceptional. We are a beacon of liberty in a world of darkness, are we not?
For me, it’s always seemed like basic honesty to be willing to test those claims against the historical reality. No one likes a hypocrite, right? — especially when fundamental principles like freedom and equality are at stake. We wouldn’t want to be like those other places — the places we despise, the places we promise we can never become. The places that proclaim their principles only to traduce them when it’s convenient.
That’s why we study history. And if we have the strength to see, we learn that from its very inception ours has been a deeply flawed democracy. Our past is replete — with genocide, slavery, racism, labor exploitation, misogyny, intolerance, mob rule, lynching, and state-sponsored violence of every sort. Every hero we honor — from Martin Luther King, Jr., to Susan B. Anthony, to Caesar Chavez — was spat on and shat on, by mobs composed of our grandfathers and great grandmothers and great great aunts and uncles and distant kin we’ll never name. Those relatives collected the ashen bones of the prophets and made trophies of the flesh that remained.
Somehow, it’s always supposed to come right. Somehow, we tell ourselves, it’ll work out. This is America, after all. We’ve seen the movie. The bigots are always overcome and the path toward a fuller democracy is always set right.
Patrick Rael writes: Continue reading
Six months after the murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, it is worth revisiting scholars’ reflections on what his death, extrajudicial killings of people of African descent, and histories of slavery and diaspora have in common. Last August, Patrick Rael placed present-day re-articulations of respectability politics against a long history of black political rhetoric, beginning with antebellum free black activists’ debates about moral uplift as a tool against racist prejudice in the United States:
“To its progenitors, this philosophy of self-help, respectability, and uplift offered a potent means of altering the “public mind” and reducing racial prejudice. Placing enormous (but misguided) faith in the rationality of the public sphere, black spokespersons offered the personal as the key place of power. In addition to its innate value (simply living a good and godly life was likely to make one more successful), self-regulation would liberate the enslaved and make equal the free.
But the cost of this approach was high, as these pioneers understood. The “respectability” strategy placed great demands on a people already laboring under grave disabilities. As Jones and Allen noted, “the judicious part of mankind will think it unreasonable, that a superior good conduct is looked for, from our race, by those who stigmatize us as men, whose baseness in incurable, and may therefore be held in a state of servitude.”
Seven decades later and freedom won, black abolitionist Sarah Remond chafed under the weight of these expectations. Just months after the Civil War freed the slaves, she wrote: “We are expected to be not only equal to the dominant races, but to excel in all that goes toward forming a noble manhood or womanhood. We are expected to develop in the highest perfection a race which for eight generations in the United States has been laden with the curse of slavery. Even some of our friends seem to expect this, but our enemies demand it” (London Daily News, November 11, 1865).”
Lincoln’s Unfinished Work
Patrick Rael (Bowdoin College)
Special to African Diaspora, Ph.D.
Amidst the widespread discussions of Steven Spielberg’s recent film Lincoln, few have sought to place the film within its own tradition of Civil War films. There’s nothing new, of course, about focusing a film on the character of Abraham Lincoln, though it has been well over thirty years since a major television or film production took him seriously (Hal Holbrook in Sandburg’s Lincoln ).
In the early days it was different. The American film industry grew around his figure. In The Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith’s ground-breaking, racist masterpiece of 1915, Lincoln appeared as a wizened and tolerant executive at war with the maniacal Radical Republicans, whose racial tolerance merely masked their desire for vengeance against the rebels. In Griffith’s film, Lincoln’s premature death unleashed the Radicals, necessitating the bloody turmoil of Reconstruction. In the form of the Ku Klux Klan, only the energized spirit of white supremacy could save white womanhood — and, indeed, Anglo-Saxon civilization — from the rampaging black beast.
Rael, Patrick, ed. African-American Activism before the Civil War: The Freedom Struggle in the Antebellum North. New edition. New York City, NY: Routledge, 2008.
From the Routledge website:
African-American Activism before the Civil War is the first collection of scholarship on the role of African Americans in the struggle for racial equality in the northern states before the Civil War. Many of these essays are already known as classics in the field, and others are well on their way to becoming definitive in a still-evolving field. Here, in one place for the first time, anchored by a comprehensive, analytical introduction discussing the historiography of antebellum black activism, the best scholarship on this crucial group of African American activists can finally be studied together.
Chapter 1: “Emancipation of the Negro Abolitionist”, Leon Litwack
Chapter 2: “Black Power—The Debate in 1840”, Jane H. Pease, William H. Pease
Chapter 3: “Elevating the Race: The Social Thought of Black Leaders, 1827-1850”, Frederick Cooper
Chapter 4: “Black History’s Antebellum Origins”, Benjamin Quarles
Chapter 5: “Since They Got Those Separate Churches: Afro-Americans and Racism in Jacksonian Philadelphia”, Emma Jones Lapsansky
Chapter 6: “Interpreting Early Black Ideology: A Reappraisal of Historical Consensus”, George A. Levesque
Chapter 7: “Afro-American Identity: Reflections on the Pre-Civil War Era”, Ernest Allen, Jr.
Chapter 8: “Freedom’s Yoke: Gender Conventions among Antebellum Free Blacks,” James Oliver Horton
Chapter 9: “The Political Significance of Slave Resistance”, James Oakes
Chapter 10: “It was a Proud Day: African Americans, Festivals, and Parades in the North, 1741-1834”, Shane White
Chapter 11: “Ethiopia Shall Soon Stretch Forth Her Hands: Black Destiny in Nineteenth-Century America”, Albert Raboteau
Chapter 12: “The Emergence of Racial Modernity and the Rise of the White North, 1790-1840”, James Brewer Stewart
Chapter 13: “From Abolitionist Amalgamators to ‘Rulers of the Five Points’: The Discourse of Interracial Sex and Reform in Antebellum New York City,” Leslie M. Harris
Chapter 14: “The Redeemer Race and the Angry Saxon: Race, Gender, and White People in Antebellum Black Ethnology,” Mia Bay
Chapter 15: “The Market Revolution and Market Values in Antebellum Black Protest Thought”, Patrick Rael