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).”
Read the rest: Mixing science and religion: A view of Ferguson from the early republic.
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, Blair L. M. Kelley reminded us of another infamous Missouri court case–Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857):
“And initially, a St. Louis circuit court ruled that Scott and his family should be free. However, Scott lost after Eliza Emerson appealed the decision to the Missouri Supreme Court. Scott pressed appeal after appeal, finally being heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1857 found that although Scott had lived in the free North and had been allowed to legally marry—the enslaved were legally prohibited from marrying—he was not, the court said, a free man. The decision articulated broad grounds for attacking not only Scott’s individual claim but also the freedoms of black Americans as a whole. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, a staunch supporter of slavery, wrote the majority opinion, asserting that because Scott was black, he was not a citizen…
“In an unprecedented argument, Taney wrote that Scott had no right to sue, although in fact, black Americans had sued and petitioned for their freedom and their rights since Colonial times. Although some free blacks had even voted to ratify the Constitution, Taney dismissed the idea that the Declaration of Independence might apply to black Americans when it insisted that “all men are created equal,” writing, “It is too clear for dispute, that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this declaration.” In his version of “original intent,” Taney insisted that the framers of the Constitution believed that black Americans were so inferior that they “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect….”
Read the rest: Michael Brown Was One of “We the People,” Too – The Root.