The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Thursday, December 18, 2003

Strom's miscegenation: the Biggest Lie of all?

Like the patriarchs of old our men live all in one house with their wives and their concubines, and the mulattoes one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children--and every lady tells you who is the father of all the mulatto children in everybody's household, but those in her own she seems to think drop from the clouds, or pretends so to think.

The words of Mary Boykin Chesnut [1] from her famous [2] diary (for March 1861).

I had rather naively thought (earlier pieces from December 16) that the propensity of Southern gentlemen secretly to consort with their Negro slaves and servants was pretty well embedded in the mind of most Americans - indeed, that the tendency to error was likely to be in the form of a general assumption that all such gentlemen acted thus.

Yet the story of Essie May Washington seems, if one reads the grown-up media, to have come as a stunning revelation to the population at large.

For instance, the voice of the liberal West Coast, the LA Times, bleats (December 18)
The case of Essie Mae Washington Williams, the mixed-race daughter of arch segregationist Strom Thurmond now acknowledged by his family, is an example of one of the great underreported stories of American cultural history - the surreptitious mixing of blacks and whites.

Underreported? Surely the Pony Express has got through by now?

Brent Staples in the NY Times (December 18) makes a racial distinction:
I told an audience not long ago, "I am as `white' as anyone in this room."

White people - mainly blank-faced and perplexed - typically don't get it. But black people get it fine: they chuckle, cover their faces in mock embarrassment or nod in quiet agreement.

So all this underreporting just affects the white folks, then?

The Seattle Times op-ed (the photo byline reveals the author, Jerry Large, to be black) under the head Thurmond 'secret' screams hypocrisy suggests (December 18) that
Younger readers may need some historical context.

So now the underreporting is discriminating by age.

I don't believe any of it: the suggestion that the majority of adult Americans today do not believe that sex between master and female slave or servant was prevalent in the South until the civil rights era I find patently absurd.

Look at the record: from the days of Abolitionist campaigns, miscegenation [3] was a key part of the propaganda [4]. A 1995 piece (PDF) from the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy talks about women
associating with other women (and sometimes men) to pursue moral reform projects that took on increasing public and political significance as the century wore on -- religious revivalism, the temperance movement, anti-gambling campaigns, and eventually, the abolition and women's rights movements.

Discourse on these matters featured women, speaking and writing publicly as women -- the Grimke sisters' and Harriet Martineau's public lectures against slavery, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, and so on. This discourse was carried on not only by women -- as women -- but also about women. Abolitionist literature featured graphic accounts of the lives of slave girls and slave women, as women. Slave women were breeders against their will as women. They were forced to be wet nurses as women, and sexual playthings as women. Anyone who studies abolitionist literature will see these images over and over again: they are a dominant theme of much abolitionist literature. And men get it.

I'm pretty sure the feminist angle would get this time in the public school curriculum!

In literature, too, the figure of the Negro concubine is surely [5] a stock one: Cassie, Simon Legree's slave in the iconic Uncle Tom's Cabin, for instance. (Legree embodies the corruption of the Peculiar Institution, the Yankee turned to pure evil for the lust for gold, alcohol and sex that it inspires.)

The mainspring of the plot of Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson is the switching at birth of a miscegenated baby for Masser's lily-white child.

And - with the boot on the other foot - the equally iconic (not to mention Wilsonian) Birth of a Nation of DW Griffith has the evil (in his eyes) Abolitionist Congressman Austin Stoneman [6] keep a mulatto concubine in the form of his housekeeper, the sinister Lydia Brown.

(In the zillion-seller To Kill A Mockingbird (which has troubles of its own: December 5), the shoe is supposedly on the other foot, miscegenation-wise, in the main plot: the saintly Atticus Finch's maid Calpurnia is, as I recall, rather obviously drawn as a woman who does not by her presence put temptation in his way.)

Now, these items scarcely represent proof in themselves that most of adult white America knows fine well that interracial master and servant sex happened often in the Old South. But my suspicion is that there are plenty more where those came from. So many as to make the contention of ignorance pretty close to incredible.

If so, why the conniptions? Perhaps, by suggesting that they never knew, socially concerned white citizens give themselves the opportunity not only of excusing themselves for being part of the problem (most Americans alive today weren't (or were just children) during Jim Crow, I'm guessing - so the excuse is a hypothetical one); but also of expressing emotion, Oprah-style, sympathising with Essie Mae (not, I think, that she's actually asking for sympathy), beating their breasts about the iniquities of the old ways, and congratulating themselves that things are so much better nowadays.

It's a free ride to those nice, fuzzy, liberal ya-yas - merely at the cost of checking one's brain at the entrance!

Not that there's any evidence of conspiracy - Mr Shakedown, Jesse Jackson, referred to (NY Times December 16)
a deep and ugly Southern tradition" of white men taking advantage of young black women in their employ.

"By day, they are bullies," Mr. Jackson said. "By night, they manipulate race to their advantage."

(Love that present tense! Poor old Jesse needs to relieve that Magnolia Madness [7] somehow...)

And, for a shakedown, it's pretty unusual: no multi-zero monetary demand, for a start [8]. And that other clerical grievance-meister, candidate Al Sharpton, does not seem to have added his two cents.

Perhaps he's too busy splitting his sides at seeing so many white folks make fools of themselves, for once without any assistance from him.

  1. Wife of US Senator James Chesnut, Jr of South Carolina - one of ten Southern senators expelled in absentia on July 11 1861 - he apparently tried but failed to be elected to the Confederate Congress.

  2. Thanks to Ken Burns. Quoted from a piece entitled White Slaves.

  3. It wasn't called that then.

  4. My understanding is that the history of slavery and the fight against it is a key part of the history syllabus in US public schools.

  5. I'm no literature buff: perhaps these are isolated examples.

  6. Based on Rep Thaddeus Stevens (there are notes on the film).

  7. To which poor old Trent Lott was a martyr - December 2002 archives passim. Perhaps henceforth, December will be Strom Month...

    Meanwhile, Rush Limbaugh, his moral high ground in reduced circumstances these days, is so bold as to suggest that Jackson should look to his own record on the bastardy front.

  8. A book and movie deal - she's on 60 Minutes II already - is a different matter entirely.


Edgefield, SC, at least, is keeping calm, according to the Columbia State (December 18).

Back in the real world, there are still plenty of interesting issues to be teased out: for instance, this Newsday piece refers to Essie May as biracial.

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