Barry’s Blog # 226: The Civil Rights Movement in American Myth, Part Two of Four

Part Two: Red, White and Black

Genocide of the Native Americans (the outer Other) created two problems for the white imagination, and for its economy: it didn’t leave enough survivors to be identified as Other, and it didn’t leave enough laborers. Whites required someone to act both roles. So they uprooted millions of Africans to form the foundation of the Southern economy.

As I have written in Chapter Eight of my book, neither “blackness” nor “whiteness” firmly established themselves in the American mind until the defeat of Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676, when indentured servants of both races challenged the landowners. This was a watershed moment. Historian Theodore Allen writes:

…laboring-class African-Americans and European-Americans fought side by side for the abolition of slavery…If the plan had succeeded, the history of…America might have taken a much different path.

Previously, there had been little distinction between dark- and light-skinned laborers. Afterwards, Virginia codified its bondage system. In the first example of “affirmative action,” it replaced the terms “Christian” or “free” with “white,” gave new privileges to Caucasians, removed rights from free blacks and banned interracial marriage. Other laws contributed to what Allen calls the “absolutely unique American form of male supremacism” – the right of any Euro-American to rape any African-American without fear of reprisal.

This new allegiance to whiteness eliminated class competition and provided a sub-class of poor whites to intimidate slaves and suppress rebellion. This is how the first American police forces developed – as slave patrols. Copied everywhere, the pattern merged with the myth of racial war: America’s primary model for class distinction (and class conflict) became relations between white planters and black slaves, rather than between rich and poor.

The new system, writes Allen, insisted on “the social distinction between the poorest member of the oppressor group and any member, however propertied, of the oppressed group.” Eventually, southern class discrimination merged with northern religious stereotyping. Since poverty equaled sinfulness (to Northern Puritans) and black equaled poor (to Southern opportunists), then it became obvious that blackness equaled sin.

Regardless of their economic status, whites pledged allegiance to a state that was defined by the perpetual threat of the return of the repressed. The predatory imagination found the secret to perpetuating itself – as it would in the1870s, 1890s, 1930s, 1950s, 1980s and today – by manipulating the paranoid imagination.

Red, White and Black were born together in the American soul. Psychologically speaking, this was America’s “birth trauma” – the events that formed our essential character, our fatal flaw.

Over three centuries after Bacon’s Rebellion, scholars still wonder why a strong socialist movement never developed in America, as it did almost everywhere else. Characteristically, they rarely consider the overwhelming presence of the Other: no other nation combined irresistible myths of opportunity with rigid legal systems deliberately intended to divide natural allies.

Whiteness implies both purity (which demands removal of impurities) and privilege. No matter how impoverished a white, male American feels, he hears hundreds of subtle messages every day that divide him from the impure. Without racial privilege the concept of whiteness is meaningless. Often, Americans have had nothing to call their own except white privilege, yet they cling to it and support those whose coded rhetoric promises to maintain it.

The process of exclusion and subordination required a massive lie about black inferiority that has been enshrined in our national narrative. “After all,” writes Tim Wise,

…to accept that all men and women were truly equal, while still mightily oppressing large segments of that same national population on the basis of skin color, would be to lay bare the falsity of the American creed.

Similarly, the French philosopher Montesquieu wrote, “It is impossible for us to suppose these creatures to be men, because, allowing them to be men, a suspicion would follow that we ourselves are not Christian.”

This brings up the question of religion. This is certainly no mere academic one. White evangelicals are now Trump’s essential base, the only sizable  group in the country who still support him. In Chapter Eight of my book I wrote:

How did Puritanism continue to grow there (in the South) long after it had been greatly transformed into the capitalist impulse in the North? As free land became scarce in the east, most immigrants (including thousands of Scots-Irish Presbyterians) headed toward southern and western frontier areas. There, they fought savage wars with the Indians long after New England’s indigenous population had been decimated.

In the Deep South in particular they lived side-by-side with millions of blacks and the constant fear of both race war and sexual predation. In addition, one can imagine that they felt guilt, conscious or not, for participating directly in the systematic dehumanization of the slaves. This meant that rural Southerners, far more than Northerners, were obsessed with evil in their daily lives.

The Bible occupied a prominent place on the frontier. With few educated clergy around, people were often unaware of its symbolic context. It was venerated more than it was read, and read more than it was understood. The Bible was often the only book in the house (this situation still prevails in many American homes). The result was a dogmatism and anti-intellectual literalism that became characteristic of this part of the country.

So, while urban Northerners transmuted their self-abnegation into the sense of deferred gratification required to amass wealth, rural Southerners built up their fear of the Other to such a fever pitch that the Devil – and their own sense of sinfulness – remained as constant presences. Belief in predestination died out, but Original Sin remained. This meant fear of judgment, repressed sexuality, longing for Apocalypse and an older sense of deferred gratification, not to wealth but to the next life. Obsession with the other world meant dismissal of this one and contempt for political participation. As a result, most fundamentalists didn’t vote until the 1970s.

That situation changed only when the Republicans deliberately sought their votes with the old tactics of racial fear. And fear, we have learned yet again, trumps moral concerns. Since then, the “solid South” has simply changed its allegiance from Democrat to Republican, with enough votes to wreck or water down any progressive legislation, but now with the addition of millions of fundamentalists who had previously not voted.

Consider the intersection of myths centering on Southern plantations before the Civil War: the myth of free markets; the myth of the pastoral plantation, with everyone happily playing their role, protected by benevolent masters and Protestant ministers; the myth of pure Southern Womanhood; and the complex images of the slaves themselves. Indeed, the North long held to yet another myth, that discrimination occurred only in the South. In reality, Northern mobs attacked abolitionists on over two hundred occasions.

Joel Kovel asserts that there are two kinds of racism. One is the obvious dominative racism that developed in close contact (including the privilege of rape) between master and slave. The second – aversive racism – arose from Puritan associations of blackness with filth. De Tocquevile noticed that prejudice “appears to be stronger in the states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists; and nowhere is it so intolerant as in those states where servitude has never been known.”

Indeed, New England had about 13,000 slaves in 1750. In 1720, New York City’s population of seven thousand included 1,600 blacks, most of them slaves. Not until 1664 (22 years after Massachusetts) did Maryland declare that all blacks held in the colony and all those imported in the future would serve for life, as would their offspring. And the two colonies with the strongest religious foundations – Massachusetts and Pennsylvania – were the ones that first outlawed “miscegenation.”

When northern states expanded the voting franchise for whites in the 1830s, they explicitly abolished it for blacks. Later, several states including Indiana and Illinois literally banned all blacks from entering. Oregon (1859), however, was the only free state admitted to the Union with a racial exclusion clause in its constitution. The ban remained in place until 1927. Well into the 1950s (as any black entertainer, athlete or travelling businessman can attest), thousands of “sundown towns” in thirty states prevented blacks from residing overnight.

But we are focusing on the South. As whiteness took on increasing significance, so did the fear of “mongrelization.” Below the fear, however, was envy and below that was the desire to achieve real healing and authentic psychological integration. To cover up such unacceptable fantasies, whites projected their desires onto blacks. Even the great humanist (and, we have learned, willing miscegenationist) Jefferson apparently felt that black men had a preference for white women over black women “as uniformly…as the preference of the Oran-utan for the black woman over those of his own species.”

As the Native American population east of the Appalachian Mountains shrunk into relative insignificance, African-Americans assumed the role of the Other. What (in the white mind) were their characteristics? First, they were childish, lazy and unreliable – the shadow of the Protestant Ethic. It was necessary to force them to be productive.

White performers began to wear blackface in the 1840s. LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) writes,

… the only consistent way of justifying what had been done to him – now that he had reached what can be called a post-bestial stage – was to demonstrate the ridiculousness of his inability to act as a “normal” human being.

Whites needed to believe that blacks were slow, dumb and happy, so blacks acted that way. Whites created fictional characters – from Jim Crow to Gone With the Wind’s Mammy: loveable and loyal, yet lacking any concern for intellect or freedom. Blackface minstrelsy was America’s primary form of entertainment throughout the nineteenth century. 18361

Forms of it (Amos ‘n Andy) survived into the 1950s, tutoring millions in racist stereotyping. But it provided something else: impersonating blacks, whites could briefly inhabit their own bodies.

A second aspect contradicted the first, but no one cared. This Other was intensely sexual and aggressive. 55b9043c82426ab20438cad3056ab2a6 Like Dionysus, he might sneak in and corrupt the children. Class society assigns the mind to the masters and the body to the servants. In racially homogeneous societies, where leaders racially resemble followers, these images are not mutually exclusive. The poor can potentially join the elite. But in racial caste systems masters are physically different from servants, and the images are mutually exclusive. The mind/body division coincides with the racial gulf, and this distinction becomes sacred.

It took abstraction to new levels. Whites hated the body’s needs and feared that they might be judged by how well they controlled them. Here is a clue to slavery’s appeal. This terror, writes Michael Ventura, “…was compacted into a tension that gave Western man the need to control every body he found.” In slavery, “the body could be both reviled and controlled.”

Third, it was necessary to confine this Black Other of the South, unlike the external, Red Other (now primarily west of the Mississippi River), within the gates of the innocent community. Whites could savagely defend their women from him, but they couldn’t exterminate or isolate him in concentration camps (otherwise known as reservations), because he was critical to economic prosperity. Slavery fit the model of an internal Other that had appeared earlier in the Witch craze.

After emancipation, racism remained the foundation of a political economy predicated upon fear, the constant threat of violence, division of the working class and further refinements of whiteness. The law long assumed that blacks were persons with any African ancestry. The “one-drop rule,” used by no other nation, made one a black person. “Octoroons,” who had seven white great-grandparents out of eight, were considered to be black.

Curiously (and ironically, in 2017 as Trump insults Elizabeth Warren), in the case of Native American admixture with whites, courts enforced the one-drop rule more selectively. The “Pocahontas exception” existed because many influential Virginia families claimed descent from Pocahontas. To avoid classifying them as non-white the Assembly declared that a person could be considered white as long as they had no more than one-sixteenth Indian blood.

After 1865, “freedom” no longer defined whiteness. So new laws prevented most blacks from acquiring western land and kept them de facto slaves in the south. Homesteading became a privilege of whiteness, another example of affirmative action . In the southwest, similar systems targeted Latinos. No wonder our picture of the hardy “pioneers” is lily-white.

When poor whites and blacks again threatened to unite, the Jim Crow system arose, held in place by the threat of terrorism. Between 1868 and 1871, the Ku Klux Klan murdered 20,000 Americans. In the 1890s, when workers and farmers organized the Populist Movement, there were 200 lynchings per year. The dream of unity collapsed (as it would again in the 1970s) under the fear and the temptation to identify as white.

This systemic violence might have provoked more outrage but for a rationale that silenced criticism. Sexuality was a means of reasserting both white control over blacks and male domination of women, even though fewer than a quarter of lynchings resulted from allegations of sexual assault. When agriculture mechanized and the South no longer required them, many blacks left, only to be confined within northern ghettoes, where many black women could find work only as prostitutes. By 1900 the mythmakers had succeeded: most whites believed that blacks hadn’t been ready for freedom because, like Dionysus, they couldn’t “sacrifice their lusts.”

Like ancient Athenians, Victorian Americans saw themselves as Apollonian, hardworking, rational and progressive. Meanwhile, they had enshrined the Other in a form the Greeks would have recognized, but burdened with Christian sinfulness. “Enshrined” seems to be the proper term here: there was (and is) simply no possibility of worshipping such a deeply corrupted version of the Christ without imagining an equally corrupt, “evil twin.” For more on this question, see Chapter Nine of my book.

There was no place for him or her within the pure American psyche, but it was necessary to keep them close. The descendants of the slaves, in both their stereotyped, earthy physicality and the implied threat of their vengeance became America’s dark incarnation of Dionysus, our collectively repressed memory and imagination. Since whites desperately needed to project him, to see him, they created exactly those conditions – segregation and discrimination – that dehumanized him and fostered behavior that whites could demonize.

White Americans filled their imaginary underworld with monsters: the outer, Red Other and the inner, Black Other. In 1960, novelist James Baldwin concluded,

We would never, never allow Negroes to starve, to grow bitter, and to die in ghettos all over the country if we were not driven by some nameless fear that has nothing to do with Negroes…most white people imagine that (what) they can salvage from the storm of life is really, in sum, their innocence.

 

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