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

Red, White and Black

It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning. – Martin Luther King, Jr.

The genocide of the Native Americans (“the outer Other”) created two problems for the white imagination, for its politicians and for its businessmen. First, it literally didn’t leave enough survivors for them to identify as a threat that could motivate white fear. Second, it didn’t leave enough laborers for their plantations. Colonial whites required someone to act both roles. So they uprooted millions of Africans to form the foundation of the Southern economy, and eventually of the Northern economy as well. Much later, despite a long tradition of anti-immigrant hostility, they also imported millions of Latinos to work the jobs that whites would not accept.

As I have written in Chapter Eight of my book Madness at the Gates of the City: The Myth of American Innocence, neither “blackness” nor “whiteness” firmly established themselves in the American mind until the defeat of Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676 in Virginia, when indentured servants of both races challenged the landowners. This was a watershed moment, as historian Theodore Allen wrote:

…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 of what would be many examples of affirmative action for whites, 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.

The new allegiance to a narrative of whiteness eliminated most 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, wrote 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 itself equaled sin.

By 1700, white Americans had a story that evolved into a neo-Calvinistic myth, and the myth told them that their affluence and their privileges were no accident. It told them that their work ethic, enterprising spirit and ability to defer gratification brought them the good things in life, and that the brutal conditions that both black slaves and poor whites lived under were proof of exactly the opposite.

But there was always that shadow, that dark side of the myth of innocence. Regardless of their economic status, whites were motivated to pledge their allegiance to a state that was defined by the perpetual threat of what Freud would later call the “return of the repressed.” In social terms this took the form of slave rebellions and Indian attacks. At the psychological level, it appeared as that constant temptation to reject the Protestant Ethic and dance.  

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. There was always the red shadow of the native warrior (later, the red communist) who might swoop down upon the innocent community with no warning, and for no apparent reason. And the black shadow of the hateful slave lurked within that same community.

The ideas of Red, White and Black were born together in the American soul.

Three and a half centuries after Bacon’s Rebellion, scholars still wonder why a strong socialist movement never developed here, as it did in almost every other developed country. One reason is the profoundly influential ideology (again rooted ultimately in Puritanism) of radical individualism. This created, for whites at least, the expectation of perpetual growth, in both spiritual and material terms. As John Steinbeck wrote,

Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.

A second factor is the overwhelming presence of the Other. Only Americans combined irresistible myths of opportunity and universal freedom – stories that spoke deeply to the soul – with rigid legal systems deliberately intended to divide natural allies. Every time those allies made common cause, opportunistic politicians played the race card. “No other democratic nation,” writes Cornell West, “revels so blatantly in such self-deceptive innocence, such self-paralyzing reluctance to confront the night-side of its own history.

In this thinking, whiteness implies both purity (which demands removal of impurities) and privilege. From 1680 to 2020, no matter how impoverished a white, male American may have felt, he has still heard dozens of subtle messages every day of his life that divide him from the impure. Without racial privilege the concept of whiteness is meaningless. With it, so is working class unity. Throughout American history, white men often have had nothing to call their own except their privilege, yet they have clung to it and supported those whose coded rhetoric has promised to maintain it. The only new addition that Donald Trump (hereafter referred to as “Trumpus”) brought to this story has been to drop the codes. 

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.

Three hundred years earlier, 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.

So we have to address the question of religion again. White Southern evangelicals are Trumpus’ essential base, the only sizable group in the country who supported him to the end. In Chapter Eight of my book I wrote:

How did Puritanism continue to grow there 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 assumptions about 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 would not change until Republicans, realizing that they had no real future without bringing in new voters, deliberately motivated evangelicals with the old tactics of racial fear. And fear, we have learned over and over, trumps moral concerns. Since then, the “Solid South” has simply changed its allegiance from Democrat to Republican, with enough electoral votes to prevent or water down any progressive legislation, but now with the addition of millions of fundamentalists who had previously never voted.

Yes, recent demographic changes in Virginia and Georgia have brought political change, but for the most part we can still ask ourselves if the South actually won the Civil War. 

Consider the intersection of narratives centering on southern plantations before the 150 years before 1860: the myth of free markets; the myth of the pastoral plantation, with everyone cheerfully playing their role, protected by benevolent masters and Protestant ministers; the myth of pure Southern Womanhood; and the complex images of the slaves, gratefully serving the planters. These stories about the essential goodness of southern culture would go on to provide the background for a post-war myth that has survived for over another 150 years. The myth of the “Lost Cause” warns us that the South will rise again, because it was a tragic mistake of history that it was defeated.

The North itself long held to yet another story, that racial discrimination occurred only in the South. In reality, Northern mobs attacked abolitionists on over two hundred occasions prior to the outbreak of the War.

Psychologist 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 and sin. By 1825 Alexis De Tocquevile wrote 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, most of them 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 could attest), thousands of “sundown towns” in thirty states prevented blacks from residing overnight on pain of arrest or worse.

But let’s return our focus to 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 race mongrelizer) Thomas 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.” Indeed.

As the Native American population (the Outer Other) east of the Appalachian Mountains shrunk into relative insignificance, due to genocide and ethnic cleansing, African Americans assumed the role of the Inner 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 (later known as Amiri Baraka) wrote,

… 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 many blacks assumed the persona and 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. Forms of it (Amos ‘n Andy) survived into the 1950s, tutoring millions in racist stereotyping. But it provided something else. By vicariously impersonating blacks, as Michael Ventura has written, “white Americans could briefly inhabit their own bodies.” 

A second aspect of the story contradicted the first, but no one noticed, since othering is not logical. This Other was intensely sexual and aggressive. 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 the leaders racially resemble the 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. In America the old mind/body division coincided with the racial gulf, and this distinction became sacred.

It took abstraction to new levels. Countless whites, inheritors of the Puritan imagination, 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 that goes beyond economics and questions of privilege. This terror, writes 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 exiled 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 afford to 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. White Europeans had long been used to these stereotypes: for hundreds of years before the discovery of the New World, they had seen Jews as the internal Other and Muslims as the external Other.

After emancipation, racism remained the foundation of a political economy predicated upon fear, the constant threat (and temptation) 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, in the case of Native American admixture with whites, courts enforced the one-drop rule more selectively. They recognized the “Pocahontas exception” because many influential Virginia families claimed descent from Pocahontas, a fundamental and positive character in America’s origin myth. 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.

For decades, despite many exceptions, one of the primary characteristics of whiteness across large swaths of the country was the simple fact of legal freedom. This changed quickly after 1865. So new laws were enacted that prevented most blacks from acquiring western land, thus keeping them as de facto slaves in the south. Homesteading became a privilege reserved for white people, another example of affirmative action. In the southwest, similar systems targeted Latinos. No wonder our picture of the hardy “pioneers” who settled the west is lily-white.

When poor whites and blacks again threatened to unite, the Jim Crow system arose, held in place by the threat of large-scale, domestic terrorism. Between 1868 and 1871, the Ku Klux Klan murdered over two thousand Americans and intimidated countless others. 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 so many cheap agricultural workers, many blacks left, only to be confined within northern ghettoes, where nearly equally severe conditions resulted in the poverty and violence that whites associated them with. By 1900 the mythmakers had succeeded: whites commonly believed that blacks hadn’t been ready for freedom because, like Dionysus, they couldn’t “sacrifice their lusts.”

Like the 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 within the pure American psyche, and to a great extent, the economy, but it was still necessary to keep him close. To several generations of white immigrants, 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 (now transformed from Indians to communists) and the inner, Black Other. In 1960, 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.

Read Part Three here.

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