Saturday, November 01, 2008

Heart gets weary

If you live in the south you fight the god damned Civil War and fight it and fight it and fight it. There's no rest for this war. And you are always on a side, because your race is assumed to correlate exactly with your stand unless you actively proclaim otherwise.

My slave-owning South Carolina ancestor came to SC with very little, started a lumber and shipbuilding business in the 1830's and began to accumulate his fortune. In 1861, a northern journalist made a tour through the Carolinas and devotes a few pages of the resulting book to him, among many others. It's still in reprint editions. I was amazed to discover that there's even a Kindle edition! It identifies G3 Grandfather only as "Captain B--" but every family member knows who it refers to and a copy of the book can be found in every senior family member's house.

The Captain was apparently an exceptionally kind master. He was both pro-slavery and a Unionist. The book quotes him as he argues with a secessionist:

"Who will do the work in your new Empire -- I do not mean the agricultural labor; you will depend for that, of course, on the blacks -- but who will run your manufactories and do your mechanical labor? The Southern gentleman would feel degraded by such occupation; and if you put the black to any work requiring intelligence, you must let him think, and when he THINKS he is free!"
My cousins have taken to renting and shooting off a bleepin' cannon on Confed'rate Holy Days. They vote for Republicans. We avoid some topics. And you might notice that in this entry I'm working to avoid searchable terms. Lily-livered, I know.

But there's a logic to people like Captain B's descendants feeling wistful about the mythical magnolia-scented Compassionate Conserv- I mean Confed'racy.

What I will never ever understand is why so many other white southerners share it.

The elite few mega-planters were happy to keep the poor whites poor and ignorant. Another big-time planter quoted in the book says: "To be candid, their presence is of use in keeping the blacks in subordination, and they are worth all they cost me because I control their votes."

The author asks him: "Build a free school at every crossroads and teach the poor whites, and what would become of slavery? If these people were on par with New England farmers, would it last an hour?"

And the planter agrees it would not: "The few cannot rule when the many know their rights. If the poor whites realized that slavery kept them poor, would they not vote it down?" and adds of schools, "Thank God they will not be there in this generation."

Slave ownership and resulting prosperity were within reach of the working farmer, early in the 19th century. G3 Grandpa got into it when it was still possible with hard work to become a "self-made man" building a slave labor force. Then as cotton plantations became the 19th century equivalent of today's sprawling mega-farms, that dream became accessible only to the wealthy. The cost of slaves skyrocketed out of most peoples' reach. Rich planters could cost effectively support a work force of hundreds of slaves, supporting the babies, the sick and the old in order to have the laborers, and did so by simple economy of provisions. A certain amount of good food and shelter kept laborers healthy enough to produce labor, but extras cut into profit.

They also hired out their slaves to others who paid the owner and still had to provision the hirelings. Small-scale farmers would have been better off paying wage labor than either paying over $1000 for one slave or hiring at whatever rate the owner charged. One guy who had to hire labor for a turpentine-gathering concern says to the author, "For my part, I'd like to see the n-----s free":

"White folks would be better off. You see, I have to feed and clothe my n-----s and pay a hundred and twenty and a hundred and fifty a year for 'em, and if the n-----s war free, they'd work for about half that."

As with many big social changes, perception lagged behind reality. The poor who had little but white pride still thought they could aspire to the same economic status as the rich guys. After all, the cotton-culture change in the economy was so recent that they knew wealthy plantation-owners who'd started out as poor as they, and thought it was still possible. Under those circumstances, the poor tend to fight for the rich folks' agenda, and share the dream of a "way of life."So it's understandable for the time.

What I don't get is their descendants romanticizing it now. Now. Today, when we supposedly know not only how vile slavery is in theory but how it kept everybody but the elite down.

I marched against the Confed'rate battle flag's presence on the SC state house in September 1994. What Captain B would have thought of this, I can't say. The book's ardent abolitionist author tells us that "Being obnoxious to the Secession leaders for his well-known Union sentiments, he was onerously assessed by them for contributions for carrying on the war," and adds that he had 5 of his ships seized by the Union. Each side penalized him for ties to the other. Two of his sons fought in gray and one died. I'm probably overidentifying, based on that sad and weary look he has in the photo, to think he felt as I do, that both sides were horrendously stupid, and none of it need have happened.

Thankfully the other son, G2 Grandpa, survived capture by the Yankees or I wouldn't be here to march and blog, and risk outraging some readers. Blacks are expected to oppose the battle flag, but I'm sure some flag-proponents would, maybe aggressively, think me a traitor to my own people. The roadside jeering when we marched was quite unsettling.

I admit I was unprepared for the strictly racial lines the issue seemed to take. Honest, I thought the march would be majority black but not that I would be one of only 5 (if I recall correctly) white people in it. I really thought it was more of a liberal/conservative divide. Boy did I learn different. When the New York Times reported on the march it identified the two sides of the flag issue as "white" and "black." Mind-bogglingly true.

Is ardor for one's Confed'rate heritage really racism covered over with blather about states' rights and economics and the Constitution? If the descendants of those whose opportunity was ruined by the slavery-based system are still calling the Confed'racy their heritage, can it be anything else?

Yet so many of my cannon-shootin' neighbors and relations are no such thing.

I have SC roots back to the bloody 17th century, I'm one of them, and I don't understand either them or the whole Confed'rate Heritage phenomenon. I do know, however, that root causes really can get lost in history.

O gawd here comes another of my Meaningful Analogies.

In elementary school we made Christmas ornaments one year, by blowing up balloons and wrapping a filigree of string around them. Then we coated the web of string with spray starch. Once the starch dried, we popped the balloons and pulled them out, leaving a lacy open sphere. Mine collapsed anyway, either portending my departure from my heritage, or proving I'm just lousy at crafts.

It's absurdly naive to think that racial identity isn't a key element in the Confed'rate heritage thing, but I know non-racist southerners, educated, friends of diversity, who cling to it. I can only think that once the arguments about states' rights and economic suppression got wrapped around the Confed'rate nostalgia, time and education could remove -- in some of us -- the racial identity component and leave the structure of legal arguments intact. That may well be the exception and not the rule.

It's difficult to determine whether a battle-flag waver is: a racist; not a racist; or infected with racism so subtle he/she isn't aware of it. The feelings are complex, built of layers and layers, old stories, old dreams of people who died 100 years ago, the grandparent you loved or feared, or both, teacher and playmates and preachers, and the person who was kind or cruel or scary to you at some forgotten moment when you were 5.

But unless the Confed'rate Heritage people really are all descended from the elite of the plantation era, then it still looks to me like descendants of 18th century French peasants pining for life under Louis XVI.


ronnie said...

A beautiful post. I've rewritten this comment about six times, but I finally realize that to say anything more would be to diminish how much it impacted me, and to sully the post with trying to explain my reaction to it.


Sherwood Harrington said...

From what I've told you of my mother's family, you must know that this superb post hits home strongly with me. Very, very well done, Ruth.

Mike said...

Just agreeing with ronniecat.

Catherine said...

Amazing post, ruth!

StoweMoody said...

Excellent. Not sure about the balloon.