Return of the Repressed: The Roots of a Resurgent Racist Notion

In recent years, we have seen a resurgence — and great expansion — of a sinister trope that has always simmered near or just below the surface of many a Southerner’s thoughts: to wit, that slavery was not really all that bad for the slaves, that most enjoyed a decent enough life, supplied with food, shelter and security. Indeed, for the most part, black Americans lived better under slavery than they did after they were freed. To be sure, slavery had not been a good thing in itself, but its horrors had been exaggerated and its benefits neglected by most historians. 

Such was the general idea. Growing up in the rural South in the 1960s, I heard variations of this line of thought from many people. There were also books put out by Southern publishers that made this case, usually by reciting the testimonies of slaves themselves, talking of the good life they’d enjoyed under kindly masters and loving mistresses. Again, this was all done with a soft sell. There was no strident defense of slavery, there was always the acknowledgement that “of course, slavery was wrong” — but there was always a “but” to follow: “but it wasn’t as bad as they say, not for most people.” The ultimate aim of this trope was neither to defend or denounce slavery, but to make white Southerners feel better about themselves — not only about their past history, but about the injustices of the present. 

In this regard, I think it is almost impossible to overestimate the effect of the movie “Gone With the Wind.” With its romantic depiction of noble Southern aristocrats and their ever-loyal, well-beloved black servants, struggling to save a lost, enchanted way of life, the movie — epic in scope, rich in story, brilliantly acted, blazing in still-rare full color — imposed a powerful template for interpreting the Civil War. The “Lost Cause” idea had long been a feature of Southern culture, of course, but the movie gave it a new, overwhelming force — and a much wider national impact. Especially for a generation that was about to face the rise of the post-WWII civil rights movement, which would bring white Southerners — and Northerners — face to face with the living legacy of the national shame of slavery. 

In some ways, the brilliance of the movie — the hazy glow it cast over American slavery — helped make it possible for many white liberals to support the civil rights movement. One could look back and acknowledge the “great wrong” of slavery without ever truly reckoning with the full truth of its horrific reality. Yes, it was bad that such good folks as stalwart Big Sam (who rescued his former owner from being attacked by a pack of white trash after the war), earth mother Mammy and even silly little Prissy had not been free; but freedom did come, bestowed by white Americans (another self-congratulatory trope with a much-misunderstood history). The essential goodness of America — and white Americans — was still intact. Slavery was bad, but it wasn’t that bad; sure, there were a few bad apples who were cruel, but in the end, it was just an unfortunate phase that we had to go through and get beyond. In the immortal words of a later president, there were “good people on both sides.”

Preserving the idea of the quintessential — and unique — goodness of America is both an urgent and eternal task for Americans. It permeates every aspect of the culture and shapes the consciousness — and self-consciousness — of countless individuals. America must be unique, it must be uniquely good, more exceptional than all other nations. The existence of this inherent goodness cannot be questioned; there can only be fallings off from it (on occasion), or  rank betrayals of this ideal by people on the other side of the political fence, or by nefarious foreigners working to corrupt the nation’s Edenic essence. This anxiety to preserve the conception of inherent goodness cuts across ideological boundaries.

But if you look too closely at reality, the idea of this essential, inherent, unique American goodness becomes impossible to retain. That’s why American evils are quickly glossed over, downplayed, or placed in “context,” with many mitigating nuances and human complexities that are never applied to other nations and peoples. Or if the evils are too glaring, they are simply ignored. The psychic cost of seeing the reality is too high, especially since almost every American —every white American, that is— has had this exceptionalism mixed in with the very foundation of their own personal identity. Any American evil has to be identified with some “Other” — partisan extremists on the other side, who “hate what America really stands for” (equality, meritocracy, free enterprise, economic justice, family values, individual freedom, tradition, law and order, civil disobedience, etc.), or foreign devils meddling in God’s domain. Or else it must be relegated to the category of a badly executed but well-meaning “mistake,” as with Ken Burns’ framing of the Vietnam War.

And this is where the influence of  “Gone With the Wind” played such an important role in “framing” the evil of slavery. Frequently re-released, it remained for decades the most popular American movie of all time. But today its implicit message is now more and more explicit in conservative circles. You can hear mitigations of slavery’s evil on Fox News. You can see major party senatorial candidates like Roy Moore openly hearkening back to the “greater” America of antebellum days. You can read any number of articles or tweets or quotes by people who have the ear of the president — media figures, businessmen, politicians —talking of how “the blacks” had it better under slavery than they do now. Indeed, you don’t have to wade very deep into the fever swamps of the far-right (which also has the ear of the president) to find outright defenses of slavery and calls for its return.

There are many factors behind this new upsurge of filth from the national id, but one of the most crucial is surely the nation’s unassuageable anxiety about confronting the reality of slavery: a failure of nerve driven by the need (political and psychological) of both liberals and conservatives to preserve the idea of America’s essential and exceptional goodness. It’s far easier for the notion of slavery’s “benign” character to take hold in a society that has been conditioned, for generation after generation, to accept a gauzy, romanticized version of this fundamental, foundational evil.

These thoughts were prompted by a book on the remarkable Gutenberg Project website. The site has digitized countless numbers of books — on almost every possible subject under the sun — going back to the early 1800s and continuing past the middle of the 20th century. (Newly digitized works are being added all the time.) Looking through the site for something else recently, I found an 1856 book by Austin Steward: Twenty-Two Years a Slave, and Forty Years a Freeman. It is in many ways a typical “slave narrative,” by a man whose owne was considered a “not very hard master, but generally kind and pleasant.” Yet the very “averageness” of the situation deepens its horror. This was not slavery at its very worst, some outlier of special depravity, but the typical experience of slave life under a typical owner, Virginia plantation owner Capt. William Helm. Below are just a few excerpts:

It was usual for men and women to work side by side on our plantation; and in many kinds of work, the women were compelled to do as much as the men. Capt. H. employed an overseer, whose business it was to look after each slave in the field, and see that he performed his task. The overseer always went around with a whip, about nine feet long, made of the toughest kind of cowhide, the but-end of which was loaded with lead, and was about four or five inches in circumference, running to a point at the opposite extremity. This made a dreadful instrument of torture, and, when in the hands of a cruel overseer, it was truly fearful. With it, the skin of an ox or a horse could be cut through. Hence, it was no uncommon thing to see the poor slaves with their backs mangled in a most horrible manner. Our overseer, thus armed with his cowhide, and with a large bull-dog behind him, followed the slaves all day; and, if one of them fell in the rear from any cause, this cruel weapon was plied with terrible force. He would strike the dog one blow and the slave another, in order to keep the former from tearing the delinquent slave in pieces,—such was the ferocity of his canine attendant.

It was the rule for the slaves to rise and be ready for their task by sun-rise, on the blowing of a horn or conch-shell; and woe be to the unfortunate, who was not in the field at the time appointed, which was in thirty minutes from the first sounding of the horn. I have heard the poor creatures beg as for their lives, of the inhuman overseer, to desist from his cruel punishment. Hence, they were usually found in the field "betimes in the morning," (to use an old Virginia phrase), where they worked until nine o'clock. They were then allowed thirty minutes to eat their morning meal, which consisted of a little bread. At a given signal, all hands were compelled to return to their work. They toiled until noon, when they were permitted to take their breakfast, which corresponds to our dinner.

The usual mode of punishing the poor slaves was, to make them take off their clothes to the bare back, and then tie their hands before them with a rope, pass the end of the rope over a beam, and draw them up till they stood on the tips of their toes. Sometimes they tied their legs together and placed a rail between. Thus prepared, the overseer proceeded to punish the poor, helpless victim. Thirty-nine was the number of lashes ordinarily inflicted for the most trifling offence.

Who can imagine a position more painful? Oh, who, with feelings of common humanity, could look quietly on such torture? Who could remain unmoved, to see a fellow-creature thus tied, unable to move or to raise a hand in his own defence; scourged on his bare back, with a cowhide, until the blood flows in streams from his quivering flesh? And for what? Often for the most trifling fault; and, as sometimes occurs, because a mere whim or caprice of his brutal overseer demands it. Pale with passion, his eyes flashing and his stalwart frame trembling with rage, like some volcano, just ready to belch forth its fiery contents, and, in all its might and fury, spread death and destruction all around, he continues to wield the bloody lash on the broken flesh of the poor, pleading slave, until his arm grows weary, or he sinks down, utterly exhausted, on the very spot where already stand the pools of blood which his cruelty has drawn from thee mangled body of his helpless victim, and within the hearing of those agonized groans and feeble cries of "Oh do, Massa! Oh do, Massa! Do, Lord, have mercy! Oh, Lord, have mercy!" &c.

Nor is this cruel punishment inflicted on the bare backs of the male portion of slaves only. Oh no! The slave husband must submit without a murmur, to see the form of his cherished, but wretched wife, not only exposed to the rude gaze of a beastly tyrant, but he must unresistingly see the heavy cowhide descend upon her shrinking flesh, and her manacled limbs writhe in inexpressible torture, while her piteous cries for help ring through his ears unanswered. The wild throbbing of his heart must be suppressed, and his righteous indignation find no voice, in the presence of the human monster who holds dominion over him.

After the infuriated and heartless overseer had satiated his thirst for vengeance, on the disobedient or delinquent slave, he was untied, and left to crawl away as best he could; sometimes on his hands and knees, to his lonely and dilapidated cabin, where, stretched upon the cold earth, he lay weak and bleeding and often faint from the loss of blood, without a friend who dare administer to his necessities, and groaning in the agony of his crushed spirit. In his cabin, which was not as good as many of our stables at the North, he might lie for weeks before recovering sufficient strength to resume the labor imposed upon him, and all this time without a bed or bed clothing, or any of the necessaries considered so essential to the sick.

Capt. Helm was not a very hard master; but generally was kind and pleasant. Indulgent when in good humor, but like many of the southerners, terrible when in a passion. He was a great sportsman, and very fond of company. He generally kept one or two race horses, and a pack of hounds for fox-hunting, which at that time, was a very common and fashionable diversion in that section of country. He was not only a sportsman, but a gamester, and was in the habit of playing cards, and sometimes betting very high and losing accordingly.

I well remember an instance of the kind: it was when he played cards with a Mr. W. Graham, who won from him in one sweep, two thousand and seven hundred dollars in all, in the form of a valuable horse, prized at sixteen hundred dollars, another saddle-horse of less value, one slave, and his wife's gold watch. The company decided that all this was fairly won, but Capt. Holm demurred, and refused to give up the property until an application was made to Gen. George Washington, ("the father of his country,") who decided that Capt. Helm had lost the game, and that Mr. Graham had fairly won the property, of which Mr. G. took immediate possession, and conveyed to his own plantation.

Mrs. Helm was a very industrious woman, and generally busy in her household affairs—sewing, knitting, and looking after the servants; but she was a great scold,—continually finding fault with some of the servants, and frequently punishing the young slaves herself, by striking them over the head with a heavy iron key, until the blood ran; or else whipping them with a cowhide, which she always kept by her side when sitting in her room. The older servants she would cause to be punished by having them severely whipped by a man, which she never failed to do for every trifling fault. I have felt the weight of some of her heaviest keys on my own head, and for the slightest offences. No slave could possibly escape being punished—I care not how attentive they might be, nor how industrious—punished they must be, and punished they certainly were. Mrs. Helm appeared to be uneasy unless some of the servants were under the lash. She came into the kitchen one morning and my mother, who was cook, had just put on the dinner. Mrs. Helm took out her white cambric handkerchief, and rubbed it on the inside of the pot, and it crocked it! That was enough to invoke the wrath of my master, who came forth immediately with his horse-whip, with which he whipped my poor mother most unmercifully—far more severely than I ever knew him to whip a horse.

I once had the misfortune to break the lock of master's shot gun, and when it came to his knowledge, he came to me in a towering passion, and charged me with what he considered the crime of carelessness. I denied it, and told him I knew nothing about it; but I was so terribly frightened that he saw I was guilty, and told me so, foaming with rage; and then I confessed the truth. But oh, there was no escaping the lash. Its recollection is still bitter, and ever will be. I was commanded to take off my clothes, which I did, and then master put me on the back of another slave, my arms hanging down before him and my hands clasped in his, where he was obliged to hold me with a vise-like grasp. Then master gave me the most severe flogging that I ever received, and I pray God that I may never again experience such torture. And yet Capt. Helm was not the worst of masters.

These cruelties are daily occurrences, and so degrading is the whole practice of Slavery, that it not only crushes and brutalizes the wretched slave, but it hardens the heart, benumbs all the fine feelings of humanity, and deteriorates from the character of the slaveholders themselves,—whether man or woman. Otherwise, how could a gentle, and in other respects, amiable woman, look on such scenes of cruelty, without a shudder of utter abhorrence? But slaveholding ladies, can not only look on quietly, but with approbation; and what is worse, though very common, they can and do use the lash and cowhide themselves, on the backs of their slaves, and that too on those of their own sex! Far rather would I spend my life in a State's Prison, than be the slave of the best slaveholder on the earth!

When I was not employed as an errand-boy, it was my duty to stand behind my master's chair, which was sometimes the whole day, never being allowed to sit in his presence. Indeed, no slave is ever allowed to sit down in the presence of their master or mistress. If a slave is addressed when sitting, he is required to spring to his feet, and instantly remove his hat, if he has one, and answer in the most humble manner, or lay the foundation for a flogging, which will not be long delayed.

I slept in the same room with my master and mistress. This room was elegantly furnished with damask curtains, mahogany bedstead of the most expensive kind, and every thing else about it was of the most costly kind. And while Mr. and Mrs. Helm reposed on their bed of down, with a cloud of lace floating over them, like some Eastern Prince, with their slaves to fan them while they slept, and to tremble when they awoke, I always slept upon the floor, without a pillow or even a blanket, but, like a dog, lay down anywhere I could find a place.