The following are some interesting and insightful things I have read in the past few months from the following three non-fiction works of history:
- Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas by Sylviane A. Diouf
- A Short History of Reconstruction by Eric Foner
- Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
Servants of Allah traces the history and influence of the large number of African Muslims who were brought to the Americas during the Atlantic slave trade. The book documents how, contrary to the popular historical depiction of African slaves as peasants, many – especially those who were Muslim – were educated and literate. In particular, I find the following excerpt interesting as it serves as a reminder that in the populist Islam vs. the West narrative, Christianity isn’t always the brightest light on the hill:
Ibrahima pointed out “very forcibly the incongruities in the conduct of those who profess to be the disciples of the immaculate Son of God.” The Africans had experienced or witnessed forced conversion as a justification for slavery, whereas in their religion, conversion was a means of emancipation. They were in daily contact with religious men and women who were nevertheless sadistically brutal. The debauchery of Christian men who sexually exploited powerless women—not accorded the status of concubines—could not have escaped them. As slaves, they had experienced the Christians at their utter worse. Because they did not have a race or class consciousness, they saw the Americans primarily not as whites or as slaveholders but rather as Christians.
Similarly, Sapiens – a materialist recount of the evolution of humans in a historical context – helps put current Western/Christian fears of the Other into perspective:
These theological disputes turned so violent that during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Catholics and Protestants killed each other by the hundreds of thousands. On 23 August 1572, French Catholics who stressed the importance of good deeds attacked communities of French Protestants who highlighted God’s love for humankind. In this attack, the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, between 5,000 and 10,000 Protestants were slaughtered in less than twenty-four hours. When the pope in Rome heard the news from France, he was so overcome by joy that he organised festive prayers to celebrate the occasion and commissioned Giorgio Vasari to decorate one of the Vatican’s rooms with a fresco of the massacre (the room is currently off-limits to visitors). More Christians were killed by fellow Christians in those twenty-four hours than by the polytheistic Roman Empire throughout its entire existence.
The figures of 2002 are even more surprising. Out of 57 million dead, only 172,000 people died in war and 569,000 died of violent crime (a total of 741,000 victims of human violence). In contrast, 873,000 people committed suicide. It turns out that in the year following the 911 attacks, despite all the talk about terrorism and war, the average person was more likely to kill himself than to be killed by a terrorist, a soldier or a drug dealer.
With A Short History of Reconstruction what I found most interesting was how (i) terrorism, in the form of organized violence was employed successfully by Southern whites to maintain the status quo of white supremacy; (ii) an assortment of coordinated efforts by the police, the legislature and courts, and white civil society (often through terrorist violence) were employed in full force to sustain white supremacy and the economics of free labor; (iii) the political rhetoric to rationalize the above – for example, on taxation, federalism, and personal responsibility – are all very much alive and part of the conservative lexicon and worldview today; and (iv) all of the above defined the Jim Crow South up until 1970, a legacy which we undoubtedly still suffer.
Throughout its existence, the Bureau regarded poor relief as a temptation to idleness. Blacks, declared Virginia Bureau head Orlando Brown, must “feel the spur of necessity, if it be needed to make them self-reliant, industrious and provident.” Clearly, this position reflected not only attitudes toward blacks, but also a more general Northern belief in the dangers of encouraging dependency among the lower classes. Yet the Bureau’s assumption that blacks wished to be dependent on the government persisted in the face of evidence that the black community itself, wherever possible, shouldered the task of caring for orphans, the aged, and the destitute and the fact that in many localities more whites than blacks received Bureau aid. In Mobile, Whitelaw Reid observed, “a stranger might have concluded that it was the white race that was going to prove unable to take care of itself, instead of the emancipated slaves.”
The entire complex of labor regulations and criminal laws was enforced by an all-white police and judicial system. Although disorder was hardly confined to blacks, virtually all the South’s militiamen patrolled plantation counties. Often composed of Confederate veterans still wearing their gray uniforms, they frequently terrorized the black population, ransacking their homes to seize shotguns and other property and abusing those who refused to sign plantation labor contracts. Nor did the courts offer impartial justice. By mid-1866, most of the Southern states allowed blacks to testify on the same terms as whites, although not to serve on juries. The result, one British barrister noted after observing Richmond’s courts early in 1867, was that “verdicts are always for the white man and against the colored man.”
Sheriffs, justices of the peace, and other local officials rarely prosecuted whites accused of crimes against blacks. When civil authorities or Bureau agents brought such cases to court, “it seldom results in anything but the acquittal of the criminal,” complained South Carolina Bureau head Robert K. Scott. If convictions did follow, judges imposed sentences far more lenient than blacks received for the same crimes. Texas courts indicted some 500 white men for the murder of blacks in 1865 and 1866, but not one was convicted. “No white man in that state has been punished for murder since it revolted from Mexico,” commented a Northern visitor. “Murder is considered one of their inalienable rights.” Arrested by white sheriffs and tried before white judges and juries, blacks understandably had little confidence in the courts of the Johnson governments. Blacks, a Bureau official concluded, “would be just as well off with no law at all or no Government,” as with the legal system of Presidential Reconstruction.
Taxation provided yet another example of the inequitable turn taken by public policy. Before the war, landed property in most Southern States had gone virtually untaxed, while poll taxes and levies on slaves, luxuries, commercial activities, and professions provided the bulk of revenue. As a result, white yeomen paid few taxes, planters paid more, although rarely an amount commensurate with their wealth and income, and urban and commercial interests bore an excessive tax burden. In Presidential Reconstruction, tax policy was intended, in part, to reinforce the planter’s position vis-à-vis labor. Freedmen faced heavy poll taxes, while those unable to pay were deemed vagrants, who could be hired out to anyone meeting the tax bill.
In appealing to fiscal conservatism, raising the specter of an immense federal bureaucracy overriding citizens rights, and insisting self-help, not dependence on outside assistance, offered the surest road to economic advancement, Johnson voiced themes that to this day have sustained opposition to federal aid for blacks.
. . . The assertion of national power to protect blacks’ civil rights, [Johnson] insisted, violated “all our experience as a people” and constituted a “stride towards centralization, and the concentration of all legislative powers in the national Government.” Most striking was the message’s blatant racism. Somehow, the President had decided that giving blacks full citizenship discriminated against whites—“the distinction of race and color is by the [Civil Rights Bill] made to operate in favor of the colored and against the white race.” Johnson even invoked the specter of intermarriage as the logical consequence of Congressional policy.
In other ways as well, violence had a profound effect on Reconstruction politics. For the Klan devastated many local Republican organizations. By 1871, the party in numerous locales was “scattered and beaten and run out.” No party, North or South, commented Adelbert Ames, could see hundreds of its “best and most reliable workers” murdered and still “retain its vigor.” Indeed, the black community was more vulnerable to the destruction of its political infrastructure by violence than the white.
Fundamentally, reformers believed, Southern violence arose from the same cause as political corruptions: the exclusion from office of men of “intelligence and culture.” If in the North civil service reform offered a solution, in the South, reformers advocated for the removal of political disabilities that barred prominent Confederates—the region’s “natural leaders”—from office. Thus a remarkable reversal of sympathies took place, with Southern whites increasingly portrayed as the victims of injustice, blacks deemed unfit to exercise suffrage, and carpetbaggers denounced as unprincipled thieves.
Some historians attribute the Klan’s sadistic campaign of terror to the fears and prejudices of poor whites. The evidence, however, contradicts such an interpretation. Ordinary farmers and laborers comprised the bulk of the membership, and energetic “young bloods” were more likely to conduct midnight raids than middle-aged planters and lawyers, but “respectable citizens” chose the targets and often participated in the brutality. Among sixty-five Klan assailants, Georgia black legislator Abram Colby identified men “not worth the bread they eat,” but also some of the first-class men in our town, including a lawyer and a physician.”
Finally, all three of these books highlight how we have always found ways to convince ourselves that the Other is either subhuman or evil in order to justify the evil we do onto them.