Saturday, September 29, 2012

Songs and Statues: Unraveling the Nathan Bedford Forrest Park

                If I have learned anything from this class so far, it is that life is profoundly complex. Just when you seem to have a grasp on one particular perspective or idea, another one reveals itself to you, begging for attention. There is no black or white definition to comfort us, no objective truth to fall back on. The fact is that history—our stories—is relentlessly complex. Uncomfortable with our own complexity, we have historically labeled and categorized our surroundings—desperately trying to make sense of things. We don’t want to remember real people; we would much prefer heroes and villains, oppressors and victims. Those categories seem to make things a little easier. One of the ways that we simplify our history is in the way we remember war veterans. The tale of war is seductively simple: there is a noble good group who fights the bad group. The good group wins and we remember them forever. But as we have learned in our class, war, particularly the Civil War, was not that simple.
                Near downtown Memphis, there is a park that occupies about a block of urban space. I first visited it over the summer with a research program at Rhodes. It’s called the Nathan Bedford Forrest Park. Forrest’s remains are kept here at this war memorial. The memorial is quite large—Forrest is atop a large horse looking confidently toward his destination. The memorial reads:
"Those hoof beats die not upon fame's crimson sod,
But will ring through her song and her story;
He fought like a Titan and struck like a god,
And his dust is our ashes of glory."
                Forrest was a celebrated Confederate Civil War veteran known for his leadership against the North in battle. What is not noted at his memorial is the fact that Forrest was also responsible for the violent death of many black Union soldiers. He was also the first Grand Wizard of the early Klu Klux Klan. And yet, his proud gaze can be seen today in this part of Memphis. Forrest’s memorial epitomizes the complexity that we have encountered in our class so far.  Forrest’s great grandson, who is intimately connected to his great-grandfather's story, has responded to the controversy of the statue by saying that “you can’t change history.” And those words do have some merit; our history is in fact unchangeable. However, the way that we remember it and the way that we preserve it are in our control. Other protesters have argued that it is ridiculous to preserve and honor the name of a murderer. The organization that supports Forrest memorials, Friends of Forrest, claims that these protests have no weight or truth behind them. They claim that Forrest was a war hero and should be remembered as just that.
Memphis has been relatively tamer in responding to the statue. Selma, Alabama ruled that their Forrest memorial should not be rebuilt. The reality is that any memorial or statue is leaving things out—it is not recognizing the less-honorable or even abhorring parts of a complicated story. We are comfortable with statues because they are simple. They elevate a human to something that we can remember easily. In this case, we must not fall for the trap of a statue. We can’t just sing along to the song of the hooves of Forrest’s horse that is mentioned in the words of the memorial. Instead, we must examine our relationship to our history. Where do you stand? Do you think that Forrest’s statue should come down tomorrow? Or should it stay as a reminder of where we as a southern state have been? What is our relationship today to our history? Why do you think we erect memorials and statues? I hope that thinking about this statue helps you to frame some of the themes of the class as it has for me.
More info on Forrest memorials:

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Response to "The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson"

In “The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson,” Henry Wiencek discusses Jefferson’s role as a slave master and his management of slave life on the Monticello plantation.  At around 140 slaves, Monticello’s large slave population exemplified the problems and predicaments that slaveholders had to handle on a daily basis.  With Wiencek’s unique glimpse into the inner workings of Monticello, we can see that while Jefferson was a founding father of our country, he was also just a typical slaveholder, hoping to make a profit off of his investment in slavery.
            Jefferson’s identity as a typical Southern slaveholder is shown by his desire to make money and maintain the most efficient plantation system possible.  He even calculated that he made a profit of approximately 4 percent each year from the increased output that his slaves’ offspring provided.  With this revelation, Jefferson advised his colleagues to make a significant investment in slavery if they had not already done so.  In addition, Jefferson gave managerial positions to some of his slaves to ensure that the laborers were working efficiently.  One of these enslaved overseers in Jefferson’s nailery was Gabriel Lilly, who was once replaced because he was too brutal but then hired again since production decreased in his absence.  As Jefferson became more aware of the potential money he could make as a planter and slave master, he also became aware of the pitfalls that slavery entailed.
            One major difficulty that Jefferson and other slaveholders faced while managing a plantation was dealing with insubordinate slaves.  James Hubbard, a trusted slave at Monticello, ran away on two occasions after earning more responsibilities and freedoms.  Jefferson recovered Hubbard after both escape attempts, but did not punish him.  In fact, Jefferson was averse to punishing slaves himself.  So when a laborer stole or misbehaved, Jefferson gave the overseers the responsibility to inflict punishment.  Jefferson also maintained control over his slaves by creating a network of slave informers and spies who would alert him of any wrongdoings or escape plots.  Like other slave masters, Jefferson relied on these informers to provide knowledge of slaves’ sentiments that he could not gauge himself.
While Thomas Jefferson’s intelligence and rhetorical skills set him above his contemporaries, his life at Monticello shared many characteristics with the common Southern slaveholder.  He focused on the profits he made and not on the immorality of slavery and he controlled insubordinate slaves through punishment (although he did not inflict it himself) and by maintaining a network of informers.  However, considering all of the information we have learned about Thomas Jefferson, do his practices as a slaveholder diminish his status as one of the most brilliant and rhetorically gifted men in history or is his identity as a slave master independent from his noble work during the Revolution?  In short, has Jefferson’s reputation been significantly tarnished by information about his personal life and how he ran his plantation?

Mental illness for Freedom

Following up from last week’s lecture, I thought it was pretty absurd that wanting to be free could constitute an individual having a mental disorder. The term "Droptephelia" did not actually exist on Google, but I did find the term “Drapetomania”, which is what I think Professor McKinney was referring too. The disorder was coined by an American doctor named Samuel Cartwright in 1851. When Cartwright first described the disorder he stated that it was, “unknown to our medical authorities [...] yet known by our planters and overseers” emphasizing the point that only Negros could be subject to this disease, since the planters and overseers (who are white) bear witness to this first hand ( According to Cartwright, the disorder was a direct result from masters becoming too friendly or familiar with their slaves, thus treating them as equals. The disease caused the enslaved individual to run away from his or her service. However, as with any disease there was a cure, and if the medical procedures were followed correctly, the issues of having Negros neglect their duties could be prevented. Dr. Cartwright claimed that the only way to rid a Negro of this disease was to severely beat the individual. In his book, Disease and Peculiarities of the Negro Race, Cartwright contests, “If any one, or more of them at a time are inclined to raise their heads to a level with their master or overseer […] they should be punished until they fall into a submissive state which was intended for them to occupy […] they are to be kept in that state and treated like children to prevent and cure them from running away” (  Cartwright supports his argument for why this disease must be dealt with immediately with biblical word. He argued that it is rule in the bible that slaves obey their masters, and be punished if they fail to follow the protocol ( In his book, Dr. Cartwright also makes a reference to the white males stating that they had a moral obligation to themselves to make sure their slaves are always “submissive-knee benders” because it is the power that God bestowed upon them (
There was another mental disorder within the slave race known as Dysaethesia Aethiopica, which was also coined by Cartwright. This disorder was one of pure laziness, affected the mind and body, and was seen mostly in Negros that had "too much" freedom for their own good ( He defined this disease as a, “partial insensibility of the skin[…]as to be like a person half asleep, that is with difficulty aroused and kept awake[…]accompanied with signs or lesions on the body discoverable to the medical observer” ( Once again the cure for this was violent whippings and beatings. It is absurd how brainwashed people had become with the ideas of racism to believe that signs of laziness showed on the skin. It makes no sense and there was no scientific proof to back this claim up. Cartwright’s discovery of such diseases serves as an example of scientific racism, which is an example of pseudoscience. Pseudoscience is a form of scientific hypothesis or techniques that lack valid reason or support.
Professor McKinney also briefly mentioned in class the system of cataloging psychological disorders, known as the DSM. The model is simply a mode of classification that is used to diagnosis individuals with psychiatric disorders, and has been in development for centuries. Drapetomania was included in the DSM model back in the 19th Century and was categorized as a psychiatric disorder of impulsive behavior.

Heres a link to more information on Drapetomania

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson

Hey folks,

Here's an article I bumped into about Thomas Jefferson and the view that he was a "benevolent" slaveholder. Read here.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Reframing the Duality of Jefferson’s Understanding of Race

Many of our class discussions have revolved around the obvious contradictions that existed in the white, slave-owning mind. On the hand, these people professed and argued the belief that the humans that they were enslaving were in fact not human, but rather subhuman. Rationalized by arguments by making false conclusions about the African cultures from which the slaves originated and what they saw as a lack of intelligence. While at the same time making laws to prevent natural human actions that the slave owners realized would occur. Preventing slaves from learning, form gathering ect. Still, despite this they also had to confront the slave narratives and arguments that reasoned for abolition. And so this inherent acknowledgement of the humanity of slaves and belief in their inhumanity existed and best represented by one of America’s founding fathers Thomas Jefferson. His contradictions, at least in what he wrote and said is undeniable, but understanding Jefferson’s point of view on slavery can also be understood in a different context, a context we are very familiar with today. Politicians who lie, or mislead, in order to advance their own political self-interest.
When most American’s think of the founding fathers, they like to believe in the America myth that has come out of that time period. For a moment, just consider Jefferson a politician. Undoubtedly smarter and wiser than most today, but as President Richard Nixon showed that does not make him above the pitfalls of power and political life. Thinking of Jefferson as one would think of a politician today, a contradiction of thought, which he clearly expressed, does not necessarily and always mean a contradiction in actual belief. Think of this idea in a more current context. The Republican Party has endured numerous “scandals” that involved members of the party who are not openly gay and often explicitly anti-gay, soliciting gay sex. This comparison is meant to sharpen the point; those politicians are not always truthful and often simply act in what they believe to be in their best political self-interest. For a Republican Party member hoping to gain the support of a party that opposes gay marriage may very well understand that it is in his/her best interest to also be anti-gay in order to gain that support. Similarly, is it hard to think that a man as prominent and respected as Thomas Jefferson, a resident of Virginia would realize that no matter how he felt for Sally Hemings and if that changed his real prospective on slavery, that in order to maintain his status and relevance that he had to as they say it now “tow the party line”.
This argument is not to say that it is not the case that Jefferson had a conflicting understanding of race and slavery. It is meant to simply point out that there may be another layer to that story and that as great as we may choose to remember him as Americans, he may have had the personality flaw of being unwilling to stand up to slavery and his peers. It is important to remember as we have brought to light in class, no American hero is exactly who we like to think they were. You do not need to diminish his greatness, but just except his weaknesses.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Cup of Wrath and Fire

In response to South Carolina's decision to leave the Union, Frederick Douglass sees an opportunity for the nation to, finally confront the reality of slavery. Here's the link to an article written by Civil War historian David Blight.

Let  me know what you think!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Status Through "Unfreedom"

In Walter Johnson’s Soul by Soul, the discussion of slave narratives and the inner workings of the slave market underwrite the tense dynamic between freedom and “unfreedom” and the ways that white slaveholders gained status in the antebellum South.  The construction of freedom and unfreedom did not just occur simultaneously, but rather, freedom for whites was dependent upon the unfreedom of blacks.  Because of the enslavement of African Americans in the South, white landowning males had the freedom to do what they wanted without the burden of working in their fields from dawn until dusk.  With their slaves supporting them economically and elevating them socially, white slaveholders were able to create not only a powerful Southern economy, but also a distinct class hierarchy based on the number of slaves working for them.
For white slaveholders in the South, owning and buying slaves were important ways to participate in a society that intertwined status with slavery.  Thus, going to the slave market afforded white males an opportunity to see themselves elevated to a position of prestige through their slaves.  According to Johnson,

“Before they entered the slave market or inspected a slave, many slaveholders had well-developed ideas about what they would find there.  These ideas had less to do with the real people they would meet in the market, however, than they did with the slaveholders themselves, about the type of people they could become by buying slaves.” (78)

This idea of attaining status through owning slaves was tied to a fantasy shared by many slaveholders:  that the more slaves working on the plantation, the simpler life would be not just for them, but also for their families.  Slaveholding ladies in the South also used their slaves as a form of status and a way to maintain their “feminine delicacy.”  With white aristocratic families buying slaves for social as well as economic needs, slaveholders felt the need to assert their dominance over their slaves and their fellow slaveholders.
            One of the main reasons that white families in the South were able to participate in society and make a sizable income was because they restricted freedom for blacks and thus maintained their racial dominance.  Continuing to support the institution of slavery and the unfreedom of blacks was in their best interest.  For example, voting restrictions for blacks increased in the North in an effort to prevent African Americans from putting unwanted candidates in office.  This gave whites the freedom to vote for whomever they wanted, without the fear that their slaves would try to usurp their ideals.  In addition, physicians, insurance companies, traders, and many other professionals profited from slaveholders’ desires to protect their investment in slavery.  Keeping African Americans oppressed and enslaved allowed whites to insure their place in society by preventing blacks from taking their jobs and incomes. 
With the dependence of freedom for whites on the unfreedom of blacks, slaveholders were able to gain power and status that shaped the antebellum South.  Yet this power struggle raises some interesting questions about the relationships between slaveholders.  For example, how did slaveholders view rebellions and slave resistance when it happened to their neighbors as opposed to when it happened to them personally?  Was their desire to impress their colleagues so great that they were happy when a neighbor’s slave ran away and exposed the master as “bad” or did it instill a general fear among slaveholders when slaves tried to gain their freedom?  Which was more important—status over their fellow slaveholders or status over their slaves?

Monday, September 10, 2012

Reaction to "Fear of a Black President"

       Ta-Nehisi Coates's article titled "Fear of a Black President" offers a powerful answer to the question Professor McKinney posed to the class on the first day: "Why African American History?".  To quote Nehisi, "What we are now witnessing is not some new and complicated expression of white racism—rather, it’s the dying embers of the same old racism that once rendered the best pickings of America the exclusive province of unblackness."  Coates's message demonstrates the relevance of the course while simultaneously identifying a source of racial tension in the U.S. today.  Legal discrimination and segregation are not so far removed in time from the lives of many Americans that racial prejudice and bias have been completely eliminated from current life and politics.  With that in mind, Coates presents and supports his main argument in the article, which is summarized in an interview Coates had with NPR: 

[M]any white people are especially uncomfortable with the idea of a black person with the power to investigate - or order an investigation of a white person...the idea that someone even named Barack Obama would not just represent the country, but that he would actually be our commander-in-chief. This is a different sort of power wielded by an African-American.

This power provides discomfort and fear that undoubtedly shapes conservative thought and criticism of President Obama's behavior and decisions today.  This source of tension has, in turn, affected President Obama's leadership on matters of race.  
Fear of a black president has influenced President Obama's strategy to address racism.  Some, like Coates, argue that he takes a passive approach that sacrifices the integrity of his true voice that slows or hinders the resolution of present issues of race.  If he partook in more outspoken, active participation in matters of race, however, some argue that he would "play directly into Republican rhetoric about race."  It would be difficult to argue that President Obama's character and actions would not be subjected to harsh scrutiny that might reduce receptivity to his messages and actions regarding race; it could risk the chance of his reelection and the potential to make subsequent efforts to address racism on a national level as the president.  This conflict of interest represents a critical dynamic to Obama's position and the future actions he takes.  Although it is unfair that Obama should involuntarily have to subdue his messages, actions, etc., it is possible that he is taking the best measures, according to his own evaluations, to handle matters of race in a way that will promote racial equity in America.  It may not make for hasty change, but it may serve as the most (currently) effective effort to address racism in the U.S.

        Given the risks involved in serving as a leader on present issues of race and serving as the first black president of the United States, how should President Obama address the subject of race to promote the "becoming America" that is a better, more compassionate nation?  Should he continue to "soothe race consciousness among whites" by taking a less vociferous approach; should he take a more aggressive, unrestrained role in tackling the issues of race in the U.S.; or, should he utilize a strategy that is a mixture of both?