8.02.2011

"the marriage vow": more racist myths about american slavery

Earlier this year, I blogged about a dangerous, racist myth about US history: that the southern states seceded from the union not because of slavery but because of "state's rights". This is a lie. Historical record leaves no doubt: there was only one right the secessionists cared about, and that was their self-proclaimed right to own human beings.

Because I avoid US politics like the plague that it is, I wasn't aware of another dangerous, racist myth about slavery that's been re-popularized. This one comes to light through a document called "The Marriage Vow," written by a "family values" organization hate group called Family Leader and signed by presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann, among others. According to Elizabeth Tenety, editor of the Washington Post's "On Faith" blog, "The Marriage Vow" espouses the view that "that homosexuality is not an 'innate' trait and the implication that family life was potentially better for black children during the era of slavery". (That blog also has a link to the document itself.)

Apparently the ensuing firestorm of outrage forced Santorum and Bachmann to backpedal - very slightly.
So on Saturday, Family Leader officials announced they had excised that paragraph from "The Marriage Vow". Senator Santorum's spokesperson has said that the Senator was fine with the vow itself, but that he "believed it was the right thing ... to remove the language from the preamble to the pledge about slavery." And a spokesperson for Michele Bachmann said, "In no uncertain terms, Congresswoman Bachmann believes that slavery was horrible and economic enslavement is also horrible." Whatever that means.
The idea that any human being could be better off as a slave is bizarre and repulsive. Slavery itself is as old as human civilization, but the American institution of slavery was unlike anything known before or since. Among its more brutal traditions was the forced separation of mothers and babies, parents and children, husbands and wives. All historical documents, including slave narratives, attest to this truth, and the great fiction that draws from these records - such as Beloved, The Known World and The Middle Passage - reinforce it.

I've noticed that when Canadian and European media examine the tea-party or "birther" phenomena, they often fail to recognize the poison soil that allows those movements to flourish: the profound racism seething through so much US culture. The President of the United States is not white, and millions of people simply cannot abide that. Perhaps this "Marriage Vow" document makes the often-unstated racism a little more visible. (The document is homophobic, too, but that brand of bigotry is hardly invisible these days.)

I learned about "The Marriage Vow" through this essay by historian Tera Hunter.
Was slavery an idyllic world of stable families headed by married parents? The recent controversy over “The Marriage Vow,” a document endorsed by the Republican presidential candidates Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum, might seem like just another example of how racial politics and historical ignorance are perennial features of the election cycle.

The vow, which included the assertion that “a child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African-American baby born after the election of the USA’s first African-American President,” was amended after the outrage it stirred.

However, this was not a harmless gaffe; it represents a resurfacing of a pro-slavery view of “family values” that was prevalent in the decades before the Civil War. The resurrection of this idea has particular resonance now, because it was 150 years ago, soon after the war began, that the government started to respect the dignity of slave families. Slaves did not live in independent “households”; they lived under the auspices of masters who controlled the terms of their most intimate relationships.

Back in 1860, marriage was a civil right and a legal contract, available only to free people. Male slaves had no paternal rights and female slaves were recognized as mothers only to the extent that their status doomed their children’s fate to servitude in perpetuity. To be sure, most slaves did all that they could to protect, sustain and nurture their loved ones. Freedom and the love of family are the most abiding themes that dominate the hundreds of published narratives written by former slaves.

Though slaves could not marry legally, they were allowed to do so by custom with the permission of their owners — and most did. But the wedding vows they recited promised not “until death do us part,” but “until distance” — or, as one black minister bluntly put it, “the white man” — “do us part.” And couples were not entitled to live under the same roof, as each spouse could have a different owner, miles apart. All slaves dealt with the threat of forcible separation; untold numbers experienced it first-hand.

Among the best-known of these stories is that of Henry “Box” Brown, who mailed himself from Richmond, Va., to Philadelphia in 1849 to escape slavery. “No slave husband has any certainty whatever of being able to retain his wife a single hour; neither has any wife any more certainty of her husband,” Brown wrote in his narrative of his escape. “Their fondest affection may be utterly disregarded, and their devoted attachment cruelly ignored at any moment a brutal slave-holder may think fit.”

He had been married for 12 months and was the father of an infant when his wife was sold to a nearby planter. After 12 more years of long-distance marriage, his wife and children were sold out of state, sundering their family.

Slave marriages were not granted out of the goodness of “ole massa’s” heart. Rather, they were used as tools to keep slaves in line and to increase profits. Many slaves were forced to marry people they did not choose or to copulate like farm animals — with masters, overseers and fellow slaves.

Abolitionists and ex-slaves publicized excruciating details like these, but the world view of pro-slavery apologists like James Henry Hammond, a senator from South Carolina, could not make sense of motivations like Brown’s. “I believe there are more families among our slaves, who have lived and died together without losing a single member from their circle, except by the process of nature,” than in most modern societies, Hammond claimed. Under the tutelage of warm and loving white patriarchs like himself, slave families enjoyed “constant, uninterrupted communion.”

Hammond’s self-serving fantasy world gave way to reality during the Civil War, as slaves escaped in droves to follow in the footsteps of Union Army soldiers. Although President Abraham Lincoln had promised that he would not interfere with slavery in states where it already existed, he and his military commanders were faced with the unforeseen determination of fugitives seeking refuge, freedom and opportunities to aid the war against their masters. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler developed a policy of treating slaves as “contrabands” of war, inadvertently opening the door for many more to flee. In early August 1861, Congress passed the First Confiscation Act, which authorized the army to seize all property, including slaves, used by the rebellious states in the war effort.

“Contrabands” became the first beneficiaries of a government appeal to military officers, clergymen and missionaries to marry couples “under the flag.” The Army produced marriage certificates for fugitive slave couples solemnizing their marriages, and giving legitimacy to their children for the first time. But it was not until after slavery was abolished that marriage could be secured as a civil right. Despite resistance from erstwhile Confederates, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which extended the right to make contracts, including the right to marry, to all former slaves.

Why does the ugly resuscitation of the myth of the happy slave family matter? Because it is part of a broad and deliberate amnesia, like the misleading assertion by Sarah Palin that the founders were antislavery and the skipping of the “three-fifths” clause during a Republican reading of the Constitution on the House floor. The oft-repeated historical fictions about black families only prove how politically useful and resilient they continue to be in a so-called post-racial society. Refusing to be honest about how racial inequality has burdened our shared history and continues to shape our society will not get us to that post-racial vision.
There are many good critiques of "The Marriage Vow" out there. Here's one by a group blog called The Urchins: What’s the Fuss about ‘The Marriage Vow?’.

16 comments:

johngoldfine said...

I know that you know--as a close reader of Orwell--that one of the things that made him pull out his typewriter was the authoritarian impulse to rewrite history in order that the fantasized past might cast a specious sheen on the present.

laura k said...

Indeed I do, and thanks for mentioning it, John. It's one of the most potent themes of his work.

I don't know if I'm a close reader of Orwell so much as a deep admirer. I read and re-read him. One of my reading goals is to read everything he published. It shouldn't be that hard to do, I just forget to pick up where I left off.

I despise this denialist history. And it scares me how easily so much of the public swallows it.

johngoldfine said...

My first teaching job, 40 years ago, was at a Hebrew Academy. I was in charge of secular subjects for 7th Graders. When we got to the Civil War, the strangest damned thing happened.

Every time I mentioned slavery, the students invariably got this sly, defensive, obstinate look, the look people get when they know deep inside they are wrong but are determined to be stupid anyway and to listen to nothing that might contradict their faith.

'It wasn't so bad,' they would say. 'They didn't have to worry about things, someone took care of all that for them. Anyway, they shouldn't make so much of it nowadays--we were slaves too, you know, and no one gave us anything.'

I heard variations of that rigamarole many times, and clearly I was hearing parrotings of their own parents' racism. (I would never have been tendentious or preachy, by the way--simply saying the word 'slavery' would push the button starting these little recitations.)

These were smart, middle-class kids, but already well-trained in contempt, ignorance, and fear at age 12. I ordinarily enjoy my students, but at those times, I despised them.

M@ said...

I've noticed that when Canadian and European media examine the tea-party or "birther" phenomena, they often fail to recognize the poison soil that allows those movements to flourish: the profound racism seething through so much US culture.

This is the most bizarre thing about US culture to me: that they can be so deeply, hatefully racist, and completely fail to see it.

As you know, marriage is something of an important thing for me. I will be bringing this article up with my colleagues; I appreciate you posting it.

John F said...

What M@ said! In addition:

The President of the United States is not white, and millions of people simply cannot abide that.

We all know there is racism in Canada, but the statement quoted above mystifies me. Is that because I'm Canadian, or because of the particular circumstances of my upbringiong? I'm not sure.

laura k said...

This is the most bizarre thing about US culture to me: that they can be so deeply, hatefully racist, and completely fail to see it.

Yup. Americans like to think the best of themselves and their country. (Like? they insist on it.) So they're extremely adept at filtering out anything they don't want to see, and rewriting history accordingly.

I often think Canadians are just the opposite: they like to think the worst of their country and are determined to show how it doesn't measure up in comparison to wherever.

laura k said...

'It wasn't so bad,' they would say. 'They didn't have to worry about things, someone took care of all that for them. Anyway, they shouldn't make so much of it nowadays--we were slaves too, you know, and no one gave us anything.'

John, how disturbing.

I saw the flipside of that when I was teaching and tutoring. My students were at-risk, inner city young adults - all people of colour, either undocumented immigrants or many-generation NYC ghetto, raised by teenage moms who were raised by teenage moms.

I heard horrendous anti-Semitism - weird, ignorant stuff, not at all hidden. Not hidden, of course, because they never dreamed that two of their favourite teachers (myself and one other, a man they all loved and respected) were Jewish. We didn't fit into what they "knew" (heard) Jews were like.

The theme of "which was worse" - the Holocaust or slavery - was always making the rounds.

John's racist students, my anti-Semitic ones, make me so sad. My students were shocked to learn that Jewish people were so heavily represented in the US civil rights movement, and that many African American and Jewish leaders felt common cause - not one-upmanship - in oppression.

johngoldfine said...

The theme of "which was worse" - the Holocaust or slavery - was always making the rounds.

Yeah, with my seventh graders too, and not surprisingly they came to opposite conclusions than your students did. It's not history, not even close, to retroject the present's needs into the past, as, for example, where we started, with those happy slave families.

laura k said...

And does it have to be a contest?? Can't two things - and many more - be unimaginably heinous without competing for the top spot?

Retroject, great word. I always say "project back," this is more accurate.

laura k said...

with those happy slave families

And as you said, coming back around to the original topic, why do these people insist on these happy slave families? It's not out of guilt, that's for sure.

johngoldfine said...

Can't two things - and many more - be unimaginably heinous

Everything is trivialized and vulgarized when everything is a contest to see who was more the victim. The function of such contests is to insulate the competitors from any real imagining or feeling--you don't empathize that much when you're trying to 'win.'

'Happy slave families' is shorthand for 'we hate abortion, we hate welfare, we hate not being masters of our world, we hate and fear not being in complete control, we hate and fear strangers, and we are furious that you think we are racists--we actually do want blacks to be happy...in the only way they are fit to be happy: as 3/5s of a real person, paternally looked after in perpetual, childlike subordination.'

laura k said...

we actually do want blacks to be happy...in the only way they are fit to be happy: as 3/5s of a real person, paternally looked after in perpetual, childlike subordination.'

Hear, hear. Beautifully said, John.

This, also, is where their opposition to abortion comes from. Women are fine, too - in their place. Not in control of their lives, their sexuality, their reproduction.

John F said...

Besides "happy slave families", it is often pointed out that there were free blacks who owned slaves. When I hear this assertion, I concede its truth, then ask how many white people they owned.

laura k said...

John F, an excellent novel I linked to above, The Known World, explores the implications of free black people having owned slaves. It's fascinating and very disturbing. But as you say, the slaves were still Africans or African-Americans. So what of it? Slaves were still slaves, right? Why does *who* owned them change anything?

Another novel, A Mercy by Toni Morrison, explores the near slave-like conditions endured by many poor whites in the pre-Civil War south. Indentured servants were for all purposes slaves, as their contracts were bought and sold, and they were forced to move to another farm, toil for other masters. They had no control over their lives or their labours. It's a terrific book, and very different for Morrison, as it deals with both class and colour.

M@ said...

But as you say, the slaves were still Africans or African-Americans. So what of it? Slaves were still slaves, right? Why does *who* owned them change anything?

I believe the logic goes, if black people owned slaves, then black people cannot complain about being owned as slaves, because all black people are the same people. Which, by the way, isn't racist in itself because la la la I can't hear you.

I suspect this line of reasoning is typically pointed out in order to show that the real victims in all this are white people who are unfairly called racists.

laura k said...

if black people owned slaves, then black people cannot complain about being owned as slaves, because all black people are the same people.

Right. And if black people owned slaves, slavery therefore has had no effect on African-American culture, or American culture. In fact, if black people owned slaves, slavery didn't really exist!

This is always pointed out in a kind of nyah-nyah, told-you-so way. "You know, I had a female boss, and she was more sexist than most men I know!" Oh well then, sexism doesn't really exist, does it? Thank you for clearing that up for me...