Yesterday I promised myself that I would not, under any circumstances, touch the “African Americans were better off as slaves” FAMiLY LEADER pledge. Someone else would do it. I would watch Katharine Hepburn movies and forget about the Teapublicans for a few hours. I bit my lip listening to this belief being passed off as a gaffe, a misunderstanding, another stupidity. Our chattering class does not hail from the Deep South, apparently. But then, early this morning, after some well articulated outrage, the FAMiLY LEADER removed this preamble to their pledge, claiming their language regarding slavery had been “misconstrued.” Not so fast.
Republicans Rep. Michele Bachmann and Sen. Rick Santorum signed the pledge from Iowa’s conservative FAMiLY LEADER group that included the following:
“Slavery had a disastrous impact on African-American families, yet sadly 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.”
Not only is this wildly inaccurate and so obscenely offensive as to render most thinking people aghast and ashamed, but the source the pledge is based upon was not even referring to slavery. Nate Silver tweeted that they sourced this egregious comparison with a paper referring to 1880-1910 time period entitled: “The Consequences of Marriage for African Americans: A Comprehensive Literature Review.”
Perhaps they should have investigated their source before using it to justify why some people shouldn’t be free. This smacks of the “They’re children” justifications of the Civil War era, and it’s important to get to the bottom of the extreme conservative Christian beliefs that led to putting such a preamble in a pledge that Presidential candidates are being asked to sign. Removal of this section does not necessarily equate with an understanding of why it was so offensive, in fact, given the explanation, “…we agree that the statement referencing children born into slavery can be misconstrued…” it’s evident that we need more dialogue on this issue rather than less.
We recall that African American slaves were often not allowed to marry as they couldn’t enter contracts. Their families were split apart at the whim of their owner. The women were often raped by their white master. They did not have a “household”, they had a rickety shack as far away from the manor as possible.
Many people were kind enough to correct Michele, Rick and the FAMiLY LEADER gang, and perhaps chalk it up to more propaganda. The push back was so intense that this morning the FAMiLY LEADER removed this section from their odious pledge. But what they should understand is that these folks believe this revised history. Yes, they believe this because the far right conservative Christian movement is so suffused in the roots of Southern resentment that the Republican Tea Party candidates should just run under the confederate flag. You don’t have to be from the South to embrace the inevitable result of white resentment, now packaged under the banner of the Tea Party and sold as praise for Jesus.
Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum believe that African Americans were better under slavery, and they’re not alone. Much of the Old South believes that. They mourn for the good old days of happy plantation families and are incredulous when African Americans do not share their sweet tea reminiscences. Imagine not missing languid summer days on a high front porch overlooking a bounty of nature, intoxicated by gentle breezes drenched with mingling Jasmine and Sweet Tea trees while happy slaves fan you and your company to keep the heavy tropical heat at bay. Yes, that was just the white people on that porch, but what’s your problem? Those were the good old days.
Things are never simple in this life, and in order to really grasp the history between the owned and the free in the South, you’d have to live there for a while. It isn’t as simple as saying whites hate blacks and blacks hate whites. There is a deep connection and sense of family in many parts of the Old South with which both sides struggle.
But the thing that continues to separate the two is that too often white people refuse to see why the past is so painful for their African American relatives and friends. And into this void, the Tea Party Christians like Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum step, embracing the surface Southern charm and grace of the privileged while pretending concern for people who “perhaps can’t look out for themselves”. And it’s easy for white people who want to believe this to convince themselves of it, because African Americans in the deep South have not, as a group, attained economic equality with their white brethren.
Too often, the white descendants of slave owners (and by proxy, many non-plantation owning whites) are unable to admit that their family lived the high life on the back of the pain and suffering of hundreds of human beings, and so they deny this and replace this truth with their family legacies of kindness and love. Yes, I’m sure there were kind slave owners – but given the facts, given human nature and the inherent problems with absolute power, it is illogical to deduce that one’s family’s slaves were not mistreated. And even if they convince themselves that the cruelty was unintentional, how do they avoid the reality that they owned other human beings and so, stole their liberty and freedom? It’s inescapable, and yet in those days the South was grand for the privileged, and facing the modern day slide into poverty, perhaps it’s too easy to cling to vestiges of old glory.
If you’re not from the South or don’t live there or have family who sorted through these deeply conflicting and bitterly contested myths of the Old South, it may be easy to either think that Bachmann, Santorum and the extremist conservative Christians they represent are merely ignorant and/or bigoted. But imagine the danger that comes from being willing to deny humanity in order to create your own Heaven (the Gone With the Wind siren calls to a supposedly genteel society). Think about what it means for the human race when we are unwilling to face our own capacity for and indulgence of cruelty. Denial forces us to gloss over reality and make it OK to do what we did.
That is the real problem with historical revisionism and with refusing to examine the fact that in this country, we deliberately stole people from their home country, brought them here to be our slaves, and treated them like objects instead of human beings. Years later, we can’t separate ourselves from one another; many of the descendants of slaves are now related to the white descendants of the plantation owners. Healing is too often hindered by proximity, economic disparity, and the failure to completely confess and own the damage.
A documentary entitled Moving Midway spoke to the complexity and pain inherent in this relationship and the surrounding contested myths about slavery, a well as the unintentional cruelty resulting from the white descendants’ refusal to believe that their family was abusive to their slaves. They can’t reconcile this with the family they remember with love, and so they have to deny it psychologically. In the process of moving Midway Plantation, the Hinton cousins meet. The Hinton cousins are, of course, both the white descendants and the mixed race descendants of the Master and slaves.
Here’s the trailer to “Moving Midway”:
The cousins meet and the following exchanges take place:
“I always knew there were many black Hintons and that we might be connected by blood.”
“I have the pleasure of knowing that what used to be Hinton plantation will soon be covered in asphalt and mud.”
“Well surely you can’t like that.”
“Yes, because nothing significant will ever grow there again.”
“Well why is that good?”
“That’s good because my folks did the growing.”
“I’m sure there were places where slaves were mistreated, but somehow I don’t feel like that’s the case because everyone in your family and mine is so kind.”
“If all men are created equal how can you own 3 or 400 of them? You say, well, they’re not really men, so it’s OK for me to own them.”
“I was hoping he’d be someone I wouldn’t like.”
The African American cousins struggle with the fact that they like their white cousins in spite of the pain of their shared history, while the white cousins struggle to grasp why their African American cousins don’t share their reverence for the family plantation. While the Old South is marinated in racism, it is also a place where our roots are preserved and honored, and where family and friends matter. This family meeting demonstrates the ability for proximity to promote love in spite of a failure to understand. In spite of open sore tenderness, the mercy of humanity wins out face to face.
Into this delicate tangle, steps the modern day Tea Party, ramping up the white resentment and holding emotional candlelight vigils for the lost good old days.
To suggest that slaves were better off than African Americans under President Obama is to suggest that freedom, liberty, and dignity are irrelevant for certain classes of people as well as races. This is a common whispered belief in the Old South; the African Americans were better off when they had a white master to look after them, handle their bills, feed them, put a roof over their head. These beliefs are often uttered out of a semblance of love and concern, not hate — but that doesn’t make them any less insidiously sinister.
Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum signed the FAMiLY LEADER pledge before this “misconstrued” section was taken out. Bachmann is now claiming she didn’t sign the “preamble part”, but why would she sign it at all with this language in it, if she really disagreed with it? Would you put your signature on a pledge with that preamble? If they believe this about African Americans, it suggests that they do not value the principles of democracy, nor understand how those principles have evolved and continue to evolve to embrace all human beings. This belief is irreconcilable with the basic premise of the foundation of this country – liberty for all. We fought this battle once already, and it should be alarming to hear the same arguments brought forth as worthy of a Presidential candidate in 2011.
Imagine Michele Bachmann or Rich Santorum making the legal argument for why some people should be enslaved, because that is the essence of the pledge they signed when taken at its core. When we see this kind of incapacity for empathy in a person or a movement, it’s imperative that we call it out and denounce it. The extremist conservative Christians of the FAMiLY LEADER will, in the privacy of their own halls, call the denouncement of such language “white guilt”, but it is, in fact, mercy and grace. They may wish to acquaint themselves with these tenets of Christianity and if that will not convince, perhaps a mere mod toward humanity will suffice.
The Republican Party’s failure to renounce such obviously egregious values and instead cater to the lowest common denominator in the name of Jesus portends their ultimate undoing, should this country remain the free land it was intended to be. It is reprehensible for a political party to advocate for the loss of freedom and dignity for any class of people in the name of Jesus, and the FAMiLY LEADER pledge does this to almost every class except for white, male, heterosexual, privileged elites.
Update: Michele Bachmann’s backpedaling may not be as clear as it was earlier reported to be, because Fox News is claiming she is standing by the pledge: “Republican presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann is standing firm behind a pledge she signed Thursday that promotes marriage and social conservative values, but includes a passage that suggests black families were in better shape during slavery.” Does her camp really think they can tell Politico one thing and Fox another and get away with it, or did the mounting pressure cause her to take refuge in a weak excuse?
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