On the Absurdity, Narcicism and Cognitive Dissonance of Southern Whites, circa 1865
To be honest, I’ve always been a little irritated when people start a condescending exposition on “White People.” And I use the word “irritated” quite deliberately: I’m not shocked or offended, it’s very far from the worst affrontery I see, and while it is racist , it is pretty damn mild and ignorable as far as racism goes and in no way compares to the racism which non-white’s are far too often subjected to. It’s just obnoxious and I find it a little annoying, like people who carry a speaker with them to listen to bad “aussie hip hop” on the train because if they used headphones nobody would know how cool they are. But anyway, I have been reading Been in the Storm Too Long, a history of the aftermath of the American civil war, and I sympathise more than ever with tone in which people sometimes utter the words “white people”. More than once I have thought aloud, “white people are fucking crazy.” So I get it. It will stthannoy me sometimes, no doubt, but I do get it.
Southerners circa 1860, however, are in a class of their own when it comes to stupidity and racism. Their thoughts, words, and actions are so constantly and so glaringly hypocritical, and often absurd, that it is hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that these people actually existed. I can’t imagine anybody saying so many of the things they said with absolutely no self-awareness or sense of irony, but there it is, incredibly, a matter of historical record. There are so many examples of Southern hypocrisy that I hardly know where to begin. So I’ll start with the portion I was reading today, the facet of Southern life in the first years of emancipation which has brought me such joy and laughter to read about: former slaveholders and their families having to work for the first time in their pampered lives and complaing vociferously (and frankly, deliciously) about it to their diaries and in letters to family. After so many other statements to the effect that coloured people were inherently lazy and disinclined to work, the very same people would soon lament, seemingly oblivious to the irony, that “I have not one human being in the wide world to whom I can say, ‘do this for me’.”
In their lifetime of cursing the idleness of coloured folk, nothing had prepared them for this great tragedy; as the wife of a Louisiana ‘planter’  declared, “I never so much as even washed out a pocket handkerchief with my own hands, and now I have to do all my own work.” Meanwhile, a Virginia woman admitted “with considerable [and delicious] anguish” that “the distances separating the kitchen, the spring, and the dining room seemed all to formidable.” And although they had no apparent sense of irony, they were at times keenly proud, as was one Emma Holmes who saw women left without servants “cooking and washing without a murmur” as a great example of the “heroism and spirit” of southern womanhood. Another southern woman discovered the significance of the opposable thumb when she took up knitting, though it was hard on her “poor unused fingers.” But perhaps I give the wrong impression: men and women alike found themselves suddenly doing chores around the house, its just that the men were more apt to complain about their trouble finding free labour without slavery, so most of the descriptions of families’ newfound domesticity came from women. Although the patriarch of one family who had divided the chores amongst themselves told them: “This is what has made the Anglo-Saxon race great: they are not afraid to work.” Again, he did not seem to be aware of the contradiction in believing colored people were lazy inferior despite their ability to perform backbreaking labour for ten hours a day, six days a week, but extolling the “greatness” of his own race when once his family had done the work of feeding and cleaning up after themselves for a week.
Seemingly the incredible difficult they had performing a fraction of the labour they demanded of their slaves never once gave any of them pause to reflect on how hard it must have been to do it for ten hours a day, six days a week, for somebody else, from birth until death without compensation, under threat of beatings and murder. No, it was they who had it hard, having to take care of themselves after a life time of idleness. A woman from Tennessee wrote perhaps the starkest example of the selfish and delusional attitudes of southerners towards housework and the people who formerly performed it for them; “I’d give a mint of money right now for servants like I once had,” she wrote, “to have one all my own! Ladies at the North, if they lose their servants, can do their own work; but we can’t, we can’t!” Her former slave had moved to St Louis and made a living as a dressmaker. “She could read and write as well as I could. There was no kind of work that girl couldn’t do. And so faithful! – I trusted everything to her and was never deceived.” If this reads like a confession that the colored people who she held in bondage were better and more independent than her by a country mile, it is not a conscious one – this woman concluded that “emancipation is a worse thing for our servants than us. They can’t take care of themselves.” Yes, the woman who does not know how to perform any kind of labour, is incapable of feeding and clothing herself while maintaing her household; the women who just praised her former slave as capable of any kind of work, her former slave who not only worked at a trade now to earn money but managed to feed and clother herself and maintain her home as well; yes, that woman is really claiming it is the gainfully employed coloured girl who cannot take care of herself. Like no other people I have ever read about, the civil war era southerner is truly the living embodiment of cognitive dissonance and narccicism. And I have only mentioned their opinions on one issue.
The push for segregation in the first years after the war was driven largely by white fears of ‘miscegnation’, or interracial breeding. And yet not one southern man of the era seems to have recognized the irony of them, who had for decades been using their slaves as sex objects and birthing mixed race children by them, they the principle practitioners of miscegnation, suddenly acting outraged by the possibility. Had somebody pointed the irony out to them, they would no doubt have argued that it was different; a white man forcibly raping his slave is perfectly civilized, but a white woman freely engaging in consensual relations with a black man is depraved. Often this fear was the unspoken motive behind white attitudes and policies, but it was also talked of openly, many expressing their concern that if miscegnation were to be allowed their bloodlines would be polluted and the glorious white race bred into extinction. They argued for restrictions on blacks on this basis without any sign of recognizing that such a scenario would equally require their own participation; that if they did not want to breed with newly freed blacks they could simply refrain from doing so. It was as though they couldn’t trust themselves to heed their own warnings, which in fairness, to judge from the large number of mixed race slaves at the outset of emancipation, they probably couldn’t.
It was even argued, at one point, that it was dangerous to give equal rights to colored people because if placed on an equal footing they might surpass the white race. The reason this would be unacceptable, if you’re wondering, is because coloured people are naturally inferior. It would be a profound injustice for the inferior race to surpass the superior race by such unfair means as equal opportunity. Certainly it wouldn’t prove that the belief in their inferiority was erroneous in the first place, though, right? Come to think of it, acknowledging the possibility is already and implicit admission that this belief was erroneous. Never mind, the southern man is not troubled by logic or by implications – if it couldn’t be grasped by a three year old it is imperceptible to the southern imagination.
As well, the utter depravity and savageness with which so many whites act did not cause any of them to question their unshakable belief that black people, by virtue of their colour, were “savages”, and therefore civilized and unstable white men were right to beat, stab, shoot, or hack at them with an axe at the slightest provocation. Just one Bureau officer, reporting only part of the crimes in a few counties, reported the following: twenty-three cases of severe and inhuman beating and whipping; four men beaten and shot; two more robbed and shot; seven just shot, two of those surviving with wounds; four beaten to death; three women beaten and raped; two women tied up and whipped mercilessly “until insensible”, and two men and their families beaten and driven from their homes, their property destroyed. Again, this was just in a few counties, in one year, and the Bureau officer did not include all crimes because there was insufficient evidence for many more. The stories are plentiful, but I’ll recount just a couple. One old colored man working in a saw mill “sassed” a white man, so somebody split his head open with an axe. Another colored man walking peacefully down the street was asked by a passing white man who he belongned to, and when he answered (truthfully, since the savage and inhuman institution of slavery had been abolished) that he belonged to nobody, the white man demanded, “sass me?”, proceeded to beat the man and cut and stab him several times with his knife. This is the behaviour of men who believed themselves to be the civilized race, and blacks to be mere savages. Fully prepared to murder a human being in cold blood because they didn’t like what he said. Unmoved by the women they’re whipping, beating, raping, unmoved by their screaming and crying and pleading, totally insensible to human emotion, seemingly bordering on sociopathically inhuman, and yet, with still no sense of the irony or the absurdity, they declared that “niggers don’t have human emotions.” Do you, poor buckra? You never noticed or cared how devastated they were as you casually tore them from one another, separating wife and husband, mother and child, without the slightest hesitation or sympathy for their tears or their begging; do you have human emotions?
Finally, the absurdity and cognitive dissonance of southern thought in the civil war era aside, I want quickly reflect on the significance of armed resistance
The era following the civil war is also a very important, and much neglected, period in the history of the second ammendment. Here was a newly freed people who were under constant assault from civil society, who were not afforded the rights which are customarily the privilege of free men, neither the police nor the courts could be trusted to lift a finger in their defence, and even the Yankees for whom they had fought to put down the Confederate revolution now sided with the whites they had called traitors and ordered these same colored men to shoot only months, or years, before. Juries were all white, and would almost never convict a white man of murdering a colored man, and yet would never fail to hang a colored man who had killed a white in self defence. In New Orleans, a criminal court sentenced a white person to one day in prison for the theft of goods worth $13, and on the same day, in the same court, a colored person was given three months for theft of goods worth $18. As the local black newspaper put it, “three days for stealing and eight-seven days for being colored.” Perhaps worst of all, white men freely paraded around with there rifles at the same time as police conducted unconstitutional raids to seize any weaponry black citizens may have. Hence, one black citizen wrote, “if there is no protection for us at the hands of the municipal police or the military guard, if there is no redress for our people before the Criminal Courts in cases of murder and rape, then let us form at once societies for self-protection and have recourse to personal defence.” Indeed! And ever has it been true since. People of colour can not count on the police or the government for anything but belligerence – it is their right, and necessary for their safety, to arm themselves and actively protect their families and their communities from the depravity of racist, violent white trash. “In times of peace prepare for war,” a black man in New Orleans wrote: “They have burned our churches, murdered our friends in their own yards, in the presence of their own family, and yet our civil government is still running, and the murderers are still allowed to roam our streets undisturbed.” Here was the true spirit upon which America was founded; resistance against tyrants, standing up to oppression and asserting the rights of oneself and others! As the New Hampshire state motto puts it, live free or die.
In the seventy years that elapsed between these events and the beginning of WWII, things can barely be said to have progressed much at all. Perhaps that is the most disturbing thing of all. Colored were still murdered without provocation, inhumanly beaten and hanged from trees. I recently read Clark Terry’s autobiography – even he was very nearly lynched for standing next to a pale skinned girl. A police man knocked him out and left him in the mud while he went to round up a mob. When he returned with a gang carrying knives, bats and chains, and asked Clark’s white colleagues where “that nigger I left lying in the mud” went, they misdirected the gang, having already brought him inside their train car. He also talked about a girl he dated who was uncomfortable around white people, because when she was a girl a group of them had dragged one of her cousins out of her house and hanged him from a tree in the yard in front of the whole family. Fair enough. I wouldn’t feel comfortable around white people either. One hears of the bravery of the US soldiers who fought Nazism, but one has to wonder, if it had been black people in the gas chambers of Germany, would the white south have even objected to Nazism? One might suspect they’d be sympathetic to fascists with delusions of racial superiority and programs for restoring purity.
Things change ever so slowly. In 1866 as in 1940 as in 1963 as in 1993 as in 2017, justice is far from assured, racism is institutionalized, and the right of the people, especially marginalized peoples, to keep and bear arms is of paramount importance as it has always been. It is only through privilege that people can pretend there is no reason somebody should ever need a gun; many millions of colored people have had very, extremely good reasons to arm themselves to the teeth. Indeed, the Union may not have won the civil war if it hadn’t finally relented and allowed the formation of coloredregiments. If peace may only be wrestled from the cold dead hands of the sons and daughters of American racism, then so be it; leave the oppressed with the only equalizing device they’ve ever had available to them.
I won’t get into the argument over whether and which gun control measures make people safer. Even if disarming minorities made them a little safer, it would make them a lot less free. And if people had never been prepared to sacrifice a little safety for their liberty, emancipation may never have come about. Anyway,
 People have taken to saying that racism without power isn’t racism, which sounds important and significant, but when you examine the foundations of this new theory you will find it doesn’t actually mean anything. It is a tautology. The logical argument is ‘I have decided to refer to concept x as label y, therefore x is y and the concept formerly known as y is now something else. Racism without power isn’t racism in the same way that y is no longer y. It doesn’t express any new information, it simply changes labels whilst pretending the concepts themselves had changed. And all of this to introduce the concept of systemic racism into the discourse. Couldn’t we have just talked about systemic racism? Did we really need to change labels around in order to be able to say thag systemic racism is the only ‘real’ racism? Does anyone think this strategy has lead to a broader understanding or discussion of systemic racism? No. Instead it made the definition of a word the focus by changing the definition and not acknowledging that that’s what happened and frankly the whole affair is fucking inane.
 ‘Planter’, as distinct from a farmer who works for a living.