Justin Taylor explores many details in the true story behind the new movie The Birth of a Nation, which one history professor called “a deeply flawed, historically inaccurate movie that exploits and distorts Nat Turner’s story and the history of slavery in America.”
According to his own testimony, Nat Turner appears to have been a strong, intelligent man who could not be subdued by a slave economy. He was gifted and believed he was called by God to lead a righteous war against slave owners. Reading his spiritual account, you could say he was powerfully deceived, but you might also say a brilliant and spiritually sensitive man can be twisted and perverted when shackled by oppression. Not that any motive or character study would justify the murder he and his allies committed, but the slavery in which they lived cannot be justified either. Four times as many slaves were murdered in retribution to Nat Turner’s revolt as whites were murdered by the revolt, which speaks to the war-like nature of the whole affair. This wasn’t a just war nor was it followed by a just condemnation.
Recommended reading ends the post.
History professor Vanessa M. Holden, in the past linked from Taylor’s, says, “Parker’s movie is important. Its independent roots and blockbuster distribution deal are significant in an industry that still grapples with racism. It also draws the public’s attention to a history that has no white saviors or triumphant endings. The character Turner is not long suffering; he springs into violent action as soon as he becomes aware of slavery’s brutality and validates his claim to humanity and freedom, just as the historical Turner did, through a radicalized Christianity. But the license that Parker took in an effort to craft his heroic version of Turner ultimately strips away too much valuable context.”
The original Star-Spangled Banner, in the Smithsonian Institution
One would think that the availability of the internet would increase the general truthfulness of human discourse. When it’s so easy to check our facts, our facts ought to be more… factual.
The actual effect, as far as I can see, has been to simply facilitate the spread of misinformation. Which ought to prove the doctrine of Original Sin beyond all dispute, it seems to me.
The misinformation I have in mind today is the urban legend, popularized in the wake of the recent controversy over a football player (who shall remain nameless here, because he doesn’t need the publicity) who refused to stand for the national anthem. The urban legend says that all black people should refuse to stand for the song, because it was written by a slave owner for the purpose of glorifying slavery.
This is hogwash. Francis Scott Key was a slaveholder, and a supporter of slavery, in common with most of his family and neighbors. But the song has nothing to do with that.
My latest essay for The American Spectator Online is here.
In fact, the real question — the actual historical anomaly — is why, after everybody else had got the question wrong from the beginning of time, the Christians suddenly figured the answer out, and abolished slavery. Nobody else did that. Not the Egyptians. Not the Chinese. Not the Aztecs or the ancient Greeks. I understand the Greek Epicureans rejected slavery, but one of the distinctions of the Epicureans is that they never tried to build a civilization.
And building a civilization is the precise nub of the historical problem.
W.E.B. Du Bois challenged the idea that American slaves were emancipated by outside liberators with the notion of slave insurrection and self-emancipation. He painted a picture of slaves rising up against the Confederacy to undermine it while pressuring the White House to pass anti-slavery legislation. Others have taken up this line of thought to argue that slaves, in fact, started The Civil War in order to free themselves.
Allen C. Guelzo, the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College, sees many problems with this view and reviews two books for the Claremont Review of Books that demonstrate how Du Bois was wrong. Of the longer of the two, Guelzo writes:
Rael’s book is a comprehensive history of slavery’s end, well-informed, subdued in tone, and in most cases forgiving. He does not believe (as David Waldstreicher, Paul Finkelman, and George van Cleve do) that the founders were unqualified hypocrites who cunningly crafted a pro-slavery Constitution, and he is more willing than most to acknowledge that it was the rise of bourgeois notions of property rights which made property in human beings seem repulsive in an age which had abandoned hierarchy as the governing principle of social life.
Perhaps the self-emancipation idea is an attempt at self-fulfilling prophecy, the idea that if they believe they liberated themselves back then, they will liberate themselves again today. But the fact that Du Bois and others saw the need to argue for a new emancipation is evidence enough that the previous one had not be entirely of their own making. (via Prufrock News)
Andrew Lawler, at National Geographic, writes what I consider a very fine article about slavery in the Viking Age. For years I’ve been arguing against the current fashion for portraying the Vikings as peaceable but misunderstood businessmen. That’s both historically obtuse and insulting to a culture that took pride in its prowess with arms. I’m particularly annoyed by the trope that says, “Well, you know, most of them weren’t warriors but peaceable tradesmen.” I suppose you could say that, if you consider the slave trade a peaceable occupation.
“This was a slave economy,” said Neil Price, an archaeologist at Sweden’s Uppsala University who spoke at a recent meeting that brought together archaeologists who study slavery and colonization. “Slavery has received hardly any attention in the past 30 years, but now we have opportunities using archaeological tools to change this.”
Of course the Vikings were hardly alone in trading and keeping slaves. Other cultures that did much the same thing were… pretty much everybody.
I just get annoyed by the “peaceable tradesmen” line.
In other Viking news, there’s new Russian film that looks very intriguing:
This is an epic about Vladimir the Great, who made the Russians Christian. Like all great historical epics it’s probably stuffed with baloney, but it sure looks good. I can find some fault with the costumes, but this trailer just sings. It could be the good Viking movie we’ve waited for so long. Hope it comes out soon with English subtitles.
Margaret Biser, who has led historical tours at a Southern house and plantation for years. She writes about the questions she received, such as whether the slaves appreciated the good treatment they received or whether being a house slave instead of a field hand was a cushy life.
Why did her guests continue to ask questions ignorant or opposed to the history she presented? Inaccurate education for many. Apathy for some.
“In many other cases, however, justifications of slavery seemed primarily like an attempt by white Americans to avoid feelings of guilt for the past. After all, for many people, beliefs about one’s ancestors reflect one’s beliefs about oneself. We don’t want our ancestors to have done bad things because we don’t want to think of ourselves as being bad people. These slavery apologists were less invested in defending slavery per se than in defending slaveowners, and they weren’t defending slaveowners so much as themselves.”
This is how I understand the KKK began. You could call it a failure of believers to reach poor white members in neighboring small towns with the full gospel, but however you want to think about, people who felt rejected by their community turned their bitterness against blacks, an easy target. And some carry on that legacy today, both directly as members of the Klan and indirectly when they argue that #BlackLivesMatter is not as strong as #AllLivesMatter, missing the point that black lives are the ones still longing for respect.
“Addressing racism,” Biser writes, “isn’t just about correcting erroneous beliefs — it’s about making people see the humanity in others.” But with dehumanization active all around us today, we should wake up to the fact that we won’t learn this lesson without the gospel fully applied. Some of us haven’t learned it even with the gospel.
This seems appropriate for this week. It’s an excerpt from Frederick Douglass’ My Bondage and My Freedom.
The frequent hearing of my mistress reading the Bible — for she often read aloud when her husband was absent — soon awakened my curiosity in respect to this mystery of reading, and roused in me the desire to learn. Having no fear of my kind mistress before my eyes, (she had then given me no reason to fear,) I frankly asked her to teach me to read ; and, without hesitation, the dear woman began the task, and very soon, by her assistance, I was master of the alphabet, and could spell words of three or four letters. Continue reading Reading Fosters Freedom→