Happiness and Slavery

A Think Progress story on the Robertson drama says:
Conservatives have fervently been defending Robertson’s comments about homosexuality, though they have been noticeably silent about his comments on race and civil rights.
OK, I thought that was curious, so I looked up what he said. Here are those remarks.
“I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person," Robertson is quoted in GQ. "Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field.... They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!... Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”
The article goes on to describe the political subjugation of blacks in the American South at that period of time, which was certainly real. The clear suggestion is that his inability to imagine how unhappy they must have been is clear proof of racism, in spite of his sense of being "white trash" sharing a very similar experience at least on a class level. Indeed, you might even think his class sympathies exacerbate his racial insensitivity: how could he think his experience was in any way like theirs?

I gather from a quick skimming of left-leaning articles on the subject that this is the common opinion. However, I am moved to wonder if it is the right way to think about it. He talks about people being "godly," and it is true that religion and stable families -- both of which were more prevalent in the era -- are often found by studies to be linked with happiness. But that's not really what moves me to wonder. What moves me to wonder is a historical controversy over the slave narratives.

In the Great Depression, the WPA recorded thousands of interviews with then-older Americans who had themselves been slaves before the Civil War. The collection is rightly described as a "peerless" resource, but historians have expressed some suspicion of the views expressed by the slaves in the interviews. The only one that made it into the Wikipedia article is expressed as a concern that having "all white interviewers" may have slanted the depiction of plantation life, making it "too positive." And indeed it is often quite positive as a description of what life was like as a slave.

There are some other theories about why the former slaves had such positive things to say about their lives on the plantation. The one to which I am most inclined is that they were all much older when they gave the interviews, and spoke with the natural nostalgia of the old for the sunny days of youth. Memory paints the memories of those days, in nearly all of us, with rose colors.

But there are other possibilities too. For one thing, economic conditions in the South cratered after the war, so that life after the war was markedly harder for everyone -- especially, as is usual, those on the bottom. The traditional market for Southern cotton was lost, as the English mills had turned to India during the war's blockade. The South's mills were destroyed, so it was relegated to being a producer of raw materials for Northern mills at rates set by Northern banks. The economic system imposed by the North was a brutal colonial-style monoculture built around cotton production, and colonial monocultures are notoriously harsh places to live (here as in Latin America, India, and elsewhere). Until the boll weevil collapsed the cotton economy in the late 1920s, the South was ground down by the usual effects of such economies: the price of the monocultural good (cotton, here) dropped every year, because supply increased every year as those commanding the economy forced ever-greater production of the single cash crop. Under those circumstances, quality of life dropped, again especially for the poorest and those most dependent on agriculture. Naturally those who had been slaves who had only known how to work cotton farms, or who were directly descended of slaves who had, were very likely to be a part of the very lowest agricultural classes tied to the cotton monoculture. They would have endured the worst conditions imposed by the economic system.

So it is possible (indeed it doesn't seem unlikely) that happiness is greatly influenced by economic realities. When the interviews were conducted from 1936-8, the boll weevil had collapsed the cotton economy, and the Great Depression had followed on its heels. While the boll weevil eventually allowed the South to escape the monoculture economy, at first it meant a severe economic depression for the region, which was then followed on by a severe depression worldwide. The former slave speaking in 1937 would be looking back on a life that had, in economic terms, ground ever worse each year of his or her life, capped by ten years' complete economic failure. The pre-war plantations may really have seemed like a better place by comparison to that. They may really have been, if not a better place, a happier place.

I see that Robertson was born in 1946. That means he grew up during the great economic boom that followed the end of World War II. Conditions that had long been terrible would have been improving for as long as his generation could remember, so that they would have grown up among stories of how bad things had been and how much better they were now. Jim Crow, though evil, was at that time a constant: perhaps even lessened in force by the economic success, so that poor whites and poor blacks were not in such cutthroat competition for very limited economic opportunities.

So were people happy? I wasn't there; I don't know. I'm not prepared to say that they weren't, though, because the problem may be our assumption that they couldn't have been. It may be that the slave narratives are really biased by the effect of having white interviewers, in other words; it may be that a very similar effect was causing young Robertson not to see or notice the pain of his black compatriots. I don't dismiss the proposition; but I think we ought to consider carefully whether it isn't possible that economic effects may have been overwhelming for those so close to grinding poverty. It happens to explain both controversies in a way that is consistent with the statements in interviews of the historical figures who were actually there.


james said...

Did you ever read Roll, Jordan, Roll? Slavery was vile, but the slave owners couldn't have everything their own way and even slaves could have customary rights.

There was one anecdote of a slaveholding farm where the slaves were freed by the Federals. The formerly cheerful chattering happy house slaves wouldn't look their former owners in the eye. The only one who would was the troublemaker who'd been whipped many times--he was willing to shake hands with his former master before leaving. You understand why.

Grim said...

I have not read that book, no. Do you recommend it (he asks, having already a reading list most formidable stacked on his desk)?

james said...

Yes. Genovese is the author. If your reading stack fits on your desk, it is not large enough.

Grim said...

The complete works of Aristotle and Plato fit on your desk. If you find that too small, come talk to me. :)

At the moment I'm tackling something more modest: a few works of Plato and Aristotle, as well as later commentaries (e.g. by Aquinas) on these earlier works. A few modern pieces to which they are relevant. There is a modest writing project associated with them.

Anonymous said...

I second the recommendation on Genovese's _Roll, Jordan Roll_. It's a great book, both for the information in it and for how well it reads. He opened a whole new door for researchers with that book.