The Canon of White Supremacy

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In our conversations on George Fitzhugh, I've frequently advocated for his inclusion in literature classes at the university level. Yesterday, a commenter pushed me on that point:


Can you say some more about what you'd like to see done with a text like this in an English class? 

 I'm a graduate student in English, and I've been thinking a lot about the pedagogical benefits of teaching nonfiction prose. One of the reasons that undergraduate literature classes focus on poems, plays, and novels is that this kind of writing opens out, as it were. It's evocative in a way that gives students a space to think through ideas. Essays and treatises, on the other hand, direct readerly attention toward to ideas more narrowly in order to obtain assent to a position. 

Both of these effects require a great deal of rhetorical work, though argumentative prose often seeks to obscure its own artfulness. Does a work like Fitzhugh's lend itself to academic study because of the cultural distance we have from it? That is, would students be able to access it as a crafted piece because they most likely reject its implicit premises? Or, do you imagine it as an uphill battle that students would have to contend with and try to dismantle its arguments?

I think I should start by saying that the first work of literature about slavery that I fell hard for was Robert Hayden's "Middle Passage," a work I cite hear often. There's a great deal of literature about slavery written by African-Americans. Much of it details the pain, horror and amoralism of human bondage. But Hayden took a different path, he was interested not simply on what slavery did to the enslaved, but what it did to the enslaver. Thus in "Middle Passage" enslaved blacks do no speak (unless one considers the narrator a slave, something that is certainly possible) and yet they do:

"10 April 1800-- Blacks rebellious. Crew uneasy. 
Our linguist says their moaning is a prayer for death, 
our and their own. Some try to starve themselves.
Lost three this morning leaped with crazy laughter 
to the waiting sharks, sang as they went under."

I was eighteen, the first time I read those lines (Shout out to DJ Renegade and Founder's Library) and they thrilled me. There is a line of thought in black studies which holds that the Middle Passage stripped black people of everything, their culture, their religion, and some argue, their very humanity. 

But in those lines I read  humanity. The blacks moan a prayer for the deaths of their enslavers and when that fails they leap like to "the waiting sharks" and rejoice in their grisly deaths. They claim their power even where there seems to be none. (The history of slavery is filled with such examples, if generally less extreme and less violent--the breaking of tools, the manipulation of knowledge, intentional loafing, refusing to work, temporary egress etc.) But beyond the sheer act, there was the lens through which the tale was rendered--the testimony to the humanity of these enslaved blacks was rendered through the lens of the enslaver. 

As the poem proceeds you see how slavery slowly drives the enslavers crazy. They go blind, the starve, they fight each other the right to rape enslaved women, much to their own doom:


"Deponent further sayeth 

The Bella J left the Guinea Coast 
with cargo of five hundred blacks and odd 
for the barracoons of Florida: 

"That there was hardly room 'tween-decks for half 
the sweltering cattle stowed spoon-fashion there; 
that some went mad of thirst and tore their flesh 
and sucked the blood: 

"That Crew and Captain lusted with the comeliest 
of the savage girls kept naked in the cabins; 
that there was one they called The Guinea Rose 
and they cast lots and fought to lie with her: 

"That when the Bo's'n piped all hands, the flames 
spreading from starboard already were beyond control, 
the negroes howling and their chains 
entangled with the flames: 

"That the burning blacks could not be reached, 
that the Crew abandoned ship, 
leaving their shrieking negresses behind, 
that the Captain perished drunken with the wenches:

Middle Passage is a poem about the horror of slavery, but it is also a poem about the perversions which the slave trade wreaked on the slavers. And I love that. The horror of slavery always seemed obvious and easily explained. But that slavery redounds on its perpetrator in ways which are less obvious, and less easily elucidated, seemed somehow, more provocative to me.

I see much of the same thing in Fitzhugh. He takes the slavery system argument to its logical ends and reveals its corruption. If all men are not equal, and inequality justifies slavery, why should slavery stop with black people? What if there were no black people? If slavery is a superior system, who would then be the slaves? Fitzhugh is quite clear on that point. White slavery is as old as time, and Fitzhugh sees nothing wrong with it.

Literature classes around the country offer readings from former slaves--the narratives of Frederick Douglass, Olaudah Equiano, and Harriet Jacobs, for instance. I'm not exactly sure why we wouldn't also study the literature of slaveholders. If we can take Robert Hayden putting on the mask, why not dare a look at the original?

Perhaps, I am wrong in this, but I take the atrocity of slavery as a given. You don't have to convince me that it was awful, and I don't enjoy sitting in a circle with a bunch of people like me ruminating on how horrible the past was. Moreover, we are at a point in history where very few people would argue that slavery wasn't horrible. This was not always so, and the present consensus was hard-won. But questions still remain, chief among them being this: What was the mental calculus of the slaveholder? How did they justify the system to themselves? 

The value in Fitzhugh writing is, for me, first and for most its sheer beauty. The metaphor of free market capitalism as cannibalism is provocative and interesting, if not particularly convincing. His enstranged usage of voice--"we" instead of "I"--and his sampling of other primary sources make for a messy work of a literature, and one I thoroughly enjoyed.

But more than that, Fitzhugh unwittingly explains the difference between a society that tolerates slavery (New York in the 1820s, for instance) and a society where slavery is the dominant system of labor (South Carolina circa 1850. for instance.) As a country, we've yet to come to grips with the fact that Mississippi was not merely a place where black people were in slaves, but a police state where the majority of its population was enslaved. By understanding that difference we start to get how a War could be fought over slavery.

Finally there's the sense that the rights we take as basic today--individual freedom, for instance--were really up for grabs two hundred years ago. Not everyone was convinced that the revolutions sweeping the West were a good thing. I think that context helps a lot when trying to understand how one could justify the holding of humans of property.


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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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