Grappling With Genosha

The answer is huge

--Don Draper

For much our conversations around the Civil War we've remained obsessed with a simple yet vexing question--How could anyone actually own another person? As I've said before, I found almost any explanation that invokes individual evil to be unpersuasive. At varying points I've attempted to sketch a larger portrait of societal evil and societal systems of production. Allow me to be so arrogant as to quote myself:

I don't write this out so that I can establish blame/guilt. To the contrary, the point is that the system was so far-reaching, that it took a conscious, deliberate and often personally dangerous effort to defy it. Against all odds, against a media that reinforced the assumptions of the system, against segregated social institutions that prescribed the assumptions, against whole familes which had bought into the assumption, one would have to rebel and say, "No." The point isn't that all white people are somehow guilty. The point is that a choice between guilt/innocence wasn't really present. It had to be created and it carried with it significant social costs. 

A white farmer in Virginia born into slaveholding, would hold the vast majority of his wealth in bonded people. For him to create a guilty/innocent choice, it would not be enough for him to simply realize slaveholding was wrong. Many slaveholders knew that well. He would have to emancipate his slaves, and at the very minimum risk the loss of personal and familial social status. More potently he risked bankrupting himself and his family, and virtually destroying any prospect of inheritance for his children. It's fine to think of manumitting slaves as a moral act. But it's also good, not to be crass, to think of it like walking away your house after you'd paid it off.

I wrote that almost a year ago and I still believe it. But much of my reading over the past few months has led me to think that I actually understated the underlying reasons for a pervasive system of white supremacy. More specifically, it's become clear that to truly understand one of the most profligate and profitable slave society ever erected in the history of man, you have to understand the presumptions of the society itself. Weighing the Old South against the presumptions that undergird modern America tells you something about the war of ideas. But I don't know how much it helps you understand that original question--How could anyone own a slave? More tantalizing--How could I have owned a slave?

For those purposes, I've found it enlightening to contrast the Old South with our modern presumptions of individual rights. From what I gather, by the 19th century there was a Lincolnite view of the world that held that people were entitled to go as far as their individual efforts would take them. And then there was a somewhat conflicting view that people were, by nature, born into certain slots and it was their God-authored duty to play their position. I think that while both of these views existed in the North and the South, and the definition of "people" was often problematic, in the South the latter was more deeply entrenched. Indeed the notion of playing your position was the whole point of the society.
So in the Old South, all white men were expected to aspire to be gentlemen, and all white women were expected to aspire to be ladies. Black people were expected to aspire to give all their labor to their masters, and to stay right with God. (The two were very often linked.) A gentleman was expected to lord over an estate, supervise his slaves and superintend their Christian enlightenment, and--from the battlefield to the horse track--bring honor to his family name. A lady, as the  historian Steven Stowe writes, was expected to be "ornamental," to be "mild, loving and beautiful." 

This was the society as God had ordered it, and as sure as the natural kingdom is ordered, so too was the kingdom of people. Science is embryonic in this era--everything from personal beauty, to the shape of one's head is believed to indicate intelligence. The term "good breeding" was used as interchangeable for "good manners." What I'm driving at is the notion of individuality, that you could be both a woman and an individual person, with equal and individual ambitions, hadn't really been absorbed. Your birth marked your estate, and your lot in life was to till that estate to the best of your abilities.

This kind of collectivist thinking was not invented by the South, nor was it unique to the South. Surely Northerners had their concepts of ladies and gentleman. But an ideology of being a specific non-interchangeable sprocket in the larger machine, of "playing your position," was essential to the identity of the Old South. And so as Drew Faust notes, when it came to organizing nurses, the South lagged in large measure because nursing wasn't considered suitable work for ladies. Blood and guts weren't matters for the mild, the beautiful and the ornamental. 

Whereas the North put forth black sailors immediately, and black troops within two years of the War, the South couldn't bring itself to even attempt to match such an effort. It's not that the North was an enlightened racial Utopia. It's that the North was more malleable, and ultimately wasn't built on the notion that the proper place for blacks is as property. To call the South a "slave society," almost understates the matter--it was a petrified society, a world whose glory was built on individuals being jammed into pre-ordained roles, regardless of whether they fit or not. 

As a progressive, it's rather natural for me to think about the South in terms of power and oppression. But I don't think a power-based analysis really allows you to see the whole horror of the thing, to understand how you, in a different time, could have been as evil as anyone else. When you do see the whole of, you almost marvel at the sick beauty of the thing--like, as Magic once said, watching Jordan run up and down the court and forgetting you play for the Lakers. 

I was reading a piece on vacation resorts in Louisiana at Lake Ponchartrain earlier this week. These joints were outfitted with spas, baths, race tracks, fishing, hunting, river-boats--the whole nine. And much of it was destroyed during the War. It's like the entire Confederacy was a land-bound Titanic. 

It's obviously important to understand who truly built the great ship, and why it was doomed. But once you understand that, you have to push deeper. You almost have to forget who you are and start thinking about what you might have been. But if you're going to go there, you have to go there. If this feels safe, comfortable, or affirming, you've done something wrong.
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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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