Inequality and the Marketplace of Ideas



Above, I make the case that to conceive of white supremacy as a product of the Republican Party is wrong, and that it is better to think of white supremacy as one of the most powerful and attractive notions in our long history. If Republicans weren't buying, some political party would. It just means too much to us. 


A lot of this comes from my many discussions here with you. I don't quite know how to recap them all. I know that this Edmund Morgan post on his book (which you should read right now) American Slavery, American Freedom is part of it:

Morgan's basic contention, one which I increasingly find convincing, is that American slavery made American freedom possible. Thus, it is an understatement--and perhaps even a falsehood--to cast slavery, as Condoleeza Rice has, as the "birth defect" of American freedom. The term "birth defect" conveys the notion of other possibilities and unfortunate accidents. But Morgan would argue slavery didn't just happen as a byproduct, it was the steward. Put differently, slavery is America's midwife, not it's birth defect. 

My own formulation for my text aims to push this notion further: America was not only made possible by slavery, it was made possible by prosecuting a perpetual war against its slaves, without which there may never have been an "America."

I should admit that increasingly I am moving away from the "war" frame. The more I turn it over (and the more I have debated it with you) the less it seems to work. And yet something beyond slavery happend here. 

To wit, I am currently in Richmond, Virginia. My host just told me the story that led to the great Henry "Box" Brown's escape from slavery. Here is the story Brown is most noted for:

With the help of James C. A. Smith and a sympathetic white storekeeper named Samuel Smith (no relation), Brown devised a plan to have himself shipped to a free state by Adams Express Co. Brown paid $86 (out of his savings of $166) to Smith, who contacted Philadelphia abolitionist James Miller McKim, who agreed to receive the box. Brown burned his hand with oil of vitriol (sulfuric acid) as an excuse for missing work.

During the trip, which began on March 23, 1849, Brown's box traveled by wagon, railroad, steamboat, wagon again, railroad, ferry, railroad, and finally delivery wagon. Several times during the 27-hour journey, carriers placed the box upside-down or handled it roughly, but Brown was able to remain still enough to avoid detection. 

The box containing Brown was received by McKim, William Still, and other members of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee. When Brown was released, one of those present remembered his first words as "How do you do, gentlemen?" He then sang a psalm from the Bible he had previously selected for his moment of freedom.

What is not told enough is the story that prompted Brown to cramp himself into a box. His wife and kids were sold South. Brown, getting wind of the sale, tried to raise money to have them bought. He failed:

The next day, I stationed myself by the side of the road, along which the slaves, amounting to three hundred and fifty, were to pass. The purchaser of my wife was a Methodist minister, who was about starting for North Carolina. Pretty soon five waggon-loads of little children passed, and looking at the foremost one, what should I see but a little child, pointing its tiny hand towards me, exclaiming, "There's my father; I knew he would come and bid me good-bye." 

It was my eldest child! Soon the gang approached in which my wife was chained. I looked, and beheld her familiar face; but O, reader, that glance of agony! may God spare me ever again enduring the excruciating horror of that moment! She passed, and came near to where I stood. I seized hold of her hand, intending to bid her farewell; but words failed me; the gift of utterance had fled, and I remained speechless. I followed her for some distance, with her hand grasped in mine, as if to save her from her fate, but I could not speak, and I was obliged to turn away in silence. 

This is not an imaginary scene, reader; it is not a fiction, but an every-day reality at the South; and all I can say more to you, in reference to it is, that if you will not, after being made acquainted with these facts, consecrate your all to the slaves' release from bondage, you are utterly unworthy the name of a man, and should go and hide yourself, in some impenetrable cave, where no eye can behold your demon form.

There is a record of Brown's wife writing, after the war, to Richmond, so that her church membership could be changed to North Carolina.

This is very hard to write. Watch the video. 
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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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