Controlled Aggression

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It's pretty late here in New York, and after getting my head handed to by Civilization, I'm here thinking of Fanny Kemble. I finished with Wedgwood today and will get to my thought on that in due course. But I want to bang down on something I've been exploring since my blogging about Grant's memoir, about a year ago. 


Back then I kept going on about the language, the way Grant used understatement, and avoided hyperbole. I can't really describe but there's a style of argument that was current back then, and is even present in Wedgwood that I don't really see today.

I hesitate here because I fear lapsing into nostalgia. With that in mind, I would not say that people wrote "better" back then. But I would say that they had access to a certain arsenal a certain kind of weaponry which I don't really see in opinion writing today.

When I was young my father would read my work and often would come away pleased. But equally as often he'd tell me that I was using the battle-axe, when I should be using the stiletto. "The real master," he'd say. "Can cut somebody up and the cat won't even know he's been cut. He won't even see the blade."

I used to think about that a lot, and for the life of me, I didn't know what Pops meant. And yet it shaped my goals as a writer--I had some sense that a veiled aggression, a subtle malice, that aiming to be a boxer, instead of a bar-fighter, was a good thing. But it wasn't until I started reading these 18th, 19th, and early 20th century cats that I really got what that meant.

Dig Fanny Kemble straight slicing fools:

The just comparison is between the slaves and the useful animals to whose level your laws reduce them; and I will acknowledge that the slaves of a kind owner may be as well cared for, and as happy, as the dogs and horses of a merciful master; but the latter condition--i.e. that of happiness--must again depend upon the complete perfection of their moral and mental degradation. 

Mr. ----, in his letter, maintains that they are an inferior race, and, compared with the whites, 'animals, incapable of mental culture and moral improvement:' to this I can only reply, that if they are incapable of profiting by instruction, I do not see the necessity for laws inflicting heavy penalties on those who offer it to them. If they really are brutish, witless, dull, and devoid of capacity for progress, where lies the danger which is constantly insisted upon of offering them that of which they are incapable. 

We have no laws forbidding us to teach our dogs and horses as much as they can comprehend; nobody is fined or imprisoned for reasoning upon knowledge, and liberty, to the beasts of the field, for they are incapable of such truths. But these themes are forbidden to slaves, not because they cannot, but because they can and would seize on them with avidity--receive them gladly, comprehend them quickly; and the masters' power over them would be annihilated at once and for ever. 

But I have more frequently heard, not that they were incapable of receiving instruction, but something much nearer the truth--that knowledge only makes them miserable: the moment they are in any degree enlightened, they become unhappy. In the letter I return to you Mr. ---- says that the very slightest amount of education, merely teaching them to read, 'impairs their value as slaves, for it instantly destroys their contentedness, and since you do not contemplate changing their condition, it is surely doing them an ill service to destroy their acquiescence in it;' but this is a very different ground of argument from the other. 

The discontent they evince upon the mere dawn of an advance in intelligence proves not only that they can acquire but combine ideas, a process to which it is very difficult to assign a limit; and there indeed the whole question lies, and there and nowhere else the shoe really pinches. 

A slave is ignorant; he eats, drinks, sleeps, labours, and is happy. He learns to read; he feels, thinks, reflects, and becomes miserable. He discovers himself to be one of a debased and degraded race, deprived of the elementary rights which God has granted to all men alike; every action is controlled, every word noted; he may not stir beyond his appointed bounds, to the right hand or to the left, at his own will, but at the will of another he may be sent miles and miles of weary journeying--tethered, yoked, collared, and fettered--away from whatever he may know as home, severed from all those ties of blood and affection which he alone of all human, of all living creatures on the face of the earth may neither enjoy in peace nor defend when they are outraged. 

If he is well treated, if his master be tolerably humane or even understand his own interest tolerably, this is probably all he may have to endure: it is only to the consciousness of these evils that knowledge and reflection awaken him. 

But how is it if his master be severe, harsh, cruel--or even only careless--leaving his creatures to the delegated dominion of some overseer, or agent, whose love of power, or other evil dispositions, are checked by no considerations of personal interest? Imagination shrinks from the possible result of such a state of things; nor must you, or Mr. ----, tell me that the horrors thus suggested exist only in imagination. 

The Southern newspapers, with their advertisements of negro sales and personal descriptions of fugitive slaves, supply details of misery that it would be difficult for imagination to exceed. Scorn, derision, insult, menace--the handcuff, the lash--the tearing away of children from parents, of husbands from wives--the weary trudging in droves along the common highways, the labour of body, the despair of mind, the sickness of heart--these are the realities which belong to the system, and form the rule, rather than the exception, in the slave's experience. 

And this system exists here in this country of your's, which boasts itself the asylum of the oppressed, the home of freedom, the one place in all the world where all men may find enfranchisement from all thraldoms of mind, soul, or body--the land elect of liberty.

My girls said thralldoms. What a beautiful word. The land elect of liberty. But above all there's this reserved tone, the withholding of excess and profane mockery, juxtaposed with an irony that exposes the logical inconsistencies in the pro-slavery argument. It's as if saying, "Wait, why don't we have laws to prevent dogs from reading?"

I think it's about efficiency too--making every word count. Early in the excerpt Kemble doesn't say "a better comparison" or a "more fitting comparison," she says "a just comparison." With that phrasing you get an under-current of morality--her opponent's comparison isn't merely dishonest, it is unjust

Kemble's own advocacy on behalf of abolition didn't save her from her own set of racist attitudes. I kinda don't care though. When I speak with ghosts, I generally don't ask for approval.

More later, as I get deeper in.

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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