Cliven Bundy Wants to Tell You All About 'the Negro'

This won't end well.

A couple days ago Jonathan Chait asserted that modern conservatism is "doomed" because it is "rooted in white supremacy." The first claim may or may not be true, but there's little doubt about the second. Whether it's the Senate minority leader claiming that America should have remained legally segregated, a beloved cultural figure fondly recalling how happy black people were living under lynch law, a presidential candidate calling Barack Obama a "food-stamp president," or a campaign surrogate calling Barack Obama "a subhuman mongrel," the preponderance of evidence shows that modern conservatism just can't quit white supremacy.

This is unsurprising. White supremacy is one of the most dominant forces in the history of American politics. In a democracy, it would be silly to expect it to go unexpressed. Thus anyone with a sense of American history should be equally unsurprised to discover that rugged individualist Cliven Bundy is the bearer of some very interesting theories:

“I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” he said. Mr. Bundy recalled driving past a public-housing project in North Las Vegas, “and in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids—and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch—they didn’t have nothing to do. They didn’t have nothing for their kids to do. They didn’t have nothing for their young girls to do.

“And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?” he asked. “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

Prick a movement built on white supremacy and it bleeds ... white supremacy. That said, I think it's always worth clarifying what we mean when we use words like "slavery" and "freedom" in an American context.

I took a flight to L.A. last night and brought with me Thavolia Glymph's bruising monograph Out of the House of Bondage. Glymph is mostly concerned with the plantation house as a workspace during enslavement, and thus the scene of horrendous violence primarily dished out by "ladies of the house."

In general, a silence surrounds white women's contributions to the basic nature of slavery, its maintenance, and, especially, one of its central tendencies, the maiming and destruction of black life.

The maiming and destruction of black life. This is key. What Glymph is discussing is not merely the theft of labor but the total plunder of the human body. Slavery is torture as a system of governance, corporal destruction taken as the mere cost of doing business.

Here are a few additions, courtesy of Glymph, to your morning reading:

  • Item: Enslaved woman Mandy Cooper was not quick enough churning milk, and thus her mistress had no butter to serve her party along with the cornbread and biscuits. Cooper's mistress and her two guests—all women—then set upon Moore and "beat me from angah." Moore's mistress grabbed a heavy board. Another friend grabbed a whip.
  • Item: Enslaved woman Alice Shaw was given the task of fanning flies and clearing the dinner table. When she dropped a dish, her mistress "beat her on her head."
  • Item: Clara Young did not always respond quickly enough to her mistress's summons. Her mistress lifted her dress and beat her.
  • Item: Lila Nichols failed to gather enough eggs. She was beaten by her mistress. This same mistress later set upon an enslaved woman whom she suspected of poisoning her, "leaving her back 'in gashes.' She then ordered the slave woman chained until she had recovered sufficiently enough to be sold."
  • Item: Delia Garlic was responsible for nursing and caring for her mistress' baby. "One day I was playin' wid de baby," she reported. "It hurt its li'l han' an' commenced to cry, an' [my mistress] whirl on me, pick up a hot iron an' run it all down my arm an' han'. It took off de flesh when she done it."
  • Item: "Slaves was punished by whip and starving," reported freedwoman Harriet Robinson. "Master Sam didn't never whip me but Miss Julia whipped me everyday in the morning. During the war she beat me terrible. She say 'Your master's out fighting and losing blood trying to save you from the Yankees, so you kin get your'n here.'" 
The idea that Robinson's master was fighting on behalf of the slaves is both rich and telling. Mostly it shows that Cliven Bundy's theories are not original but inherited via white supremacy.
 
Enslaved black people were, with some regularity, beat with cowhide whips, tongs, pokers, chairs, and wooden boards. Nails were driven through their palms, pins through their tongues. Eyes were gouged out for the smallest offense.
 
When people like Cliven Bundy assert the primacy of the past it is important that we do not recount it selectively. American enslavement is the destruction of the black body for profit. That is the past that Cliven Bundy believes "the Negro" to have been better off in. He is, regrettably, not alone.
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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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