My friend Juan wrote something about the riots happening currently in London. It’s a good piece and I like it. It set some thoughts rattling in my head that I’ve been meaning to get back to for a while. I don’t remember the details all that well but relatively recently Michelle Bachman signed a statement with some racist remarks about African American families and slavery. I wrote something about this that I pasted at the bottom of this post.

What I want to add now is some further thoughts about slave revolts that I’ve had on my mind for a while. There’s much, much more that can and should be said about slave revolts. But, whatever else there is to say: some terrible acts were committed during slave revolts, including terrible violence to white children. In my view, these acts are morally unacceptable and should not be justified despite the justness of the causes of the revolts. There’s a remark by Herbert Gutman somewhere, here too my memory is fuzzy, where he’s talking about Sartre, he says something to the effect of “there’s being black, or a woman, or a worker, then there’s what you do with being that.” The way I take it, there’s the objective situations of power and oppression people find themselves in and there’s what people do within those situations.

Now, the terrible violence committed by slaveholders was clearly worse and clearly part of the conditions that produced those acts that were objectionable within slave revolts. I say “part of the conditions” etc rather than “caused” for a reason, though. In one sense, clearly slaveholder violence caused slave violence. On the other hand, slaves were actors, and moral actors. People made decisions. We can and should judge those decisions. (Approval too is judgment, of course.) And disagreeing with some of the actions does not mean we don’t agree with the over all rebellion or the justness of the cause behind it.

I quite like this notion that I think comes from some hegelian marxists like CLR James, I get it second- or third-hand via some friends and comrades, the idea is that in some activities we can see elements of a new society and a new humanity. To my mind what this expresses is basically a normative framework for judging actions. Do we see this as prefiguring a new better world in some way, or moving us toward one? If not, then let’s say so. Ours should in part be a movement for moral transformation, individually and collectively, over all. That’s not to say that ugly acts are always to opposed, but rather that ugly acts are never to be dressed up as if they weren’t ugly. (That failure is part of what I found so annoying about that awful Noel Ignatiev essay I wrote about a while back.)

It seems to me that people who commit ugly acts suffer from committing those acts, though this suffering is not as bad as that of those victimized. In a society of victimization, the perpetrators suffer moral injury through their own and each others’ actions, but this doesn’t excuse their behavior, if anything it’s a stronger indictment. Furthermore, in a society of victimization, people on the receiving end of victimization often get ugly and perform ugly actions. There’s a Nelson Agren quote about this that I’ll try to find.

Getting back to slave revolts and child murder, it seems to me that on the one hand we can attribute some of that uglyness to slaveholders indirectly. The creation of situations wherein people commit atrocities which scar them morally, that creation of situations or social conditions is part of the total set of terrible things that slaveholders created. To use the early Marx type terminology, alienation of people involves to some extent a condition where people are likely to commit acts that further alienate them. The blame for this rests primarily on those at the top and their personnel who maintain and defend the social order. On the other hand, people’s participation in their own alienation, in acts that damage others and in so doing damage themselves morally, this is a real action and the responibility for it does not rest solely on those at the top. Those at the top are not the only moral agents. To use a comic book metaphor/phrase, but meant very sincerely: with great power comes great responsibility. The exploited and oppressed have a great power, the power to stop the current social death machine and the power to create a new world. This power means a responsibility as well, multiple responsibilities – a responsibility to stop the machine, a responsibility to create a new world, a responsibility to endeavor to reduce the uglyness involved in those efforts, a responsibility to not let people off the hook morally – because of a responsibility to respect people, because letting people off the hook morally means giving up on expecting people to be their best possible selves, and a responsibiltiy to react with empathy when people don’t meet their historical responsibilities.

Note on Bachmann:

Ms. Bachmann recently signed her name to a document that attempts to score cheap rhetorical points by making claims about African American families today and under slavery. This is of a long history of racist treatment of African Americans as pathological, including making claims about African American families. In light of Bachmann’s remarks, I thought this excerpt was worth reading, about the cruel separations of families imposed by Bachmann’s ideological ancestors, and the anguish this created for African Americans. It’s from the Narrative of William Wells Brown. Brown escaped slavery in the 1830s and became an internationally famous abolitionist orator and writer. At the end of this excerpt Brown describes a song that enslaved people sang, which repeatedly called “Go sound the jubilee!” Jubilee has yet to sound, but it will.

Wells Brown describes how while he was enslaved he witnessed as a Mr. Walker, a slave trader, “bought a number of slaves as he passed the different farms and villages. After getting twenty-two or twenty-three men and women, we arrived at St. Charles, a village on the banks of the Missouri. Here he purchased a woman who had a child in her arms, appearing to be four or five weeks old. We had been travelling by land for some days, and were in hopes to have found a boat at this place for St. Louis, but were disappointed. As no boat was expected for some days, we started for St, Louis by land. Soon after we left St. Charles the young child grew very cross, and kept up a noise during the greater part of the day. Mr. Walker complained of its crying several times, and told the mother to stop the child’s d—–d noise, or he would.

The woman ried to keep the child from crying, but could not. We put up at night with an acquaintance of Mr. Walker, and in the morning, just as we were about to start, the child again commenced crying. Walker stepped up to her, and told her to give the child to him. The mother tremblingly obeyed. He took the child by one arm, as you would a cat by the leg, walked into the house, and said to the lady,”Madam, I will make you a present of this fittle nigger; it keeps such a noise that I can’t bear it.””Thank you, sir,” said the lady.The mother, as soon as she saw that her child was to be left, ran up to Mr. Walker, and falling upon her knees, begged him to let her have her ehild; she clung around his legs, and cried, “Oh, my child! my child! master, do let me have my child! oh, do, do, do! I will stop its crying if you will only let me have it again.” When I saw this woman crying for her child so piteously, a shudder— a feeling akin to horror—shot through my frame. I have often since in imagination heard her crying for her child (…) Although the African slave-trader has been branded as a pirate, men are engaged in the traffic in slaves in this country, who occupy high positions in society, and hold offices of honor in the councils of the nation; and not a few have made their fortunes by this business.

After the woman’s child had been given away, Mr. Walker commanded her to return into the ranks with the other slaves. Women who had children were not chained, but those that had none were. As soon as her child was disposed of she was chained in the gang.The following song I have often heard the slaves sing, when about to be carried to the far south. It is said to have been composed by a slave. “See these poor souls from AfricaTransported to America;We are stolen, and sold to Georgia —Will you go along with me?We are stolen, and sold to Georgia —Come sound the jubilee!See wives and husbands sold apart,Their children’s screams will break my heart; —There’s a better day a coming—Will you go along with me?There’s a better day a coming,Go sound the jubilee! O, gracious Lord! when shall it be,That we poor souls shall all be free?Lord, break them slavery powers—Will you go along with me Lord, break them slavery powers,Go sound the jubilee!Dear Lord, dear Lord, when slavery cease,Then we poor souls will have our peace;—There’s a better day a coming —Will you go along with me?There’s a better day a coming,Go sound the jubilee!”