Things That Are Paved with Good Intentions

Yet again, I’m combing through the American Colonization Society Records as part of my ongoing adventure writing the Dissertation Chapter That Will Not Die. Something about the ACS incoming correspondence has been bothering me for a while now, and I think I’ve figured out what it is.

These incoming letters are so ridiculously earnest and well-intended.

Let me back up a little. For many purposes, I stand in the camp of people who view the ACS as a villain. It was, after all, founded on the principle that black people should go away. I empathize with the pro-emigration black Americans profiled in my chapter, but it’s really hard to sympathize with the white ACS leaders who were trying to ship them off. (On the other hand, it’s also pretty clear that certain conspiracy theories about the ACS were exaggerated; it wasn’t simply a slaveowners’ plot to protect slavery from the influence of emancipated black Americans. In many cases, colonization really was an effort to rescue slaves from slavery. And there were certainly free African Americans who had their own reasons for emigrating. Even so, the ACS just isn’t that easy to like.)

Anyway, as I work my way through the correspondence, I keep seeing all these letters from white ACS supporters. Some letters come from slaveowners who are thinking about emancipating their slaves on the condition that they leave immediately for Africa, and who want the ACS to send them there. That’s kind of awkward to spend much time thinking about. But a lot just come from ordinary northern (and southern) pastors, charity ladies, doctors, etc. engaging in basic middle-class philanthropic work. A lot of these letters accompany small donations — the ladies of the Congregationalist church in our town have raised seven dollars and forty-two cents for you, that sort of thing. And some come from absolutely insignificant people, living in the middle of nowhere, who want to subscribe to the ACS newspaper. And some come from white antislavery gentlemen who met this well-spoken young black man in Albany who wants to go to Liberia, and can you help him out? — and so on.

It’s all so … straightforward. These are nice people trying to do a nice thing. A nice thing like sending thousands of people who were born in the United States “back” to Africa, where they can be free and happy around other black people once they’ve taught them how to be nice people, too.

How many of our 2012 philanthropic ventures, activist groups, social causes, and our-kind-of-people liberal-humanitarian enterprises are going to look the same way?