People Who Tell the Truth (and People Who Don’t)

Ark. State Rep. Jon Hubbard (official portrait)

Rev. Jermain W. Loguen (Onondaga Hist. Assoc.)

Down in Arkansas, a state representative named Jon Hubbard recently made headlines when people started noticing that he had called American slavery a “blessing in disguise.”

The claim appears in his self-published book Letters to the Editor: Confessions of a Frustrated Conservative, but you don’t have to buy the book to read his thoughts; they appear on his campaign website.

In an essay posted there, Hubbard writes that “for our brothers and sisters of the black race, as hard as it may be to understand and appreciate, slavery just might have been a blessing in disguise, as well as their most difficult challenge ever. Maybe, just maybe, God had a plan for what he allowed to happen.”

To explain, Hubbard writes that the descendants of slaves were eventually blessed because “they would one day reap the reward handed down to them by their brave ancestors: that of being an American.” Hubbard contrasts black Americans’ living conditions in the modern United States with the conditions he believes they would face today as “African tribesmen living in grass huts and constantly searching for their food,” whose “existence and lifestyle … has been almost unchanged since the beginning of time.”

As cartoonish and condescending as Hubbard’s historical claim is, it’s presented as the meditation of a Christian who believes that God can use any sort of horrible event for good. To the extent that Hubbard is simply saying that God moves in mysterious ways, then, he isn’t necessarily endorsing slavery itself as a good thing. Unfortunately — and maybe to the surprise of nobody who knows the American South — that’s not all he is saying.

The problem isn’t simply that Hubbard seems to think that Africans all wear grass skirts and dance around pots of boiling missionaries all day. That would be bad enough; it’s just an updating of what slavery’s defenders said in the nineteenth century.  No, Hubbard doesn’t stop there.

On Hubbard’s website, the essay on African slavery is followed immediately by an essay on “the legacy of the Baby Boomers.” Tucked into that essay in a bizarre paragraph (highlighted in yellow for reasons that are not clear) is this thought about public education:

The integration of our public schools was a major challenge that was designed to close the gap between blacks and whites in the area of education. After the initial shock of this decision, it was understood that by bringing blacks and whites together into a common school system, it would eventually be a good thing for everyone. One of the stated purposes of school integration was to bring black students up to a level close to that of white students. But, to the great disappointment of everyone, the results of this theory worked exactly in reverse of its intended purpose, and instead of black students rising to the educational levels previously attained by white students, the white students dropped to the level of black students. To make matters worse, the lack of discipline and ambition of black students soon became shared by their white classmates, and our educational system has been in a steady decline ever since. This is not a racist statement, but a valid and realistic evaluation of what has actually happened to our schools. One totally unexpected result of public school integration was that along with the decline in educational achievement in this country came a dramatic rise in crime over that same time period. [Emphasis added.]

It’s hardly necessary for me to point out that any claim requiring the clarification “this is not a racist statement” is almost certainly a racist statement. That said, I can’t find a way to read that paragraph as anything but a qualified (actually somewhat cowardly) but firm endorsement of racial segregation. To remove all doubt, Hubbard even tells us that the reason school desegregation was a bad thing is that black students infected white students with their laziness.

So.

To their credit, Republican leaders in Arkansas (for Hubbard is a Republican) are anxious to avoid the taint of his racism. Arkansas GOP chairman Doyle Webb said that Hubbard’s remarks on slavery “were highly offensive to many Americans and do not reflect the viewpoints of the Republican Party of Arkansas.” Webb also, however, said that state Democrats’ efforts to capitalize on Hubbard’s indiscretion were “distractions.” (Hubbard, for his part, has accused Democrats of “Nazi-style political intimidation.”)

Unfortunately, the understandable fury over Hubbard’s relatively innocuous “blessing in disguise” line is obscuring the practical depth of his evident racism.

Hubbard’s belief that school desegregation led to the academic ruin of white children is part of a complex of ideas that have led him, as a state legislator, to sponsor a Birther bill, English-only bills, a bill making it a felony to harbor an undocumented immigrant, and a bill diverting some public-school funds to homeschoolers. And his book Letters to the Editor claims that immigration, “both legal and illegal,” threatens to overwhelm Western countries —  due to overpopulation that will lead to “planned wars or extermination” that “will at some point become as necessary as eating and breathing.”

It’s possible to support each of those initiatives or ideas without being a racist. But that’s pretty clearly not what is happening in Jon Hubbard’s case.

Anyway, to get back around to what this post was supposed to be about when I started it, I’d like to direct your attention to something the excellent Ta-Nehisi Coates posted this week: “The Hyperlinked Ballad of Jarm Logue.”

When I saw Coates’s post, I sat up straighter. For two years, I lived a few hundred yards from a neglected little wedge of public land called Loguen Park, in the city of Syracuse:

That strip of land is how I first learned about Jarm Logue, a.k.a the Reverend Jermain Wesley Loguen, escaped slave and all-around abolitionist badass.

Coates does a great job telling Loguen’s story, using Loguen’s own words (always the best way). What really stands out in Loguen’s account is his defiance. He refused to bow, not just to the literal torture of slavery (seriously — go read about the sadism he endured), but to all economic and political ideas that would tend to ratify his enslavement. For example, in a letter to his “owner’s” wife, he scoffed at the idea that stealing a horse to escape from slavery made him a thief, and he mocked the idea that he owed a debt of compassion or gratitude to the slaveowning Logue family.

Indeed, Loguen, a Christian preacher, was condemning all attempts to use sentimentality to deny the reality of the injustice done to him:

Nevertheless I am indignant beyond the power of words to express, that you should be so sunken and cruel as to tear the hearts I love so much all in pieces; that you should be willing to impale and crucify us out of all compassion for your poor foot or leg. Wretched woman! Be it known to you that I value my freedom, to say nothing of my mother, brothers and sisters, more than your whole body; more, indeed, than my own life; more than all the lives of all the slaveholders and tyrants under Heaven.
You say you have offers to buy me, and that you shall sell me if I do not send you $1,000, and in the same breath and almost in the same sentence, you say, “you know we raised you as we did our own children.” Woman, did you raise your own children for the market? Did you raise them for the whipping-post? Did you raise them to be drove off in a coffle in chains? Where are my poor bleeding brothers and sisters? Can you tell?
Who was it that sent them off into sugar and cotton fields, to be kicked, and cuffed, and whipped, and to groan and die; and where no kin can hear their groans, or attend and sympathize at their dying bed, or follow in their funeral? Wretched woman! Do you say you did not do it? Then I reply, your husband did, and you approved the deed — and the very letter you sent me shows that your heart approves it all.
American freedom still requires us to value justice, mercy, and inconvenient honesty above self-interest.
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