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.

For Columbus Day: History Wars in Other Places

Columbus Day Parade, NYC 2010. Courtesy of Headquarters Marine Corps, Division of Public Affairs, New York City Branch. (CC BY 2.0)

Today we get to celebrate the most problematic of the American federal holidays.

Columbus Day is the day when, depending on your point of view, we either celebrate the opening of a glorious new chapter in the history of Western civilization, or celebrate the slaughter, enslavement, and dispossession of millions of people by self-righteous empires. Or maybe both. Or, and this is really more likely, we celebrate the chance to stay home from work. (Some of us also celebrate Italian-American immigration, but that’s really a regional thing.)

Naturally, this turns my mind toward the patriotic uses of history. And that, in turn, reminds me how much “American exceptionalism,” “apologizing for America,” “blaming America first,” and related tropes have come up during this election cycle. You’d almost think we were back in the heady days of 1994, to hear what certain politicians have said during the 2012 presidential campaign.

In this environment, you really can’t say much of anything critical about American history without opening yourself to the charge that you hate the United States. I’m doing fairly well; as far as I know, I’ve gone more than three weeks without being accused of hating my country.

The most obvious problem with the notion that critics of American national behavior are “blaming America first” is that they’re not actually doing anything unique to the United States or (in most cases) singling it out as worse than other countries. In fact, they’re not even doing anything unusual. There’s no reason to think this kind of historical criticism is somehow aimed only at America, except insofar as American citizens are responsible for the decisions of their own government, not other governments.

People in powerful countries all over the world are critical of what their own nations have done in the past, and nationalists all over the world accuse them of seditious tendencies. It’s downright boring. People critical of America’s behavior are accused of hating America; people critical of China’s behavior are accused of hating China; people critical of Russia’s behavior are accused of hating Russia; people critical of South Africa’s behavior are accused of hating South Africa.

So I was delighted to stumble across a four-part radio special from Australia — “History Under Siege: Battles Over the Past” — which describes how these debates are going in four different Countries That Are Not America. The program begins with Japan, moves on to Argentina, continues with Australia and its “history wars,” and finishes up in France. It’s worth a listen.

Her Prodigies in Us

I could never content my contemplation with those generall pieces of wonder, the flux and reflux of the sea, the encrease of Nile, the conversion of the Needle to the North; and therefore have studied to match and parallel those in the more obvious and neglected pieces of Nature, which without further travell I can doe in the Cosmography of my selfe; wee carry with us the wonders, wee seek without us: There is all Africa, and her prodigies in us.

Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medici

No Hatred, Part I: Reading a Banned Author

To observe Banned Books Week 2012, I have chosen to read a prohibited book.

I wasn’t sure at first what to read. Should it be a cult classic? A controversial recent bestseller? A political satire? A libertine treatise? After puzzling over the question for some time, I decided that the best book to read would be one that is banned by a government today. In fact, I wanted to celebrate a book for which an author, somewhere in the world, is currently suffering. It wasn’t hard to find one.

“Solidarity with Liu Xiaobo.” Graffiti on a wall in Warsaw. Courtesy of Wikimedia user Brandmeister.

In 2010, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波) (劉曉波). The judges honored Liu “for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.” Liu’s chair on the stage at the award ceremony in Oslo was empty. He was finishing the first year of an eleven-year prison sentence for “inciting subversion of state power.” This is his fourth prison term in China.

Liu is a poet and literary critic who has spoken out for decades in favor of freedom in China. He’s one of the signatories of Charter 08, a  dissident manifesto published four years ago. “The time is arriving everywhere,” the charter says, “for citizens to be masters of states.” Among its specific demands is universal freedom of expression. Charter 08 was the main evidence used against Liu at trial.

With Liu imprisoned for his ideas, and with all of his work banned in China, it wasn’t hard for me to decide to read one of his books this week. My first choice was the full text of Aesthetics and Human Freedom, his 1988 doctoral dissertation. It doesn’t seem to be available in English. But what is available now, thanks to Harvard University Press, is a large collection of his essays and poems: No Enemies, No Hatred.

Yesterday, I picked up a copy of No Enemies at the library and began to read.

Things That Are Kind of Banned

According to the American Library Association, this is Banned Books Week. From now (actually yesterday) through Saturday, we get to celebrate press freedom by, for example, ostentatiously reading naughty books. It’s my kind of subversion — theoretically shaking the roots of authoritarianism and ignorance, but really just giving me a good excuse to read things with squelchy bits.

I have mixed feelings about the origins of Banned Books Week. Keeping certain books away from children may be problematic, but it’s simply not the same thing as adult censorship. So I’m never very impressed by the ALA’s lists of “challenged” books, which inevitably are full of angsty teen titles that some parents just don’t want stocked on low shelves next to The Magic School Bus Lost in the Solar System. Still, there are greater forces at work in the world, and sometimes there isn’t as much distance as I would like between a lovingly nervous parent, a nondenominational loon trying to rid the world of the Expelliarmus charm, and a cultural fascist ordering a man’s assassination for writing an otherwise unremarkable book about immigration. There’s easily enough real book-banning in the world to justify having a fun little anti-censorship holiday.

So today I’m trying to decide what book I should read this week to celebrate. The ALA’s dorky lists of most-challenged books don’t impress me. (Gossip Girl? Please.) I’m leaning more toward titles with a hardcore burn-all-his-writings-and-kill-his-entire-family sort of vibe. But I’m open to persuasion. Here are some of the tools I’m using to brainstorm:

  1. The Index. Where else to start but the Index Librorum Prohibitorum? Maintained by the Catholic Church between 1559 and 1966, this list is Christendom’s gold standard for banned subversive ideas. The last edition, published in 1948, is available here. Voltaire On Toleration, anyone?
  2. Banned in Boston. Who needs popes and councils when you have Brahmins? Long before their mayor tried to silence Chick-fil-A, the descendants of the people who exiled Anne Hutchinson were notorious for suppressing books on the grounds that they were the least bit interesting. Perhaps this would be a good week to read Faulkner, Hemingway, or Dreiser.
  3. The Great Postal Campaign. In the 1830s, southern postmasters, with the blessing of Postmaster General Amos Kendall, systematically denied antislavery writers the right to circulate their ideas in the mail. The censorship intensified in response to the American Anti-Slavery Society’s direct mail campaign, but it really began in 1829, when David Walker’s magnificent Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World terrified white southern officials. But just about any antebellum antislavery work would qualify for my attention as something that white Americans, feeling guilty and expecting a race war, found bannable.
  4. Nobel Prizes. As it turns out, there’s a pretty high correlation between winning the Nobel Prize in Literature and having your work banned somewhere in the world. Maybe it’s time to read Herta Müller or Doris Lessing.

What else should I be considering as I make up my mind today?

Good Sleighing

One vampire heart was reportedly torched on the Woodstock, Vermont, town green in 1830. In Manchester, hundreds of people flocked to a 1793 heart-burning ceremony at a blacksmith’s forge: “Timothy Mead officiated at the altar in the sacrifice to the Demon Vampire who it was believed was still sucking the blood of the then living wife of Captain Burton,” an early town history says. “It was the month of February and good sleighing.”

Abigail Tucker, “The Great New England Vampire Panic”

Things That Are Not About You

When I teach college students, I ban one word from their essays. I order them not to use any form of the word “feel.”

It doesn’t work, of course. They use the word anyway, no matter how often I flag it in their papers and explain why it does not belong there. But I keep reminding them about it because I’m trying very hard to convince them of one crucial truth, a truth that will rescue them from enormous grief: Writing is not about expressing yourself.*

Courtesy of J. Paxon Reyes (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Of course, particular uses of writing may be self-expressive. Diaries and poetry may be self-expressive. Memoirs embody a certain sort of self-expression. Religious devotional literature, in a sense, involves self-expression. Sure. And even the driest of nonfiction prose can convey important things about the author. But those things are merely applications of writing. They are not writing.

To say that writing is about expressing yourself is sort of like saying that playing an instrument is about expressing yourself.  It’s a lovely thought, but it doesn’t tell you anything about how to make the sounds you want to make. If I tried to express myself on a flute, for example, the impression of anybody listening, including me, would be that I was probably a three-year-old child who somehow got his hands on a flute and needed to have it taken away immediately.

Writing is a method of communication. Like all methods of communication, it has rules, which are arbitrary in some deep philosophical sense but quite necessary in a practical sense. To learn to write, we must learn these rules. A writing teacher who doesn’t teach these rules is a failure, just as much as a music teacher who never gets around to teaching notation or an art teacher who doesn’t mention perspective. The rules expand, not constrict, what the author can do. They magnify eloquence. They connect us to what we are trying to say and whom we are trying to say it to.

So here’s the bitter truth: Writing is not about you. It’s about your relationship with an audience and a topic. You are part of a trinity, and you must respect the other two elements. Author. Audience. Topic. There are no exceptions to this or to the obligations it creates, even if the author, audience, and topic are very occasionally the same person.

Understanding this truth is not only part of learning to write effectively; it is part of becoming an educated person. Education, to be worthy of the term, must situate the individual in her context. It must teach her to respect the fact that she lives among other people and other things, which, and this is the crucial part, are not her. That fact, not any nonsense about the necessity of literacy in the “business world,” is the reason reading and writing are the key to a good education. Writing is the activity that brings together author, audience, and topic in a fruitful way. Reading and writing — which are really just two parts of the same activity — build an educated person. Everything else is details.

I’ve been thinking about this because the October issue of the Atlantic features an article by Peg Tyre. “The Writing Revolution” profiles a dismal New York City high school that rescued itself by teaching its students to write. To some extent, the article hints, that required teachers to figure out why they knew how to write. It required them, for instance, to recognize the importance of the lowly coordinating conjunction, without which their students couldn’t figure out how to express — or decode — ideas. The school’s students, it turned out, could barely read because they didn’t understand how sentences work. They were failing to graduate because they didn’t understand how to use the word “although.” And neither No Child Left Behind nor Pedagogy of the Oppressed was going to teach them that.

It’s a good article. The Atlantic website is also hosting a debate page that features various responses to it. So far, my favorite response comes from a former South Bronx fifth-grade teacher, Robert Pondiscio, who explains “how self-expression damaged my students.”

Learning to write is hard. Writing is not an inborn trait of the sensitive middle class (or the pure-hearted working class). It’s not even an inborn trait of a media-saturated nation in which eighty-nine percent of the people consider themselves middle-class. It’s not something that anybody with an iPad in her hand and a song in her heart can do. It’s a set of specific, spectacularly complicated capabilities that take work and discipline to learn. For some people, especially for the poor, the work has to be done more consciously, but everybody has to do the work to learn the skills.

And people will never learn to write effectively if they think writing is something that spills out of them while the world waits breathlessly to bask in their themness.

Author. Audience. Topic.

_________

* In fact, there are several other good reasons to avoid the word “feel” in a history or government paper. But let’s stick to the one at hand.

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?