“Straining Gnats on American Slavery”: A Rejoinder

A rejoinder in support of the thesis in “A Higher Calling to Truth About Our Multiracial History of Slavery.”

As Christ’s followers, we must not attribute blame or shame to innocent parties with another broad-brush stroke.  We seek to unite one another through truth and love.  Truth is not the enemy of Christian love.  Truth enforces and promotes love.  It’s a necessity.  It appears Mr. McDurmon believes all whites are guilty—a serious sin against a group of people of whom many may not or do not deserve.  Consider the millions of immigrants who came after the Civil War and did not participate in slavery.

 

Do historical truths represent “straining gnats?”  When Jesus rebuked the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23, he compared trivial acts to vital attitudes and acts of justice, mercy, and faithfulness.  In Joel McDurmon’s article, “Straining Gnats on American Slavery,” he states, “There is no escaping the reality that in America, slavery was a one-sided affair.”  America’s slavery was not a one-sided affair; it was multiracial from commencement to cessation. He responded to my article entitled, Black and White Christians: “A Higher Calling to Truth About Our Multiracial History of Slavery.”

Mr. McDurmon identifies as a “Reformed Christian and published author on the history of slavery and racism in America.”  I, too, am a Reformed Faith Christian and published writer with a degree in Biblical Education, which explains my goal of applying biblical perspectives and principles to issues. I am responding to statements made that appear to misunderstand or misinterpret my intent or purpose.

I did not emphasize the culpability of blacks in slavery, as he states; I sought to balance historical facts involving all participants.  It is not honest or just to blame one race alone when diverse races were involved.  Christians are to seek truth and to be just to all.

He states that “a few free blacks” owned slaves and later reiterates “relatively few” did. No, thousands are more than a few.  Over 3,000 blacks owned slaves in New Orleans alone.  Black slave owners owned over 20,000 slaves in the Carolinas.  Black historians came by this information from census records.  It is alleged the wealthiest slave owner with the most slaves in Louisiana was black.  The New York Times article indicating “slaves were black and slave owners were white” was not truthful.  Five Native American Tribes owned black slaves, three of which were unwilling to free them after the Civil War and only when they had to in signing a treaty with the United States.

It is estimated only 5 percent of whites owned slaves.  With the free black population being smaller, one has to wonder what percentage it represented in light of the thousands of owners.  How can we be sure the NYT writer was correct in accounting 99.9 percent when he did not include blacks and Native Americans as owning slaves?  Without accurate slave owner statistics by race, it is impossible to say 99.9 percent accounts exclusively for white slave owners.

Mr. McDurmon raises the issue of Virginia’s codification laws. That issue had no relevance to the article’s content, which dealt only with statistics relating to actual slave owners—not to laws related to slavery.  The “broad brush” reference I made is aimed only at the complete absence of any mention of other races involved in slave trade or ownership.  I clearly stated slavery was by race.  My great, great grandfather, Lincoln’s law partner and avid abolitionist, rebuked those in favor of slavery with this very fact.

Mr. McDurmon takes issue with mention of blacks in Africa stating, “American slavery must focus on American slavery.”  America’s history of slavery began in Africa from whence American slaves were captured, sold, and shipped.  It’s the origin of the race-based history.  A Nigerian writer emphasized Africa’s role; African descendants are dealing with it.

Further, he states: “It seems that no one wants to focus on their own errors, only those of other places.”  Surely, as a Reformed Christian, he recognizes the universality of sin and depravity.  Are whole races of people guilty for what some in their race do or have done?  Does this align with biblical teaching and truth?  I think not.  If so, no race is guiltless.  I did not imply black or Native American ownership was equal to white ownership; but contended that the majority of whites did not own slaves either.

Furthermore, the black historians and scholars referred to recognized black slave ownership wasn’t simply to protect relatives.  It also related to greed and profit.  They wrote that many suffered similar fates as those owned by whites.  They were beaten, raped, bitten, practically starved, poorly housed, and cheaply clothed.  California Representative Kamala Harris’ father wrote that their ancestor, a black Jamaican sugar cane plantation owner, had been particularly cruel and brutal to one of his slaves.

I mentioned the lack of black participation in slavery in the original narrative by referring to black authors in my article; this was twisted and/or misunderstood in Mr. McDurmon’s account.  Black slave owners are mentioned in some books; but they aren’t in curriculums taught in K-12 education when attitudes are formed.  The many I questioned—black or white—were completely unaware of this fact. A dearth of historical facts is missing.  I did not use the word conspiracy; but there are omissions of salient facts.  Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in a Times Magazine interview, said: “One of the most shocking facts to me is that there were black slaveholders.”

Mr. McDurmon projected thoughts or motives on me I do not possess.  He writes: “This is apparently because that narrative does not relate the tiny, unrepresentative aspect she prefers to be emphasized.”  I in no way endeavored to emphasize; I sought only to include relative historical facts. Emphasize and include represent a difference of stress or definition.  Racial diversity of owners or traders was completely lacking from the NYT account, while at least it was included in the Wall Street Journal account.

Why can we speak about one guilty party reported to be slave owners, while other parties are not?  Balancing history is not shifting blame; it basically and simply includes all who participated in that history.  In remembering World War II, we learn that people from other countries joined the Nazis in their persecution of Jews, such as Poles and Ukrainians.  That’s a balance to history.  Our nation’s laws were at fault, but diverse races took advantage of that fault.  Today, for example, our laws allow taking the lives of unborn babies.  The government is at fault, but diverse races are taking advantage of that fault.

The article was solely about slavery; Mr. McDurmon turns it into an issue of racism saying, “. . . just because we quit using the n-word does not mean we overcame racism.”  Is that a veiled accusation that the writer is racist?  He refers to good intentions as, in reality, being passive racist offenses.  He states: “But the details reveal us putting ourselves first, exonerating our ancestors . . . blaming blacks equally, and more, while giving lip service about our love for blacks and racial harmony.”  It appears Mr. McDurmon can’t restrain himself from virtually and insultingly accusing another not only of racism, but of hypocrisy as well.  Not all white ancestors owned slaves.  The majority didn’t.

I am sorry that is his perspective based on an article seeking to bring black and white Christians together based on biblical principles and truths commonly related to all races, that is, sin and depravity are colorblind.  Racism is also colorblind, affecting all races.

It appears Mr. McDurmon perceives only one race guilty of racism when he speaks of “exonerating ourselves first,” which was not implied at all in my article.  No white slave owner or trader was exonerated.  Such a perspective supports projecting false motives and conclusions on an article aimed at diminishing false impressions between Christians who should recognize and embrace that good and evil exist in each and every race.

As Christ’s followers, we must not attribute blame or shame to innocent parties with another broad-brush stroke.  We seek to unite one another through truth and love.  Truth is not the enemy of Christian love.  Truth enforces and promotes love.  It’s a necessity.  It appears Mr. McDurmon believes all whites are guilty—a serious sin against a group of people of whom many may not or do not deserve.  Consider the millions of immigrants who came after the Civil War and did not participate in slavery.

I do agree with Mr. McDurmon that “We should not please ourselves.”  That relates to both races—and not one alone.  He appears to have bought into Critical Theory that inaccurately identifies and wrongly limits one race, based on skin color alone, to being either the oppressed or the oppressor.  This denies biblical truth—God’s truth.

Blaming one race for some who were guilty and exonerating another race where some were also guilty is hardly related to the spiritual cleansings he calls for.  Jesus’ reference to “gnats” related to trivial, yet valid acts—not to critical, truthful, or just historical facts.  Is it possible that through bias he strained an article to produce a camel that did not exist?  It’s important that when we read or critique others’ writings, we not go beyond what was actually written or interpret motives that do not exist.

Helen Louise Herndon is a member of Central Presbyterian Church (EPC) in St. Louis, Missouri. She is freelance writer and served as a missionary to the Arab/Muslim world in France and North Africa.