Straining Gnats on American Slavery

A response to “Black and White Christians: A Higher Calling to Truth About Our Multiracial History of Slavery.”

There is no escaping the reality that in America, slavery was a one-sided affair. To suggest that blacks themselves had a culpable hand in the institutions that maintained their oppression in this country under slavery, black codes, Jim Crow, “separate but equal,” and much more, is to participate in that same line of oppression in a yet more refined way. The Christian response needs to be one of robust self-giving. We should go above and beyond to bear the burdens of the minority, and not please ourselves. We should willingly bear responsibility on ourselves, and work to affirm the full worth and loving affections of our brothers and sisters.

 

As a Reformed Christian and a published author on the history of slavery and racism in America, I found the article by Helen Louise Herndon on “Black and White Christians: A Higher Calling to Truth About Our Multiracial History of Slavery,” somewhat disturbing.

In her effort to emphasize the culpability of blacks in American slavery and racism, Ms. Herndon is straining at gnats to swallow a camel, and cleansing the outside of the bowl while leaving the inside, the part that matters most, full of grime.

Ms. Herndon’s main contention is that the history of American slavery is “always painted with a broad brush” in which whites are the culprits and blacks are the oppressed. This “faulty historical narrative,” we are told, must give way to the “full story.” We are further informed that this full story is left out of the teaching of slavery today, and this presents a stumbling block for racial relations.

While it is certainly true that black Africans participated in the transatlantic slave trade and that a few free blacks owned slaves in antebellum America, the balance of Ms. Herndon’s article is misguided.

Mrs. Herndon is at pains to rebut the “broad brush” of a New York Times author who said, “New World slavery was a racialized institution in which slaves were black and slave owners were white.” This is a tragic overstatement to Mrs. Herndon’s ears, because in reality, some blacks in American actually owned slaves. She also focuses on the experience of those blacks in Africa who were involved in the capturing and selling of slaves.

That NYT author, however, relates the generality which accounts for 99.9 percent of the matter, and he is certainly correct to do so.

In America, there was, without any doubt, a real broad brush in place. It read like this actual 1819 codification of law in Virginia:

“All negro and mulatto slaves, in all courts of judicature within this Commonwealth, shall be held, taken and adjudged to be personal estate.”

Can you think of any broader brush than that? Actually, we can, because it was the reality in virtually every state or colony. Laws like this and court decisions enforcing them were multiplied throughout the states and time periods. If you were black, you were considered property or potential property. If you were a free black, you were an outlier, and one with an ever-outstanding price on your head. One misstep and you could be arrested and sold back into slavery, with little to no recourse.

It will also not do to focus on examples of blacks in Africa. Mrs. Herndon quotes one such person who said, “But the American side of the story is not the only one.” True, but wait, Mrs. Herndon is the one who began her article with the context, “America’s history of slavery!” It seems to me that if we are going to focus on America’s history, we should not start pointing fingers to blame how bad things were anywhere else. American slavery must focus on American slavery.

A friend of mine recently told me that when he took history in school, they told him, “We must learn the mistakes of the past so we do not repeat them.” But then, he said, they taught the history of his country such that the history never included any mistakes! I could relate to that. It seems that no one wants to focus on their own errors, only those of other places.

What about black slave ownership here? There were indeed a relatively few black slave owners, but here also the full, full story confronts Mrs. Herndon’s. Black owners made up less than one tenth of one percent of slave owners, not the equal culpability Ms. Herndon implies. Further, a large portion of these only “owned” slaves on paper because it was the only way to rescue their spouses, family, or friends from real slavery on the plantations. There were laws and technicalities in almost every state designed to have free blacks deported. A lucky, free black would literally have to “own” a wife, uncle, brother, etc., in order to set them free.

Further, black participation in slavery is in fact not left out of the narrative as the article claims. Ms. Herndon undermines her own point on this score when she acknowledges that black historians such as Carter G. Woodson and John Hope Franklin wrote about these realities many decades ago. They are widely acknowledged and discussed today as well, often by well-publicized scholars such as Henry Louis Gates, Jr. There is no conspiracy of silence on this.

Mrs. Herndon does not show any familiarity with any of these facts or perspectives, even as she attempts to supply us with the “full story.” She nevertheless goes on to call the general narrative of American history “prejudicial.” This is apparently because that narrative does not relate the tiny, unrepresentative aspect she prefers to be emphasized.

The point here is not to tear down Ms. Herndon, but in my experience, she is not alone. Her version of the narrative is one in which far too many Christians, mainly we white Christians, allow ourselves to indulge. Perhaps we do so out of some perceived attack from insincere political opponents we think are attempting to exploit guilt and pity. But however important it is to prevent such nonsense, we cannot with God’s approval prevent offenses with more offenses. Rather than correct anything, it only commits the same genre of offense as those who marginalized the black experience in former eras.

The difficulty in race relations today stems from multiple underlying problems, but some phantom neglect to highlight the tiny minority of black slaveowners in the antebellum era is not one of them. Instead, the sustained effort of four centuries now to diminish the oppression of blacks, or to shift blame onto blacks themselves for that oppression, is closer to the top. Ms. Herndon’s article, unfortunately, is one more example of that problem.

Mrs. Herndon says she has no intention of dismissing the guilt of the whites or of denying the racism suffered by blacks in this nation, but that is exactly the effect of articles like hers. This is what so many people do not understand about racism: just because we quit using the n-word does not mean we overcame racism. The offenses are more often than not passive and covered over with claims of good intentions. But the details reveal us putting ourselves first, exonerating out ancestors in various ways, blaming blacks equally, and more, while giving lip service about our love for blacks and racial harmony.

Every single time we do things like elevate a tiny minority of incidents over against the 99.9 percent of the reality in an alleged attempt to even things out and tell the “full story,” we once again remind blacks how insensitive we are to the racism, how little we care to take mind of their experience, and how focused we are on exonerating ourselves first, even at their continued expense.

There is no escaping the reality that in America, slavery was a one-sided affair. To suggest that blacks themselves had a culpable hand in the institutions that maintained their oppression in this country under slavery, black codes, Jim Crow, “separate but equal,” and much more, is to participate in that same line of oppression in a yet more refined way. The Christian response needs to be one of robust self-giving. We should go above and beyond to bear the burdens of the minority, and not please ourselves. We should willingly bear responsibility on ourselves, and work to affirm the full worth and loving affections of our brothers and sisters.

Remember the gnats and camels, and the cup and saucer. You will never realize how dirty the inside of that cup is until you start actually cleaning it.

Joel McDurmon is an independent scholar, author of The Problem of Slavery in Christian America, and of many other works.