20 October 2007

Is Peter Carmichael "Dangerous"?

I just read Peter S. Carmichael’s comments about Elizabeth Fox-Genovese’s book, Within the Plantation Household – Black and White Women of the Old South in the October issue of Civil War Times. I found this comment of Carmichael's particularly interesting:

“No one can ignore the overwhelming historical evidence of mutual closeness between blacks and whites within the Slave South . . .”

No one except those who have an agenda or who cannot grow beyond their own preconceptions.

Would it be unreasonable to suggest that “mutual closeness” is synonymous with “friend” and “friendship”? No, it would not. As a matter of fact, MS Word lists “closeness” as one of the synonyms for the word “friend.” So does www.synonym.com and further includes the word intimacy. And my electronic version of Meriam-Webster includes this in its definition of “closeness”: intimate, <close friends>

Some ill-considered, ill-informed, and reactionary comments on various blogs, as well as other places, have suggested anyone believing that slaves and slave-masters could be friends is “dangerous.”(?!) Thus implying those who hold such views should be discredited or silenced (Typical of those who say they believe “tolerance” of diverse views is so important.) and charging them unfairly with perpetuating stereotypes that are inaccurate and over-simplified when, in actuality, the exact opposite is true.

Would “dangerous” include Dr. Camichael? Would it include the late Ms. Fox-Genovese? Would it include Professor James I. Robertson, Jr.?

As Professor Robertson wrote in the foreword to my book:

He became [Stonewall Jackson] a spiritual teacher for scores of slaves and freedmen as well as the best friend many of them ever had.- Page 12

The following quote is taken from my book, Stonewall Jackson – The Black Man’s Friend:

“There is ample evidence that he [Jackson’s slave, Jim Lewis] was intimate with Jackson and familiar with many of his personal habits, including prayer.” Page 139

and . . .

“Such thoughts [of Jackson’s] reveal again the complicated relationship in which master and slave found themselves. Drawn together by what became familial connections over time, black and white Southerners in nineteenth century America were captive to a strange dichotomy. Many slaves discreetly resented being owned by another and longed for their freedom. At the same time, they could not help growing emotionally close to their masters and even loving them and their families. Whites, on the other hand, though prejudiced and discriminatory in their practical interactions with blacks, often grew to respect and love their slaves. Sharing the day-to-day burdens, the toils of life, sicknesses, and the deaths of children and loved ones along with the joys of a shared existence constrained slave and master in mutual attachment. The injustice of slavery coexisted peacefully with feelings of affection and compassion in many Southern homes. This was especially true in regard to the Jackson household.” - Page 77

Carmichael further notes similar thoughts in the late Fox-Genovese’s book:

“Fox-Genovese reminds us that such feelings were expressed in a system that bought and sold African-Americans. Rather than proclaim the universal loyalty of the slave and applaud the tireless benevolence of the master, or condemn all owners as cruel beasts and celebrate every slave as a rebel, the author asks us to put aside simple generalizations and explore the complicated world that masters and slaves built together on their terms, not ours.” I agree. As with so many issues, the truth lies somewhere between the extremes of two views.

These simple generalizations would include, in Carmichael’s words, Gone With the Wind’s portrayal of plantation life as an “idyllic haven for blacks and whites. . .” Again, I agree.

But, as Carmichael further acknowledges, Fox-Genovese’s “agrees that the plantations facilitated physical and emotional intimacy between slave and master . . .” (These are Carmichael’s words, not a direct quote from the book.)

Another quote from my book . . .

“Amy was also purchased before Jackson’s second marriage. She was an elderly woman, and he purchased her because she ‘was about to be sold for debt . . . who sought from him a deliverance from her troubles.’ Anna [Jackson] wrote that his heart ‘was moved by her situation, and he yielded to her entreaties, and gave her a home in a good Christian family. Jackson became especially attached to Amy; Professor Robertson noted that she ‘was closest to Jackson’s heart.’ Anna was particularly fond of her culinary abilities. And Amy received religious instruction from Jackson and, after he left Lexington when the war began, from Margaret Junkin Preston. Jackson was grateful for his former sister-in law’s attention to Amy and expressed his appreciation in a letter to her in October 1861: ‘I am under special obligations for the religious instruction that you have given Amy, and hope that it may be in your power to continue it.’ Such sentiment reveals that he was motivated by more than mere duty or facade; he had a genuine concern for the spiritual welfare of those in his charge.” - Page 75-76

Of course, as I also point out in my book, not all slave-owners were “benevolent.” Many were cruel, not only in their abusive physical treatment of slaves, but also in a way that I would consider even crueler: the separation and break-up of families. As inhumane as physical abuse is, most physical wounds heal over time, but the emotional wound of unjustly being separated from a child, parent, spouse or other close loved one lingers throughout life. No one outside of that experience can comprehend it.

Carmichael concludes in the final paragraph of his piece:

“Contextualizing these expressions of animosity as well as love and respect are essential if we want to understand the broader patters [sic] of thought and actions in the Old South.”

Once again, I agree wholeheartedly. Interestingly, my book is dedicated, in part, to “all who wish to understand.” Sadly, some prefer their agenda to understanding.


marcferguson said...

"Some ill-considered, ill-informed, and reactionary comments on various blogs, as well as other places, have suggested anyone believing that slaves and slave-masters could be friends is “dangerous.”(?!) Thus implying those who hold such views should be discredited or silenced..."

I have read the blog in question, and could discern no hint of wanting to silence anybody. Perhaps you inferred what was not implied. As for discrediting ideas, isn't that what should happen with ideas that are wrong?


Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Marc: Not just a singular blog. There were several, along with a few discussion boards as well as similar comments in a national magazine. One post in the tiny world of CW blogging would not warrant a comment. Suggesting that someone's views are "dangerous" does imply, as already noted, that the person espousing the ideas should be discredited or silenced. Perhaps you missed what was implied. And yes, wrong ideas should be discredited - but with facts, not fallacious arguments. And, as noted, there is ample evidence showing the idea in question is not wrong (saying it doesn't make it so) as pointed out by Carmichael, Fox-Genovese, Robertson, et al.


Lawrence Underwood said...

Thank you for addressing this issue in a head on fair treatment. It is very refreshing. Even when I was growing up the shadows of these complex loving relationships were still cast upon our community and many other communities that existed at that time.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Thanks Lawrence. I really have nothing to defend. My book contains my conclusions based on four years of research. Ill-informed critics may make their assumptions based on their preconceptions if they like. They would have had more credibility if they had read the book first though.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

PS - Ferguson's comments are typical of those who are close-minded on this issue. He denies the obvious and totally ignores the points made by all of the noteworthy historians I quoted who have proven that the "idea is not wrong." Makes you wonder if he even read the complete post.