Thabiti Anyabwile|2:26 pm CT

The Histories of the American South: A Caution against Hegemonies

During my days of touring college campuses to hear men like Molefi Asante, Yosef ben Jochanon, Ivan van Sertima, Naim Akbar, and Wade Nobles wax poetic about Africentrism, African history, and the need for a genuinely multicultural American society, it was commonplace to argue that history was his story (lower case ‘h’). So much of what makes it into print in the widely published and standard texts, we were told, was written from the vantage point of white western elites who knew little of the peoples and cultures of Africa. We studiously took our place in the narrative wars of history and counter-history. Not only is one man’s terrorist another man’s freedom fighter, but it turns out that one man’s conspiracy theorist is another man’s historian.

I’m reminded of all this reading many of the comments and responses in the threads to these posts on Black and Tan. Many have questioned Wilson’s history of the American South, and others have fired back with facts and quotes in defense of that view. Every quote is met with a counter-quote, and on it goes. It sometimes looks like the amateur historian’s version of the preacher’s weak proof text (which is sometimes really a pretext for an a priori position).

In an earlier post, I thought we might be able to skip any discussion of the underlying history involved. I thought that because Wilson and I hold very similar views of the biblical texts, their priority, and their implications. I was hoping for some progress on biblical grounds, since we both think that’s precisely the ground at stake and the ground upon which Christians should stand. But, it seems a few general remarks about history and about Black and Tan‘s history are warranted.

An Appreciation

Let me begin with an appreciation. I’m grateful for Wilson’s defense of the generalist historian. Wilson understands that there’s no way to be a good pastor without having at least a general grip on history—secular and redemptive. He writes, “Historical laymen should read broadly enough to make sure they are not reading some truncated account or other, but neither should they be embarrassed by the necessity of popularizing the material” (pp. 8-9). I agree with this sentiment entirely. I join with Wilson in both appreciating the necessary role specialists play while affirming that all us non-specialists have a stake and role in telling the story as well. After all, good history has to be our story too.

Some Concerns with Black and Tan‘s Approach to History

But having said that, the “history” assumed in Black and Tan does provoke a few concerns. These concerns need to be touched upon because our view of what happened shapes our view of who we are, what is, and what ought to be. Again, Wilson and I agree: If we get the past wrong we’re likely to get every subsequent thing wrong, also. So to avoid that domino effect, we need to give attention to historical method.

From my perspective, Black and Tan is lacking in four ways.

First, Black and Tan is not history. The book makes claims about history, but it’s not a presentation or exposition of history in any sense that I could recognize. Now, I realize that Black and Tan is in many ways Wilson’s apologetic for Slavery As It Was—a work I have not read but understand to have presented more history than Black and Tan. Perhaps Wilson allows himself the convenience of not restating the arguments of Slavery As It Was. But the consequence, as he puts it, is a book with “an ad-hoc, ragtaggy feel” (p. 119). In my reading, that “feel” is felt most where historical claims are in view.

It’s difficult to offer a critique of the history since there’s no clear substantive historical basis to the book. For example, Wilson writes that “it is necessary to get clear on the nature of American slavery, which was not what it’s abolitionist opponents claimed for it” (p. 4). But he doesn’t give us either a sustained critique of abolitionist claims or a sustained argument for a different view. That being the case, readers of the book who take seriously the book’s claims about the nature of Southern slavery or the South in general are at least going to have to do a lot of homework themselves or at worst be prone to making serious mistakes in understanding the who, why, and what of contemporary society. We have to be careful here. How can we with intellectual integrity take the premise of Slavery as It Was as true without its doing anything to overturn the eyewitness testimony in American Slavery as It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses, for example? I chuckled at the amazing similarity of the titles. Then I thought to myself, What makes one title more reliable than the other? Until Wilson offers a substantive history, I’m afraid the burden of proof rests with him against eyewitness testimony.

Second, Black and Tan attempts historical revision. Wilson knows that “History is storytelling” and “Faithful history is faithful storytelling” (p. 8). But he’s concerned that the storytelling regarding American slavery and the South haven’t been all that faithful. He knows that facts matter, that “we… read the story with our loyalties intact,” and “Humility is hard” (p. 9). Wilson rightly maintains that “Objectivity is a false god” (p. 10), that “Some historians sin through hagiography and others sin through debunking” (p. 11), that it’s possible that “after about a hundred years or so, [political correctness] turns into historical correctness” (p. 11), and that “Proud ignorance is no better than proud knowledge” (p. 12). I take this to mean Wilson understands how fraught with complexity and pitfalls writing and re-writing history can be.

But he contends that the established narrative about slavery and the Civil War needs revising at critical points lest we misunderstand ourselves and our present cultural battles. “Some of the things that we think are slam-dunk certainties will almost certainly turn out not to be” (p. 10). Central to the book’s thesis and Wilson’s logic is the notion that “antebellum slavery was the normal kind of sinful situation” rather than “Apocalyptic Evil” (p. 4). In defense of Slavery as It Was, Wilson writes, “It was the contention of this booklet that the way in which slavery ended has had ongoing deleterious consequences for modern Christians in our current culture wars, and that slavery was far more benign in practice than it was made to appear in the literature of the abolitionists” (p. 14; emphasis added). That’s a massive claim.

So the first thing we ought to ask as good readers is, “How does the author know that?” The first responsibility of any writer must be to make his or her case clear to the reader. As someone that’s written his own book attempting some historical revision, I think I know two things: (1) such revisions are needful and can be helpful, and (2) if you’re going to attempt revising a long-held historical narrative you’d better bring plenty of evidence to substantiate your claims!

The worst kind of revisionist history is the kind that claims without certifying. Because Black and Tan suffers in that way, it’s vulnerable to every “Southern” agenda that opportunistically makes use of such claims. If for no other reasons, I hope Wilson will significantly modify this book to protect himself from those agendas and to make real contributions to a rich and still contested history. That will require more than mere assertion; it’ll require argumentation from source material and without the entanglements that keep us from being heard.

Third, Black and Tan represents a biased retelling of history. Wilson rightly points out that we all “do history” from a vantage point and questions how completely “objective” we can be in writing history. But though we’re not omniscient and though our assumptions influence us—sometimes unwittingly—it’s another thing altogether to adopt a point-of-view so deeply that we only present those things that confirm our bias. I think Black and Tan fails in this way.

Wilson tells us from the start that “to grasp the central issues, it is necessary to be steeped in a particular intellectual tradition” (p. 5). He has “the Southern conservative intellectual tradition” in mind. He doesn’t tell us why we must be “steeped” in that tradition. Instead, Wilson notes a deep hostility among some critics of this tradition and suspects no amount of argumentation will get through to them. We all know critics like that, don’t we? But it seems, those critics notwithstanding, Wilson has perhaps put himself in the lamentable position of preaching only to the choir of the Southern conservative intellectual tradition. He may be putting the pertinent facts and events outside the “grasp” of people from other traditions. That bias significantly limits the usefulness of this book.

That biased perspective also significantly curtails the range of resources used in Black and Tan. I counted roughly 90-95 footnotes in the work. Only a handful of those referenced historical works actually focusing on the antebellum South or the Civil War. There were two books by Eugene Genovese, A Consuming Fire and The Southern Front. Fogel and Engerman’s Time on the Cross was cited along with Weaver’s Southern Tradition at Bay. Dabney receives a number of notations. Apart from Dabney, who ardently defended the South and slavery, Genovese receives the most frequent approving citations. Wilson describes Genovese as “a modern and sympathetic critic of the South” (p. 59). But what about other views of the South and slavery written either by Southerners or about them? We’re not treated to any other perspectives. Even when Black and Tan calls upon Black writers like Benjamin Quarles, it does so to document the fact that a “small handful” of Blacks fought for the South in the Civil War (p. 73). Anyone who knows Quarles’ work knows Quarles would be unsympathetic with Wilson’s premise and probably chagrined to see his book brought into this service.

I understand that Black and Tan was written amidst controversy and a lot of criticism and personal attack. I understand how that context could make a person pessimistic about his opponents giving him a fair shake. I simply wish the book would have engaged the histories and story-telling outside the Southern conservative intellectual tradition. Having failed to do that, Black and Tan simply affirms its a priori assumptions.

Fourth, the post-mil perspective of Black and Tan makes it too optimistic about the South’s history. Much has been said about this already. I won’t belabor the point except to say that given the first three limitations this final perspective surely corrupts Wilson’s reading of the South and its culture.

For these reasons we should not think of or use Black and Tan as resource on either the historical period in question or a helpful way to understand our present situation. Wilson writes early on in Black and Tan: “the fact that I am willing to teach on historical subjects does not mean that I somehow think I am infallible. I have been wrong on numerous points over the years—sometimes the mistake is mine, and sometimes a source leads me astray. The point of all this is simply to say that on such subjects I am always open to correction, and moreover I am eager for it” (p. 3). Thus far, Wilson has been nothing but gracious. We’ve found ourselves agreeing on a number of things along the way. I suspect we’ll find a good amount to disagree about regarding the actual history of the South and slavery. I hope, and have no reason to think otherwise, that he’ll be willing to consider these points about the history assumed in Black and Tan and make modifications at a number of points.

A Post-Script

History belongs to us all—not just the winners. Wilson and I agree about that. I want to end my critique of the “history” in Black and Tan at this point. I just want to say a few things about us all and our readings and conversations about history.

It’s imperative that we (by which I mean all people and Christian people, in particular) understand that we don’t share the same experience of the same events. If we’re going to grow in understanding one another, we’ll have to allow the other to tell their story with empathy for “their side.” I don’t begrudge Southerners telling their history and defending themselves at various points along the way. Likewise, other Southerners (for to be “Southern” is not one thing), African Americans, Northerners, etc. have other stories to tell about the same events. But much of the rhetoric in the comments thread hasn’t allowed the same courtesy to others. When that happens we fall prey to thinking there’s only one objective, infallible history—and usually we think it’s ours.

I’ve noted the occasional jab at “public school education” and textbooks used there. I’ve read the disdaining remarks about “multiculturalism” and “postmodern relativism.” These are the charges and labels used whenever some have contended that “there’s another side” to that told in Black and Tan or, more often, by those who seem to support the work.

Such rejections are problematic for a number of reasons. First, they reveal an unwillingness to deal with the world as it really is. We already live—like it or not—in a multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-everything world. We’ll either engage it fruitfully or bury ourselves under an avalanche of sentimental “histories” of bygone eras. Second, such rejections generally take for granted the normative nature of one’s own cultural and historical vantage point. This always leads to misunderstanding. Third, these rejections really serve a hegemonic purpose and refuse to admit as legitimate the counter-narratives caused by that hegemony. The 19th century saw a lot of White Southern talk about “civilization” and the greatness of Western civilization. That talk is still with us. Many of those who take that view can’t fathom why African Americans, for example, talk much about African civilizations and the contributions of African Americans to our present “western” civilization. They don’t see (or refuse to see in some cases) how the “White Western civilization” narrative, which has historically disenfranchised and dehumanized Black people, necessitated a counter-narrative to correct the caricatures, misrepresentations, and racist viewpoints. In other words, we’re locked in this battle of telling and re-telling precisely because some people refuse to admit there are more people in the portrait than just those resembling themselves.

As W. Fitzhugh Brundage documents so insightfully in The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory, the battle of competing narratives has been literally carved into the landscape of the South and has been encoded in racial memory. To come back to Wilson for a moment, he’s surely correct to contend that the effects of the Civil War live with us and the way the War ended slavery impacts our lives today. I just think it impacts us and our relationships across “racial” lines more than it does public policy. So, for my concluding post, I’ll comment on this issue of “racial insensitivity” and why I think it’s legitimate to point to Black and Tan as an example.

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