Friday, January 18, 2008

WTS Blog Part I

Part I of Worse Than Slavery explores in excruciating detail a brutal period in our nation’s history when vanquished white southerners and emancipated southern freedmen rebuilt (to some degree) their region and established new (in some respects) social and economic relationships in the latter half of the nineteenth century. David Oshinsky combines meticulous research with an engaging narrative style to paint a chilling picture of post Civil War race relations in Mississippi and by inference the entire South, even in our north Florida home.
Beyond the numerous and horrible descriptions of southern violence generally and racial violence specifically that pervade this story, I am intrigued by the virulent racial attitudes that evolved (or in many cases were simply unleashed) after the Civil War. Paradoxically, the oppressive institution of slavery suppressed the most intense manifestations of racism and race-based violence. Slavery was a system of rigid white control over most black southerners and it made black slaves more valued in a purely economic sense. Without these institutional constraints, freedmen were more vulnerable and less valuable to resentful southern whites as Oshinsky notes: The ex-slave had become a scapegoat for the South’s humiliating defeat. (14) and Emancipation had ended slavery but had not destroyed the assumptions upon which slavery was based. (17) Contrast pre and post-emancipation racial attitudes. Was there any real difference for southern whites?
Another striking aspect of Part I are the disturbing descriptions of mob justice and lynching. Lynching numbers are hard to know with any real degree of accuracy (many went unrecorded) but “officially” 3,446 black men (and a few women) were lynched in America between 1882 and 1968. Mississippi of course led the nation with 539. As Oshinsky points out, these were public events attracting hundreds of onlookers including women and children. Hundreds of pictures were taken and many, believe it or not, became postcards. For a glimpse into this grisly world, follow this link: What does this practice (in all its manifestations—mob violence, communal, picnic-like atmosphere, photographic records) reveal about Gilded Age southern society?
I’m also fascinated by the late nineteenth century efforts to justify, through the discipline of “scientific racism” segregation and convict leasing described in Chapter Four, Part III. Is this “good” science or merely an effort to manipulate science in order to satisfy or reinforce pre-existing racist attitudes?
Finally, the poisonous race relations described in Worse Than Slavery made me think about the relationship Twain establishes between Huck and Jim. Twain of course writes Huck Finn at the same time (1870s, 1880s) described in this book but his depiction of Jim is light years away from typical white southern perceptions about blacks (as described by Oshinsky) and revealed in this moment from Chapter 15 when Huck regrets fooling Jim about the dream: It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger; but I done it, and I warn't ever sorry for it afterwards, neither. I didn't do him no more mean tricks, and I wouldn't done that one if I'd a knowed it would make him feel that way. Discuss these differences between Oshinsky’s real world and Twain’s fictional one and try as well to distinguish between the racial opinions of various characters in the novel.
For your post, respond to one of the issues I’ve raised and work off the related questions I’ve posed. You may also include direct responses to some of your classmates’ postings if and when appropriate. Be sure to include specific references to the text in defense of your assertions. And finally, please read the "WTS Blogging Primer" for guidelines before you compose. It can be found under the "News" section on our Edline class page. I look forward to reading your posts.