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The Black Image In The White Mind – George M. Fredrikson

One of the most memorable images from Obama’s election night was that of Jesse Jackson in tears. The lingering camera shot arguably cast the weeping man as an overtly emotional romantic out of touch with the new politics. My guess is that it’s beyond the ability of anyone below the age of 50 to understand the significance of that night for people who grew up with the race riots of 1960s America.

Barely a 100 years ago, the prospects for the elevation of any Negro (Booker T. Washington being the exception of course) above any member of the white lower classes were deemed improbable if not impossible. George M. Fredrikson’s book provides an armchair view of the intellectual and political debates of race relations and the “white man’s burden” in 19th century America. The implacable South way back in the 1830s was manacled to the belief of the sub-human and beastly darkie. Either the Negro was to be deported somewhere closer to the Tropics or for his own good must be enslaved to serve the superior white race. This book showcases a whole menagerie of scholars, political leaders and religious heavyweights who, perhaps even in utmost sincerity, found palpable justifications for subjugating black people in toto. Some people used phrenology, others employed history and yet others put forward a fantastic delusional subversion of biblical stories (one of which was that the serpent in the Garden of Eden was a Negro out to compromise the pure lily-white Eve). Science was employed wherever possible to demonstrate that black people were inferior and even a different species.

The book goes on to discuss at some length the influence of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book Uncle Tom’s Cabin and of Darwin’s The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man. If anything this goes to illustrate how anything can be used and twisted to defend any point of view. I should note here that Darwin also wrote about the possible extermination of the inferior races so it seemed logical for his work to be used by supremacists. After the American Civil War the South had to contend with emancipated blacks. First, the 1870 census showed black population growth rates were declining so most of the South welcomed the forecast extinction of the black race on American soil. Then the 1880 census showed that black population rates were exploding. Pandemonium. Dr. Edward Gilliam duly extrapolated a 192m black population by 1980. The actual number today is about 40m.

The fear of the black peril and the aversion of the Federal government towards enforcing equal rights for blacks eventually led to lynchings, the Ku Klux Klan, segregation and the Jim Crow laws of the South. These ridiculous laws and norms (e.g. Blacks were not supposed to show affection in public because it offended whites, whites called blacks by first name but blacks must prefix a Mr. or Ms. or something appropriate when referring to whites) were given force by ludicrous decisions by the US Supreme Court.

Things have moved on and one might wonder if this book has any more relevance. It definitely has. It reminds us in a powerfully direct way how perverted practices, doctrines and belief systems are advocated, justified and sustained by those with vested self-interests or evil proclivities. Slavery and black segregation was an especially sordid chapter in the continuing history of the United States. And this book helped me make sense of the tears of black people on that November night two years ago.

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2 responses

  1. Dimi

    A controversial piece of video journalism, ‘Good Bye Uncle Tom’, shot in 1971, re-enacted the sordid chapters you wrote about:

    It tracked the historic routes of the white-black dynamics, translating the findings (all based on archive documents) into the visuals that are hard to ignore and even harder to stomach. It aimed at – and succeeded in – provoking the sensitivities of the assured belief systems.

    A friend showed me a critical piece on this film, written in 1972 by Rogert Elbert:
    http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=%2F19721114%2FREVIEWS%2F211140301%2F1023

    Rogert Elbert is a sorry excuse of a third-rate critic. There is not a word of substance in anything he wrote in his piece: he slanders the producers, he dismisses the narrative as a ‘cover up’ to fit his point, he misses the point on ‘Africa Addio’ too.

    However, Elbert’s is a telling reaction, for he is precisely the petty bourgeois that the film makers aimed at shaming for his collusion with the system that condoned the ugliness depicted in ‘Good Bye Uncle Tom’.

    October 15, 2010 at 6:16 am

    • d3mola

      Well put.

      October 17, 2010 at 11:28 am

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