Secular Talk on the Alabama Textbook Defending Slavery

This is another fascinating video from the atheist/secularist news programme, Secular Talk, commenting on an Alabama school history book that taught students in the state for a generation that slavery was beneficial to the enslaved Black population. Clyde Smith was a high school student in 1971, and he posted online pictures of the textbook used in the state schools. It was called History for Schools by Charles Grayson Somersell, and was taught from 1955 to well into the ’70s. The book told its young readers that slaves were given good quality clothes, and were better off than contemporary free labourers, White or Black. They were given the best medical care that the times could offer by their masters. The book didn’t mention the regular whippings, nor the frequent rape of enslaved women by their masters, who then did not take care of the children – a fact that is notorious to Black Americans. Kulinski makes the point that slaves weren’t viewed as people, quite literally, and were forced to work long hours. The textbook also explicitly stated that ‘Slavery was the earliest form of social security in the United States’, and states that it was illegal for a master to emancipate a slave after he was too old to work. Kulinski points out that this meant that elderly slaves remained in chains, and slaves were worked until they died.

Kulinski makes the very good point that this shows the basic, unspoken beliefs of Whites in the Southern US, the kind of ideas they express only among themselves in private. It also explains why so many of them were shocked and outraged by demands to remove the Confederate flag. To them, rather than the symbol of evil and oppression, it represented a good and beneficial order, which looked after its enslaved workers and gave them excellent healthcare, in contrast to the poverty of free workers in the North.

Finally, Kulinski explains why he’s talking about this now: because the battle is never over. You have to explain and keep explaining certain basic points about human dignity and freedom, because to people raised on this propaganda, they were the good guys and slavery was not necessarily an evil system.

I put this video up because it boggled my mind how anyone could approve of slavery, or present it as essentially beneficial as late as the 1970s. it explains some of the racism in the Deep South, as well as some of the other weird and bizarre attitudes held by the American Right. I did wonder how far the equation of social security and healthcare with slavery explained the bizarre attitude of the Libertarians that the welfare state is also a form of slavery. There was a prize exchange on American television from Congress when Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul were talking about universal state healthcare for Americans. Rand Paul, a Libertarian Republican, started spouting nonsense that state healthcare reduced doctors and other employees to slaves, and that they would be woken up in the middle of the night by people breaking down their front door to get them to treat patients. This was done when the two were taking the testimony of doctors involved in the state medicare programme. Sanders, who wants a universal healthcare like the NHS, dispatched that piece of stupidity by simply asking one of the doctors if she’d ever had this happen to her. Obviously, she hadn’t. In Britain doctors, surgeons, nurses and other employees are paid employees with all the rights of free people. They do have to treat patients, but no-one’s going to break down their doors except in emergencies, and they are perfectly free to leave the profession. Unfortunately, their status, pay and working conditions is declining, thanks to Jeremy Hunt and the Tories, who wish to destroy the state system and replace it with private enterprise.

As for the conditions slaves endured, the Alabama text books is right on some points. Defenders of slavery in both America and Britain pointed out that slaves were frequently treated better, and enjoyed better working conditions, than the ‘factory slaves’, the free workers employed in the factories of the northern US and in Britain. They’re probably right. Factory workers worked long hours in appalling conditions for miserable pay, and in some ways their condition did tremble on the edge of true slavery. Tony Robinson in an episode of Time Team devoted to industrial archaeology pointed out – with justifiable anger – how factory masters purchased children from orphanages to use as young workers. Also, when the British were seeking to improve the conditions of slaves in the Caribbean in the 1820s, they were also forced to pass legislation forbidding masters from freeing slaves who were too old to work as a way of avoid the expense of maintaining them. This was a period when the British government was passing legislation demanding that slaves were properly fed and clad.

This does not, however, make slavery any better. Slaves were worked to death. There was a debate in the 17th and 18th centuries over whether it was more profitable to work a slave to death quickly, and so make a massive profit quickly, but then have to go to the expense of buying a new slave; or whether it was better to give them moderate amounts of work and keep them working steadily so that they lived longer.

They were not given good quality clothing. The slave laws provided that the men should receive yearly a pair of drawers – that is, underpants – and the women a petticoat or shift. But that’s it. Now much did depend on the attitude of the slave masters. Archaeologists examining the material of the slaves on Ben Franklin’s estate found that the slaves there had a very high standard of living. They were well-fed, had fine crockery, and played instruments like the violin. But there were no doubt many more cases where the slaves were given very little. Visitors to the Caribbean remarked on the enslaved workers labouring naked in the fields. And Kulinski is right to talk about the flogging and sexual exploitation, though he passes over some of the other, more extreme and vile forms of punishment that existed, such as mutilation.

It’s a fascinating, grim insight into the mindset that was instilled in a generation of southern US schoolchildren, and which is still being regurgitated by Republicans across the US today.

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