Posts Tagged ‘Benjamin Franklin’

The Trump Statues: Nudity, Castration and the Punishment of Slaves

April 9, 2018

I sent this piece below off to the left-wing American website and magazine, Counterpunch. It’s a reply to a previous article they put up about the satirical statues of Trump, which appeared when he was campaigning for the presidency. These showed him naked, with a small penis and no testicles. One of their female writers compared this humiliating portrayal with the way nudity has been frequently historically used to punish women. She also cited the Fantasy series Game of Thrones and one of the punishments inflicted on a female character in that. But the statues’ genital deficiencies point to another way nudity was also used. Along with castration, it was also used in South American colonial society to punish captured runaway slaves. The Statues’ portrayal of Trump thus seems very fitting, given his aggressive masculinity and support for racists and White supremacists.

The magazine hasn’t used the article, and I don’t think they ever will. So here it is.

Nudity, Emasculation and the Humiliation of Slaves:
The Hidden Politics of the Anti-Trump Statues

Remember those statues of Trump which appeared in various cities across America about a year or so ago, when the Orange Generalissimo of reality TV was strutting about stadiums across America trying to get people to elect him? These were life-size statues of him, naked, with a tiny penis and no testicles. Today, Wednesday 28th March, the British papers reported that the last remaining one of a set that wasn’t destroyed, was put up for sale at Julien’s Auction in New Jersey. The statues were a subversive comment on a man, whose personal behaviour and style of government is one of aggressive masculinity and misogyny. One of the female contributors to Counterpunch published a piece a year or so ago when these statues first appeared. Written from a feminist perspective, it commented on this sculptural humiliation of the future president, and in particular its similarity to the methods used in the past to humiliate women. The statues’ nudity recalled the way errant women were also humiliated by being paraded naked.

It’s true that public nudity has been most used to humiliate women, but it wasn’t exclusively so. Men have also been humiliated on occasion by being exhibited naked by their enemies. In the culture of the Hebrew Bible, nudity was a badge of shame, and there’s a plaque from ancient Egypt showing a group of Asian prisoners being led, naked, by their Egyptian captors. And during the 18th century heyday of the transatlantic slave trade, public nudity and mutilation, including castration were used to humiliate enslaved Africans, who ran away or otherwise resisted their White masters. The slave societies of the New World was gripped by the fear of slave resistance, which itself took various forms. Enslaved Africans revolted in armed rebellions. They also ran away from their masters, or confined themselves to less dramatic forms of resistance, such as eating dirt, sabotage, or finding ways not to perform, or perform badly, their allotted work. To combat this, the slave masters punished their slaves with a variety of brutal measures, ranging from whipping to execution. These included various forms of mutilation, including castration.

This fear intensified during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, when the British and other European colonial nations feared that the slaves would follow Toussaint L’Ouverture and Black Jacobins of Haiti, and rise up against their masters to found free Black states. And so they resorted to increasingly brutal methods to discourage them. In one British Caribbean colony, one enslaved man was forced to sit on a cannon as it was fired, which understandably left him shaken and terrified. A female planter was also awarded five pounds by the local legislative assembly in another British colony, for having her male slaves castrated as a deterrent to further resistance.

It wasn’t just in the British colonies that emasculation was used to crush rebellious slaves. The Spanish slave code provided that runaway male slaves should be punished through the amputation of their member, and then exhibited naked to the public, a further punishment intended to humiliate them further after the horror of the mutilation itself, as well as dire warning to others also considering absconding. And it is this punishment, which the Trump statues, with their nudity and lack of genital endowment most closely resemble.

As a caricature of the President, it’s very appropriate indeed. Not only is Trump keen to project aggressive masculinity and sexuality, his regime is also notorious for its racism and connection to White supremacism. Trump tried and failed to pass legislation banning Muslim immigration from specific countries, largely those where he has no business dealings. He’s promised to build a wall to stop Mexicans and other Latino/as getting into the country illegally. And his supporters and staff have included members of the Alt Right, determined to preserve White dominance as America rapidly becomes racially diverse. One of the most notorious examples of this racist support base came when Richard Spencer, the founder and leader of the Alt Right, greeted Trump’s election at a meeting at the Ronald Reagan room with the cry of ‘Hail Trump! Hail our race!’ and a raised right arm in something that looked very much like the Fascist salute, despite his claims to the contrary later.

And some right-wing extremists in the Republicans have gone further. Not only do they defend slavery, but some of them have advocated it, or something close to it. A few years ago, one Republican politician recommended that illegal Mexican immigrants should be held captive by the state, and forced to work on public works. This is forced labour, which comes under the UN definition of slavery. Michelle Bachman, during her 2011 presidential campaign recommended a biography of General Robert E. Lee by J. Stephen Wilkins, which blamed the ‘radical abolitionists’ of the north for starting the Civil War, claimed that Southern slave masters treated their slaves with respect, and gave them enough food and personal possession to live a ‘comfortable but spare’ existence. The book even claimed that American slaves were fortunate in being brought out of their own, pagan homelands, and their godless brutality to Christian America. The Victorian English explorer, Sir Richard Burton, made the same argument nearly 250 years ago in his Wanderings in West Africa. It was also repeated by a number of Trump supporters during his presidential campaign back in 2016.

The disgraced former anchor of Fox News, Bill O’Reilly, also repeated it, claiming that the slaves, who worked on the White House were well treated and fed. The Texas school board also tried indoctrinating their children with a carefully sanitized view of it. Back in 2015 one Texas mom was horrified to find that her child’s geography textbook described the enslaved people ripped from their homes in Africa to toil in American plantations as ‘workers’. The protestors, who turned up to demonstrate against the removal of the statue to Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia, also argued that slavery had been beneficial. And some Libertarians also resent anti-slavery legislation. One confused Libertarian caller to Sam Seder’s internet news show back in 2013 also tried arguing that the anti-slavery laws were a tyrannical infringement of his liberty. Why? Because they deprived him of his right to own slaves. It’s an argument which shows how dangerous and demented at least some Libertarians are.

This shows there’s considerable nostalgia for slavery amongst some Republican supporters, who were very encouraged by Trump’s election and his racist policies. It’s true that during the 18th century some paternalistic slave masters, like George Washington, were concerned to treat their slaves well. Archaeologists working on Benjamin Franklin’s estate found that many of his slaves had very good material possessions. Some had fine china, and played the violin, for example. But for others, the reality was grinding poverty and the tyranny of the whip. In the British Caribbean, the slave codes provided only that male slaves should be given a pair of drawers, and women shifts once a year. Even in the 19th century visitors to these colonies remarked on seeing slaves toiling naked in the fields. As for benefiting from being taken to America, many Africans instead naturally desperately yearned to return to their homes. Some threw themselves into the sea on their arrival in the Caribbean in attempts to swim back to Africa. And if they couldn’t return to Africa, some of them dreamed of recreating an African society in the New World. In one late sixteenth century rebellion in the British Caribbean, the slaves planned on creating a new social order based on the type of monarchies, with a king and queen mother, they had known in Africa.

The subversive statues of Trump not only comment on and invert his projected image of potent masculine leadership. They also attack and undermine the racism at the heart of his administration by subjecting him in image to the humiliation meted out to runaways in the Latin south. Since then, the statues have nearly all vanished, while unfortunately their real-life model remains at large in his occupancy of the White House.

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Books on Afro-American and Afro-Caribbean Archaeology

December 30, 2017

A few months ago I got through the post the 2017 archaeology catalogue for Eurospan University Presses. Amongst some of the fascinating books listed were several on the archaeology of Black communities in America and the Caribbean. As you’ll see, they’re at prices well beyond what ordinary readers can afford. They’re really available only to the rich and academic libraries. If you’ve got access to one near you, then I recommend you try to borrow it from there. Some universities do lend to members of the public in the summer holidays when most of the students have gone home. It might also be possible to get it on interlibrary loan, although this can also mean a long wait and isn’t cheap either. The last time I enquired about it at Bristol, I was told the price was £5 per book. Which means that if you want to borrow more than one, it can become very expensive very quickly. Dam’ Tories and their cuts! I don’t know, but it may also be that some of these books may be available in PDF form over the Net at a cheaper rate. This isn’t mentioned in the catalogue, but it might be so. Alternatively, you could see if there are secondhand copies on Amazon. On the other hand, it might be worth waiting to see if a paperback edition comes out, which may be cheaper.

Here are the books I found interesting, and the blurbs for them in the catalogue.

Archaeologies of African American Life in the Upper Mid-Atlantic, edited by Michael J. Gall & Richard F. Veit
9780817319656 Hardback £74.50

Provides insights into the archaeology and cultural history of African-American life from a collection of sites in the northeastern US. This volume explores the archaeology of African-American life and cultures in the Upper Mid-Atlantic region, suing sites dating from the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries.

University of Alabama Press.

Before the Pioneers: Indians, Settlers, Slaves and the Founding of Miami, Andre F. Krank, 9780813054513, hardback £18.50

Formed seemingly out of steel, glass, and concrete with millions of residents from around the globe, Miami has ancient roots that can be hard to imagine today. This work takes readers back through forgotten eras to the stories of the people who shaped the land along the Miami River long before most modern histories of the city begin.

University of Florida Press.

Honoring Ancestors in Sacred Space: The Archaeology of an Eighteenth Century African Bahamian Cemetery, Grace Turner, 9781683400202, hardback £79.50.

Throughout life, black Africans in the Bahamas possessed material items of various degrees of importance to them and within their culture. St. Matthews was a cemetery in Nassau at the water’s edge – or sometimes slightly below. This project emerged from archaeological excavations at this site to identify and recover materials associated with the interned before the area was completely redeveloped.

University Press of Florida.

The Rosewood Massacre: An archaeology and History of Intersectional Violence, Edward Gonzalez Tennant. 9780813056784, £84.95.

Investigates the 1923 massacre that devastated the predominantly African American community of Rosewood, Florida. The author draws on cutting edge GIS technology, census data, artefacts from excavations, and archaeological theory to explore the local circumstances and broader socio-political power structures that led to the massacre.

University Press of Florida.

Simplicity, Equality and Slavery: An Archaeology of Quakerism in the British Virgin Islands, 1740-1780, John M. Chenoweth, 9781683400110 hardback, £79.50.

Inspired by the Quaker ideals of simplicity, equality, and peace, a group of White planters formed a community in the British Virgin Islands during the eighteenth century. Here, the author examines how the community navigated the contradictions of Quakerism and plantation ownership.

University Press of Florida.

These books sound very interesting. There have been a lot of research into the homes and communities of Black Americans over the past couple of decades. They’ve been excavated in New York, and also the slave communities owned by the Founding Fathers, like Benjamin Franklin. In the case of excavating cemeteries, it’s obviously a particularly sensitive area, and the archaeologists involved have obviously had to be particularly careful in their negotiations of the host Black community and the surviving relatives of the deceased. As you should when excavating any human remains.

From what I gather from reading elsewhere, cemeteries and burial grounds are of particular importance in Afro-Caribbean culture, where it’s associated not only with personal heritage and family history and identity but also occupation of the land.

I remember correctly, the 1923 Rosewood massacre was White supremacist pogrom against the Black community in Rosewood, their politicians and their White supporters and allies. This was before McCarthyism, when the American Left was still very strong, and the Republican party the more left-wing of the two main political parties. The town’s mayor was Black, and the town council included Socialists. Even the Republicans issued a statement condemning the treatment of the poor, the corrupt corporate politics keeping them there, and declaring healthcare and education a right. Obviously the Conservatives and the Klan really couldn’t tolerate that, and stirred up resentment until it boiled over into organised violence.

As for the Quaker plantation in the British Virgin Islands, the Quakers very early denounced and condemned slavery as fundamentally opposed to their principles. John Fox, the sect’s founder, denounced and by their laws no member could own slaves. Nevertheless, the acceptance of slavery was so deeply ingrained in European society, that its rejection was not easy for many to accept. And although they were condemned from owning or dealing in slaves, some Quakers did make their cash through supplying the slave ships. If you want to know more about the Quakers, their ideals in this period, then I recommend you read David Dabydeen’s history of the Quakers in the 17th and 18th centuries, Sugar and Slaves.

Secular Talk on the Alabama Textbook Defending Slavery

August 18, 2016

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.

Sam Seder Attacks Economist Review Defending Slavery

February 22, 2016

This is unbelievable. In this segment from Sam Seder’s Majority Report, Seder rants about a negative review in the Economist attacking Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. The reviewer criticised Baptist’s book for being one-sided. All the Blacks in the book were victims, he complains, and all the Whites were villains. Seder is understandably and rightly outraged by this statement, and goes off on a long rant about how luck Blacks were to be enslaved, when they could simply have been kept in the slave ships and not landed in America, or been eaten by lions back in Africa, rather than captured and sold. It seems that many others were offended too, as the review was pulled from the Economist’s website.

Now depending on how their masters treated them, slaves could enjoy quite a high standard of living. Archaeologists researching Benjamin Franklin’s slaves’ quarters found remains of violins, pipes, and good quality china, as well as quite a varied diet, which included fish. And the defenders of slavery pointed out that the standard of living of their slaves was better than the miserable industrial workers in the north, the ‘factory slaves’, who were free in name only. You can even find examples of slave owners, who risked punishment under the law for trying to give their slaves some education, teaching them to read, for example.

None of which detracts from how monstrous and horrendous slavery actually was. The slave was legally just a mere chattel, subject to extreme punishment for even minor offences, who by law was banned from mixing with Whites. It was the appalling conditions in which slaves were kept, sold and exploited that motivated so many people in America, Britain, Canada and across the world to protest against slavery and demand its abolition. Just how deeply traumatised slaves were simply by the condition of slavery itself can be seen by the fact that, in general, very few former slaves described what their lives were like to their free children and grandchildren. Years ago there was a piece in the Observer about the reparations movement. One of the leaders of the movement explained that it wasn’t just about getting reparations for slavery, it was also to recover some of the lost history. They were afraid that with their grandparents’ generations dying off, Blacks would lose contact with the last people, who had had contact with the slaves. They complained that their slave forebears had never talked to them about what it was like when they were slaves.
I can’t say I’m surprised. People who go through deeply traumatic experiences tend not to talk about them. They just want to forget and move on. Old soldiers, for example, rarely talked about what they did in combat. It was too shocking, too horrific. Similarly, people, who have been raped or sexually assaulted generally don’t want to talk about the experience. They’re too deeply shamed, even though they were not responsible for their assault. So it seems entirely natural to me that a generation of Black Americans, raised in servitude, should have gone through their lives as free people determined not to speak about the condition of degradation they had been born into.

The Economist is, of course, one of the main upholders of capitalist economic orthodoxy. There seems to be very much a movement on the libertarian Right at the moment to try and play down the importance of slavery as a dark smear on American history. Guy Debord’s Cat has several very interesting pieces on how the intellectual heirs of Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises and von Hayek are trying to rewrite the American Civil War to avoid slavery as its major cause. They’re trying to make out it was due to some kind of trade controversy over tariffs. Together with the deeply racist beliefs of Donald Trump’s supports, it shows how frightening reactionary the American Far Right is.