Saturday, September 05, 2015

Rudyard Kipling and the Confederate Flag

There was much public discussions recently, following the murder of 9 members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., over the practice of flying the Confederate battle flag at the South Carolina state capitol (among other places).  The flag at the South Carolina capitol has been removed to a museum.

People also discussed, again, whether the Civil War was about slavery, or about states' rights.  The official position of many Southerners, especially Southern officials, has been that the war was about states' rights.  In the course of the discussions, however, some people used Google to look up the state secession documents, which are readily available - and several of the documents make it crystal clear that the state is seceding because the U.S. government no longer supports slavery.  South Carolina's declaration, which was issued first, is quite explicit.  (Virginia's secession document, on the other hand, essentially says, "We're outta here," without giving a reason.)  The Texas declaration is even more interesting.  It contains this phrase, which I quote for consideration (emphasis mine):
That in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding States.
A lot of the discussion I've read has suggested or stated that the Southern states essentially made this doctrine up to annoy people and make themselves wealthy - and they were wealthy.  In the first half of the 19th century there was much more wealth in the Southern states than in the Northern states (see Thomas Piketty, Capital in the 21st Century, Harvard University Press, 2014, pp. 158 - 163).  The South made a lot of money off the peculiar institution; but its preferences weren't only based on money, as the Texas declaration makes clear.  The white citizens of the South believed firmly that Africans were created by God as inferior beings, fit only to serve.  But they didn't invent that belief. 

And that brings me to Rudyard Kipling.  For no good reason, I recently decided to read Kipling's novel Kim.  I found it at the library, in a battered Penguin Classic edition, with the famous introduction by Edward Said.  As I read the introduction, I found myself hearing echoes of those secession declarations, in passages like this:

...whether we like the fact or not, we should regard its author as writing not just from the dominating viewpoint of a white man describing a colonial possession, but also from the perspective of a massive colonial system whose economy, functioning and history had acquired the status almost of a fact of nature.  This meant that on one side of the colonial divide, there was white Christian Europe; its various countries, principally Britain and France, but also Holland, Belgium, Germany, Italy , Russia, America, Portugal and Spain, controlled approximately 85 percent of the earth's sruface by the First World War.  On the other side of the divide, there were an immense variety of territories and races, all of them considered lesser, or inferior, or dependent, or subject.  The division between white and non-white, in India and elsewhere, was absolute, and is alluded to through Kim:  a sahib is a sahib, and no amount of friendship or camaraderie can change the rudiments of racial difference.  Kipling could no more have questioned, that difference, and the right of the white European to rule, than he would have argued with the Himalayas.
 Kim was written in 1901.  England abolished the slave trade (but not slavery itself) in 1808, with the Slave Trade Act of 1807; the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 abolished slavery throughout the British Empire. But Said, and Kim, make it clear that, 70 years after the abolition of slavery, the attitudes which had justified slavery were still current.

If you don't understand where you came from, it's hard to know where you are.  I've read numerous other sources which make clear that white Europeans and Americans, in the 18th and 19th century, considered all the races of color as their inferiors, and even as separate species ("descended from different Adams," as Stephen Jay Gould quotes - see below).   Some scholars even used the developing science of anthropology to support this.  The best explanation I've read is the first chapter of Stephen Jay Gould's great book, The Mismeasure of Man (W. W. Norton, 1981), in which he reviews the attitudes of 18th and 19th century European and American scientists to the "inferior" races.  In fact, I think the concept of race was invented during this period, to explain all these strangely complexioned peoples that the colonization process was revealing.  Remember, if you go back 150 years from the mid-18th century, you're in a world where the vast majority of Frenchmen had never met a German, much less a person of different skin color; and there were no white people, or black people, resident in America at all.

The Southern planters didn't invent their attitudes about Africans.  They inherited them from the civilization that produced the United States:  Great Britain, where those beliefs were accepted wisdom. 

The most astonishing thing about the Declaration of Independence is that Thomas Jefferson, a Southerner who never freed any of his slaves, could write "all men are created equal."  Not "all white men of property," which is probably what he meant.  All men.  And over the last 239 years, we as a country have taken what he wrote, and tried to make it true.  We haven't even convinced all Americans; we haven't succeeded yet; we're still working on it.  But that phrase has truly changed the world.