Friday, September 21, 2012

Freeing the Slaves

I've thought a lot recently about the way the Civil War is remembered on the most macro scale possible. That is, for a mainstream northern audience, the war is remembered as a righteous cause that ended slavery. I have problems with that interpretation of the war, but that's not what I'm speaking to here. Instead, I claim that this narrative--that the Civil War was just because Lincoln freed the slaves--whether "true" or not, is deeply conservative.

I'm finishing up Sick From Freedom, by Jim Downs, which examines the welfare of freed slaves during reconstruction, with an eye towards health. The book is disturbing. It reconstructs a smallpox epidemic among freed slaves, which went largely unrecorded and untreated by the overwhelmed doctors of the Freedmen's Bureau. It conveys general poverty, and a conspiracy of interests that served to frequently push freed people towards work and economical circumstances not unlike slave labor. For a few years after the war, radical republicans in congress often tried to help freed people, but by the mid-70s both north and south had had enough of freedmen, and the official end of reconstruction in '77 enabled a brutal southern culture of white supremacy and jim crow.

Ending slavery was, morally, the right thing to do. That point is not up for debate.  But the federal government had a responsibility to the freed people. The freed people faced particular challenges and suffered from absolute poverty. Eric Foner's Reconstruction dedicates much of its first quarter to detailing the ways that freed people educated themselves, found community in religion, and tried to make new lives. But they had very little money, and owned almost no land, so landowners and local governments often exploited them. Instead of helping freed slaves by providing them with accessible health care or land, the federal government pursued a policy that pushed many freed people back to the same plantations they had worked as slaves to restart the southern economy. Reconstruction, and certainly the end of reconstruction, betrayed freed people.

So: the Civil War was righteous because Lincoln freed the slaves. This short history only deals with the morality of slavery, which is simple, and forgets everything that came after freedom--the smallpox, the death, the exploitation, the lynching, every act of violence and exclusion perpetrated against African Americans through today. It posits that the only responsibility the United States had, after hundreds of years of bondage, was to let slaves go their own way. I think that's wrong.

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