Sunday, January 18, 2004

The Stono Rebellion

A comment made in response to my earlier post about the Yoruba language led me to thinking about the Stono Rebellion of 1739, as well as the numerous other slave revolts that followed on its' heels. One consequence of this particular revolt was the imposition of a ban on the ownership by Africans of "talking drums", which may not qualify as the worst thing in the world that could have happened; the Southern reaction to succeeding rebellions was to have far-reaching effects with which we are still living today.

Between 1800 and 1831, African Americans instigated several ambitious rebellions in the American South. Among these were Gabriel's Revolt, which began north of Richmond, Virginia, on August 30, 1800, and Vesey's Rebellion, an 1822 conspiracy to incite as many 9000 plantation and urban slaves in the vicinity of Charleston, South Carolina. Nat Turner's Rebellion, the most effectual slave revolt, erupted in Southampton County, Virginia on the night of August 21, 1831. Nat Turner and his followers killed nearly sixty white people as they moved toward an armory at Jerusalem, Virginia. Halted mere miles from their goal, the approximately seventy-five insurgents were soon killed or captured by the militia. Turner's November execution failed to assuage fears of continued insurrection. Across the South, renewed legislative efforts to forbid education and greatly restrict movement and assembly further constrained the lives of enslaved people (emphasis added)

That final sentence ought to be kept in mind when people go on about African-Americans' (supposedly innate) disinclination for academic study. When you spend hundreds of years discouraging self-improvement* and ambition in a down-trodden people, when you forbid them to learn reading and writing lest they become capable of rebellion, the last thing you ought to do is complain once your efforts have attained a measure of success. The same thing can be said for illegitimacy amongst African-Americans; it should come as no surprise to any thinking person that the family as an institution should lack the solidity one might wish it did, given the ease and the frequency with which slave families were torn apart.

Breezy speculation about innate black inferiority is the easiest thing in the world to do, and those who engage in it deceive themselves if they imagine they are somehow fearless pioneers struggling against a suffocating tide of Political Correctness™, as theirs is in truth an old and well-furrowed path. There is nothing easier in the world than for those children of privilege who have known nothing of either the horrors of slavery or the humiliations of Jim Crow to simply say "but racism is dead! That these people aren't flourishing is proof that they just don't have what it takes!" Bad habits acquired through long practice can take a long time to cast aside, and it is naïve in the extreme to expect the less attractive aspects of African-American culture to simply disappear after a single generation of true equality. Neither the Irish nor the Italians were instant successes on their arrival to America's shores, and they at least had the option of either returning home (as a surprisingly large percentage of immigrants ended up doing) or leaving behind their old names and cultures in an attempt to pass into the mainstream - neither option of which is available to most African-Americans.

*Some specific instances of legislation forbidding the teaching of reading and writing African-Americans of which I am aware include the Missouri Literacy Law of 1819 and the Georgia Literacy Laws of 1829 and 1833.