Cheap Laughs or Necessary Consideration?

Like my classmates who posted on the film below, I also was just struck by the extreme racism of The Confederate States of America.  I think that Leslie brings up a good point that touches on the legitimate possibility that this racism pervades our society today.  Although it is not as over as a TV advertisement for slaves, our society does in fact still have traces of racism and prejudice against people of color–as seen in the past few days in the NBA (L.A. Clippers owner, Donald Sterling, made racist comments that were leaked to the public).

I think we have to keep this whole film in perspective and keep in mind that it is a mockumentary.  However, it is also vital to think about the likelihood of slavery still existing today if the Confederacy had won the Civil War.  By following the same timeline of actual historical events, the film does establish the idea that certain events would have occurred differently had the Confederacy won.  Economic turmoil in 1929 with the Great Depression was aided by a renewed Trans-Atlantic slave trade.  Emily mentions that the attacks on Pearl Harbor happened on December 7, 1941 but in the alternate history, the C.S.A. attacks Japan on this date.  It is silly to think that these attacks would have occurred on the same day as Pearl Harbor but it does beg the question as to what the role of our country would have been if the southern states had won.

On one hand I see the film as a low-budget attempt to get a quick buck out of cheap laughs and absurdity.  The commercials featured in the mockumentary were quite ridiculous and the basic attention to detail seemed lacking at some points.  However, I also think that the film touches on certain aspects that are important to consider.  As Leslie asks in his post, what if the Confederacy had won?  Maybe too obviously seen, this is the central question to be analyzed.  Would certain events have even happened and moreover would slavery still exist today?  I would like to hope that slavery would not exist and that a movement would have occurred after a hypothetical Confederate victory.  However, we as historians have difficulty interpreting the “what if” and can only draw upon what did happen.  This may be the key reason why the film seems so ridiculous and over the top.

 

A Not So Alternative American History

The 2004 mockumentary C.S.A.: Confederate States of America depicts an America in which the Confederacy had won the American Civil War. Presented as if it were a British documentary, the film details significant political, cultural, and military events of the CSA from the Civil War up until the earl 2000s. The movie satirizes issues and events that have happened and are still present in the United States to this day; the result is a revealing viewpoint on the discrimination that still exists today. As the author of “What If?” explains, just because the end of the Civil War resulted in the end of slavery as an institution in the United States, it by no means resulted in the end of racism. I believe this to be the main goal of the director of this movie.

One part of the mockumentary I found especially interesting was the Reconstruction segment. One contributor claims that in order to mend the divide between the victorious South and the defeated North, “the aims and causes of the war suddenly changed. Slavery was no longer mentioned as the cause of the war.” She continues, maintaining that “this was the key to reconciliation.” I found this so fascinating because it is in no way fictional. An accurate history of the United States reveals that the causes of the war suddenly changed after the war in order to strengthen the newly reformed United States. Davis writes in Inhuman Bondage that “while African Americans and a few white writers struggled to preserve the revolutionary or ‘emancipationist’ meaning of the Civil War, the compelling desire for reconciliation and healing… led to a national consensus that made ‘everyone right, and no one truly wrong, in the remembered Civil War.’” Additionally, when the same contributor observes that “the courage and sacrifice of whites on both sides of the Mason Dixon Line were romantically examined,” she is not too far off from what actually happened. The Civil War became more of a sectional war than an emancipationist war in the decades following the conflict. Therefore, the services of both Union and Confederate soldiers were both celebrated. As the contributor accurately mentions in reference to this romantic version of the war, “they struggled to survive, they protected their homes and families…”

Overall, I thought film did a fine job in examining the racism that still exists in contemporary society. I thought the fake commercials that divided the mockumentary did an especially good job of this as some of the products being advertised actually existed. It ultimately reveals an alternative history that in some ways is completely inaccurate and offensive, but in some ways is not too far off from what actually happened. It is extremely interesting to reflect on what would have happened if the Confederacy would have won the Civil War and C.S.A.: Confederate States of America hits the nail on the head.

 

What if?

In his post max talked about the extreme racism that was displayed in the mockumentary, The Confederate States of America. Many of our classmates also expressed feelings of shock in response to the extreme advertisements for items like an electronic device to help people find their runaway slaves exist.

While it is EXTREMELY important not to demonize the south, and southerners when assessing history, as i watched the film, i began to ask my self what if? In looking at the film, the viewer is bombarded with extreme examples of racism that seem out of this world. But as Max also noted, it is not as if racism does not exist today. Just because it may not be as blatant as an eBay for buying slaves, does not mean it isn’t there. this is a point I would like to strongly make in order to emphasize the necessity of not demonizing the South, and not over glorifying the north. But again, my mind wanders to the question what if?

If the confederacy had won, is this really what the Confederate States of America would look like? practicality says no. but that is a practicality based on assumptions that come from the America we live in today. For example, even though there is covert racism today, I think most people I know would be extremely uncomfortable if they heard a white person earnestly and hatefully call a black person a nigger to their face. But in the world where the confederacy won, would this be an anomaly?

Which leads to another question, would slavery still exist? And if not, what would America look like? As we said in class, slavery may very well have been facing its end anyway. The system was growing economically efficient. But, as we know, just because the institution has ending, does not mean its effects do as well. Because of the way in which slavery ended, we as a country were set on a certain path in terms of race. I think racism would exist either way, but I honestly think the quality of life (and i mean quality based on a criteria of dignity) would have been worse for African Americans in the US had the Confederacy won. Change, as history shows us, would have come. At some point or another rights would have been won. But how long would it have been. Surely not in the 1950s…

Power Dynamics in the Southern Colonies

The hierarchical relationships between groups is heavily analyzed throughout these two chapters, largely through interactions with primary sources and comments from elites of the time. The economic and political relationships between the poor and wealthy whites is of particular interest to me. Due to the fact that many poor whites owned land in Carolina and on the frontier, they had a vote in politics. A mutually beneficial relationship formed between the large planters and small famers as a result of the small farmers’ struggles and the elite desire for power. The large planters gained votes into office in exchange for protecting the interests of small famers. Social mobility was also a societal factor present in the colonies, at least for a time, that was largely unheard of for the period. Though Chesapeake later grew to have a stricter social structure, both colonies originally had a fluid society. These points together created a complex power dynamic where each section of the ladder was mobile and dependent upon the others for extensive support. I also found it interesting that these relationships fostered the creation of famous Southern manners. Southern elites had to convince the common farmer of their merits, and this system perpetuated itself into one intense politeness and Taylor’s “condescension” (pg. 153).

The Chesapeake elites discovered during this era that there were tremendous political gains from lowering taxes, uniting all white colonists against a common enemy, and providing a common lower class. These elites lowered taxes to transfer economic discontent from the local governments to the crown. The establishment of an enemy in the Indians provided an evil to lash out against when times were difficult. Finally, the slaves were a uniting factor with the idea of color rather than wealth was the preliminary divider for status. As Willie discusses in his post “Class and Color in the Chesapeake,” racism developed as a result of economic incentives, a shortage of white immigrants, and the need for the development of a “kinship” between whites. The poor whites were eager to have a subordinate in order to raise themselves up on the social ladder, and the elite whites were eager to exploit a cheaper, more controllable, and more sustainable form of labor. The whites all had a common enemy and subordinate that manipulated a positive connection of poor whites to elite whites. Socially, these decisions kept the elites in good standing with the poor whites and provided the elites with power and higher levels of income. Economically, (at least in Carolina and on the frontier) the possibility of independence with elite protection encouraged development and the growth of a sustainable mid-tier white class. This middle group supported the elites through taxation. The system worked well, but could not provide the profits that the elites pursued, and thus the system, in Chesapeake in particular, moved to one of larger plantations with many black slaves and fewer free, land-owning whites or indentured servants.

I would also like to comment that these two chapters further unveil Taylor’s extreme distaste for the Southern elites through his word choice and the information that he selects to display to the reader. I believe that he is losing objectivity when discussing them. History has almost always been written from the point of view of the elites, and I feel that Taylor is attempting to push back against this norm by portraying their class as imperfect, entitled, and harsh.

Class and Color in the Chesapeake

Taylor’s piece on the Chesapeake in Chapter 7 definitively traces the emergence of racism in the early colonies.  Beginning with an account of the class tensions among settlers in Virginia, the chapter exposes the subjugation of people based on social status rather than race.  Among the four levels of hierarchy in society—the king, the provincial government, the county court and the family household—there was an underlying class order whereby the few land elite at the top controlled an enormous portion of the wealth.  White landowning men retained a great deal of patriarchal power in the household and also governing power in the community.

The labor necessary to sustain a reasonable crop production for these landowners was dependent on the class of white indentured servants.  The cost for a white indentured servant was significantly less than that of an African slave.  Therefore, in the beginning of the 17th century, white indentured servants were almost exclusively the laborers of tobacco and maize farms in the Chesapeake colonies.  However, the short terms of these servants (usually only a couple of years) were sufficient to pay off their passage from England to the New World.  When the servant completed their term, they were often granted “freedom dues” which were settlement packages of land.  Therefore, the name servitude is an apt way of distinguishing this type of work from slavery—which became a lifelong period of service around the second half of the 16th century.

Due to greater incentives to remain in England, namely higher real wages, the demand of servants in the Chesapeake region went unfulfilled.  The farmers had to look elsewhere for laborers and quickly found an alternative in the slave trade.  I thought the inclusion of Anthony Johnson’s story provided an effective preface to the drastic change in race relations.  This often-overlooked account of a black slave-owner becomes quickly overshadowed by the subjugation of black people in America to a position below even the lowest classes of white colonists.  The shift in the servant class, as Dana mentions in his post on February 9th, permitted all whites to be unified based upon skin color.  In using the word “kinship”, Dana seems to illuminate the traces of a central divide contributing to the Civil War.  As I expect to see in the later part of this class, many supporters of the Confederacy were united as kin in this acceptance of racism and slavery.  Furthermore, Taylor reminds us that racial solidarity accompanied the growing inequality among whites Virginia.  To a certain extent, this sense of unification by race diminished the common class white colonists’ concern with class disparity.

This reading provides a very nice foundation for our study of slavery in this class.  As Taylor mentions, “A dark skin became synonymous with slavery, just as freedom became equated with whiteness” (Taylor 157).  As simple as this observation may seem, it is very telling of the emergence of a new people placed under subjugation.  Also it is interesting to trace the underpinnings of racism in America back to this change in servitude caused by a strengthening English economy (see above—real wages increase).

Racial Unity and Segregation

Taylor talks about the unity formed between whites of all economic standing once slavery is introduced. Prior to the introduction of large scale African slavery color did not mater. All freedmen were treated the same and had essentially the same rights. Once the African slave population increased, a new form a racism began to take root in the colonies. The wealthy elite took advantage of this racism to maintain their control over the colonies.

The gap between the rich and poor grew with the increase of African slavery. The African slaves did not have to be treated as well as the previously used indentured servants. They may have cost more, but they worked for life, however short that may be. They did not have to be paid the freedom dues given to the freedmen. These benefits helped to maximize the profit of plantations, but it also meant likely rebellion from the slaves. This was a constant fear and led masters to use brutality to deter rebellion. As said in the last post this brutality could be justified by the racism that took hold in the colonies.

As racism grew all whites were joined as kin. This kinship helped to diminish hatred between the wealthy and poor whites. Taylor talks of the kindness of the wealthy elite to travelers and the poor, something that is still attributed to the south. But it was not kindness for the sake of being a good person. The elite used kindness to keep people in line. It helped gain them votes, kept the poor content, and strengthened the “bond” between whites. Not only did the elite use racism to allow brutal treatment of slaves, but also to keep whites around them from rebelling.

Taylor also talked about how the elite had to keep the native’s and slaves from joining up together. Natives were paid to capture runaway slaves, as well as other natives of different tribes. This payment ensured a connection with the natives, kept the runaways and natives from joining up, and got the masters their slaves back. Paying for capture also helped to increase the racism against the African slaves. I think Taylor could have made a connection with the fact that the elite also had to subdue the poor whites. They had to keep three groups of people from joining up to rebel. Had the racism not grown, and whites held Africans as equals, the elite would not have been able to defend their positions.

The natives joining with the slaves would have proven brutal to the colonies. Had the poor whites joined the cause the elite would have no way to defend their lifestyle. That is why the growing racism proved so useful for the elite. To maintain control over the colonies, the elite needed to keep three groups from rebelling. The intelligent use of racism was able to keep all whites together, and kept natives from joining with the slaves.

Early Forms of Racism in the Chesapeake Colonies

While disease, access to clean sustenance and Indian interactions certainly played a role in the Chesapeake colonies’ vitality, Taylor stresses that the production of and English demand for tobacco was the most important determinant of the region’s overall success. With the incredible amount of labor necessary for the production of tobacco and the relatively high costs of enslaving Africans in the mid-seventeenth century, wealthy Chesapeake colonists relied on indentured servants to tend to their land. Theses servants were initially drawn to the Chesapeake area due to “unemployment and hunger in England combined with the pull of Virginia opportunity” (142). Taylor notes further that both the prices of tobacco and the economic conditions in England greatly affected the emigration of indentured servants to the Chesapeake colonies throughout the seventeenth century.

Based on the economics of the Chesapeake colonies, and tobacco production being central to its overall success, the opportunities given to indentured servants varied between periods of relative prosperity and financial hardship. As Thomas alludes to in his most recent blog post, however, by 1700 there was a clear gap in economic opportunity between Virginia’s rich and poor, as a very small percentage of wealthy white families controlled a majority of the area’s land. Despite this distinct economic division among whites in the Chesapeake colonies, they were unified socially as the eventual influx of African slaves led to the beginnings of racism and an overall sentiment of racial superiority shared by whites.

Although Taylor observes that racism was not initially noticed in the Chesapeake colonies, he clearly highlights how the increased number of slaves in the area led to legislative changes that ultimately encouraged racism and facilitated white cohesion. An example of legally justified racism was that, “After 1691 no Virginia planter could free slaves unless he paid for their transportation beyond the colony” (156). By providing a financial incentive for owners not to free their slaves, the Chesapeake colonies further divided blacks and whites by keeping blacks enslaved for longer periods of time. Taylor highlights that legislation geared towards restricting the rights of blacks meant that, “A dark skin became synonymous with slavery, just as freedom became equated with whiteness” (157). Therefore, despite the economic inequality that existed between poor and wealthy whites in the late seventeenth century, a sense of racial superiority united all whites and immediately gave them, regardless of their financial status, an elevated position in Chesapeake’s social hierarchy.

Taylor’s description of how the economic conditions in England led the Chesapeake colonies to be based on labor provided by African slaves rather than indentured servants illustrates racism’s roots in the American colonies.