The Author’s Corner with Katherine Gerbner

Christian SlaveryKatharine Gerbner is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Minnesota.  This interview is based on her book,  Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Christian Slavery?

KGI started Christian Slavery with a simple question: how could seemingly good people support something that was morally abhorrent? Specifically, I wanted to know why European Christians, and especially missionaries, accepted slavery. What I was uncovered was a deeply troubling story that is important to understand today. It shows how people with good intentions can play a terrible role in perpetuating injustice, and it demonstrates the long history of complicity between Christianity and slavery.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Christian Slavery?

KGI have three main arguments: (1) far from being forced to convert, enslaved and free blacks had to fight their way into Protestant churches; (2) Protestant missionaries paved the way for pro-slavery theology by arguing that conversion would not lead to freedom for the enslaved; and (3) White Supremacy grew out of “Protestant Supremacy”—the idea that enslaved people could not become Christian.

JF: Why do we need to read Christian Slavery?

KGThere’s a lot of discussion about White Supremacy right now. In those conversations, it’s essential to explore what we mean by “whiteness” and where this term comes from. What history shows us is that the word “white” replaced the word “Christian” in colonial records as a way to justify enslavement. In other words, whiteness was created under slavery in order to exclude people of African descent from freedom. So if we really want to understand White Supremacy, and to combat it, we have to acknowledge the complex relationship between Christianity and slavery.

My book also shows the possibilities for combating racism & White Supremacy. Some evangelical Christians and Quakers played a central role in the abolitionist movement, showing that Christianity could be used to support emancipation. And most importantly, enslaved and free blacks who fought their way into Protestant churches defined their faith around the concept of liberation, in opposition to pro-slavery theology.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

KGI studied Religion and Middle Eastern Studies in college. But when it came time to write a Senior Thesis, I chose a historical document: the first antislavery petition written in the Americas, which was authored by German and Dutch Quakers in 17th c. Pennsylvania. I started by researching the origin of that document and its reception. As I did so, I realized that the anti-slavery Protest was rejected by English Quakers in Philadelphia. I was surprised by this—I grew up in Philadelphia and attended a Quaker school, but I had only learned about Quaker abolitionism. I was shocked to discover that there were Quakers who owned slaves. I wanted to know what else had been left out of the conventional histories. I started there, and I haven’t stopped researching since.

JFWhat is your next project?

KGI’m writing a book about slave rebellion and religious freedom, tentatively called Constructing Religion, Defining Crime. I noticed in my research for Christian Slavery that black Christians and other religious leaders were often blamed for slave rebellions. In response, white authorities created laws designed to criminalize black religious practices. My new research suggests that we cannot understand religion – or religious freedom – without examining slave rebellion. The history of slavery can help us to understand how and why some religious practices have been, and continue to be, excluded from the lexicon of “religion” and even criminalized.

JF: Thanks, Katherine!

There Were Good People on Both Sides Saturday at Politics & Prose Bookstore in Washington D.C.

No–there were not.

A white supremacy group interrupted a book talk by Vanderbilt psychiatrist  Jonathan Metzl, author of Dying  of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland.

Watch:

And here is Metzl’s tweet:

This was kind of eerie to watch since I stood on the exact spot Metzl stood on July 7, 2018.

Does Ta-Nehisi Coates Give Whiteness Power?

Williams

Thomas Chatterton Williams

I am still trying to get my head around Thomas Chatterton Williams‘s piece on Coates at The New York Times, but I think he may be on to something.  While I chew on it a bit more, I offer up a taste (and a link) for your consideration:

I have spent the past six months poring over the literature of European and American white nationalism, in the process interviewing noxious identitarians like the alt-right founder Richard Spencer. The most shocking aspect of Mr. Coates’s wording here is the extent to which it mirrors ideas of race — specifically the specialness of whiteness — that white supremacist thinkers cherish.

This, more than anything, is what is so unsettling about Mr. Coates’s recent writing and the tenor of the leftist “woke” discourse he epitomizes. Though it is not at all morally equivalent, it is nonetheless in sync with the toxic premises of white supremacism. Both sides eagerly reduce people to abstract color categories, all the while feeding off of and legitimizing each other, while those of us searching for gray areas and common ground get devoured twice. Both sides mystify racial identity, interpreting it as something fixed, determinative and almost supernatural. For Mr. Coates, whiteness is a “talisman,” an “amulet” of “eldritch energies” that explains all injustice; for the abysmal early-20th-century Italian fascist and racist icon Julius Evola, it was a “meta-biological force,” a collective mind-spirit that justifies all inequality. In either case, whites are preordained to walk that special path. It is a dangerous vision of life we should refuse no matter who is doing the conjuring.

This summer, I spent an hour on the phone with Richard Spencer. It was an exchange that left me feeling physically sickened. Toward the end of the interview, he said one thing that I still think about often. He referred to the all-encompassing sense of white power so many liberals now also attribute to whiteness as a profound opportunity. “This is the photographic negative of a white supremacist,” he told me gleefully. “This is why I’m actually very confident, because maybe those leftists will be the easiest ones to flip.”

However far-fetched that may sound, what identitarians like Mr. Spencer have grasped, and what ostensibly anti-racist thinkers like Mr. Coates have lost sight of, is the fact that so long as we fetishize race, we ensure that we will never be rid of the hierarchies it imposes. We will all be doomed to stalk our separate paths.

Read the entire piece here.

“Time slips away and leaves you with nothing mister but boring stories of glory days”

Of if you don’t like Springsteen, here is Billy Joel:

“You can linger too long in your dreams. Say goodbye to the oldies but goodies, ’cause the good ole days weren’t always good and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.”

Check out Domenico Montanaro’s piece at NPR on white nostalgia in classic rock ‘n’ roll music.

Here is a taste:

Probably the most famous from this nostalgia genre, though, came out five years later, with Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days.” It tells melancholy anecdotes — a man who was a star baseball player, a woman who pines to recapture her sex appeal of a younger day.

Around the same time as “Here Comes My Girl” and “Glory Days,” Billy Joel’s “Allentown,” was released. In 1982, it retold the story of a town that saw shuttered coal factories — despite generations since World War II (there’s that time again) working there, living decent, middle-class lives and spending “weekends on the Jersey Shore.”

But all that collapsed — and there was plenty of blame to go around, from the companies to the “union people” who “crawled away.”

Read the entire piece here.

What Readings Would You Put on a 2016 Election Syllabus?

cowieProcess: A Blog for American History , a blog run by the Organization of American Historians, asked historians to tweet some book recommendations to help people understand the 2016 election.

What a great exercise!

Here are some of the books recommended by American historians:

Jefferson Cowie, Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class

David Roediger, Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class

Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics

Matthew Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race

George Packer, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America

Landon Storrs, The Second Red Scare and the Unmaking of the New Deal Left

W.E.B. Du Bous, Black Reconstruction in America

Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy

Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

Daniel Rodgers, Age of Fracutre

Danielle Allen, Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown v. Board of Education

Kevin Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism

Thomas Sugrue, Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit

 

Read the entire list here.

Michael Lind’s Southern Narrative

What do you think of Michael Lind‘s take on the “white Southern” historical narrative?  Here is a taste of his article at Slate:

Mainstream American history, from the point of view of the white majority in the Northeast, Midwest and West Coast, is a story of military successes. The British are defeated, ensuring national independence. The Confederates are defeated, ensuring national unity. And in the 20th century the Axis and Soviet empires are defeated, ensuring (it is hoped) a free world.

The white Southern narrative — at least in the dominant Southern conservative version — is one of defeat after defeat. First the attempt of white Southerners to create a new nation in which they can be the majority was defeated by the U.S. Army during the Civil War. Doomed to be a perpetual minority in a continental American nation-state, white Southerners managed for a century to create their own state-within-a-state, in which they could collectively lord it over the other major group in the region, African-Americans. But Southern apartheid was shattered by the second defeat, the Civil Rights revolution, which like the Civil War and Reconstruction was symbolized by the dispatching of federal troops to the South. The American patriotism of the white Southerner is therefore deeply problematic. Some opt for jingoistic hyper-Americanism (the lady protesteth too much, methinks) while a shrinking but significant minority prefer the Stars and Bars to the Stars and Stripes.

The other great national narrative holds that the U.S. is a nation of immigration, a “new nation,” a melting pot made up of immigrants from many lands. While the melting pot story involves a good deal of idealization, it is based on demographic fact in the large areas of the North where old-stock Anglo-Americans are commingled with German-Americans, Polish-Americans and Irish-Americans, along with more recent immigrant diasporas from Latin America, Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

But even before the recent wave of immigration from sources other than Europe, the melting pot never included most of the white South. From the early 19th century until the late 20th, the South attracted relatively few immigrants. Who wanted to move to a backward, rural, apartheid society dominated by an oligarchy of a few rich families? Apart from several encapsulated minorities — Cajuns in Louisiana, Germans in central Texas — most white Southerners remained descendants of colonial-era immigrants from the British Isles, chiefly English and Scots-Irish. And while Irish and German Catholics and Jews diversified the religious landscape of the North, the South was dominated by British-derived Protestant sects like the Episcopalians, Baptists and Methodists from Virginia to Oklahoma and Texas.

Two maps illustrate the demographic distinctiveness of the white South. The first shows the close correlation of evangelical Protestantism with the states of the former Confederacy. The second map is even more revealing.  It shows the concentration of individuals who identified themselves to census takers as non-hyphenated “Americans.”

It is clear from the map that most self-described unhyphenated “Americans” are, in fact, whites of British descent — many if not most of them descendants of the Scots-Irish diaspora that emigrated from Ulster to the British colonies in the 1700s.  The point is that many white Southerners do not think of themselves as having any “ethnicity” at all. Others — German-Americans, Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Chinese-Americans — are hyphenated Americans. White Southerners tend to see themselves as “pure” Americans, “real” Americans, “normal” Americans. Long after Mayflower descendants were submerged by waves of  European migration in New England, large regions of the white South remain the last places in the country where local majorities can trace their family ancestry back to before 1776 in British America.

Five Myths About the White Working Class

This comes from a  recent report on the white working class in America conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute.

Myth #1: White working-class Americans strongly identify with the Tea Party movement.

Myth #2:  White working-class Americans have abandoned traditional religiosity and a strong work ethic.

Myth #3:  White working-class Americans vote against their economic interests.

Myth #4: White working-class Americans are animated by culture war issues like abortion or same-sex marriage.

Myth #5: White working-class Americans embrace unfettered free market capitalism.

And here are five things that the report confirms:

1.  White working-class Americans embrace different consumer preferences, lifestyle choices, and parenting choices than white college-educated Americans.

2.  White working-class Americans are less likely than white college-educated Americans to feel connected to government.

3.  White working class Americans are more likely than white college-educated Americans to believe that blacks and other minorities have received too many advantages and government attention.

4.  White working-class Americans have concerns about immigrants competing with them for jobs.

5.  Despite being economically disillusioned, white working-class Americans strongly believe in American exceptionalism.

Read the entire report here.