It’s Why You Don’t Paint in Primary Colors Only

The world does not come and never has come in exclusively primary colors.  Fact.  If you try to paint the world, either as it now exists, as it used to exist, or as it may in the future exist, solely in primary colors, you’re simply not going to produce a useful depiction of reality.

Thinking in a manner similar to painting in primary colors likewise does not permit you to form a usefully accurate understanding of the world.  I say “usefully accurate” because the world is just too complicated a place for anyone fully to comprehend everything important about it.  Not going to happen, not in terms of the present, the past, or the future.  Fact.  Every level of cognitive engagement with the world is a simplification.  Pretty much every last one of us uses — whether consciously or not — sorting mechanisms, decisional algorithms, categories of perception that are both under- and over-inclusive.  You can easily recognize the guy who doesn’t use those mental tools to navigate reality:  He’s the guy standing on the street corner who doesn’t know whether to shit or go blind, because every last impression he takes in, every last decision he makes, requires him to start from scratch.

So much for my daily statement of the obvious.  I’m pretty good at it, wouldn’t you say?

Race.  It’s like sniffing glue for the thoughtful and law-abiding.  We know that the preoccupation with race, the endless agonizing and hashing over its meaning, its history, its sociological, economic, and political implications, it is little more than poisonous to both our society and our polity, no matter what group the person contemplating or yammering on about it happens to be from.  And yet — that street thug, gun-running, perjurious criminal Eric Holder to the contrary notwithstanding — we can’t stop talking about it.  You’d think that race, either in the abstract or in its concrete setting here in the U.S., where the public discussion has dated at least since the 1780s, when the Quakers were presenting petitions to the Confederation Congress and that Congress was outlawing slavery in the Northwest Ordinance, is something about which there is bugger all new left to say.  For myself, I cannot recall the last time I heard anything said about race that was both interesting and true that I hadn’t heard countless times before.

This article strikes me as just another installment.  “What a Truly Honest Discussion of Race Would Look Like,” over at, is a good reminder that the subject of human bondage is much greater than the story of sub-Saharan Africans who got scooped up and carted off (so to speak) to the English colonies in North America.  Those who would pretend that it is are painting in primary colors.

I ought not disparage the article’s author for pointing out what most any person with the least understanding of world history already long since knows.  I shouldn’t do it because there are so few people who have any curiosity to acquire the least understanding of that history.  So when the author points out that the very word “slave” derives from precisely the same word as “Slav,” and that that’s no accident because for so many centuries that’s what Slavs were viewed as, it might enlighten no small number of people.  I wish he’d mentioned that the slave markets of Constantinople were very much going concerns as late as 1867, when Mark Twain visited the city.  He cites to several studies (presumably scholarly) about the institution of slavery in North Africa.  There the slave-masters were not sub-Saharan Africans but the mish-mash of Arabs and other ethnic groups spread along the littoral, all of them having more or less two things in common: (i) they were fanatical Muslims, and (ii) they made their living from piracy and plunder.  I’m not sure, though, that slavery in that area of the world has much to teach simply because you could escape slavery by turning Muslim.  The status of slave was not an inherited condition; in fact, I’m not sure that slaves there were even really permitted to reproduce to any marked extent (I’d be fascinated to see more on that subject).

The article’s author cites to that tiresome professor of grievance studies, Henry Louis Gates, for the observations that most of the actual enslavement — that is, the forcible conversion of free men and women into permanent captives held to involuntary labor — was the work of sub-Saharan Africans.  The pitiful survivors of the Middle Passage, in other words, were slaves well before they ever reached the coast and saw their first slave ship.  Our author also quotes the figure of 388,000 who “were shipped to America.”  Wait a minute:  Is he talking about the colonies that later became the U.S?  If so then I can perhaps accept that 388,000 number.  But I mean, really, what does it matter whether it was 388,000 or 388,000,000?  They and their descendants were in fact held in bondage and that bondage was in fact in the form of chattel slavery (as opposed to serfdom; the African slaves were never glebae adscripti).  I’m not aware of any context in which the Meaning of African Slavery in North America can be a function of the precise or even imprecise number of Africans shipped here.  By like token what can it possibly matter that free Africans voluntarily came to North America as early at 1513?  Or that, in Central America and Florida, at least, thousands of slaves escaped to become Cimaroons?  If the point is that not all of black experience is captured in the arc of chattel slavery, then . . . well, not all of British experience during World War II is captured during the weeks of the London Blitz.  So what’s your point?

More interesting, because it undercuts the primary-color palette of white-people-bad-black-people-good (the sort of horse shit trafficked in by that charlatan Leonard Jeffries), is the mention of the black slave owners of the American South.  Yes, there were some.  It that connection, however, it’s important to bear in mind that a large number, if not nearly all — of them would have been free blacks who bought their wives and children out of bondage (and if the particular state’s laws forbade manumission, then the wife’s and children’s legal status as slave would not have changed).  There were some very large-scale black slave-owners, however, mostly in South Carolina and New Orleans.  Way back in college I wrote a term paper on, among others, a biography of one of them, a William Ellison, who started life as a slave, learned the trade of cotton gin manufacture and repair, bought his own freedom, and by his death was in the 95th percentile of all slave owners.  Black Masters: A Free Family of Color in the Old South is a very interesting read, not only for just the main story, but also as a cross-bearing on the rest of the slave system.

The article also talks about the unfree white laborers who until the later 1600s formed the bulk of the unfree population of Virginia (South Carolina wasn’t settled until the late 1660s-70s; Charleston was founded in 1670 and Boone Hall, the famous avenue-of-oaks joint, dates only to 1682).  As related in Edmund S. Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom, the transition from predominately white to eventually-exclusively black unfree labor was gradual and had a great deal to do with economics, health, and land settlement laws.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but until a newly-arrived unfree laborer could be expected to survive what they euphemistically called “seasoning,” there was no reason to pay fee simple prices for a slave when you could take a seven-year lease on an Irish girl who’d be dead long before you had to give her her freedom and enough goods to set up housekeeping.  You also got “headrights” — 50 acres of land — for each indentured servant you brought over (it was your land, though, and not the servant’s).  Until 1699 in Virginia you also got headrights for slaves imported; but by that time slavery had thoroughly established itself as the overwhelmingly dominant labor system.

Indentured servants were in fact subject to many if not most of the awful conditions the slaves experienced.  You could in most colonies legally maim an indentured servant — chop off a toe or a finger — for minor transgressions.  I’m not aware that you could legally kill an indentured servant, while on the other there was little if any practical limitation on killing a slave.  I’m sure that technically killing a slave was illegal homicide, but I’d be surprised to find out it was enforced in any but the most sickeningly egregious cases.

All in all, this article reminds me more than a little of the discussion of the history of slavery in North America set out in The Redneck Manifesto, a book that would be a great deal more interesting if the author understood some very basic facts about economics.  His early chapters on the joint experience of poor whites and black slaves in 17th Century Virginia are worth a read (even though his later unhinged rants about fiscal and economic policy and law suggests a grain of salt be taken with those earlier chapters as well).  In Goad’s telling, it was Bacon’s Rebellion (1676), pitting the unfree and downtrodden against the planter elite, which awoke that elite to the necessity of dividing the blacks and the whites from each other.  According to him, the laws penalizing what we can generically describe as “fraternization” between the groups date from the aftermath of the rebellion, and the history of race relations since has been the systematic and basically fraudulent effort to prevent poor whites and poor blacks from combining, either economically or politically, to threaten the elites’ hegemony.  That may be the case; it’s been 30 years since I last read Morgan in detail, and the better part of 15 years since I read Goad.  And certainly more than one author has described very well how one of the side effects of slavery was the creation and perpetuation of an entire class of absolutely dirt-poor, un-landed, prospect-less whites (the expression “white trash” originated in the slave quarters to describe them).  But on one point Goad is entirely correct:  The plantation elite had every intention of dominating Virginia’s society and economy, and they had no intention at all of sharing that power with anyone of any color or condition of servitude.

But for all the tu quoque in this article, what is the point?  You just can’t get around the fact that the experience of sub-Saharan Africans and their descendants in North America has been qualitatively different from that of any other group, and that the implications of that history are still playing themselves out.  I disagree with most of the left-extremists on just how those implications are playing out.  But just as the experiences of aboriginal Americans today would be unthinkable without the history of the reservation system, so also the present-day experiences of the Africans’ descendants would be unthinkable had their ancestors come here and lived here as free men.  Wherever else we would be, it wouldn’t be where we are.

So while it’s good to remind people occasionally that you can’t paint in primary colors, what does that tell me about how to understand a painting?

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