ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
When Mr. Volney’s literary work was finally translated to English and circulated in America,
three entire pages were omitted from the document, which alluded to the greatness and
splendor of the African presence and achievements in ancient Egyptian/Nubian civilizatio
Juneteenth and the Emancipation of Whom: Niggers or Enslaved Africans?
By Professor Gershom Williams
Were I to vindicate our right to make slaves of the Negroes, these would be my arguments; these creatures are all over Black, and with such a flat nose that they can scarcely be pitied. It is hardly to be believed that God, who is a wise being, should place a soul, especially a good soul in such a Black, ugly body. It is impossible for us to suppose these creatures to be men, because allowing them to be men, a suspicion would follow that we ourselves are not Christians.
Charles Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws, 18th century
There (in Africa) a people now forgotten discovered while others were yet barbarians, the elements of the arts and sciences. A race of men, now rejected from society for their Black skin and wooly hair, founded on the study of the laws of nature, those civil and religious systems which still govern the universe.
C.F. Volney, The Ruins of Empires, 1787
The first quote that I have cited is quite typical of the prevailing pro-slavery views of White supremacist mythology, long held by many influential White leaders and lay persons of the pre and post emancipation era. There were theologians, philosophers, physicians, teachers, historians, Supreme Court justices and American presidents who attempted to both rationalize and justify the enslavement and systematic dehumanization of African people by constantly propagating the false notions of their intellectual and biological inferiority.
In his notorious Notes on the State of Virginia (1787), Thomas Jefferson who is also the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, puts forth a degrading analysis of the supposed inferiority of those Africans enslaved in America. Thomas Jefferson’s bigoted view was shared to some extent by many other American political leaders, including the “great emancipator” himself, Abraham Lincoln.
Shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War, during the famous Dred Scott Supreme Court case of 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney spoke unanimously for the highest court in the land when he stated that, “Blacks had for more than a century, been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and all together unfit to associate the White race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior that they had no rights which the White man was bound to respect; and that the Negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.”
The latter is a classic example of the pro slavery contract between Euro-American Whites which they felt gave them the divine right (Manifest Destiny) to enslave Native Americans and African people based on again, the supposed inherent racial inferiority of these people. The second quote comes from a lesser known source who was ironically a contemporary of Mr. Thomas Jefferson. This French traveler and writer really stands alone during the American colonial period with his keen observations and comments regarding the historical record and extraordinary contributions of Blacks to world civilization. His name was C.F. Volney and his revolutionary text was first published in 1787.
When Mr. Volney’s literary work was finally translated to English and circulated in America, three entire pages were omitted from the document, which alluded to the greatness and splendor of the African presence and achievements in ancient Egyptian/Nubian civilization. One has to remember that Mr. Volney was conducting his research and writings during the peak period of the slave trade when the dogma and doctrines of the inferior accursed sons of Ham were propagandized throughout America.
If we closely examine Mr. Volney’s words, we can decipher exactly what he is courageously saying about those who were being de-Africanized and “Niggerized” in the United States. The message that Volney’s book really conveys to the world is that those same Africans who were forcefully and brutally uprooted from their ancestral homeland and transported to America are the very creators of the Christian religious heritage which was later adopted and mispracticed by slave owning Whites, who clearly used it as a justification for enslavement in the Western Diaspora. From their initial introduction into American society, enslaved African persons had their humanity and spirituality called into question. Whenever one group can dismiss or deny the divinity of another cultural group, then domination and possibly even genocide are only a matter of time.
At the beginning of the Trans-Atlantic trade in humans, the major religious argument utilized by the White establishment was the “Myth or Curse of Ham.” This biblical story in the Old Testament book of Genesis has been the single greatest justification for Black (African) enslavement in the last 500 years. According to a gross mis-interpretation of biblical scripture, the prophet Noah cursed his own grandson Ham or Canaan by turning his skin color black and also relegated him to eternally serve both of his brothers and their descendants through the end of all time.
For those who seriously want to read more on the subject, I recommend David M. Goldberg’s book, The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity and Islam (2003). A brief excerpt from the text’s introduction will help make my point crystal clear. “It is a strange justification indeed, for there is no reference in it (the Bible) to Blacks at all. And yet just about everyone, especially in the antebellum American south, understood that in this story God meant to curse Black Africans with eternal slavery, the so-called curse of Ham.”
Recently, one of my students shared with me another racist and degrading story relating to the Cain and Abel episode also in the book of Genesis. The document is called A New Look at Mormonism, and is an illustrated booklet for children. On page 32, the caption reads like this: “Cain was responsible for the first death in the world. The Lord punished him by turning his skin dark. This also served him as a means of protection from harm (intense sunlight). The people of the Negro race are descendants of Cain.” At the end of the passage, a biblical scripture is referenced from the Holy Bible and I believe, the Book of Mormon. Now that I have provided some background information to help shed more light on the early pseudo- myths and justifications for African enslavement, I will continue with the discussion on the Juneteenth holiday and N-Word connection. (End of Part 1)
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The African has been in all ages, a savage or a slave. God created him inferior to the White man in form, color, and intellect, and no legislation or culture can make him equal his hair, his form and features will not compete with the Caucasian race, and it is in vain to think of elevating him to the dignity of the White man.
Benjamin F. Perry, Provisional Governor of South Carolina – 1865
As we have seen, from their nightmarish beginnings as legally enslaved chattel persons in British (Anglo Saxon) North America, African men, women and children were constantly considered inferior and thereby referred to by condescending Whites as the evil, ugly and extremely pejorative racial slur, Nigger!
I am quite certain that when those first captured Africans reached these shores carrying proud ancestral names (Kunta, Cuffe, Ayana, Olufemi, Obadele, Aeisha, Hakim, Jawanza, Oba, Tariq or Malik), that they were confused, shocked and certainly unaware of the hateful and contemptuous meanings and messages associated with the N-word.
After so-called emancipation (1863) and Juneteenth (1865), four million ex-slaves were given their quasi-freedom with no land, no mules, no money and no apologies or reparations for almost three centuries of free labor. Not only was there no financial compensation given to former slaves, but perhaps just as importantly, there was no individual or group counseling/therapy sessions set up to help “heal” the deep emotional and psychological scars of the great enslavement (Maafa).
Our ancestors had suffered both physical shock and emotional trauma for two hundred and fifty years and who was there to give them moral and spiritual support (other than almighty God himself)? I ask you, beloved community, who was there to counter the negative myths and stereotypes to let African people know that their Black skin, broad nostrils, woolly hair and full lips were not a curse but a blessing from God? Who was there to re-educate them and to make them aware that they were not intellectually or biologically inferior creatures, that they were intelligent and as equally gifted as their White counterparts?
Who was there to help reassure them they that they were not niggers, coons, sambos, mammies, bucks, darkies, pickininnies or uncle toms? Where were the family therapy sessions for members who had been sold away and separated from husband, wife, children, brothers, sisters and would probably never see them again? When all is said and done, who can pay reparations on the hearts and souls of Black folk?
You can never repay me for the rapes of my grandmothers and the lynching of my grandfathers! Could this be the reason why still today in 2007 our Black and beautiful children are still choosing White dolls over the Black ones as being smarter, prettier and more desirable? Could post traumatic slavery syndrome (PTSS) be the reason why we still today refer to members of our African family as the N-word?
Is this manifested self-hatred a result of colonial mis-education and cultural genocide (i.e. a systematic destruction of our indigenous African memory and culture when we were robbed of our names, languages, religions, our God, and our historical identity? What does Juneteenth, our freedom day celebration truly mean today if we are still a misguided, disrespected and dis-unified people?
This year on June 19th, and in years to come as we reflect and remember our glorious day of emancipation, let us honestly and critically analyze and discuss what it means to be an African -American person in the Eurocentric environment of the United States. Let us read, study and know our history – both the African and American stories. Let us teach our children our wonderful and glorious heritage. Maybe then a proper historical consciousness will produce the unity and collective economic empowerment that we have been longing for since emancipation.
In closing, I leave you with one final word on the topic of Juneteenth and the abominable N-word. Remember this, an African person is a subject of human history and human civilization; but a Nigger is a fabricated object of the White imagination that has been systematically reduced to the lowest level of sub humanity. So please my beloved community, let us be wise and finally bury this N- word as we should have when our enslavement ended, many rains ago.
Professor Gershom Williams teaches African American History at Mesa Community College.
posted 30 June 2007
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How William Faulkner Tackled Raceand Freed the South from ItselfJohn Jeremiah Sullivan on Absalom, Absalom!You are my brother. No Im not. Im the nigger thats going to sleep with your sister. Unless you stop me, Henry.
This is a novel [
that uses the word nigger many times. An unfortunate subject, but to talk about it in 2012 and not mention the fact hints at some kind of repression. Especially when you consider that the particular example Ive quoted is atypically soft: Bon, the person saying it, is part black, and being mordantly ironic. Most of the time, its a white character using the wordor, most conspicuously, the novel itself, in its voicewith an uglier edge. The third page features the phrase wild niggers; elsewhere its monkey nigger.
Faulkner wasnt unique or even uncommon in using the word this way. Hemingway, Dos Passos, Gertrude Steinall did so unapologetically. They were reflecting their countrys speech. They were also, if we are being frank, exploiting the words particular taboo charge, one only intensified when the writer is a white Southerner. Faulkner says Negroes in plenty of places here, also blacks, but when he wants a stronger effect, he says niggers. It isnt a case, in short, of Thats just how they talked back then. The term was understood by the mid-30s (well before, in fact) to be nasty. A white person wouldnt use it around a black person unless meaning to offend or assert superiorityexcept perhaps now and then in the context of an especially close humor.
Even if we were to justify Faulkners overindulgence of the word on the grounds of historical context, I would find it unfortunate purely as a matter of style. It may be crass for a white reader to claim that as significant, but a writer with Faulkners sensitivity to verbal shading might have been better tuned to the ugliness of the word, and not a truth-revealing ugliness, but something more like gratuitousness, with an attending queasy sense of rhetorical power misused. I count it a weakness, to be placed alongside Faulkners occasional showiness and his incessant not constructions, which come often several to a page: and not this, nor that, nor even the other thing, but a fourth thing adjective adjective adjective made him lift the hoe (where half the time those things would not have occurred to you in your natural life, but old Pappy takes his time chopping them down anyway).
The defense to be mounted is not of Faulkners use of the word but of the novel in spite of it, or rather, in the face of it.
has been well described as the most serious attempt by any white writer to confront the problem of race in America. There is bravery in Faulkners decision to dig into this wound. He knew that the effort would involve the exposure of his own mind, dark as it often was. You could make a case that to have written this book and left out that most awful of Southernisms would have constituted an act of falsity.
Certainly we would not want to take the word away from Bon, in that scene in the woods, one of the most extraordinary moments in Southern literature. A white man and a black man look at each other and call each other brother. One does, anyway. Suddenly, thrillingly, the whole social edifice on which the novel is erected starts to teeter. All Henry has to do is repeat himself. Say it again, the reader thinks. Say, No, you are my brother. And all would be well, or could be well, the gothic farce of Sutpens dream redeemed with those words, remade into a hopeful or at least not-hope-denying human story. Charles Bon would live, and Judith would be his wife, and Sutpen would have descendants, and together they might begin rebuilding the South along new lines.
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By Randall Kennedy
The word is paradigmatically ugly, racist and inflammatory. But is it different when Ice Cube uses it in a song than when, during the O.J. Simpson trial, Mark Fuhrman was accused of saying it? What about when Lenny Bruce uses it to “defang” it by sheer repetition? Or when Mark Twain uses it in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to make an antiracist statement? Kennedy, a professor at Harvard Law School and noted legal scholar, has produced an insightful and highly provocative book that raises vital questions about the relationship between language, politics, social norms and how society and culture confront racism. Drawing on a wide range of historical, legal and cultural instances Harry S. Truman calling Adam Clayton Powell “that damned nigger preacher”; Title VII court cases in which the use of the word was proof of condoning a “racially hostile work environment”; Quentin Tarantino’s liberal use of the word in his films Kennedy repeatedly shows not only the complicated cultural history of the word, but how its meaning, intent and even substance change in context.
Smart, well argued and never afraid of facing serious, difficult and painful questions in an unflinching and unsentimental manner, this is an important work of cultural and political criticism. As Kennedy notes in closing: “For bad or for good, nigger is… destined to remain with us for the foreseeable future a reminder of the ironies and dilemmas, the tragedies and glories, of the American experience.” (Jan. 22)Forecast: This may be the book that reignites larger debates over race eclipsed by September 11. Look for a bestselling run and huge talk show and magazine coverage as the Afghanistan news cycle continues to slow; the book had already been the subject of two New York Times stories by early January.Publishers Weekly
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Edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis
Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a collection of fourteen essays by scholars and creative writers from Africa and the Americas. Called one of two significant critical works on Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late 1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of Carter G. Woodson and Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an historical context for understanding 20th-century creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone writers, such as Cuban Nicolás Guillén and Ecuadorean poet, novelist, and scholar Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the significance of Negritude in Latin America.
This collaborative text set the tone for later conferences in which writers and scholars worked together to promote, disseminate, and critique the literature of Spanish-speaking people of African descent. . . . Cited by a literary critic in 2004 as “the seminal study in the field of Afro-Hispanic Literature . . . on which most scholars in the field ‘cut their teeth’.”
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By Melissa V. Harris-Perry
According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel. The selfless Mammys behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own familys needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.
Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.
As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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update 1 July 2012