Renegade History

I’m reading A Renegade History of the United States by Thaddeus Russell.  I have very mixed feelings about it.  There is some legitimately good stuff in there, and many of his arguments are fairly nuanced.  The beginning of the part on slavery is fucking shocking, about how slaves had some freedoms that whites didn’t have, but as he explains it and goes through the evidence it’s easy to start making connections with how African Americans are treated today.

What it boils down to is this, which will undoubtedly be familiar with anyone who knows a little bit about black history.  White America was formed around the idea that men should be responsible, frugal, morally sound creatures who deny their own desires in order to make a better society.  Throughout the early years of the nation, there was an awful Protestant work ethic that had whites putting in 14 hour factory days before the development of unions, or toiling their waking hours away on farms.  Idle hands were considered the devil’s workshop.  Children were regularly beaten.  Nonmartial sex was forbidden and even illegal.  Dancing was bad.  Music was bad.  Fitting into white society really sucked for everyone but the rich.  Nothing new there.

Black slaves weren’t raised to in that culture.  A person worked as hard as they needed to to avoid punishment, but they had no incentive to work harder than that.  Why should they, when they were forced into it?  And they weren’t bound by white sexual mores, and they weren’t raised under the Puritanical restrictions of whites.

Slave culture was completely different in its values and priorities.  Russell points out that a lot of repressed white people saw those differences and were jealous.  Not of being owned, but of not being judged as the whites were.  He writes that minstrel shows were actually born of a romanticized look at slave life, and whites wishing they could have the freedoms they saw slaves as having.

Which, of course, is racist as fuck.  How many white people romanticize Native American cultures, yet how many of them care about the poverty and misery prevalent on so many reservations?  Same thing: caring about a false ideal with no concern whatsoever for what the minority is going through.

This is what got me thinking, although I’m only halfway through the book.  There are modern black stereotypes that are the exact same ones leveled at slaves.  According to many whites, black people are lazy, “shiftless,” uninterested in working or being responsible citizens.  Black people are also (according to this view) morally loose and allow themselves baser pleasures than (“good”) whites do.  The stereotypes haven’t changed in 150 years.  There are white boys who romanticize gangsta culture.  Nothing fucking changes.

When you look at the white culture that propagates these stereotypes, how fucked up is that culture?  “Good” Americans are supposed to work as many hours as they can because it’s shameful to not want to move into management or whatever.  Look at how many insults middle-class (and higher) people heap on retail and service workers, despite those people being necessary to our way of life?  Many corporate cultures are competitive for who can work the hardest, put in the most overtime.  There’s the belief that if you work hard enough, you can be rich and never work again.  Some countries in Europe are establishing national minimum incomes.  Some cities are providing homes to the homeless, no strings attached, because it’s cheaper than providing other services to the same population if they’re left on the street.  Right-wing Americans are horrified by these ideas.  Again, skewed Protestant work ethic.  Wealth indicates godliness, and poor people are lazy.  So to become a better person, you have to work harder.  Being a productive member of society is awesome, but there are so many ways to do it that don’t require selling your soul to a corporation…  Ugh.

So there you go.  I’m learning more about the history of issues I already knew existed, but without knowing exactly where they came from.  The book also talks about voluntary immigrants to this country, and the “whitening” of the Irish, Jewish, and Italian peoples (all of whom were called by the n-word when first arriving in America).  I’m only halfway through, and very interested to see where the author goes next.

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