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America can run from its racist past but it can't hide

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America can run from its racist past (and present) but it can't hide

A Review of the book: American Uprising 
by Daniel Rasmussen

In a rare glimpse into the dark side of American history, Dan Rasmussen, a 26-year old summa cum laude History major at Harvard, as a senior thesis, has put together a beautiful rendition of a lost but important part of the American national story. It is a story (a tale really) about the carefully orchestrated slave insurrection that took place in New Orleans on one cold rainy Sunday morning in January 1811. 

The story is basically this: A trusted mulatto slave driver, Charles Deslondes, using access commonly granted slaves during the year-end festivities in New Orleans, collaborated with nearby like-minded slaves on adjacent sugar plantations (two in particular named Kook and Quamana). At great risk to being discovered, he and his confederates were able to put together a plan which they executed to perfection. And for three days, they successfully wreaked fear and havoc on the plantations all along the road leading to the gates of New Orleans. They killed their plantation owners, burned down their houses and sugar plants; stole guns, horses, ammunition and provisions, including military uniforms. Marching in military formation with an African drum corps, they came within a hair of entering and taking over the city of New Orleans. [Today, you can find the major streets in New Orleans named after the martyred sugar plantation owners. But nowhere will you find the names Deslondes, Kook or Quamana.]   

However, luck was not on the rebels side. After three days of being under siege, the planters were able to piece together (mostly from betrayals by their non-rebel slaves) the plans of the rebels. They were then able to rally their forces sufficiently to be able to ambush and then defeat the ragtag army of nearly 500 slaves. 

In the trial that followed, justice (if it can be called that), was swift, brutal and final. And in a macabre demonstration unbefitting a civilized nation, more than 100 rebels were beheaded and impaled on sticks that were then used to decorate the same road to New Orleans that the rebels had conquered. 

The story is a novel mixture of fragmentary evidence (reconstructed mostly from court records of the trials and the oral history told by the surviving rebels and their families) skillfully woven together into a very plausible and believable story. Rasmussen uses a vivid and "history tempered" combination of facts and imagination to extrapolate and interweave what would otherwise just have been a slender thread of porous and skimpy facts, into a much more substantial, robust scenario that carried the story to its explosive conclusion. The art of substituting available facts in similar uprisings, in my view worked to perfection. He is allowed to get away with this narrative trick because as we all know, the discrete details of the history of struggles often look exactly the same, and in any case do not matter nearly as much as the logic of the situations and the outcomes of executing plans, strategies and tactics of the rebellions themselves -- all of which were the main subjects of the author's storyline.

Although the revolt itself was a failure, arguably its ramification can still be felt. And the context of the story leading up to it, and what occurred in its aftermath, not only tells us a lot about the period in which the uprising occurred, but also (and I believe more importantly), about the kind of society we have constructed as a result of this and other slave rebellions. That the whole insurrection was "written out of" U.S. history says more about the fear of those intent on maintaining the white supremacist status quo (both then and now) than it did about the spirit of the slaves. Which seen objectively, was just another strain of yearning that was consistent with the same spirit that motived the founding fathers to fight for their freedom against Britain. 

That the latter was "written out of history" while the former became American history is an understandable part of America's well-honed collective ability to forget and deny "inconvenient truths" about its sordid past. Something the author termed "historical amnesia." It seems that wherever there is honest American history to be told, greed, racism, religion, sex and unspeakable violence as well as "willful historical amnesia," are not to be found too far behind. In the end, I believe the underlying moral of this story is that America can run from its racist past but it can't hide.

Said somewhat differently, there is a crude but grotesque kind of poetic symmetry in the fact that both Thomas Jefferson and the rebel slaves were motivated by the same emerging spirit of the French Revolution. That spirit was best expressed by the French tract called "The Rights of Man," which actually became the centerpiece of the new French Constitution and was penned mostly by Jefferson as an honor given to him by the French while he was Ambassador to France. Arguably it was the "The Rights of Man," that led to both the American and the French revolutions, and certainly to the American Declaration of Independence, as well as to the slave revolts both in the U.S. and across the Americas. 

Thus, both the founding fathers and the slave insurgents were operating from the same politically motivated script of "freedom, liberty, equality and justice." Yet, in a pattern that has now become a familiar American historical trope, if not its primary legacy: when the time came to live up to the tenets of the founding ideals, that is to say, when the time came to give them more than just lip service, we discover that those ideals were really reserved only for "white men."

Given the backdrop to the rebellion, which occurred in the aftermath of Toussaint L'overture's defeat of Napoleon's army in Haiti, it is easy to see that this context of rebellion along with "The Rights of Man," was at least as important as the rebellion itself. For L'overture's set the political table, not just for the slave rebellion in America, but also for slave rebellions throughout the Americas, as well as a great deal of American history, such as: making blacks slaves in perpetuity, the black codes, and the most feared and most inhuman law of all, the fugitive slave Act; the Louisiana Purchase which effectively doubled the size of this nation; the Trail of tears" in which Andrew Jackson ejected the Cherokee from east of the Mississippi; the admission of Louisiana and Texas into the union as slave states, the ejection of Spain from the West, etc. 

However, the greatest surprise in the book to me was to discover that L'overture's victories in Haiti were not just quick cheap easily reversible victories, but occurred over a sustained period of more than 12 years, and included, in addition to defeating Napoleon's army, the defeat of the Spanish army and a British Expeditionary force of more than 60,000. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that it was the success of the slave rebellion in Haiti that was the prelude to a great deal of American history to follow. But most important of all, it was L'overture's victories in Haiti that kept the smell of freedom in the air among slaves all across the Americas.

The symmetry between Thomas Jefferson's fight for freedom against the British and the rebels slaves fight for freedom against white supremacy in New Orleans is simply too palpable to be ignored. Yet, while Jefferson's reward was the Declaration of Independence, the slaves reward was to have their heads impaled on sticks that lined the road to New Orleans. This book dramatizes in grand fashion, the stinging contradiction that hoovers over American history like a cruel leitmotif of the American way of life. The author's crowning point of the book is that even willful historical amnesia cannot erase or easily hide the grotesqueness of this contradiction.  America can run from its racist past but it can't hide. A beautifully written book that is a great read.


 

 

Retired Foreign Service Officer and past Manager of Political and Military Affairs at the US Department of State. For a brief time an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Denver and the University of Washington at (more...)
 

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