As is now widely known, the Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton recently proposed legislation that would deny federal funding to schools that in any way used the The New York Times controversial 1619 project in its curriculum. This series in The New York Times, of course, explores the history of the United States through the lens of slavery, premised on the fact that accounts of slavery have not been expansively, roundly, and fully incorporated into accounts of U.S. history, particularly in its earliest stages. Nikole Hannah-Jones, the project’s creator, has been awarded a Pulitzer Prize for her commentary on the series, and the Pulitzer Center and The New York Times have since collaborated to create a curriculum based on the project which schools can now adopt.
This last prospect upsets Cotton for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. Does he not want children in America to confront the horrors of an American institution that inflicted untold violence on other human beings, subjecting them to being owned, having their labor exploited, and being denied any human rights and any protection under the law?
I guess not. What we do know, at a minimum, is that Cotton wants us all, including the generations that come after us, to understand slavery in the United States as a “necessary evil.” He told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, “As the Founding Fathers said, it was the necessary evil upon which the union was built, but the union was built in a way, as Lincoln said, to put slavery on the course to its ultimate extinction.”
So they can study slavery, maybe in some form, but they must understand how necessary it was to dehumanize African people because of the color of their skin in order to have created America, to have made the nation as it is today, possible.
I have heard critics such as Deval Patrick take Cotton to task for the abomination his argument is, particularly on moral grounds. Patrick, for example, has responded to Cotton, writing,
When America’s greatness comes only at the expense of others, we all lose. For what makes America great is not our wealth, our military might, or our historic milestones. Nations of great treasure, formidable armies, or storied history have come and gone with the winds of time. America is great when we affirm, by our actions not just our words, our civic ideals of equality, opportunity and fair play — the essential ingredients of liberty. In a very real sense, America was founded as a nation with a conscience. America is great when America is good.
But what we also need to understand is the dangerous ridiculousness Cotton’s understanding of our political and economic history.
While it is true that the U.S. became a prosperous nation on the backs of enslaved African Americans, it is hardly true that enslaving and exploiting people’s labor was necessary to make the U.S. an economic powerhouse and wealthy nation.
It was only necessary to make us a class-divided and racist nation.
The best person to offer this critique is the formerly enslaved American writer and activist Frederick Douglass (yes, Donald Trump, he’s still doing great things!).
In his work The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Douglass offers an analysis of the relationship between racial liberation–the end of racial labor exploitation–and the larger economic self-interest of society at large, including whites.
At the end of his narrative, when he makes it North to freedom in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Douglass finds himself in a state of wonder, mesmerized by and in virtual disbelief of the wealth that appears before his eyes. He sees African Americans and workers of all types living in homes and is amazed at the absence of poverty and suffering. The reason the wealth and high standard of living all seem to enjoy in the North is such a revelation is that heretofore, in the political economy of slavery, Douglass has witnessed the production of wealth for some as entailing the suffering and degradation of many. Imagining wealth being produced without brutalizing many in the process was impossible for him.
Every thing looked clean, new and beautiful. I saw few or no dilapidated homes, with poverty-stricken inmates; no half-naked children and barefooted women, such as I had been accustomed to see in Hillsborough, Easton, St. Michael’s, and Baltimore. The people looked abler, stronger, healthier, and happier, than those of Maryland. I was for once made glad by a view of extreme wealth, without being saddened by seeing extreme poverty. But the most astonishing as well as the most interesting thing to me was the condition of the colored people, a great many of whom, like myself, had escaped thither as a refuge from the hunters of men. I found many, who had not been seven years out of their chains, living in finer houses, and evidently enjoying more of the comforts of life, than the average of slaveholders in Maryland.
Clearly, this is a moment of idealization with purpose, as we know in the narrative that Douglass continued to face racial discrimination.
So what is Douglass trying to show us?
The implicit argument in Douglass’s narrative is that the most efficient and productive economy is actually the most humane economy. Humanity, as opposed to exploitation and oppression of any kind, is the key to creating an efficient economy that produces a high standard of living for all.
In other words, slavery was no necessary evil. It was necessary only to promote and perpetuate the evils of racism, labor exploitation, violence, and repression in U.S. culture and society.
Douglass seeks to disabuse us of the dangerous belief, held by Cotton apparently, that for some to be prosperous, others must suffer.
To create a truly prosperous society, Douglass recommends creating conditions that allow people to fully flourish so they can be as productive and creative as possible in contributing to the economy. A humane economy, Douglass teaches us, is the most efficient and productive economy.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.
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