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“A necessary part of the process…”

Okay, I’m not going to lie, I felt like I was really kind of dragging to get myself through the entire Olmstead text. However, one thing that I was particularly struck by as I moved through the text was the multiple references to the effects of slavery not on those enslaved, but on their owners. Olmstead mentions how several gentlemen he encountered “honestly and confidently believe the institution to be a beneficial one” and consider cruelty to be “a necessary part of the process” (112-113). Later in the text Olmstead recounts meeting a woman from Ireland who, when living in Ireland wouldn’t have dared to own a slave, but “very soon had to change her views on arriving in Texas…and now she had just as lief whip a [slave] as not” (249). As if this isn’t disturbing enough, I went ahead and read Chapter 10 from An Empire for Slavery, which states, “Masters complained regularly about the difficulty of managing slaves and emphasized the need for strict discipline” (207).

After I got over my initial “wait…what??” reaction to reading these passages, it struck me that this may in fact be some of the earliest instances of White privilege and self-centeredness. It seriously sounds as though these slave owners are sitting around looking at each other saying, “Man, it sure is stressful having to manage/beat my slaves on a daily basis, but someone has to do it!” In case you’re not feeling icky enough just thinking about this whole institution, Olmstead’s text makes several references to indications that the slaveowners legitimately believed that those they enslaved not only wanted but needed to remain in such a state. The text is oozing with statements such as “Norther folks talk about abolishing Slavery, but there wouldn’t be any use in that,” or “Oh! the negroes were the laziest things in creation; there was no knowing how much trouble they gave to look after them” (120). After I shook off the “icky” reaction to reading these blatant attitudes of Whites that they not only deserved to own slaves but that it was for the slaves’ own good, I started to wonder if there are any narrative texts written by slaveowners from the time period? I’m sure there exist some diaries or documentation somewhere, but I’m almost positive that I’ve never heard of a major narrative text based from the point of view of a slaveowner. This is probably because it would be appalling and almost impossible to stomach and push through, but I can’t help but feel that it might provide some interesting insight into the inner workings of the institution. I’m sure any narrative text from a slaveowner’s point of view would have been heavily edited to flatter the White people more, but I’m still intensely curious about what exactly these texts might say. Maybe by understanding the attitudes and inner thoughts of these slaveowners we could better understand why so much effort has been put in to covering up slavery in Texas.

  1. February 8, 2011 at 3:07 pm

    I think you’re absolutely correct. After all, think about all the different ethos’ white Southern culture went through trying to justify the institution of slavery: economic necessity, paternalism, might is right/eugenics — it’s crazy just how desperately people wanted to defend their right to slavery. And, you know, I think it’s because once you’ve ingrained something that evil into your mind as commonplace and acceptable, you feel the need to desperately hold onto both the institution and the excuse in order to simply keep yourself from facing the evil of it. Does that make sense?

    Also, I really liked your insight on his focus on the slave-owners and not the slaves in order to make his pitch for abolitionism. :] Good work

  2. February 8, 2011 at 3:59 pm

    First of all…in response to Katie’s comment-I completely agree. I would imagine that many of these slave owners’ processes were similar. They had slaves and attempted to justify it anyway possible and only associated with people who did the same, so it eventually sounded normal. They told themselves these lies for so long, they began to believe them. And if they didn’t, they would go mad.
    As for the statement about a narrative from a slave owner…I would be fascinated to read that book. I googled “slaveholder narrative” and a number of variations but to no prevail. You’re absolutely right though. People would be disgusted to read it, but I think it would be extremely beneficial in further depicting the slave-owner relationship. Class project: publish a book of slaveholders’ narratives.

  3. rh567
    February 8, 2011 at 5:49 pm

    I think that is an incredibly true point that you made, Katie. But not only about slavery and slave holders; during the holocaust or even people with eating disorders (not to compare the two in any way), one is and was constantly having to disillusion oneself into believing that their action or ideal is the right action morally for that particular situation. And we must reject any ideal that argues that point.

    I think the idea of racism being something everyone participated in, abolitionist or not, is really prevalent in the shaping of literary documents or works. I believe anything written in that time period is very likely (not 100%, but 95%) to be racist in their views.

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