Perhaps the most illusive ambition of the Civil Rights Era was the drive to unite lower-income Americans across racial lines. For longer than we’ve been a country, race has distorted class in America, but the influence of race has never been absolute. Looking past the Jim Crow Era to the Antebellum South, historian Keri Leigh Merritt has described conditions in a time before the racial boundaries we see now were fully crafted.
Merritt’s book, Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South, paints a picture of Antebellum life in which racial divisions were relatively unsettled and racial identities were surprisingly ambiguous. Masterless Men describes slave owners’ desperate and doomed defense of their privileges not only against the people they treated as property, but against a restive mass of hopelessly poor whites who threatened the established order.
A highly pessimistic view of race relations, best typified today by the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates, is gaining broader acceptance, but Merritt’s research offers an alternate narrative. Restoring our memory of a time when racial boundaries were still being hammered into place sheds light on the original weaknesses in that barrier. It was never inevitable that race would define our identities. That dark technique for blunting our political will remains more flawed and brittle now than we probably realize.
Her book was so surprising and its implications for the present so interesting, that I reached out to ask if she’d participate in a Q&A. I wanted to give you a chance to hear more from her on some of these subjects.
Dr. Merritt agreed and I am very thankful for her time. My questions and her responses follow.
Southerners are often prickly about discussing the past. There’s a prevailing attitude of denial and a sense that this history, over which we have no control, is wielded against us as rhetorical weapon. Why is this history important now?
I understand this unease – this unease was part of what initially drew me to history. As a white Southern child I was taught a lot of that denial, not just at home, but in public school as well. The more I learned, it seemed, the more I had to be completely ashamed of; I realized early on that everything I achieved, everything I received in life, was at least due in part to my race. And this realization, and its impending guilt, is something with which all white Americans need to grapple. The near-complete refusal of white America to engage these types of thoughts, along with a willful ignorance of both the past and the present, has stalled our path to any type of racial conciliation. We can co-exist, we can live together in relative peace, but white Americans have never had a true psychological reckoning for our past sins; hell, we’ve never even offered a sincere apology.
I think the Southern experience is incredibly important right now because it can act as a counternarrative to what Trump, Bannon, and the rest of the white supremacists want the public to believe. When we are exposed to the “messiness” of reality, the messiness of history, we see that things aren’t quiet as simple as textbooks – or designing politicians – would have us believe. Although there is so much that is just awful about our history, there are also times of incredible hope, of promise, of genuine kindness and sacrifice. There have been many instances throughout our history when people of different races, religions, and backgrounds worked together for the common good, collectively fighting for civil and political rights. These stories help stop us from viewing history as teleological; they show that there’s at least a chance for a different future.
Our understanding of race, class, and politics in the South is usually dominated by what I would call “The Mississippi Burning Thesis” of race relations. It’s an idea borrowed from Gene Hackman’s speech in that film about his character’s father, suggesting that lower wealth whites will tolerate almost any degree of political abuse from elites as long as they can see themselves as better than blacks. Your book seems to challenge that understanding, at least as it pertains to the Antebellum years.
Does your research undercut that theory of race relations in the present? Does it point to avenue through which lower income Americans might form political alliances across older lines of racial identity?
I think that my research complicates what has always seemed to be a rather simple narrative. Surely, at certain times and in certain places, racial superiority is all that matters to some people. But life is generally a lot more complicated than simple racial hatred. All people resent their own oppression, even when they are much “less oppressed” than other groups. Even if you finish last in the “Pain and Oppression Olympics,” you’re still in pain and oppressed.
Most (certainly not all, but most) historians today completely ignore class as a unit of analysis, as another possibly-complicating factor. But American history has always been driven by class strife, class aspirations, and class divisions – and this spans across every time period and every racial/ethnic group. By simply including class as a factor in our narratives, we are able to provide a much more nuanced, accurate reality. People don’t always act rationally, many times they act impulsively and instinctively, and perhaps even more often they seemingly act against their own self-interests.
I certainly think there’s hope for political alliances across racial lines. Honestly, that currently may be our country’s only path of salvation.
Your research uncovers forced labor imposed on indebted, orphaned or “criminal” whites that bears remarkable similarity to slavery. This is a history I’ve rarely seen described elsewhere, suggesting that race was a weaker protection against the abuses of a slave culture that we have generally imagined. From your book (p.241):
“poor white debtors and criminals were auctioned off for their services, with all the allegory that practice entailed.”
“these methods saved county governments money while further privatizing the responsibilities of localities.”
“In one case of debt for child support (bastardy), a court in 1843 sold Bryant Weathersbee for a period of ten years.”
Do these practices tell us anything about modern attitudes toward government in South politics?
I think you can find a lot of parallels between the Old South and our current political crisis. During the nineteenth century, rural Americans had a deep distrust of government in general. A lot of this stemmed from the fact that they saw few of the concrete benefits of government (roads, infrastructure, schools), and often felt wrongfully taxed for services they did not use.
Concerning the criminal justice aspect of the book, I do believe that in many ways, the slave South, with its myriad forms of un-free labor, set the tone of our criminal justice system up through the present day. It’s an incredibly punitive system that is still dependent upon the payment of fees by the accused. It is a system that does not even attempt to rehabilitate, but instead damns the accused – and their families – to further penury and loss of both civil rights and economic opportunity.
Perhaps most importantly, though, these practices demonstrate how despotic politicians easily use fear to manipulate the masses and even affect the outcome of elections.
Your research treads on some politically sensitive terrain, presenting more ambiguity in racial boundaries than we’re used to hearing and exposing uncomfortable blurriness over the extent of slavery beyond the black community. Are you getting any resistance or criticism in academia over this portion of your work?
It’s too early to have gotten much pushback, but I’m sure it’s coming. There are a lot of white – and even some black – Southerners who don’t want to admit to how much racial intermixing there has been throughout our long and tumultuous history. Of course, some of this intermixing was simply rape – predicated upon violence and power, some was purchased or traded, and some was simply the product of genuine romantic love.
But I’m absolutely convinced that all the new personal DNA tests will show the validity of what I’m saying. There’s an entire category of white Southerners who brag about having “a Native American (often Cherokee) grandmother.” The reality of the situation is that they are much more likely to have an ancestor from Western Africa.
There are hints in Masterless Men of a nascent alliance taking shape in the late Antebellum years between landless whites and slaves. Thanks to films like Cold Mountain and Free State of Jones, an awareness is emerging of dissent within the South during the Civil War. Your book goes a long way toward explaining how that resistance formed.
That alliance seems to have disintegrated during Reconstruction. You describe some the reasons in late chapters, but this seems to be a promising new line of inquiry. Are you considering picking up this subject with more research? What are you planning to do next?
I did leave Masterless Men a little open-ended for a variety of reasons: primarily because Reconstruction is way too complicated for me to attempt to try and explain things without an entirely new book. So, maybe someday (if someone doesn’t beat me to it) I’ll write what would basically be a continuation of these same themes. In the little bit of research I have done, it becomes apparent that in the Deep South states there is a critical shift – a realignment if you will – of race and class during the first few years following the Civil War. The entire era is so hard to explain; everything is in constant flux, laws are changing over and over, political alliances keep shifting, it’s a complete mess. But maybe one day I’ll attempt it.
My next book, though, is still set in the mid-nineteenth century Deep South. Studying the criminal justice system (sheriffs, slave patrols, militias, vigilance committees, etc.), this book will ultimately link the rise of professional, uniformed police forces to the end of slavery. I’m going to try to write this book for more of a popular audience; it will be published with a trade press.
And finally, a book I co-edited, Reconsidering Southern Labor History: Race, Class, and Power, will be published this coming summer with University Press Florida.
Thanks so much for your time and interest, Chris. For all of your readers, please follow me on Twitter @kerileighmerrit, or look me up: kerileighmerritt.com. The paperback of Masterless Men comes out December 14. Happy Holidays!