Q&A with the author of Masterless Men

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.

 

Keri Leigh Merritt, author of Masterless Men:Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South

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!

23 Comments

  1. It seems it’s not so much about either race or class as it is about power — the power belonging to whoever happens to be in charge of the criminal justice system, which at some point became based on economics more than on actual justice, with people having to sit in jail awaiting trial simply because they can’t afford bail, and prisons-for profit-and-labor which are the economic lifeblood of small towns to this day.

    1. And as Dr. Merritt points out, this economics-based justice system owes its existence to the institution of slavery.

      Maybe this is the problem that should be tackled today. Perhaps the goal should be to reform the justice system, for the good of all — poor, Black, White, Hispanic — and maybe this overall improvement in people’s lives will result in improved racial and social relations.

    2. In a way, Dr. Merritt’s viewpoint reminds me of Mr. Coates’s article on reparations in that both point out the importance of the economic aspect. Dr. Merritt stresses how economics plays a role in the justice system, as a continuation of slavery, especially for Blacks, and Mr. Coates calls for financial reparations owed to the descendants of Black people whose labor created most of the foundations and infrastructure of our nation.

      So both narratives are actually very similar.

      1. And by the same token, I think that looking at the problem from a financial perspective makes the issue more concrete, easier to understand, and therefore more sobering.

        It’s easy to dismiss the idea of reparations when it is based on vague feelings of guilt and shame for what happened in the past. It’s easier to comprehend when you see all the infrastructure and realize it was created from slave labor.

  2. A few weeks ago Chris said there was no way the Republicans were going to pass tax cuts. Now all they have to do is clear up the differences between two bills and it’s good to go. I thought Chris’ comment was interesting considering that pretty much throughout the year the Republicans have acknowledged publicly that they felt getting tax ‘reform’ through Congress would be easier than healthcare.

    The thing is, the healthcare bill stuff was an appeal to their ‘base’. But the problem with their base, as they found in 2016 beyond no certain terms, is that it’s a miasmic brew of toxicity and chaos completely unreliable to please, because there’s nothing you can do for them short of crowning each individual one king of their own domain and loading them with an army’s worth of artillery to make them happy — and then they’d just start going to war with each other.

    The Republican’s OTHER constituency is billionaire businessmen and corporations. These guys are reliable. Say what you want about their complete desire to take every last penny from the poor, they at least are structured and disciplined about it.

    So in retrospect, I feel, the last year has shown that the Republicans in office simply can’t get a handle on their base, and so can’t do anything for them; but they will do anything, literally anything, literally passing a bill that every single professional authority on tax and economy says is a complete piece of shit, for their sole remaining stable constituency. And that’s not crazy or hypocritical or evil of them. It’s literally the only thing they can do to keep their job, so it’s not surprising they would take action to do it.

    1. Fantastic! It seems to me that the South would be much better served to look forward, rather than back to the “Way things used to be”.

      But then that sums up the mind set of Progressives versus Conservatives and likewise the urban areas that are moving the US forward into the 21st Century versus the rural areas that want to stay in the mid 20th Century or in some cases go back to the 18th or 19th Centuries.

  3. Thanks for that informative Q&A! I will say one thing though: if it took poor whites being literally sold like slaves before they even considered the possibility of forming an alliance with poor blacks, I think that kind of proves Coates’s point…

    1. Actually, I don’t think much has changed in the past 24 hours. Chris’ tweets in the past few hours detail it pretty well.

      I have laid out this something like this scenario before:

      1. Mueller nails him to the wall with proof that is incontrovertible, at least for 60-65% of the population. The other 35-40% simply don’t care or are too far gone past rationality to accept reality.

      2. Congress flips to the Democrats in 2018, and they immediately vote on impeachment.

      3. The Senate may or may not flip, but either way, no way no how will 2/3 of the Senate vote yes.

      Then what happens?

      Further, the same scenario plays out if the tyrant publicly announces he is pardoning Flynn, and anyone else who is convicted of federal charges, and even fires Mueller. Law enforcement , and I use that term very loosely, will have no legal recourse if the House and/or Senate refuse to act.

      At that point, justice will have to be dispensed with a bullet.

      1. Trump can’t pardon Flynn on any state charges, and you may have noticed that Mueller has been working with the NY AG. So Flynn can’t off the hook so easy. Now I do share your lack of faith in the current Congress doing the right thing, even if Mueller produces video of Donny2Scoops personally taking $ from Russians. But a replacement Dem Congress could subpoena those tax returns, and that’s going to get his attention. He was willing to risk losing the election to avoid disclosing them. Congress is within its right to demand them. What would Donny-dotard do?

  4. Off Topic:
    The tax bill looks like it will pass. The senate needs to find $500 billion more in taxes. There must be some single low wage earner mothers Republicans can squeeze for the cash!
    From Fareed Zacaria:
    “Congress’s own think tanks — the Joint Committee on Taxation and the Congressional Budget Office — calculate that in 10 years, people making between $50,000 and $75,000 (around the median income in the United States) would effectively pay a whopping $4 billion more in taxes, while people making $1 million or more would pay $5.8 billion less under the Senate bill. And that doesn’t take into account the massive cuts in services, health care and other benefits that would likely result. Martin Wolf, the sober and fact-based chief economics commentator for the Financial Times, concludes, “This is a determined effort to shift resources from the bottom, middle and even upper middle of the U.S. income distribution toward the very top, combined with big increases in economic insecurity for the great majority.”

    I have been following this bill, mainly because of my past life. i was a tax accountant. I idea that the wealthy need help or that a tax cut for them will help anyone else is just absurd!
    the fact that the republicans would actually have the nerve to try this astounds me.
    And, the fact that the people who voted fro Trump are this stupid is, well, truly sad!

    Banana Republic, here we come!

    1. It’s demoralizing to see the tactics Republicans are using on major legislation. I understand the need to have tax reform to adjust for the changes in not only our domestic economy, but our inter-linked relationship to the global economy. All I ask and expect is that it will be pursued in a rational, fair, open manner. I am as concerned about the process as I am the details. You can’t “patch” a major piece of tax legislation like this, rush it through without non-partisan scoring and public hearings and expect a result that won’t be devastating to segments of the public.

      I understand that Congress feels it can “fix” any problems that may arise….as long as they get the initial plan through, but that doesn’t justify the pace nor the process that has been employed by Republicans. It is disheartening to see the callous disregard for the lives of average income earners juxtaposed against blatant partisanship for wealthy benefactors.

      This is exactly why divided government with a true checks and balance is critical to democracy. I don’t have any answers, only disappointments, which I, like millions of other Americans, seem unable to impact. The reality is that through skillful gerrymandering, unless there is a wave of unbelievable proportion, it will be impossible to wrest control of even one house of Congress away from Repubs, and thus offer some buffer to government run afoul of reason.

    2. I am in no way shocked that the GOP is attempting this- this is their last good chance to do it. After the dishonest crap they pulled with Merrick Garland’s SCOTUS nomination, I am also in no way surprised over their sleazy tactics. I am a bit amazed over just how many people seem to be fine with the prospect of the imminent screwing over. All I can say is batten down your financial hatches and be prepared to ride out some rough times. Some folks just gotta pee on the electric fence.

      1. As Chris noted earlier this year, maybe the best thing would be for this legislation to pass and people feel the pain so that they would finally begin to hold this Republican Congress and POTUS accountable….Of course, as noted by the Politico piece linked above, this fact will likely zoom right over the heads of 4 out of 10 people in America, with few if any consequences to those in power. Those who are still in the workforce have time to replenish savings – retirees don’t – and for many working class Americans, just like in the Great Recession, the price may be the loss of their home which is their most vulnerable and valuable asset.

        Meanwhile, in one week, the US Treasury runs out of money and Congress has to vote to raise the debt ceiling.

      2. I am afraid that you are right about the 35-40%. However, I did have a haircut yesterday and my hair dresser was very disparaging of the tax bill. She is normally fairly apolitical, as she has two young children and is very busy particularly with Christmas approaching. Furthermore, her husband is relatively conservative. He grew up in the conservative portion of the state. Yet she was upset enough about the tax bill that she had actually done some research and was following the bill. She even thought that T might flee the country as Chris mentioned earlier.

        I do realize this is WA, one of the left coast states and in Pugetopolis, to boot. Nevertheless, this incident may be revelatory. She was definitely holding POTUS and the GOP accountable.

  5. Ms. Merritt would draw much inspiration about the deep south and the forces revolving around racism if she read Greg Isles….His Natchez Burning trilogy is one of the toughest (as in blunt force) looks at racism in the south that I’ve ever read. I have the third book but it’s such difficult material that I have to pace myself in reading it.

  6. This looks like a really intriguing and perhaps enlightening book. I am going to put it on my reading list and will probably purchase either the hardback version or the paper back, rather than use an ereader. Anything that helps me to understand the racial perspective in the US is helpful. That is particularly so now that the Federal Government and the GOP is largely controlled by Southerners.

    In my comments below and my terminology, I am just attempting to define groups for the sake of discussion. I mean no disrespect. I am just groping for answers.

    One question that i’ve had for years, is why the predominantly white American culture, largely derived from Northern European norms, has not seemingly been able to assimilate American Blacks. I’ll define that term to mean the descendants from slavery, which were largely from West Africa. Yet on the other hand, I frequently observe recent immigrant groups from Africa – I’ll use the term African-American for those, that are assimilating reasonably well. Just by observation those seem to be predominantly from East Africa, i.e. Somalia, Kenya, etc. I realize there is really no basis for that except observation and anecdotal.

    One thought I’ve had is that the slaves were imported to America as a commodity, were stripped of their family structure, cultural identity, names, religion and then were largely treated as animals. That is basically unique for all the immigrant groups in America. That would be a real handicap combined with the latent racism present in American society, even in the best of times. To me that could explain the difficulty American Blacks have had. Barack Obama described that difficulty fairly well in “Dreams from My Father” and his father was from Kenya. Perhaps, this book will help to explain these difficulties..

    The other major group that comes to mind are the Native Americans. After signing the peace treaties, they have largely encountered similar obstacles that the American Blacks have. Many young Native Americans were removed from their families, shipped to boarding schools, lost their names, their culture and religion. For the Native Americans, significant portions of their culture has been retained and they do have the treaty protection. Perhaps they can overcome the ever present stigma and American culture can make sufficient accommodation that the Native Americans will become accepted as part of the American family.

    If any of you have any comments, I’d appreciate them.

    As an aside, I note that the author and I share the same last name including spelling. I would not be surprised if there is a relationship from many generations ago. I do know that my particular family moved West from the deep South, by way of West Texas. Perhaps, it was part of the exodus from the South following the Civil War. Also the attitudes, that some members of the family on the paternal side had towards Blacks was similar to those prevalent in the South. My nuclear family moved to WA from AZ in 1955. There also seems to be a branch that populated the Northern tier of states. That branch probably originally settled in the Northern states.

  7. The past couple years have been both illuminating and discouraging. It’s not that I wasn’t aware that there are some petty, racist assholes in this country, but my eye-opener is how many other people were willing to look the other way/ deny the problem/ or worst of all, make rationalizations. I don’t blame Mr. Coates for being pessimist; I feel that too. But the DNA tests are one little spark of hope. I had a good laugh reading stories about a few White sumpremacists finding out that they had some African ancestry.

    I take a biologist’s view- wide gene pools are healthy.

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