Friday, March 17, 2017
Book Review 384: Been in the Storm So Long
Although slaves had been freed in Latin America, Haiti and the British Empire within living memory of the Civil War generation, Americans came to their great emancipation without any settled ideas about what to do if you were a freed slave, or what the rest of the society ought to do. “Been in the Storm So Long” draws on an immense store of first-person accounts to tell how Americans reacted.
The story begins in 1862, when the Union Army occupied the Sea Islands, whose population was almost all black, and which became even blacker when the whites fled.
After great debate and with considerable misgivings, President Lincoln finally authorized raising troops from among the freedmen, but before that the army had adopted a hands-off attitude: the residents of the islands continued planting and harvesting cotton and food crops, fishing and raising hogs.
Had anyone seriously studied the results, a template could have been discerned for Reconstruction: a land to the tillers policy would have addressed the question of how 4 million freedmen who had had little chance of education were to support themselves.
But as the history proceeds, the picture darkens. Race war comes to the South, as whites begin murdering and terrorizing blacks. Once the Confederate army disbands, the Union officers side with the whites. Crimes against blacks are not punished. In many instances, Northern soldiers force freedmen to work on plantations, sometimes without remuneration.
Litwack is the not the kind of historian to psychoanalyze, or even psychologize, his subjects, but the mere quotation of white opinion reveals a population that can only be described as psychotic: cruel, greedy, corrupt, paranoid, crazy.
For black people — both freedmen and those of the small prewar free black population — emancipation brought a combination of joy, optimism, despair and resignation.
In his final chapter, Litwack tries to describe how southern blacks used religion, social organization and American ideals to crete a “people.”
This history ends in 1867, when the initial period of confusion had settled into a pattern: white southerners were not going to give up supremacy, and the Radical Republicans were going to counter with occupation and deprivation of civil rights to force the south to accept, at least, civil and political equality for all its citizens.
The South won that war.
“Been in the Storm so Long” was published in 1979 and was, even then, a somewhat old-fashioned history. Today, there would be some attempt to quantify the situation.
A modern historian would tell us how many acres blacks managed to acquire or how many were murdered by vigilantes. If records are lacking for the whole South, then some representative sections would suffice.
But there is hardly a statistic in the book.
It is no less powerful for that. From among thousands of anecdotes, one stands out:
“As the Yankees neared the plantation, the mistress commanded the slaves to remain loyal. ‘If they find that trunk o’ money or silver plate,’ she asked Jule, ‘you’ll say it’s your’n, won’t you?’ The slave stood there, obviously unmoved by her mistress’s plea. ‘Mistress,’ she replied, ‘I can’t lie over that; you bo’t that silver plate when you sole my three children.’ “