Wishing for a Clear Right and Wrong: History, Perspective, and Condemnation   2 comments

Sometimes I wish things were simple – a clear right and a clear wrong.  Never has this wish been more fervent in me than as I do this research on American slavery, particularly at it was practiced by the man who built the plantations where I was raised and now live again. 

The General, as everyone here calls him, was a man of staunch principle.  He believed in Temperance and evangelical Christianity, and he believed that other people should believe the same. When he formed an idea about something – agriculture, education, plantation management – he held tight to that belief, almost rigidly so. And yet, when he encountered a better system, he almost always discarded the old and accepted the new.

He detested (I don’t think that’s too strong a word) the institution of slavery, and yet, he owned, over the course of his lifetime, almost 300 people.  He wanted the “cursed” practice to end, but he didn’t believe in abolition because he thought 1) it could lead to war  2) the enslaved people were not “ready” to live life free and 3) the white people of the States were not ready to live in harmony with black people. Instead, he offered 14 people emancipation on the condition that they signed a Temperance pledge, professed Christianity, behaved by his moral standards, and agreed to emigrate to Liberia.  This was his solution to the dilemma he saw.

For him, complete abolition was unthinkable. It would crush the Southern economy, create a class system where blacks were unable to compete, and launch a full-out war.  To my mind, the first is probably a good thing since the Southern economy was built on slavery. The third concern, well, that was perhaps on the horizon in any case, and perhaps, sadly, it was also necessary. The second concern about class structures and racial inequality, well, he was right.  When you keep people enslaved and uneducated, they can’t compete.  That said, how do you justify perpetuating the system that has created this situation?

He educated some of his slaves. He freed. He did something.  I don’t think he did enough.

In the 21st century, with the Civil Rights Movement behind me and the accepted (by most, at least) equality of people from all races, I want to look back and condemn him.  I want – as a woman who has benefited from the way our society has grown and changed, who has benefited from suffrage and civil rights  – and condemn him for his ignorance.  I want to stand in judgment and pronounce him guilty.  But I find I can’t, at least not completely.

Do I think he was wrong? Absolutely. Do I think his choices horrificly harmed hundreds of people and their descendants? Absolutely.  Do I think he could have made better choices? Absolutely.  Do I think I could have made similar poor choices if I was him? Probably.

I really want to take a righteous stance and say, “The General’s practices were abhorrent.” I really, really want to do that because on so many levels, I believe that to be true. Yet, I cannot because – as misguided as he was – I believe he was trying to make the best choice he could.  It’s just that his best choice was not good enough, not good at all really.

Perhaps the best I can do now is to condemn the practice and offer grace to the man.

It’s so easy to think there was a clear right and a clear wrong, particularly when we look back through time.  But if there’s one thing life and this research have taught me, it’s that there are no easy answers, only our best compromises for what is right at the time. We have to pray that they are enough, and sometimes – sadly – they are not.

When you look back at history, what periods/practices, do you want to condemn? Do you think that we have the right, responsibility, ability to judge the practices and people of the past?  Why or why not? I would really appreciate your answers because I’m still trying to think through these ideas and make my own thinking more clear.  Thank you.

Thank you to everyone who has supported the Kickstarter campaign for my book. I am so blessed by your gifts. I have six days to raise $5,139. If you could bless me again by sharing the campaign or even giving yourself, I would be blown over with gratitude – http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1596635732/you-will-not-be-forgotten. Thank you.

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Posted December 13, 2011 by Andi Cumbo-Floyd in Life Lessons

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2 responses to “Wishing for a Clear Right and Wrong: History, Perspective, and Condemnation

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  1. It’s the same experience when you look back through your own life, and see the places where you wished you had made better choices. We are so quick to judge ourselves. But you can only act on your best beliefs at the time – in life in general and your own in particular!

    • I thought the very same thing when I was writing this, Becca. Looking back, things always seem so clear, but in them, well, we just muddle on.

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