PROPELLED BY FEAR: From America’s “Slave Codes” to “Black Codes” and Modern-Day “Negrophobia”

“Negro writers, just being black, have been on the blacklist all our lives.  Do you know that there are libraries in our country that will not stock a book by a Negro writer, even as a gift? There are towns where Negro newspapers and magazines cannot be sold except surreptitiously.  There are American magazines that have never published anything by Negroes.  There are film studios that have never hired a Negro writer.  Censorship for us begins at the color line…”   (From 1957 symposium speech by J. M. Langston Hughes, an African-American Poet & Writer)

 

Irrational Fixations  

When Langston Hughes made this stunning observation, above, I was into my second year of high school, an all-black private academy in Kentucky, about 30 miles west of my home town.  It was just before transferring back home for my final two years, at the mostly white high school, as flak from the desegregation hoopla was still hitting the fan. 

Widely known in the African-American community as the “Poet Laureate of Harlem,” Hughes had made those remarks within a speech to a national group of writers, in New York City, on the heels of earlier McCarthyism witch hunts, driven by fear of possible influence on American arts and institutions. Coming from Hughes, the comments were significant, since he hailed from the Harlem Renaissance period (1920s and 30s) when black writers wrote and published profusely, “…when the Negro (and, Harlem) was in vogue.” 

I became aware of his soulful writings within my own early passion for writing and poetry, while growing up in the shadows of a segregated South. I had already experienced the difficulty of locating black novels and newspapers and felt the vicious stings of racism within Mr. Hughes’ observations.  He was describing to his peers the various forms of fear of and/or contempt for black culture or black people. But, I didn’t fully understand this irrational fixation, coined “Negrophobia,” until my later life experiences.

Those experiences, including athletics, the Navy, and later becoming a “soldier” on the frontier of workplace integration in civilian life, taught me that the true, multi-cultural America wanted to rid itself of this racialized rut as much as I.  Later, within the everyday scratching for a living and pursuit of happiness, I began to realize that this senseless modern-day “Negrophobia” was often problematic and counter-productive- not only for Black America, but for White America, as well. For the nation, the way I saw it, it was like cutting off your nose to spite your own face.

Yet, the suppressed pages of harsh experiences and ugly episodes of our collective past reveal a marked progression of white panic, from the time Africans were first imported to the Americas, enslaved and free, for assorted purposes of economic, sexual and medical exploitation, to advance the cause of America’s ultimate independence from the long reach of the British Empire and “taxation without representation.”

Seeds of Hate, Roots of Fear

To truly understand this complex journey, from whence we all came, fraught with political booby traps and social pitfalls, along the way, we ought to travel back in time to the fear that gripped America, in the wake of the hushed, but spiraling, slave revolts in the South. It was the leading edge of the nation’s plans regarding Reconstruction legislation and what the heck to do with the newly freed Negro, following the Civil War. 

Retracing some of those steps is what I found myself doing, in view of the seemingly resurgence of peculiar racism, politicized lies and wacky distortions about our president and the all-American family currently occupying the prized White House, amid the perplexing cries in some corners of society for “taking their country back.”  To understand it, I simply returned to the mountain of independent studies research, painstakingly assembled during my parallel pursuits of Black History and Ancient-African history studies, while simultaneously chasing a B.S. degree at night, cultivating a career in the day and raising a family.

It seemed to me that America’s loony “Negrophobia” started barreling downhill, years before the Civil War. On the heels of spiraling slave rebellions, it rushed to the front of the stage when Virginia’s famous South Hampton County Resurrection took place, during the summer of 1831. That’s when the preacher-slave, Nat Turner, called “The Prophet” by some slaves, spurred on by “messages from God” inside his head, launched what came to be known as one of the largest slave uprising that North America.  Arguably, it may have been the largest the Deep South had ever seen, igniting fears of payback and retribution in white communities and legislatures across the cultivated landscapes of rice, cotton, sugar and tobacco plantations.

In the process, according to historians, Nat Turner and some 70-plus African-Americans, free and enslaved, went on a 2-day killing spree, allegedly murdering nearly 60 white men, women and children, including his master, Joseph Travis and his family. Also killed were other whites they encountered while setting free many slaves from the plantations and homes they attacked.  The lives of many so-called ‘poor whites’ were said to have been spared, due to the perceived shared experiences of poor whites and blacks, according to other historical archives.  It’s a concept I understood from my earlier childhood years of working and going to church in my grandparent’s racially mixed farming community, in Ohio. However, its inconsistency became as baffling as the biblical Ten Commandments seemed to become, once school desegregation began.

Two months after Turner’s rebellion, in the wake of the white mobs’ revenge-killing spree of some 200 blacks, Nat Turner was chased down, arrested and executed in an area I traveled widely as an investigator, in my last career.  It’s now known as Courtland, VA (formerly, Jerusalem, VA).  Various documents show that after he was hanged, his body was further assaulted “in hideous ways,” including being beheaded, flayed and quartered. That’s the way they “taught lessons” to others back then. Overall, 56 other blacks were convicted, some being hanged or sold out of state.

Entrenched Paranoia 

Years later, reactions to the exaggerated exploits of the Nat Turner’s Slave Rebellion, including the sanctioned mob-violence response, could be felt within all sorts of legal prohibitions against slaves and free blacks which limited various civil rights and beefed up existing ‘slave codes.’ This also included innocent black men, and women, accosted in public behind the fear mongering strategies of mob lynching and vile revenue-producing schemes of prison farm labor.

Slave Codes, not to be confused with ‘black codes,’ were stringent Colonial era laws enacted, during the 1600s and 1700s, in the lower South to govern the behavior of slaves.  According to historian John Hope Franklin (“From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans”), they covered nearly every aspect of slave life. While differences existed among the various states, they generally expressed the same idea that slaves were property, not people, and laws should protect ownership of such property, namely whites, against any dangers which might arise out of the gathering or presence of large numbers of “Negroes.” 

Furthermore, according to Franklin, the South felt that slaves should be kept in the lower or inferior class, subject to the authority and control of whites, in order to maximize discipline and work efficiency. This racialism and fancy sounding legalese outlined repressive laws. Slaves had no legal standing in the courts. A slave could not strike a white person, even in self-defense. Generally, the killing of a slave was not considered murder. However, “the rape of a female slave was regarded as a crime, but only because it involved trespassing,” according to Franklin.  And, runaway slaves could be killed on sight, if they refused to surrender.

Black Codes, on the other hand, emerged within the legal landscapes of the mid-1800s, following the Civil War. They were rooted in the earlier ‘slave codes,’ according to historical archives. But, their objective was to obtain a steady supply of cheap labor, primarily within the “inferior” class of newly freed slaves. After the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed in 1865, abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude, all former slave states in the South passed Black Codes which placed restrictions on the newly freed slave, with limited 2nd class civil rights and no voting rights. This action was stoked by the fear that whites were losing their lands and blacks would refuse to work, unless coerced, controlled or intimidated, as well as the new scare that blacks might claim social equality. 

The way it seems, this was a period somewhat similar to the highly charged political atmosphere of today.  The 13th Amendment, the first of three Reconstruction Amendments, ushered in a new period of constitutional arguments and radical congressmen, uncooperative with the president. Overt racism raised its ugly head, as well as government corruption and all sorts of racialized violence against voters.  Sound familiar?

It also launched a wave of racial intolerance behind the cowardly secret Ku Klux Klan and other white, terrorist-related paramilitary organizations.  This repugnant racial snobbery, like Anti-Semitism and the Jewish Holocaust, included the first taste of Jim Crow laws, designed to legalize racial segregation in public facilities, especially in the former Confederate States of America- the group that lost the Civil War. These same laws made America’s stands on human rights and equality the butt of jokes around the globe.

The “separate-but-equal” presumption within the throes of legal segregation, in the “land of the free, home of the brave” was also a joke, until the Civil Rights Movement led to passage of Civil Rights laws in the mid-1960s. But, the fear of black people and/or contempt for black culture seems to have only gone underground, until recently, based on the race-baiting and divisive politics that seems so prevalent, today.  And, it seems to take on new meaning within this election year’s highly offensive attack-advertisement strategy against President Barack Obama, by GOP Super PACs, within their idiotic desire to win- for the sake of winning- without any concerns for the total economic and social costs to the nation.

Reconstruction’s Broom

That also seemed to be the case during the Reconstruction periods. While the topsy-turvy political environment swept in a bevy of black politicians and experimental interracial government dynamics, behind the broom of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the vast majority of former slaves (an estimated 80%) became sharecroppers. They leased their lands from former slave owners.  While African-Americans improved their lot within education, political inroads, black churches and fraternal organizations, white ministers beefed up their pulpit preaching on blacks being an inferior race because of their interpretation of the “Curse of Ham.”  White supremacy remained the legally sanctioned order of the day.

Behind the toxic caricatures of the face of Reconstruction, painted on the public canvass of history, the successes for black politicians were unquestionably etched into the background.  Between 1868 and 1876, over 600 African-Americans served in eleven Southern states as state legislators.  There were also two U.S. Senators and 15 members of the U.S House of Representatives. But, the state of South Carolina stood out in my mind because, at the end of Reconstruction, four of its five congressmen were black.

I thought about this when recently attending the Annual Gullah Festival in Beaufort, SC. To get there, we traveled over the scenic “Robert Smalls Parkway” (a.k.a., Rt. 170). Robert Smalls, a black hero of the Civil War, was elected to Congress as representative of South Carolina. He was a former slave, born in Beaufort, SC, and later became a ship’s pilot, sea captain and politician. During the Civil War, he became famous by stealing a Confederate transport ship, the CSS Planter, in Charleston Harbor, and using it to escape slavery.

However, considering Robert Smalls and others who courageously served their nation during the politically hostile Reconstruction years, perhaps it may have been P.B.S. (Pinckney Benton Stewart) Pinchback that stood out the most, for me.  Pinchback (of mixed African, Scotch-Irish, Welsh and German descent and a Commissioned Union Army Officer of a “Colored Infantry” regiment, in the Civil War), was light skinned, with straight hair, and was raised as white. He also had a Mulatto wife.  As acting governor of Louisiana, he became the first black person to serve as a state governor.  However, his term was very brief, due to white Congressional resistance he encountered. But, he mostly stood out for me because of his linkage of the political past to the political present, in Virginia, where I now reside.

Still Sweeping Out the Past

After white resistance was successful in contesting his election results, the march of black political gains seemed to have come to a screeching halt- until 1990, here in Virginia, before another African-American became governor anywhere in the United States. This was our esteemed “Guv,” Governor Lawrence Douglas Wilder, the first African-American elected Governor of Virginia, since Reconstruction

Yet, when you look back at the systemic attempts to limit or prevent African-Americans from obtaining equal participation in or benefits of American citizenship, you only begin to sense the associated frustration and rage. You may also get a sense of why certain members of the GOP status quo, teetering on the edges of states’ rights, interposition and nullification, still dripping from their lips, might be fearful of reprisals and retributions. You might even see why the inbred disease of racism within our society is so problematic and counter-productive to a nation that once had the capacity to lead other nations out of the darkness of hate and inhumane treatment. 

However, none of this excuses the irrational cries by some to take their country back, as well as insidious suggestions of a coming race war, or ridiculous claims that our president is not an American- within the backdrop of some deep-seated fear of blacks eventually taking over a previously Eurocentric America.  While the fake right-wing clamoring sprouts from the twisted roots of Colonial history, its modern-day manifestation is the pea-brained cousin of the minds which launched Anti-Semitism, the Jewish Holocaust and other 20th century racial snobbery around the globe.

The multicultural, “Real America” I know wants to rid itself of this despicable infestation of racial animosity. The way I see it, the real reason for all of the phony fuss is likely due to the fact that the Obama-Biden Administration already has its finger on the true pulse of the nation, which has kick-started our return to economic prosperity.  In my opinion, the GOP “Party of No,” marching behind their cancerous resistance philosophy, simply wants to position itself for the credit.

“Backstreet Djeli”  w.d.s.

 

 

One thought on “PROPELLED BY FEAR: From America’s “Slave Codes” to “Black Codes” and Modern-Day “Negrophobia”

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About William "Duke" Smither (formerly, pen name: "Backstreet Djeli")

William "Duke" Smither, author of “BACKROADS TO 'BETHLEHEM': Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior, in the Shadows of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade,” is a Frankfort Kentucky native; Richmond Virginia resident. Retired Public Utility Sr. Investigator and nuclear site worker, Married w/ 3 children and 6 grandchildren; U.S. Navy Viet Nam Era & Cuban Missile Crisis Veteran; Member of "Cuban Blockade Survivors" & The American Legion; B.S. Degree (Business Mgmt) w/ independent studies in Ancient African History and African-American History. Post-graduate studies in Criminal Justice Administration. Former Sports & Feature writer for the weekly Richmond Afro-American Newspaper, during Freshman year of college. Retirement activities include: Freelance writer, playwright, actor and director of faith-based community theater productions; founder of "Backstreet's Blog" ("Talking Drum Dialogues") at www.backstreetdjeli.com and contributing writer for "BlackPast.Org," the international, on-line reference center for African American History. His debut novel, “BACKROADS TO 'BETHLEHEM': Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior…,” is the first installment of a possible historical-fiction trilogy.