Omnibus: “Pretend you are a slave” part I

Literacy

“For a slave to have as much as a written piece of paper (other than a legitimate pass from his master) in his possession was enough to warrant punishment. . . . Slave parents were anxious for their children to learn how to read and write even though such erudition could result in their being sold or put to death.” Ervin L. Jordan

Following up Friday’s post regarding Douglas Wilson’s general incompetence as a historian, as well as the recent entry about the CREC’s false flag, please consider the following homework assignment taken from Omnibus volume III:

Session VIII: Writing
A Slave Letter

Pretend you are a slave who lives far away from your family. Write a letter to your wife/husband/ children. Tell them how you are, how you are doing, what your plans are, etc. Or for variation, pretend that you live in the South. You are a faithful Christian and your family has a couple of servants that help with work around the house. Write a letter to a relative or friend in the North who thinks that all slaves are mistreated and beaten. Explain how your family treats your slaves well and your view of slavery in general. (Eds. Douglas Wilson & G. Tyler Fischer, Omnibus III: Reformation to the Present [Lancaster, PA: Veritas Press, 2006], 179)

This “Pretend you are a slave” exercise assumes five conditions:

  1. A literate slave
  2. A married slave who enjoys the freedom to plan his life but is living far away from his family
  3. Slaves as “servants that help with work around the house”
  4. Northerners who believe false propaganda about slavery
  5. A positive view of race-based chattel slavery

However, little or no historical record exists to support these five assumptions. Indeed, the historians championed by Pastor Douglas Wilson of Christ Church, Moscow, as experts on southern slavery contradict these points and even Mr. Wilson denies some of them in his writings. Therefore, in the next few posts I want to quote the historical record and Mr. Wilson to demonstrate the falsehoods in these assumptions and hopefully demonstrate the real lesson this Omnibus exercise intends to teach. In doing this I shall limit myself to the shortlist of historians cited by Pastor Douglas Wilson of Christ Church, Moscow, in his book Black & Tan, to remove doubt about my sources.

A literate slave

Omnibus instructs the student to “Pretend you are a slave. . . Write a letter to your wife/husband/ children.” However, laws in the antebellum South prohibited slave literacy. Not all southern states codified this proscription, roughly half did not. However, all of southern culture embraced this principle because the slavocracy understood simple logic: Educated slaves would eventually figure out that the Bible-toting slaveholders kept their slaves captive in defiance of Scripture and the slaves would demand their freedom, if they did not revolt. Therefore, educated slaves posed a threat to the slaveholding regime and thus the prohibition against teaching slaves letters.

Proof

“A central argument for the laws in the South that prohibited literacy for the slaves was the fear that abolitionist literature would get to them.” — Douglas Wilson1

*   *   *

“After 1830 the forces in the South that stood for total abrogation of even the most elementary civil rights of slaves were in the ascendancy. They pressed the view that slaves were a special form of property to its fullest extent and developed novel attacks on the humanity of blacks. They also pressed for the vigorous enforcement of the slave codes, which entailed a rollback of whatever loosening in the civil isolation of slaves had occurred: Schools were closed; teaching of literacy even by masters was made a crime. . .” — Robert W. Fogel2

*   *   *

“For a slave to have as much as a written piece of paper (other than a legitimate pass from his master) in his possession was enough to warrant punishment. In the last census before the war, only forty Virginia free blacks were officially attending school. Schools for blacks, even private ones, were subject to extralegal suppression by racial vigilantes. Mrs. Margaret Douglass, a white woman who moved from Charleston, South Carolina, to Norfolk in 1845, was arrested in 1852 and charged with violating the state law that forbade the educational instruction of free black children. . . . Slave parents were anxious for their children to learn how to read and write even though such erudition could result in their being sold or put to death.” — Ervin L. Jordan3

*   *   *

“Churches in Kentucky set up schools for blacks and also enrolled them in Sabbath schools. But there as elsewhere by the 1830s public opinion made the education of black children increasingly difficult, not least because many recognized — and rejected — the manumissionist tendency of the proponents of literacy. Colonial Georgia had forbidden the teaching of slaves, but the new state government did not prohibit it until the aftermath of the Nat Turner rebellion and the onset of militant abolitionism in the 1830s. Then Georgia went the whole way and also made it an offense to provide slaves with paper or writing implements.” — Eugene D. Genovese4

*   *   *

“Notwithstanding brave efforts to teach blacks, community pressure against slave education in Texas, Florida, and South Carolina worked as well as legal prohibition. In late antebellum Alabama a Methodist preacher taught his slaves to read, only to have his neighbors threaten him with violence.” — Eugene D. Genovese5

*   *   *

Conclusion

This Omnibus “Pretend you are a slave” exercise has no historical foundation; it is completely detached from reality. If the Omnibus editors wanted to teach the realities of slavery to their students, they would have done better by giving this instruction:

Therefore, as you pretend to write this letter to your far-away family, please keep in mind two historical facts: (1) You do not know how to read or write, and (2) Your owner may put you to death if he catches with pen & paper.

But the Omnibus editors withheld the truth about slavery from their students and misled them with this particular assignment, which raises the question, Why did these professing Christian educators — including Douglas Wilson — deceive their students?


1 Black & Tan: A Collection of Essays and Excursions on Slavery, Culture War, and Scripture in America (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2005), 111.
2 Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1989), 397–8.
3 Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia (Charlottesville, VA: The University Press of Virginia, 1995), 101.
4 A Consuming Fire: The Fall of the Confederacy in the Mind of the White Christian South (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1998), 24. Please note Doug Wilson’s high praise for Genovese’s A Consuming Fire: “To my knowledge, this is simply the best book available on the relationship of slavery and the evangelical Christians in the South.” (Black & Tan [Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2005], 59.)
5 Ibid., 26.

3 Comments

  1. “You are a faithful Christian and your family has a couple of servants that help with work around the house. Write a letter to a relative or friend in the North who thinks that all slaves are mistreated and beaten. Explain how your family treats your slaves well”……. Wow. So, “Pastor” Wilson, the terms “servants” and “slaves” are interchangeable? Seems that a “servant” would be free to quit his/her “job” and move on to another “job” or another “profession”. Would this “faithful Christian” be able to tell his/her readers that “a couple of servants that help with work around the house” are free to move on to “a better opportunity” at any time? I highly doubt that. Yours is a very twisted worldview, “Pastor” Wilson.

  2. You are a faithful Christian family in the 21st century in a country where chattel slavery still exists. Try that one, Dougie. And let’s say that slave you could buy for a good price is a Muslim so, hey, evangelism, yeah!!! Doesn’t it seriously seem that Doug would love to be a literal slave master? And how he’d boast about how humane he was! He’d never fall in line with the horrific brutality of others within the slavery system of the antebellum South. Of course, that was SO rare, but, should he happen to reside in a small backward backwoods isolated locality where it was the norm HE would resist and set a standard for others.

    Neighbor: “Wilson, what are those lash marks I see on ol’ Jim?” Doug: “Oh! UH, the overseer must have misunderstood my wordsmithiness and thought I meant LITERAL whipping. *sigh* I’m so misunderstood. The burden of genius weighs heavy upon…oh, there he is. John, when I said…” Overseer: “When you said you wanted me to whip that %@#$^#$@& n****r within an inch of his @%@#!%! life you meant reason with him cleverly or…?” Doug: “I NEVER SAID THAT!!” Overseer: “There are at least a dozen witnesses.” Doug: “And most of them no good dirty &@$%& n*****rs…UHHHHHHHHHH…” Neighbor: “Now about how you treat your women…”

  3. Unless one regarded blacks as incapable of becoming Christians (and the Ethiopian eunuch wasn’t exactly Swedish) how was it Christian to keep them, or professing Christians among them at the very least, from being able to read the Bible?

    “A central argument for the laws in the South that prohibited literacy for the slaves was the fear that abolitionist literature would get to them.” — Douglas Wilson

    And what more powerful abolitionist literature might they read the Bible rightly understood?

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