Still Trying to Find a Rock to Throw

This editorial column ran in our local paper last night in response to a front page article that they ran some days before. That article described the release of a book by a local academic as a response to what I have written and said about slavery.

So Why Isn’t the Record Straight?

Here is my difficulty. On November 2, 2006, The Daily News carried a front page article with the headline “An attempt to set record straight; UI professor’s book contradicts writings of Moscow pastor.” The book in question is entitled From Slavery to Freedom in Brazil, and covers the years 1835-1900 in Bahia. So the book is all about slavery in Brazil.

In my book, Black & Tan, there were a handful of passing references to Brazil. One of them was “If the slaves were not sold in the South, they were taken on to Haiti and Brazil, where the condition and treatment of slaves was simply horrendous” (p. 54). There was a footnote on this comment, which simply talked about the percentages of slaves going to various countries, including Brazil. Another comment of mine in the book was this: “The point was not to laud American slavery as a positive good, but rather to show that it was benign when compared with ancient Roman slavery (concerning which St. Paul wrote), the slavery that existed elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere (Haiti and Brazil), and the rhetoric of the abolitionists” (p. 64). In short, my treatment of Brazilian slavery was brief in the extreme, and the statement I was making about it was that it was “horrendous.”

Dr. Graden’s book is not about slavery in North America, and, judging from the footnotes and index, it is not an interaction with anything I have written or said. If his book shows that Brazilian slavery was an atrocious affair (as it clearly does), then he has not contradicted me—that was part of my point. I agree with that and have said so in print. If he wants to say that he differs with me because I believe there was a difference in the treatment of slaves in Virginia and slaves in Bahia, and, contrary to this, he believes that the slaves were basically treated the same, he is certainly free to make that argument. But where does he make that argument in this new book? So there appears to be no contradiction here either.

In short, Dr. Graden and I both have written about events concerning slaves in the Western hemisphere in the 19th century. In what we have written about Brazil, we appear to agree. Now—and here is my basic question—what on earth is this doing on the front page of The Daily News, tricked out as though it were a genuine debate or engagement of ideas? The connection between my book and Dr. Graden’s appears to be really tenuous. So, what was the point in running this article? Was it an editorial determination that our community hasn’t gotten tired enough of all the disputing, and we all needed another fracas about slavery, this time set in Brazil? I have been waiting, thus far in vain, for someone to do some real reporting on the genuine story in all of this. I have been waiting for The Daily News to realize that this is not about conflicts in other centuries and other countries, but rather is a conflict right here. The real reasons for the conflict are so far all still under the surface. Thus far The Daily News has been caught up in the conflict in various ways, but has not really done any reporting on it. If our local conflicts were a badminton game, The Daily News has been the shuttlecock.

The first line of the article says that this new book of Dr. Graden’s continues the “academic response” to the slavery booklet. But in order to constitute a genuine academic response it needed to have done several things it did not do. It should have taken into account the publication of Black & Tan last year, which was a readily available clarification and amplification of my basic arguments. In addition, it should also have noted that there has already been an “academic response” to my book. Dr. Eugene Genovese (one of America’s first-rate historians on this time period) said this about the arguments in my book. He said that Douglas Wilson “has a strong grasp of the essentials of the history of slavery and its relation to Christian doctrine. Indeed, sad to say, his grasp is a great deal stronger than that of most professors of American history, whose distortions and trivializations disgrace our college classrooms.”

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