Thursday, January 10, 2013

Froude, And Questions About The Self

If one reads from Froude's The Bow of Ulysses beginning at page 28, the modern reader is first impressed by a racism it would be unimaginable to have in public now.  There is not much meanness, and there are certainly even compliments for the blacks of The Barbadoes, but the underlying assumption of their inferiority and need (and even desire) to be ruled has one blinking in astonishment. 

I imagine a modern African-American reading it and wonder how we might talk about it afterward.  Froude describes a happy people, and while he doubtless sees what he wants in large part, he does not seem easily deceived in other evaluations, where he allows himself to be surprised and have his assumptions challenged.  I suspect he is at least partly right.  The first question then comes: would modern black people - not the ones who live in reasonable circumstances and write for publication, but the ones who live in dangerous neighborhoods and lose family members to violence - make that trade? It looks like a happy, safe, comfortable life.  If you have children...

And the second question is like unto it:  Would I make that trade? It is a happy, safe, comfortable life.  Such things look increasingly attractive to me as I age.

I think the second question answers the first.  Perhaps people somewhere would make that trade.  Half the world would if they could, I'll warrant.  But Americans, and perhaps the entire Anglosphere, would not, no matter what race we are.  Being looked on as lesser would hurt us too much for happiness to be general.  But that's an American thing.  I'm betting other places, other tribes, may not be so fussy about whether one is a top dog or an underdog.  Many would not care.

Still, it's fun to pretend that we have the choice, isn't it?


james said...

And yet in other places he refers to "the inflammable negro nature," which suggests that he realizes that his "light-hearted" Eden isn't as happy a place as he makes out to be.

Roll, Jordan, Roll was an interesting book. In one passage the author describes what the mistress of one plantation wrote about the reactions after the slaves were freed. The house slaves who she had thought were the most friendly and happy wouldn't meet her eyes and didn't want to talk to her, but the rebellious farm hand who'd never been anything but trouble was willing to meet the master as a friendly peer.

Perhaps he was interpreting a cultural obligation as a personal characteristic. Sort of the reverse of the Lake Woebegon "Can't complain too much" approach.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Noted. Peace is not the absence of war, but agreement, comity, accord. In revolutions, even violent ones, it is revealed all in a moment that many who were prepared to be passive and cooperative for many years are equally prepared to risk all if they sense the moment is right. They are not willing to sacrifice themselves fruitlessly on an altar just for show, even if their cause is just. That is quite wise of them.

I have said elsewhere that African Americans other than MLK had courage and persuasiveness before his time. The crucial added piece that he brought was that the time could be now. Only at that moment could the courage and persuasiveness be of maximum value.

james wilson said...

That is not my reading of Froude, who was a knee-jerk liberal for his day in reactionary clothing. He states clearly in the book his bedrock belief that the Negro is made inferior purely due to the circumstances and disadvantages of his birth, an astonishing opinion for a learned imperialist to make in 1882, and one that is only now being fully discredited, almost secretly.

The type of language which he used to describe race was once unexceptional, from Clemens and Froude to Chandler. I miss them. Now we own excessive sensibilities, which are but a form of morbid self-consciousness.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

james wilson - thank you. I suspect your understanding is the better one.