[My book Darwin’s Racism is now available at Amazon and all online booksellers.]
A few weeks ago, I heard a caller on a radio talk show say that he knew history as well as anyone else and then proceeded to argue for some very conservative solutions to certain current problems. I have no doubt that the caller knew history as well as anyone (he acknowledged that some bad things happened in the past). The question is how well does anyone really know what happened before we got here. I think the answer is not very well at all.
If I tossed out a dozen or so items of some significance, a handful of people would know some of these things and some would know other bits, but nobody would get them all. Everyone would be shocked by at least half the items on the list, though it would be a different half for each person.
How many people know that the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States did not quite abolish all slavery as we are usually told? It contained an important exception: “except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” It was used in the years following the Civil War, in the South, especially in Texas, to re-enslave many black men by arresting and convicting them on some charge and then putting them to work without pay.
Did you know that the Declaration of Independence contains an implied approval of greed for Indian land? One of the complaints made against the King of England in that document is that the King has imposed restrictions on “the conditions of new appropriations of lands.” What Jefferson may have had primarily in mind was the Proclamation of 1763. White settlers were supposed to stay west of a certain line and stop encroaching on Indian land. Americans did not like that. The Declaration of Independence was, in this one small part, also a declaration to steal all the Indian land, if they could not get Indians to legitimately sell it.
How many people know that in the early 19th century, free blacks, with only some occasional exceptions, were not allowed to participate in patriotic observances such as the July 4 celebration? They could observe white people celebrating, but blacks were not allowed to join in. This was primarily in the New England states, which had gradually abolished slavery many decades before the Civil War. Not only did the American Revolution for independence, liberty, and rights pass African-Americans by (even when freed, they were not allowed civil rights), but so did the celebrations of the Revolution and other holidays, as if to reinforce the idea that liberty would not apply to them, not even to free blacks. Blacks of course held their own annual parade to honor the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. Segregation, even in holiday observances, goes way back in our history.
Then there’s the history of riots in America. Since the civil rights era in the 1960s, we live with the impression that a riot means blacks rioting against the white establishment. That’s the image we all have. But for the entire history of this country before then, riots were always by whites out to destroy black neighborhoods. Black prosperity could not be tolerated. There were many such riots and they continued well into the 20th century.
That’s just a few examples of what we almost never think about as part of our historical heritage and the same can be done for Charles Darwin. Most people, including scholars, know much less than they pretend to know. Everyone praises Darwin for being opposed to slavery, but hardly anyone tells you how limited his opposition was. He was opposed to legalized slavery, but as far as I know, he expressed no concerns about illegal slavery or forced labor. He never showed any sympathy with the complaint that colonialism was the equivalent of slavery, some even arguing that it was worse.
I recently saw a blog which claimed that Darwin inherited his grandfather Josiah Wedgwood’s sentiment that all men are brothers (as inscribed on the Wedgwood medallion, depicting a slave in chains pleading “Am I Not a Man and a Brother”). That’s not accurate. Darwin actually questioned that view in an early Notebook entry in which he acknowledged that civilized men and Christians may believe all men are brothers, but Darwin had to add his own comment, “yet differences carried a long way.” He definitely did not believe that all men are brothers.
Darwin utilized the theory of evolution to emphasize what he believed were the widening gaps between the races of men. The differences loomed large for him. He believed evolution produced drastic, hierarchical differentiation. People forget too the historical context. In the 19th century, it was entirely possible to be an abolitionist and at the same time an extreme racist. Thomas Huxley, Joseph Hooker, and Anthony Trollope are just three examples, in addition to Darwin. Hundreds more could be listed.
With history, we are better at forgetting and erasing than we are at remembering. It never seems to change. The study of history should be a continual searching for the things we have missed. But most scholars have stopped doing that. We are not even curious anymore. We would rather just keep repeating what we think we know. Our presumed knowledge gets in the way of seeing. Ideology wins over the facts and we don’t see the great danger in that.
© 2016 Leon Zitzer