Saturday, August 11, 2012

Honor and Slavery by Kenneth S. Greenberg

On the suggestion of Grim I picked this short book out of the library. The subhead is "Lies, duels, noses, masks, dressing as a woman, gifts, strangers, humanitarianism, death, slave rebellions, the pro-slavery argument, baseball, hunting, and gambling in the Old South." That’s quite a mouthful, and a pretty good list of what the book talks about.

According to Greenberg the core of honor is the South was how you were perceived. To insinuate that someone was a liar was an invitation to a duel—if you were a peer, or a horsewhipping if you weren’t. The concept of "to give the lie to" was critical: a lie didn’t matter unless someone accused you of it. He cites one Southern gentleman who forgot about an invitation and met the unwanted guest with the statement "I am not at home."

The "language of honor" included many symbols: you demonstrated superiority by giving gifts, demonstrated your indifference to petty things like death or loss by willingness to duel or gamble, and your courage by standing up in battle (or in the hunt) in the face of attack and not running or dodging. (Which seems to have made baseball unpopular: run from a ball???)

To wear a mask was no shame for a man of honor; the horror was to be unmasked... A Southern gentleman could wear anything—even a dress or a lie—as long as he could prevent it from being removed.

A gentleman’s word was expected to be honored; a slave’s to be disbelieved. A gentleman was expected to be courageous and a slave a coward. A stranger didn’t fit in, and despite celebration of "Southern hospitality" was apt to find himself houseless. I wish Greenberg had gone farther describing the stranger’s role, and addressing the middle class and honor. Probably they shared the same values as the aristocracy, but it would be nice to have that explicit.

Gift-giving was very important, especially if you didn't limit the concept of gift to money or things. They regarded the food and clothing they gave the slaves as benevolent care: gifts.

You don’t have to admire the Southern aristocracy, but if you want to understand the past at all, you should understand them. Read the book.


Assistant Village Idiot said...

Shame cultures versus guilt cultures; I come down strongly in favor of the latter. I confess I can't get excited about the precise way in which Southern aristocracy differs from tribal Arabs or Sicilian Mafia in its expression of an "honor" culture.

I went to school in the south, and certainly acknowledge that the Wessex/Cavalier touchy-second-son culture that moved to Virginia and the coastal south could produce some men of great merit - better, perhaps, than other cultures.

But too few. The great exceptional men do not cover the ills.

james said...

True. And Greenberg tries to show that the honor culture of the south was joined at the hip with slavery. Their views are alien, but these people are my ancestors (at least the Southern half of my genealogy).
The next question, for me anyway, is how the culture changed.

Texan99 said...

It reminds me of the reaction Westerners got from the Japanese when they allowed themselves to be captured -- suddenly they weren't honorable enemies but people who had signaled their choice to be placed outside the honor system, and were therefore treated with extreme harshness in prison camps.

In the South it was a long time before white people began to think of blacks as people at all, at least in part, I think, because of this mental habit of dividing human beings into heroes and slaves. The heroes led active lives, exercising choice and power and accumulating honor and prestige. The slaves were sort of just there to be useful, with no interior life worth considering. A white man who blanched at risk or loss was risking being tossed down into the subhuman caste.

Even today, in the urbanized, modernized, comfortably air-conditioned South, Yankees strike us as inexplicably gray: Michael Dukakis instead of Rhett Butler. On the flip side, AVI's discomfort with the South is often clear. The Mason-Dixon line divides us to this day, with slavery long in the past and with the sorry history of bigotry every bit as shameful in the North as in the South.

james said...

I've not spent a lot of time in the South, but I gather that "white trash" was considered pretty low.

Can you suggest some kind of history of how things changed?

_That_ there've been changes seems beyond doubt, even if they are superficial. When I spent a year at LRCHS we worked on a documentary about the '57 integration, and it was enlightening to notice the difference in what people expressed freely then and not even in private when I was there. (I say "enlightening" because I don't believe the people I was with were morally any better than the people shouting slogans in '57; their vices and opportunities differed.)

Texan99 said...

As for how things changed, I just don't know. By the time I was growing up in middle-class Houston suburbs in the 60s and 70s, it had become dishonorable, unthinkable, to be bigoted. My suburban neighborhood in Houston in the 80s and 90s was stably integrated. We had lots of incendiary neighborhood issues, but race was not among them, nor was there any "white flight." I don't know how the change came about.

It's not just a Southern thing, either, and never has been. I never heard anything in the South quite as ugly as the snarled "Schwartze" I heard coming from the mouth of a man in Grand Central Station in the late 70s. Nor did Houston have white neighborhoods where blacks weren't safe, or black neighborhoods where whites weren't safe, a situation I associated more strongly with cities like New York.

I've never liked the expression "white trash." The implication seems to be that there's a level of degradation that's remarkable only because white people are involved in it.

james said...

Even the South wasn't monolithic. My father's parents were from Louisiana, and Dad said his father was free of any prejudice against blacks--and Grandpa was born only 40 years after the Civil War. _His_ father married a Hatfield and had to hightail it when he crossed Devil Anse: The Hatfields were Confederate supporters. Something changed.