By Philip E.Jenks
July 27, 2016 – What I’m asking, not being skilled with social media abbreviations, is What Thorny Forebodings should we take seriously in the campaign of 2016?
My greatest foreboding is that a majority of U.S. voters may still be undismayed by Donald Trump. Perhaps Trumpites find it diverting that he openly brandishes his racism, xenophobia, ignorance of government, or bullying attitudes towards persons he regards as weak, including persons with disabilities. Today, for example, Mr. Trump announced his federal tax returns are none of the public’s business, and he called upon Russia to hack into Hillary Clinton’s email. I’m still waiting for an explosive media reaction to these offensive developments. But I understand why New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow seemed more resigned than angry: “This is outrageous,” Mr. Blow tweeted. “But go ahead America, vote for this charlatan …”
For me, a low spot of the week was the Trumpite response to a powerfully moving assertion by First Lady Michelle Obama that she wakes up every morning in a house built by slaves. Immediately, Trumpites accused her of being racially divisive and said the White House had been actually been built by white Europeans, free African Americans. And, well, okay, maybe, some slaves. But “slaves that worked there were well-fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government,” said Bill O’Reilly, whose view of slavery is more benign than Disney’s Song of the South.
The New York Times affirmed the accuracy of Ms. Obama’s statement, but Trumpites weren’t buying it. Like their namesake, Trumpites are too strident and too lazy to allow truth to erode their prejudices. The thorny foreboding that comes with all this is that Trumpites seem to regard all allusions to slavery, KKK lynchings, Jim Crow and “Black Lives Matter” as “racially divisive.”
Will the first move of President Trump’s Education department be to remove racially divisive topics like slavery from high school history books? Most of us got a lousy education about slavery anyway. Our textbooks told us slavery was an economic institution of the deep south where farmers depended on free labor to deliver cash crops. I felt utterly free of the moral stain of slavery because I grew up near Peterboro, N.Y., the home of abolitionist Garret Smith and an outpost of the underground railroad that escorted slaves to freedom.
But wait. Can it be that those of us with Yankee ancestors may have the sullied blood of slave owners coursing through our veins? Wendy Warren, author of New England Bound, Slavery and Colonization in Early America (Liveright Publishing), reveals that slavery flourished in the 17th century north, even at the hands of the Puritans who get a kind word in most history books as the gentle people who sought religious freedom in the new world and invented Thanksgiving. (We tend to forget that the Puritans were also Oliver Cromwell zealots who massacred Catholics in Ireland and whipped the skin off the backs of Baptists in Boston because they didn’t follow Puritan rules.)
In his review in the Times, Professor Christopher L. Brown of Columbia University writes that Warren’s book reveals slavery was every bit as inhuman in Puritan Boston as it was in Baptist Birmingham.
“New England Bound conveys the disorientation, the deprivation, the vulnerability, the occasional hunger and the profound isolation that defined the life of most African exiles in Puritan New England, where there was no plantation community,” Brown writes. “Though the surviving record allows limited access to their thoughts, Warren effectively evokes their feelings. Ripped from kin on the far side of the Atlantic, ‘dreaming of other people and other places,’ but unable to go home, the lost tried and sometimes succeeded in making meaningful connections with others suffering a similar fate. For this was the ordinary pain and sorrow of slave life in New England: Belonging to someone often meant having no one to belong to.”
Slavery sucked and any decent person would understand it sucked under any circumstances, whether slaves were beaten, raped, or “well-fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government.”
Trumpites worry that such self-evident truths are racially divisive, and Republicans have excoriated the Obamas for eight years of articulating truths their critics think sow hatred and division.
But clearly it’s ignorance, not truth, that sows hatred and division.
And my greatest foreboding is that American voters won’t catch on to the real spewer of hatred until it’s too late.