Been in the Storm So Long

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

For a hundred years in thousands of classrooms, the Civil War era was simply and satisfactorily explained by a durable legend which portrayed the Old South as a sinful region that held slaves and “destroyed the Union.” Fortunately, Jehovah intervened on behalf of the United States causing Saints John Brown and Abraham Lincoln to smite the evildoers with fire and sword, preserve the Union, and abolish slavery. After a brief Reconstruction, during which both sides agreed to forgive but not forget “the late unpleasantness,” America proceeded with her grand destiny. The middle years of the nineteenth century, then, formed a seamless fabric, tied to Dred Scott and Fort Sumter at one end, and Frederick Douglass, freedom, and national unity at the other.

If this charming Gone with the Wind-type tale is true, then how do we account for the patently unfree status of the freedman following these events? How do we assess the appalling poverty of the freedman in, for example, 1880? Have we digested the results of closer studies that reveal blacks to be relatively poorer in 1900, when America boasted a wealthy middle class, than in 1800, when most Americans were farmers? Can we speak of true political liberty for blacks even after the Civil Rights movement (“Reconstruction II”) in a society afflicted by moldering ghettoes and rural poverty?

Historians of black Americans discern a temporary, shallow advancement of black political rights during the early years of Reconstruction, followed by a Jim Crow-dominated age of white supremacy which, protected by a broad intersectional understanding, endured until the middle of our century. Indeed, most strides toward black equality have been made since World War II. Is it possible that the Civil War and Reconstruction arrived and departed, leaving black life little changed, save by a brief moment of promise and hope? Did that era witness and condone a mere pack of tricks played on gullible fieldhands by racist Northern and Southern whites? These are tough questions, but the answers may best explain the precipitate rise and fall of black liberty after “emancipation,” a tragic pattern of events brilliantly traced in Leon Litwack’s Been in the Storm So Long.

Litwack’s story begins in the war years with the growth of white “insurrectionosis”—a deep fear of servile rebellion that infected the entire Confederacy. “What if they rise?” was the bedrock question in the Southern white mind as Union soldiers, including two hundred thousand ex-“contrabands,” invaded the South. On plantation after plantation, they joyously recited the shallow promises of the Emancipation Proclamation, led three cheers for Father Abraham, and marched away. “I surely would rise, were I a slave,” concluded Jefferson Davis’ people, and the white rebels sourly awaited the day of black rebellion.

Clearly, the slave held the key to the war and thus, to the Southern cause. One hint of rebellion, one backcountry uprising by some rustic Denmark Vesey or Nat Turner, would have sent Lee’s invincibles pelting homeward in a mad dash to preserve family and property. However, ignoring the atmosphere of nervousness and even stark fear that permeated the South, blacks remained docile. They clearly understood the issues at hand, but steadfastly refused to break either custom or their masters’ heads. Blacks spoke of freedom and the future with intelligence garnered from rumors, secret networks, and an occasional newspaper. They grumbled, worked slowly, and waited. Perhaps victims of their own conservatism, slaves—beyond those under arms (and so free) or serving as military laborers—failed to change the course of war.

The slave emerges in Litwack’s re-creation as a tolerant Southern traditionalist, ruled by monumental patience; only the actual arrival of Union forces triggered the expected ritual of “make free.” Some portable property was then redistributed and a few hogs and chickens sacrificed in an appropriate celebration. Then the “hands” settled down to await future events in the “quarters” with an uncertainty shared by “Massa” in the “Big House.”

There was no grand Independence Day for slaves, no uhuru distributed in village squares and plantation yards. Slavery died piecemeal during the hot summer of 1865,...

(The entire section is 1777 words.)