Thursday, September 15, 2005


Is this progress? Part II

A city is struck by a natural disaster. Thousands die, their corpses allowed to decompose in the streets, the mingled stench of smoldering fires and moldering bodies quickly becoming unbearable. The poor of the city are disproportionately affected, since the wealthiest citizens were more likely to have somewhere to go and somehow to get there. And among the poorest of the city's poor are the black men and women, left behind among the dead or dying. Yet the first widely seen accounts of the disaster suggest that black and impoverished citizens stayed behind for another reason: to "loot" the deserted city and profit from the misfortune of others.

* * *

That's a rough summary of what happened in Philadelphia in 1793, when a yellow fever epidemic struck the national capital, killing as many as 5,000 people, usually within three or four days of their having contracted the disease. The wealthiest citizens, including government officials like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, fled the city early on, or were able to afford expensive and experimental medical treatments. (Alexander Hamilton and his wife were taken with the fever but managed to be cured by a doctor, who gave them quinine.) But the poor who stayed behind had to try, in vain, to ward off the disease, which no one knew to be borne by mosquitos. Acting on rumors that smoke helped to screen the disease, many set fires on the streets. Acting on other rumors, some chewed on cigars and carried garlic in their pockets. Acting on scientific knowledge that was not much more advanced than such rumors, the city's most esteemed doctors, including Benjamin Rush, tried to purge patients of the disease by cutting open their arms.

Among those who stayed behind were Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, two leaders of Philadelphia's free black community, which in 1793 was one of the largest in the nation. As relatively wealthy members of their community, Allen and Jones could have fled if they had chosen. But they were asked to stay by the mayor and by Rush, who had assisted them the year before in raising funds to build an independent African Church. Rush asked Jones and Allen to assist in relief efforts. (Partly because another rumor had suggested, conveniently, that black bodies were less susceptible to the fever than white ones, a rumor that proved just as disastrously false as the others.)

Eager to prove their competence, especially to the many white Philadelphians who were hostile to the growing number of black Philadelphians, Jones and Allen agreed to stay. They rallied their parishioners together to aid the sick. Because yellow fever was mistaken for a contagious disease, it was certainly not easy to find volunteers for such work; contemporaries lamented the fact that even family members left family members behind, fearing that they would catch the fever from their loved ones. In many cases, therefore, it fell to black Philadelphians to bleed patients, bury the dead, and transport the dying to a makeshift hospital on the outskirts of the city. Being as susceptible to mosquito bites as anyone, many of them died too.

* * *

After the epidemic subsided, Matthew Carey, an Irish immigrant and founder of some of Philadelphia's earliest magazines, published a best-selling Short Account of the Malignant Fever, which quickly went through several editions.

Carey, who had fled the city, nonetheless had much to say about what had reportedly happened in his absence. First, he interpreted the behavior of many Philadelphians during the crisis--husbands leaving behind infected wives, for instance, and parents separating from their children--as evidence of how low humanity could sink in the face of disaster. The virtue of the young republic's capital had been thrown into doubt. Indeed, perhaps the disaster had been "man-made" as much as natural; Carey said that the fever culminated a long declension of morals in the city, leaving readers who were inclined to see connections between such things to make of them what they would. Carey spent many pages, though, praising the efforts of white philanthropists in the city during the crisis--a sign, perhaps, that virtue had not deserted the city entirely.

But Carey added only a paragraph mentioning (positively) the efforts of Jones and Allen, and most of that paragraph was spent noting the "salutary" effect of early rumors that blacks were less vulnerable to the fever. Even though that rumor proved "erroneous," it provided the city with a ready supply of nurses when very few white nurses "could be procured." (Since most, like Carey, had gotten out of Dodge.) But Carey went on to add, in the conclusion to his paragraph on Allen and Jones, that "the great demand for nurses," created by fears of contagion, "afforded an opportunity for imposition, which was eagerly seized by some of those who acted in that capacity, both coloured and white. They extorted two, three, four, and even five dollars a night for such attendance, as would have been well paid for, by a single dollar. Some of them were even detected in plundering the houses of the sick." [Source for quotes.]

Carey suggested, in other words, that nurses had become looters and profiteers. True, he had mentioned that "both coloured and white" nurses had been guilty of such crimes. (But this was immediately after pointing out that most nurses were "coloured" because white ones were so hard to procure. And he chose to mention the looting in the paragraph on Allen and Jones, not in the chapter devoted to white philanthropists who organized relief efforts.) And true, in later editions, Carey would modify this paragraph. In the fourth edition, for instance, he added a qualification to the above lines: "it is wrong to cast a censure on the whole for this sort of conduct, as many have done," Carey said. "The services of Jones, Allen, and [William] Gray, and others of their colour, have been very great, and demand public gratitude."

But from the perspective of Jones and Allen, the damage to Philadelphia's people of color had already been done in earlier editions. So they published a response to Carey: A Narrative of the Proceedings of the Black People, During the Late Awful Calamity in Philadelphia in the Year 1793 and a Refutation of Some Censures, Thrown upon them in some late Publications. Although they acknowledged Carey's corrective revisions in the fourth edition, they pointed out that thousands had probably already read the uncorrected early editions, which made them fearful of the effects that Carey's "partial representation" of "the Black People" would have on popular opinion.

The narrative of Allen and Jones gave a very different picture of the behavior of people of color during the epidemic. First, they demolished Carey's suggestions that some nurses had charged outrageous prices for their work by giving a careful accounting of their expenses and income. The ledger showed that Allen and Jones had personally accrued large debts after paying the nurses they had hired to work for them; their income had certainly not allowed them to turn a profit. They pointed out that if anyone had turned a profit from the disaster, it was Carey. ("Is it a greater crime for a black to pilfer, than for a white to privateer?")

Second, they detailed the courage of black Philadelphians, which Carey had not done. (Carey was inclined to say that black people had not been as terrified as whites because they were believed to be immune. But Allen and Jones made clear that black nurses had faced gruesome and terrible risks and met the challenge with courage born of benevolence, not ignorance.)

Third, they pointed out that while there had been some looting, such criminals had been in the minority and had included whites as often as blacks. Carey's late qualifications were not enough to offset his earlier insinuations. Many of his racist readers, no doubt, would gladly skip over Carey's exculpatory asides and dwell instead on the evidence that confirmed what they already expected: that black people were barely human, or that black people showed how low humanity could sink, or that black people were willing to turn the misfortune of a city and a nation into an occasion for riot.

Sadly, over the following fifty years, black Philadelphians had more to fear from white rioters than the other way around. In 1838, mobs burned down Pennsylvania Hall, a building erected as an antislavery headquarters, because of rumors that abolitionists encouraged interracial coupling. And between 1829 and 1842, black Philadelphians experienced six race riots, including one in 1842 that destroyed black homes and injured African American reformers who were marching in a temperance parade.

After this latest cataclysm, black abolitionist Robert Purvis wrote to his friend Henry Clarke Wright that "I feel that my life and those tendrils of my heart, dearer than life to me, would find no change in death, but a glorious riddance of a life, weighed down & cursed by a despotism whose sway makes Hell of Earth--We the tormented, our persecutors the tormentors. But I must stop; I am sick--miserably sick--every thing around me is as dark as the grave. Here & there the bright countenance of a true friend is to be seen, save that--nothing redeeming, nothing hopeful, despair as black as the pall of Death hangs over us. And the bloody Will is in the heart of the community to destroy us." [Witness for Freedom, p. 62.]

Allen and Jones could sense the strength of that "bloody Will" even in 1793. They could see clearly the potential chain of causation from the "pall of Death" caused by the yellow fever and the "pall of Death" that successors like Purvis would experience. Was it possible that the sons of the same community they nursed in 1793 would one day have the heart to "destroy" the black people? There certainly were connections between these times, between the epidemic of 1793 and the antebellum scourge of racial violence. For as one racist white Philadelphian would later say in 1830, the "aspirings and little vanities [of black people] have been rapidly growing since they got those separate churches," which Allen and Jones had pioneered the year before the yellow fever. "Thirty to forty years ago, they were much humbler, more esteemed in their places, and more useful to themselves and others.” (Forging Freedom, p. 275.) Now, he implied, it had become clear that Allen and Jones had been the exceptions; the looters were the rule. Black people were uppity, vicious, dangerous.

And some antebellum Philadelphians would have added, without hesitation, that they were better off back in Africa--or dead.

* * *

The fact that I've been thinking about the yellow fever epidemic over the past couple of weeks, while trying to process all of the news that has come out of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, may simply be evidence that historians are too prone to notice parallels between the present and the areas of the past that they happen to be studying. Rob MacDougall happened to be preparing a syllabus discussing the Louisiana Flood of 1927 when Katrina struck. I happened to be preparing a class on the yellow fever epidemic.

In an earlier post, I explained the first day of my survey class. I tried to convey to students that history is necessarily selective, that any historical narrative leaves all kinds of events and details out. But on the second day, I tried to make the further point that even once historians decide what events to include in a narrative, they are faced with the problem that there are multiple ways of looking at the same historical events, multiple narratives by contemporaries about the way things were. We have to make interpretive choices not just in deciding what to include in our historical narratives, but also in deciding how to write about what we do include, when we often have sources presenting multiple perspectives on the same event or (in many other cases) sources presenting only one perspective even when we know there were others. To illustrate this point, I assigned excerpts from Carey's Short Account and Allen's and Jones's Narrative. We discussed them, I believe, the day after the levees broke.

It's sometimes hard to say how historical reflection can help us think about the present. The past doesn't always provide practical "lessons" or clear prescriptions about what to do when the past seems to be repeating itself. The Philadelphia of 1793 was very different from the New Orleans of 2005. (If the past is a foreign country, maybe the lesson of similarities between the past and the present is this: the present is a foreign country, too.) And I confess even after reflecting on what seems like a depressingly familiar episode in our national past, I haven't emerged with some easy bromide about how this will never happen again.

Instead, I'm mainly left with the realization that there is a long history of white Americans leaving black Americans behind. Left behind to bury Philadelphia's dead. Left behind, in "them dark days," on the dismal rice plantations of South Carolina, to die of malaria and lockjaw while wealthy planters spent the summer in Charleston. Left behind in urban ghettos while jobs and white residents fled to the suburbs. Left behind in the Superdome. The point is not to say that all of these examples of leaving behind were the same, but just to notice how much the world still lacks the virtue that Michael Eric Dyson calls "spiritual empathy--not to be confused with maudlin emotion, or pitying affirmation, but a willingness to be kept awake in another's bed of pain before lashing them for being morally asleep." (From Is Bill Cosby Right?)

I don't mean to deny that our nation has made great progress between 1793 and 2005, as Condoleeza Rice has been insisting: "when I'm talking to my colleagues, I say yeah, we have a problem when race and poverty comes together, we really do. And it's a vestige of our history. It's a vestige of particularly the Old South in this case. But don't misread that there has been no progress on issues of race in America." Of course there's been progress. But the historian in me can't resist pointing out that even in our earlier episodes of leaving black people behind, there were many who palliated those desertions by pointing out what progressive times they were living in. Charles Maginault, one of those planters who tolerated abysmal mortality rates among his slaves in the swampy lowcountry, where black men and women waded waist-deep through flooded pads to cultivate rice, could nonetheless boast about the wonders of American democracy in 1847, "our state of social advancement in every thing ... in the most flourishing Condition, unaided by Government" (p. 44).

And yes, of course there's been progress in the number of people of color "in America's cabinet, in America's Foreign Service, in America's business community, in America's journalistic community." But one thing this metric of progress ignores is that there were people of color in America's business community in 1793. James Forten, Purvis's father-in-law, was the wealthiest sailmaker in early national Philadelphia, and Purvis himself was well-off. But that in and of itself didn't protect black homes from racist rioters in 1842, anymore than the diversity in America's Foreign Service puts food on the table for those who are still left behind. The point here is just that gauging progress according to only one measure of progress--the diversity of professional, white-collar America--is misleading.

(Incidentally, one reason the professions that Secretary Rice points too are especially misleading is because these professions are public and high-profile. Decision makers in these professions know that public opinion expects diversity to show, and that in and of itself is a real sign of progress. But the owner of a machine shop in Memphis who is trying to decide between hiring a white mechanic and a black mechanic does not have to think about how that hiring decision will be perceived. And it is in these millions of daily decisions, beyond the realm of public scrutiny, that we obviously still have a lot of progress to make.)

Of course, there has been objective progress in America, notwithstanding the fact that, subjectively speaking, every generation of Americans has always said that progress has been made. But there comes a time when pointing out that progress has been made doesn't actually help us make more progress--when it simply becomes a defensive maneuver by those who think they are being blamed for the lack of progress. Secretary Rice, for instance, told the New York Times that she hopes "that around the world it's noted that on matters of race, the United States is about 100 percent ahead of any place else in the world in issues of race. And I say that absolutely fundamentally. You go to any other meeting around the world and show me the kind of diversity that you see [here]. ... Show me that kind of diversity any place else in the world, and I'm prepared to be lectured about race."

That's the dilemma we have right now in the United States: we can't perceive frank discussion of our deficiencies and faults as anything other than a "lecture." Talk about progress still to be made is necessarily a "blame game," and hey, buddy, if you're going to blame us, look at all those other countries out there and then come back and talk to me. But all of that's beside the point: you can read a post like this one as a finger-pointing "lecture" if you want, but I'm not pointing my finger at you so much as I am pointing my finger at the persistence of a problem. Although, of course, the more we stare at the persistence of that problem, the more the finger points at us, at each of us, at me, at you.

Perhaps what the Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic can teach us is that representations about race matter. That's what Allen and Jones understood: that partial representations can do enormous damage. As they argued to Carey, you can correct those representations later, but not everyone who sees your first representation is going to see the correction, and you never know how far and how wide the damage done by your representation will be. Sure, you can say the Fox News reporter was just trying to keep viewers when he said, over footage of a downed rescue helicopter, "Let's hope it wasn't shot down by snipers, since we know that's been happening at some of the hospitals." You can say that better reporting eventually clarified that the helicopter crash was an accident. But how many people switched off the TV with the false representation of a sniper shooting down a helicopter in their heads? How many people read Matthew Carey's first edition and never read the fourth? How many people never read Allen and Jones's rejoinder? And how much cultural work, how much psychological work, did their partial and incomplete perceptions do, the next time they saw a person of color on the streets of Philadelphia, or on their television screens?

To say that racial inequality is just a "vestige" of our history suggests it is a part of the body politic that no longer functions as it once did: but I suspect that the representations of black citizens of New Orleans as disobedient idlers or thuggish looters, the narratives of pilfering and "complaining," are still doing lots of work for white Americans inclined to think that there is no progress to be made. (And there are many of them, including some truly poisonous ones like the lurkers that Rachel Sullivan found on Craigs List.) A vestigial organ has lost its power. Race has not.

Collective Improvisation:
What a fantastic post! I read Carey's essay and the response by Allen and Jones way back when I was starting grad school, and I'm so happy to be reminded of it now. This is the kind of thoughtful, deep writing that can hopefully do some real good. Thank you for it. 

Posted by Scrivener

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 9/15/2005 10:27:00 PM : Permalink  

Yes, a wonderful post. 

Posted by Adam Kotsko

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 9/18/2005 05:36:00 PM : Permalink  

I bet Mr Mont would be proud of you.  

Posted by david Tiley

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 9/19/2005 07:44:00 AM : Permalink  

Sorry for a belated acknowledgment of these generous words. I appreciate the comments! 

Posted by Caleb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 9/21/2005 06:56:00 AM : Permalink  

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