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Hogarth judge

February 2018



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Cigarettes. . . .

A Renegade History of the United States - Thaddeus Russell

Since I was small, I've always regarded hippies, along with civil rights and anti-war protesters, as the real founders of freedom in the United States. Most of the good things in our culture, from rock and R&B music to sexual freedom to marijuana, seemed to come from folks such as these, rather than from the peruqued heads of the Revolutionary War. This book points out that this view of things has deeper roots than the 1960s.

That said, many passages are likely to make you uncomfortable. Not with the tales of factory workers pushing back against industrial discipline, of whores and gay pirates: they're still safe to cheer for.

But the book's treatment of issues involving African-Americans and slavery may well cause some discomfort. For I'm still enough of a product of a Puritan culture that frequent examination of conscience is an indelible part of my background; and what is white guilt but the fruit of examination of conscience brought to racial issues?

Now, the tale the book tells is convincing, and likely true. The author tells us that many former slaves found that the movement from being valuable livestock to hired hands was no improvement. As livestock, they knew they would be fed and taken care of. Giving this up for the "liberty" of being able to switch employers and move on was a bargain many would not have chosen. As slaves, being property, their sexual relationships were unregistered, and could be changed as was convenient. Nobody expected different. "Liberty" brought with it the tyranny of nineteenth century marriage law.

The author argues that blackface minstrelsy, which we assume was pure stereotype, in fact was popular because it portrayed a people relatively free from work ethic, sexual repression, and able to engage in public merriment without fear of shame. Some white people in the nineteenth century liked it for some of the same reasons that some white people in the twenty-first century like gangsta rap. This rouses a perhaps unwholesome curiosity about what the performances were actually like. An entire genre of Americana has vanished leaving only the slightest traces; it made previous generations that uncomfortable.

The author, despite his disclaimer that the "renegades" are not really heroes, seems to take a pleasantly subversive delight in making these arguments. He likes to make his readers squirm a little. You might have preferred to have these themes broached first in a stuffily scholarly and less readable text than this. 



Is it not true that they were often assigned marriages?