Cliven Bundy and the ‘Happy Slave’ Narrative.

Posted: April 28, 2014 in Uncategorized
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By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

Perhaps you have heard the name Cliven Bundy lately? Three weeks ago, the Nevada rancher made news because of a stand-off he was having against Federal Bureau of Land Management agents. The BLM had tried for 20 years to stop Bundy from grazing his cattle on federal land. Bundy repeatedly refused, and when the BLM attempted to enforce the law, Bundy took up arms in defiance and was quickly joined by hundreds of proto-militia

Cliven Bundy

Cliven Bundy

members. Or, perhaps two weeks ago you heard about Bundy when Fox News host Sean Hannity repeatedly, and loudly portrayed the Nevada native as an American hero fighting government oppression.  No? Well, if not, then I bet you heard his name last week.  On Wednesday, Bundy gave a press conference that, strangely, led the rancher to pontificate on ‘the Negro’.  Bundy proclaimed:

“I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro”…. Mr. Bundy recalled driving past a public-housing project in North Las Vegas, “and in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids — and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch — they didn’t have nothing to do. They didn’t have nothing for their kids to do. They didn’t have nothing for their young girls to do.

“And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?” he asked. “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

Not surprisingly, Bundy supporters in Washington and New York fled for the hills.  Senators Rand Paul (R -Kentucky), Dean Heller (R -Nevada) and Hannity went from 29234calling Bundy a patriot two weeks ago, to condemning the rancher’s ‘appalling statements’.  Within a few hours, Bundy transformed from the poster child for rugged small-government American individualism, to a disturbing representation of America’s continuing race issues.

Bundy’s words have led to an avalanche of media analysis.  Much of it is directed towards who Bundy speaks for.  Does he represent a larger portion of America that agrees with his racial ideas, but has too much tact, or duplicity to state them quite so loudly? Such questions are important, no doubt.  But, most such stories are often reticent about Bundy’s actual ideas, and their provenance; their history.

Look at Bundy’s most offensive statement (arguably): African-Americans may be “better off as slaves” than living free in 21st century America.  I assume to many, this portion of Bundy’s little speech is absolutely dumbfounding. The man must be off his rocker.  After all, who in the world would believe that anyone would be ‘better off’ in a state of chattel slavery?

Well, during the last 150 years of American history, a lot of people believed such bunk.  Said bunk was so accepted that it was taught as history to American schoolchildren. Bundy’s words are a reincarnation of a past ideology, and a deplorable myth of the ‘happy slave’ that poisoned post-Civil War race relations.

In the decades after the Civil War (and into the mid-twentieth century), notions about ‘happy slaves’ in the Old South held a great deal of sway.  During these years, American culture popularized the happy slave

Aunt Jemima: The happy mammy.

Aunt Jemima: The happy mammy.

 historical narrative through films, textbooks and even children’s cartoons.  Though invented during the days of slavery, this notion of the goodness of slaveowners, and the happiness of slaves was part of a larger romanticization of the antebellum South that swept the nation during the decades of postwar national reconciliation. This narrative painted the ol’ plantation system of slave and slaveowner as one built upon social contentment and order.  Destroyed by the Civil War, the epoch of Southern slavery was memorialized as a golden age of social harmony.

Historian David Blight has illustrated that popular books  in the immediate after years of the war played a large role in revivifying this idea.  These books published in the 1880s-90s portrayed an:

….idyllic world of the plantation system, where everybody knew their place, and where blacks were essentially loyal retainers and happy darkies.

In fact you could argue that the reconciliation of the Civil War, and even the reconciliation of much of the bitterness of Reconstruction, in the popular imagination, happened as thousands upon thousands, hundreds of thousands of American readers, most of them Northerners, [heard] the voice of loyal happy slaves in their ear, narrating these stories about this idyllic, romantic old South that had now been crushed by this unfortunate if necessary war. Oh, and maybe it’s even good — the stories would say — that slavery was ended. It was good for the nation that slavery was ended. But look what else we lost. We lost this ordered civilization, this hierarchical society, this sense of a nation where everybody knew who they were and where they should be. And after all, what were they living in, by the 1880s and 90s, but an urbanizing country, a modernizing country, a complicated place, now full of all kinds of new immigrants…. new ideologies…., and an expanding economy full of technology that people didn’t grasp and couldn’t understand. And when the world gets confusing, and it changes rapidly, they did what most of us do. They harken back to another time. They find another world to live in.

Let me remind you that Blight wrote these words a decade ago; he was analyzing responses to modernity in post-Civil War America.  The idea of the ‘happy slave’ was useful for those who feared the real world in the 1880’s. 130 years on, Bundy obviously took this old wine, and put it into a new bottle, finding some perverted sense in this ‘happy slave’ narrative.

Is Cliven Bundy the only one who holds to such notions?  Hopefully he is….but, I doubt it.

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