Becoming Free In The Cotton South, by Susan Eva O’Donovan
In reading a book like this, one has to take its conclusions with a grain of salt. Since books by self-avowed Marxist historians are of immensely dubious value on account of their ideological bias , one must read them for other purposes rather than to be (mis)informed. Fortunately, this book does have much to offer the critical reader, but in ways that are perhaps grimly ironic. At its heart, this book examines the difficulties the black population of Southwest Georgia had in maintaining their dignity in slavery in the face of brutal exploitation and had in achieving any kind of freedom after slavery ended. This area of Georgia is one I know fairly well given my familiarity with various modular builders located in areas like Americus and Thomasville and the other small cities of this obscure region of the South, and the author points out that despite its importance to the Cotton Kingdom it remains obscure in terms of historical knowledge. While this book does not materially advance the state of knowledge about the reason, it does offer a compelling case study in how radical political elements like those the author supports can be dealt with in an effective manner.
The 260 or so pages of this book are divided into several chapters by chronology, and examine the fate of the blacks of Southwest Georgia from the period of the beginning of plantation slavery in the 1820’s to the “redemption” of the area by former slaveowners around 1868. The author, as may be expected from her political perspective, spends a great deal of time wrestling with questions of ethnicity, gender, and class, bemoaning the exploitation of blacks and women and the cruelty of capitalism in valuing only those populations that could work and the lack of generosity of welfare payments on the part of even reconstruction governments. The author seems to resolve the welfare trap of contemporary African Americans as being a mere theory and not empirically verified fact in the face of the history of the last few decades. As cruel as slavery and its aftermath was, and it was cruel and unjust in the extreme, the concerns of even the charitable among the Yankees was justified in light of contemporary experience of learned helplessness and the results of the misguided attempts of governments to serve as surrogate husbands and fathers, as is the case at present.
Since the facts of life in antebellum, Civil War, and reconstruction Southwest Georgia are largely obscure and the author’s perspective is unreliable to the extreme, the chief value of this book is in demonstrating how the resumption of power by the regions former slaveowners shortly after the end of the Civil War can serve as an example for rightly guided regimes seeking to stare out radical movements in the contemporary world. The author suggests that adopting a logistical strategy that cuts radicals off from government largesse is vital in overcoming political spirit. Placing the sinecures of radicals in jeopardy can reduce their outward political behavior to the benefit of the well-being of the larger community. Those that attack at the legitimacy of our nation and its moral and political order should not earn their livelihood as parasites to that nation, as occurs at present. How this may be done best is the subject of better writers and other works, no doubt, but this book gives ironic encouragement to how quiescence may be obtained through the judicious control of the government coffers and the diversion of those resources away from radical elements. For that illustration alone this book is worth reading, if for no other reason.
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