A REVIEW OF
Generations of Freedom: Gender, Movement, and Violence in Natchez, 1779–1865
By Nik Ribianszky
University of Georgia Press
Hardback, 286 pages
History of antebellum Natchez reveals roots, extent of white violence against blacks
By Jay Wiener
Special to the Mississippi Clarion Ledger
USA TODAY NETWORK
The best Bob Dylan song is arguably “Positively Fourth Street” (1965), which ends,
“I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes
And just for that one moment I could be you
Yes, I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes
You’d know what a drag it is to see you”
The stanza summarizes sentiments increasingly intuited by White Americans through the Black Lives Matters movement. Notwithstanding those unsubjected to historic prejudices over centuries imagining ability to understand disparate treatment, no one genuinely internalizes what “others” encountering discrimination accept.
Nik Ribianszky’s “Generations of Freedom: Gender, Movement, and Violence in Natchez, 1779–1865” offers insights into the structural barriers defining the African American experience.
Only victims of unfairness accurately comprehend the degradations, condoned over generations by individuals unaffected by the abuses: “… state-sanctioned repression coupled with the actions of local people could and did put their freedom, livelihoods, property, and families at risk.”
Excesses were neither random nor prosecuted “including concrete issues like violence [and] threats to their liberty as in the very real, unsettling practices of kidnapping, imprisonment, and reenslavement in the Deep South.”
The operative thought is “state-sanctioned”: “Mississippi legislation contained provisions that prohibited people of color from insulting white people; thus, from an early age, much like in the later period of the Jim Crow South, young African American children had to learn the bitter lesson of swallowing words that protested injustice and discrimination.”
Verbal assault was injury enough to endure. Nonetheless sexual violations were no more illegal: “Not only did lawmakers consider rape as one of these myriad violations on the person of a slave that was not punishable, but they deemed it virtually impossible due to perceptions of African American women’s lewdness and essentially deemed them unworthy of legal protection.”
Were such indignities insufficient insult to one’s integrity, family members were routinely sold and separated.
Confronting the overwhelming violence, prejudice, and offensive indifference to issues of racial equality described throughout “Generations of Freedom” is dispiriting: “Free people of color…, while not enslaved, were nevertheless denied the social, legal, and economic protections of white privilege and only retained property by passing it down through generations of descendants. At times, however, they did not have the financial resources, enough influential advocates, or the preponderance of positive public opinion.
“… On the whole… free Blacks utilized whatever resources they could muster to defend their property, human and inanimate.”
Sadly, tragically, post-Reconstruction America begot an outrageousness unable to acknowledge people of color’s capacity for noblesse oblige, empowerment, and a bourgeoisie. “But in the brief window that existed for African Americans between the end of the war and the end of Reconstruction, people had the opportunity to exercise their freedom of speech and not guard their tongues (or perhaps their true racial identities) as carefully. For that short window of time before the nadir period of Jim Crow segregation and the one-drop rule racial classification descended upon the South, it is possible that those who had donned white masks to avoid the threat of enslavement or loss of home or property let them fall and did not feel compelled to deny their ancestral heritage.”
At an historical moment during which demagogues endeavor to seize political power by scapegoating vulnerable, disadvantaged ethnicities—denying the self-evident truth “that all men are created equal [and] endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”—it is crucial to ask whether descending into the abyss of Segregation, to secure several years of ascendancy, ought to be countenanced, knowing that a second successful civil rights movement will ensue alongside its Siamese twin, rage and resentment. Lessons learned during the lifespan of individuals alive today are ignored by craven individuals hellbent upon crucifying democracy on a cross of greed.
Jay Wiener is a Jackson attorney.