"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
If you hear the words “white slavery” these days, it’s probably as a punch line to an unsavory joke about female college students being shanghaied and sold into Arabian harems — or in a remark by some amateur historian talking about the scandal of young turn-of-the-century prostitutes who were called, with a dash of hysteria, “white slaves.” In any case, this loaded term is a metaphor at best and a racy urban myth at worst, because there were never any real white slaves in America. Right?
Actually, wrong. In writing a book on the mixing of black and white life throughout American history, I discovered that white slavery did occur before the Civil War in small but significant numbers. And in unearthing this fascinating lost chapter in American history, I also discovered how slavery has been partitioned into a piece of African-American cultural property — made sacred by black Americans, abandoned by whites. Petrified by politics and shame, the richest and most central drama of early American history is now playing to segregated houses.
My history lesson began innocently enough: Deep in the stacks of the Brooklyn Public Library, I stumbled on a chapter in J.A. Rogers’ obsessive, well-documented and slightly weird book “Sex and Race,” called “Whites Sold as Negro Slaves.” The title seemed crackpot sinister, and best left alone. But I read Rogers’ accounts, checked out his sources and delved deeper into the murky history of American slave trading.
I discovered that there was strong anecdotal evidence of whites being kidnapped or sold into slavery from the early 1700s to the Civil War. Some were orphans, others poor immigrants or unwanted illegitimate babies. Some were snatched off country lanes, their skin dyed to look black; some were sold ostensibly as light mulattoes. A white woman was even sold down the river by her new husband, followed by her children, to a Georgia preacher. There were court cases, including the notorious 1844 New Orleans case of Sally Miller, a German child sold as a mulatto. There were newspaper accounts, sightings of white slaves in Southern travel memoirs, including Frederick Law Olmsted’s influential “The Cotton Kingdom” (1862), and African-American slave narratives attesting to white slavery.
The numbers are impossible, so far, to pin down, but some white bondage clearly occurred. In an era when human beings were the most valuable commodities available to thieves and slave traders, greed occasionally trumped the crucial myth that there was a strict dividing line between the races. And while there were instances of what appeared to onlookers as “purebred” whites being sold on auction blocks, those Anglo-Saxons were being sold as “blacks.” One had to become physically or socially accepted as black to be legally sold into chattel slavery and enter into the full degradation of American bondage. As light-skinned blacks sometimes gained their freedom by “passing” as white, so did hapless Caucasians make the reverse journey — proving that race and bondage were even more fluid concepts in antebellum America than we would like to believe. And the phenomenon was not restricted to the United States: The Barbary captivity narratives, recounted in Paul Michel Baepler’s “White Slaves, African Masters,” in which Europeans and some Americans described their brutal episodes of slavery in the courts of Algerian and Moroccan pashas, were wildly popular in the 1800s.
When I finished my research, I wanted to know why this odd history had been forgotten. One scholarly essay published in 1999, Carol Wilson’s groundbreaking “White Slavery: An American Paradox,” argues that standard histories have overlooked white bondage. But apart from Rogers’ obscure book, and one right-wing tract, discussed below, that was it.
Some historians I approached were initially shocked. Henry Mayer wrote the definitive biography of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, and he knows slavery scholarship cold; his voice spiked an octave or two in surprise when I broached the topic. “This is the flip side of the miscegenation debates about Thomas Jefferson, and now George Washington, having longtime black mistresses,” he said. “People have to come to a better understanding of how the slave trade corrupted everybody.”
Writer and academic Shelby Steele took the news more calmly. “It doesn’t surprise me,” he said. “It makes the point that slavery as a compulsion of man is bigger even than race.” But why hasn’t this been written about? “There was probably a time when whites were ashamed and wanted to suppress it,” Steele said. “But now it’s probably blacks who want to suppress it. Those who are grounded in the idea of black victimization may feel that this weakens their argument.”
Steele located a concern I’d had ever since I started my research: How would African-Americans react to this evidence? When, months before, I had told Jon, a white college friend, what I was working on, he laughed nervously. “You can’t write about that!” he half-shouted over the phone. “You can’t take slavery away from blacks. It’s like talking about Catholic nuns killed in the Holocaust.” Jon, who is Jewish, was convinced I was going to be painted as a revisionist right-wing whack job.
Nevertheless, I e-mailed Molefi Kete Asante, the firebrand Afrocentric scholar at Temple University who has called for reparations to African-Americans for slavery. Asante didn’t flame me. (Perhaps it helped that the first chapter of my book is going to be published in Harvard’s Transition magazine, edited by Henry Louis Gates and Kwame Anthony Appiah.) In fact, Asante sent back a cordial note with a fiery but cogent message at the end: “Whatever the extent of white slavery, there were no auction blocks where whites were humiliated and treated like animals, there were no preachers saying that whites did not have souls, there were no biologists trying to prove that whites were like the lowest animals, there were no laws that would have put whites in slavery in perpetuity.”
Whites were apparently sold on auction blocks, but Asante’s larger point was dead-on: Traders stole some white bodies, but the philosophers of slavery denigrated the black soul. But why had this history gone unrecorded? There are several possible explanations: Slavery was overwhelmingly African-American, so that’s where early scholarship was directed; the evidence of Anglo-Saxon captives was anecdotal; it was possible that some accounts of white slavery were abolitionist hype (though the abolitionists never pushed the issue and seemed almost embarrassed by it); miscegenation made very light-skinned slaves a common sight in the South, confusing the issue. And perhaps shame played a role as well; early historians may have been more comfortable overlooking evidence of whites selling their own.
If the scholars responded calmly, the reactions I got from friends and ordinary Americans were more heated. One African-American friend, Nia, a young woman from the South with a master’s degree in American studies, threw up her hands. “Who cares?” she said. “It certainly doesn’t compare to the millions and millions of Africans who suffered through the Middle Passage and were brutalized on foreign soil for generations and generations.”
I was not suggesting that white slavery was comparable to black slavery; that would be absurd. And my interest in the subject was not exculpatory; I wanted to know how and why white slavery happened, how poor whites reacted to the kidnappings and what it all said about the culture. “It shows that our perceptions about race and slavery cannot be as rigid as we have wanted them to be,” said historian Wilson. “Just as blacks could be free and landowners and prosperous, whites could be enslaved, even if it was a rare event.”
But for many African-Americans, the subject touches a raw nerve. A few people I corresponded with questioned the motives of those bringing out this new evidence (including mine). “It smells of revisionism,” wrote one member of an African-American message board on which I had posted a request for comments. For another, it confirmed old stereotypes: “It just shows the devious mind-set of white people. As the saying in the ‘hood is, ‘They’ll sell out their momma for a dollar!’” Many of the responses I got from African-Americans were receptive to the idea of white slavery, even to the idea of including the accounts in written histories. “Slavery was utilized for primarily economic reasons,” wrote a consultant to African-American social agencies. “If black folks hadn’t been available, it could have very well been more of the poor white immigrants.”
But some worried that the evidence would give white people an out for African-American suffering in slavery. “I can hear it now on ‘Jerry Springer’: ‘Well, white people were slaves, too,’” Nia e-mailed me. “We hear it anyway, when folks talk about Sudanese slavery. Can Negroes get a damn apology first for that shit, before whites jump on the slave ship?”
White Americans, on the other hand, seemed not at all galvanized by the news. “Though I do consider slavery a tragedy, I do not feel any guilt for what my forefathers did,” wrote one history buff from Iowa. “This has been going on since the beginning of time — we have to get on with life and remember that the past is the past.”
In fact, the most passionate response came from the very kind of Aryan brothers my friend Jon had warned me about — people like Michael A. Hoffman II. In 1991, the self-styled “revisionist historian” wrote a book called “They Were White and They Were Slaves,” in which he recounted the dehumanizing abuse that white indentured servants (who were sometimes referred to as slaves) suffered in colonial America and instances of them being swindled into lifelong servitude.
The book is a compendium of quotes pulled from 17th and 18th century documents without much historical context, but it’s marked by a clear obsession with the subject. Hoffman’s other books include “Hate Whitey: The Cinema of Defamation,” the “only publication tracking Hollywood’s psychological war against whites, Christians, Germans and gentiles.” He believes that “the crimes [against] and oppression of white working people are ongoing,” as he e-mailed me from Idaho. And who’s leading the coverup of this oppression? “The professorcrats, the media dorks and the government hacks who traffic in demagogic appeals to black bigots and white liberal self-hate.”
Hoffman’s far-right followers need little hard evidence to get misty about injustices perpetrated on their kin, but how would ordinary, decent white Americans react to the news? What struck me as I read through the responses of the people I contacted — in whose family trees there might lurk, who knows, a lost blue-eyed slave — was how divorced they were from the issue of slavery. They were sorry it happened, yes, but they were unimpassioned, aloof. Perhaps that’s natural: The memory of suffering always burns brightest in the minds of the victims and their descendants, and fades among those whose ancestors carried the whip.
Even when the table is abruptly turned and white Americans like me are presented with the possibility, however slim, that their kin might have been slaves and not masters, barely a flicker of emotion arises. Whites — except for those on the fringe — just can’t imagine an America in which whites were the victims of blind greed and soullessness. It isn’t our place, never has been. On the subject of slavery, whites have ceded the playing field to blacks and quietly walked away. Even the offer of seeing oneself in a minor, but completely new, role fails to pique interest.
I asked historian Mayer about the insidious idea that slavery “belongs” only to black Americans. “This whole business of slavery as black cultural property is fairly new,” said Mayer. “It’s part of this whole kind of enclave identity politics we’re caught up in.” It hasn’t always been so. The view of slavery has gone through many phases. In academe, early 20th century Southern scholars argued that slavery was a positive, civilizing influence; midcentury historians then blew that racist theory apart with studies that emphasized the system’s power to strip blacks of culture and self-worth. More recently, scholars have explored slave resistance, surviving African traditions and the strong family cohesiveness of the slave community.
In contemporary popular culture, interest in slavery clearly peaked with “Roots,” but it has dived to the box-office nadir with films like “Rosewood” and “Amistad.” Personal stories — like those captured in memoirs like Ed Ball’s “Slaves in the Family” — still engage a wide multiracial audience. Broader studies rarely do. But the image of slavery still burns in the issue of black incarceration, in the ongoing debate about reparations and in black-centric hip-hop: Listen to Dead Prez’s brilliant CD “Let’s Get Free” for a vision of America as a digital-age plantation. And the metaphor has suffered reckless abuse at the hands of prominent blacks: Prince shaved the word “slave” onto his cheek during his dispute with his white-owned record company, and the New York Knicks’ Larry Johnson called his team “rebel slaves” during a hard-fought playoff series. When even millionaire superstars keep the word fresh in their vocabulary, you know that slavery echoes at all levels of black America.
Some of the responses I received from African-Americans fit in with Mayer’s point about slavery as a black possession. In trying to explain her discomfort with the new evidence about white slaves, one black friend told me about a joke she heard growing up. There’s an old black woman on the bus; a roach has crawled onto her shoulder. A white lady spots it, walks over to the woman and gently reaches out to remove the vile insect. The African-American granny recoils. “Damn,” she says. “Black people can’t have nothin’ of their own.”
Or, as Nia wrote me almost plaintively: “Can’t we at least have slavery?” African-Americans do “have” slavery; it has become a sacred grove in black memory. White Americans, on the other hand, gladly gave up all claims on it years ago, as if shuffling off a bad family debt. Could admitting the white captive into the story of slavery play any role in changing that? Blacks might have to give up the exclusivity of their suffering, but they would see farther into the heart and mind of the slave empire — witnessing, for example, how American elites so often turned poor blacks and whites against each other. Whites could emerge from their numbed boredom, their conviction that the only response to the subject is guilt or secret resentment, and encounter slavery more as the complex historical phenomenon it was and less like the collective crime it has come to be characterized as.
Ironically, if anything, the existence of white slavery highlights the deep connection between black and white — as does the relationship between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, as does the story of African-American Civil War patriots, as does the story of blacks and whites coming to Christianity together in the First Great Awakening. The white captive reminds us how wild and grotesque and various the world of slavery was and how every American has inherited its crazy genes. Like him or not, he belongs to us.
Stephan Talty is a writer living in Brooklyn.More Stephan Talty.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)