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Master’s Slavery Lesson: Continuing the Serialization of “Jack,” the Charleston Antebellum Novel

Chapter 33

Charleston, S.C., Civil War Era Lithograph copy by Harper's Weekly

Charleston, S.C., Civil War Era Lithograph copy by Harper’s Weekly

“Good morning girls and boys. Well let’s see what do we have here? Look at this why don‘t you, I see that Jeremy is with us today as is Jimmy, Jack, and Mr. Brooks! What do you know? Well boys, I hope you had a nice little vacation-I hear you all did such a marvelous job on the church grounds. I can’t say as though I’m particularly charmed to see any of you, especially after last weekend, but we’ll address that later. Perhaps some of you at least can start with a clean slate. I sincerely hope you’ve all learned the error of your ways and will make a considerable effort to abide by our school rules from now on and that you will lend your mind to the exalted lessons I have prepared for you this day. One of them involves our most cherished traditions and values which have made Charleston the great center of the south and, indeed, which has established Southern gentry at the great height of advanced civilization making it the envy of the world.

“Do you know what I am referring to Mr. Stone?”

“Well Masta Whittemore, sir, I think I do. You is referring to what you always like to talk about sir, the darkies, and how their suffering and misery is a good thing cuz it is necessary for the good of us all.”

“Hmm,” master said as he walked one way in front of the class, then turned, and walked back with his hands clasping one another behind his back. His long pointed nose seemed to move up a little, then down, like a chicken pecking in a barnyard. He seemed to peck, peck, peck with each step he took with his long skinny legs attired with high leather boots which were a’creakin’ the floorboards. “Very good, Mister Stone. Very nicely put. I don’t think I’d have put it quite that way myself but the principle is the same. I’m surprised at your sudden attention, Mr. Stone, but do admit that I’m glad-quite glad-to have your participation and, uh, cooperation, in this most important lesson which is so essential to the development of the character of our youth.

“Class, it is easy for the Northern abolitionists who are a vicious lot and a scourge and even a disease in our land to advocate doing away with slavery. These selfish agitators are only interested in profiteering and at our expense and are jealous of our economic and social system. They want to tear down all that’s good. They don’t care a twit abut the black man. What galls them is that they hate that we have more liberty than they do. They are led by their misguided politicians in Washington, D.C., and the equally misguided newspaper editors in many of the northern cities like that high-falutting, bombastic know-nothing, Mr. Horace Greeley, of the New York Tribune. The man should be tarred and feathered and dragged through the streets by his toes by a team of wild asses for agitating the people of this good land toward calling for the Negroes to rise up against their masters. They talk about us as being against the union when it is they who are attempting to break up the union. This great country of ours was built and unified upon the proud principle and sound institution of slavery and the Constitution has protected it for more than fifty years. These northern good-for-nothing abolitionists want to make the African equal to the American-to the Englishman, the Frenchman, the Scot and the Spaniard, the German. This is clearly preposterous. No Negro was ever the equal of a white man or woman. God made the world this way. He made the black man to serve the white man, this is the natural way of things. Color is the great division, not poverty and wealth. For every white man is already wealthy compared to any black man. Even the poorest white man is an aristocrat compared with the Negro and so he feels himself to be part of the upper class. And it’d be unnatural to mix them up and give the Negro the same rights which he would little know what to do with anyway. The white man is wealthy by nature, which God created, endowed with beauty, endowed with white skin, with superior intelligence and, not least, with great ability in architecture, art and science, with a natural power over the primitive black man who so obviously lacks natural wealth because the aristocratic impulse does not exist in the black man who is a low breed who is more like the apes than the humans. The black man is fit for the lowest work, he being of lowest endowment, and he is far happier in this natural state than in trying to be something he cannot be.”

“What an idiot,” Jack whispered to me. “Leroy could give a much better lesson about slavery than Whittemore ever could. That’s just a load a crap he’s tryin’ to sell to these kids. Hey that gives me an idea.”

“Here we go again,” I whispered. “What you goin’ to do now?”

“Get Leroy’s story down on paper and read it to the class and then see if they agree with this knumbskull,” Jack whispered. “Gonna need ya to help with the writin’, maybe the readin’ too.”

“Mr. Stone, you have a further comment that the rest of us should hear?”

“Well, not yet Master sir, I was a‘tellin’ Jeremy here something, an idea I had about doing a project on your fine lesson sir, but I really wanted to hear all of what you have to say first before I say anythin’ myself. It’s only the polite thing to do. You do have a way with your words, Master Whittemore.”

“Well son, nicely spoken. And I’m glad to see that you have come here today to get an education and to show the interest in the lesson that you have so far, but you need to quit commenting to Mr. Foster and wait, politely as you so aptly put it, until I’m finished. But know that I’m impressed with this change I see in you, Mr. Stone, and with this turn in your behavior. Yes, maybe you’ll turn out well after all. Just proves what I’ve always said-that there’s good in every child but that it takes patience and sometimes severity on the part of a superior educator to bring that good out of him. And certainly you may do such a project Mr. Stone-do you intend to be sharing it with the class?”

“Oh yes sir, especially if it’d a’git me some extra credit cuz I need all the credit I can get to pass sir.”

“Well I can’t wait to see it, Mr. Stone. I’ll expect it later in the week and we all look forward, I’m sure, to learning about your views on the subject.”

“Bein’ that I’ll be a’puttin’ a lot of work into it sir, so as I can git extra credit and all, would you, sir, kindly make me a promise that I git to read the whole thing out loud to the class sir, and that I git extra credit for both a‘writin’ it and a‘readin’ it out loud?” asked Jack.

“Certainly. certainly, you may certainly have such a promise. You do impress me, Mr. Stone, so that I am beginning to wonder if also I should not forget about your past transgressions, and even your most mischievous ones the weekend past sir.”

“Weekend master? I guess I haven’t been a very good pupil have I sir? I’m gonna try to make it up and do a good paper for you, Mr. Whittemore.”

“I await it with pleasure, Mr. Stone. “Well now, isn’t this a pleasant surprise. Who would have ever thought? A magnificent change brought about by my persistence and great effort because I never lost hope sir, never, and that’s what the best educators do-they do not lose hope but they see the light in every student and every situation. And that brings us to the topic of secession.

“And so now my good students, the southern states are becoming weaker and weaker because these know-nothing abolitionist fanatics have convinced the country through false and evil argument that the California Territory should be a free state, which it now has become, and all the rest of the western territories that numerous fine southern heroes died for in the war with Mexico are sure to follow. The abolitionists are bleeding the South to death and we must stop it before it is too late. Soon the anti-slavery states will overwhelm us and the south will have to submit to each and every bill the north shoves down our throats. I’m talking about the United States legislature who schemes against us every day!” Whittemore, nearly foaming at the mouth, thundered. It is becoming clearer and clearer that establishment of a Confederate States of America-yes the south’s own country to run as it sees fit-is the only choice left. Secession, my good fellows, separation from the union, is the only answer and Charleston will have to take the lead as it always has so ably done in our glorious past. The South will sink or swim depending upon what we do. What would become of our cherished civilization if we had the Negro living right next to us and having the same vote that the white folks have and having their pickaninnies go to the same schools and churches as the children of the white folks? It would be the end of civilization and the country would lapse into the dark ages and chaos. It’d be like giving the country back to the Indians. That‘s what the northern abolitionists are handing to us on a plate!”

“So what’s the matter with that?” I suddenly asked, surprised at my own boldness.

“Mr. Foster, you are joking, I hope!”

“No sir, the Indians were here first. And my daddy says the white man pushed them out cuz they thinks they’re better than the Indians and they thinks they have a right to anything the Indians have because they thinks they’re better. And what right do white people have to sell a Negro mother away from her children? They is people just like us and they need a home, food, a family just like us and it is simply wrong for whites to sell’em and treat them lower than their dogs.”

“You’ve made your point, Mr. Foster, but I do think that you will see the necessity of separating the races and the importance to the advance of civilization in elevating the white race at the expense of the naturally inferior dark race, this I believe you’ll come to see as you mature, Mr. Foster.”

I raised my hand again and master looked at me icily, his eyes a’sqintin’, and then he called upon me again. “What is it now, Mr. Foster?”

“Sir, I beg to disagree with you. But I also think the Negroes should get an education just like us so they could learn to be citizens. Right now, it seems to me, the whites want to keep them as stupid as they can and won’t give ‘em a chance because they’re probably scared of them. Whites bring the Negroes in from Africa or Jamaica or somethin’ and force ‘em to be slaves and sell their wives and children and don’t give’em no education and now they’re afraid of what they’ve done.”

Master’s face went grey momentarily and then his neck got red and redder and his face got red and redder too and he gritted his teeth and he blinked his eyes and he looked like he wanted to strangle me but I intended to have my say for once.

“And how do you know that the slaves don’t like the comfort of having work, food, and a home provided by his master, Mr. Foster? Had you ever given any thought to that? Not all slaves are separated from their families! Most of them wouldn’t know how to care for themselves anyway if they were freed! Where would they go? Who would feed them? They’d have to steal their food! Then steal everything else they could get! It would be utter chaos, Mr. Foster, the end of civilization I declare! Look at how beautiful our city is-it is the shining light of the south with excellent buildings, its people excel in the arts, in mercantile occupations, our society consists of the brightest and the best all because the venerable and time-honored institution of slavery is the foundation of our great culture! All great cultures from ancient Rome to ancient Greece and Egypt had slaves that were on the bottom rung of the social ladder! It is the natural order of things! The best and the brightest-that being the white race-naturally occupies the top! You cannot give the black man an education and a vote because you would be destroying the great culture we have built up now for some two centuries! And the Negroes don’t really want to be free-it’s those darn northern abolitionists who wants them to be free and puts idiotic ideas in their heads so they can pull down our civilization and make it into a hodgepodge like their own!”

Master was glowering now – the most agitated I’d ever seen ’em – and his eyes were a’bulging and his blood pressure must have jumped up raised a notch or two cuz he was redder in the face than before now, just like he was at the trial when the kids got on top their benches and shouted that master was a cheat. I was scared but I wasn’t about to let up. Somethin’ in me said ‘say noting more’ but I wasn’t a’listenin’ to that voice and I thought Leroy would be a’proud of me now and the other kids all were a’listenin’ ever so  attentively and so I continued to have ma say…”

“But sir, my daddy said the Negroes wants to be free just like any other human being. He said that, when he was a boy, there was a slave uprising right – it was a’going’ to be a big revolt right here in Charleston led by Denmark Vesey. Was in 1822, he done told me, and that there were thousands of slaves-both free Negroes and slaves-who were involved. And Daddy said they hung Vesey and thirty-six others down at Blacke’s Landing after a house Negro betrayed him. My daddy said Vesey was a good carpenter and was a free Negro cuz he’d bought his freedom from his master. Said he made his daddy a nice mahogany chest once. Daddy said Mr. Vesey had a lot of money and still he risked everything he had to help other Negroes to get free of the white masters. Daddy also said he knew different languages-that’s smarter than most whites folk I know. He don’t sound to me like he is a bottom-of-the-ladder human at all. Sound to be like he was up the top. So, what I was wonderin’ sir is, how come you never teach us about Denmark Vesey?”

Master Whittemore glared at me like I was a venomous snake about to bite him between his eyes.

“That’s not the kind of thing they wants to teach us,” Jack whispered.”

“Please end this discussion now, Mister Upstart! And you too Mister!” master hollered. “I can tell you this, that the reason we don’t study that kind of uppity nonsense, is because that darn nigger was a criminal and disobeyed the law and so did the other niggers who were punished along with him! And they got exactly what was coming to them!”

Master was yelling now. Sweat was beading on his forehead, then a’runnnin down his face like  it was a river or somethin’, and he looked furiously annoyed, slappin ‘his own face, when one bead ran into his eye. He was mad. And this, I knew, was not the time to continue with my line of reasoning. So I didn’t.

“It is not properly the goal of education to study what a bunch of contemptuous nigger criminals did or didn’t do!” he screamed. “Now let’s move on to geography!”

I figured I should stop while I was ahead, so that’s what I did.

I looked at Jack. He seemed to agree as he tried to hide his mirth, bowing his somewhat flat head with the dark curls in front. His big brown eyes smiled mischievously – perhaps maliciously is the right word – as he stole a sidelong look at me. Then he whispered, “Nice goin’ sonny boy! But just you wait ‘til ya see what the big fellow’s got in store for that horse’s ass!”

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