For the past couple of years, I’ve been reading books on American history–some general, several by scholars focused on slavery and Jim Crow, and still others exploring specific movements–for women’s suffrage, for civil rights, for LGBTQ acceptance. I’ve come away from these descriptions of times past with the realization that in far too many ways, the past really isn’t past–that world-views that were powerful “back then” are far more present than I’ve wanted to believe.
I recently finished a book titled Marse, written by a forensic psychiatrist named Kirkpatrick, who’d discovered–relatively late in his life–that the great-great grandfather for whom he was named had been a slave owner. In high-school, he and a Black acquaintance with the same last name had jokingly called each other “cuz.” When the two of them reconnected, some forty years later, the classmate shared his ancestry research, which had uncovered the fact that his forebears had been owned by the author’s ancestors–hence the same name.
Kirkpatrick was stunned–that bit of history hadn’t been part of his family’s lore.
“Marse” is an old Southern word meaning “master,” and Kirkpatrick chose it as the (somewhat awkward) title of the book. Given his professional background, he fashioned his research as a “psychological autopsy” into the minds and behaviors of the Southern planters who believed themselves entitled to own other human beings.
Kirkpatrick’s description of the psychological effects of the “peculiar institution” on slaveholders was instructive. He delved into the psychological mechanisms with which Marse justified the ownership of other human beings — the personality distortions, defense mechanisms, and psycho-pathologies that were an arguably inevitable effect of owning human “property.”
What was especially fascinating to me was the extent to which all White Southerners, those who owned slaves and those who didn’t, believed that Christianity and the Bible affirmatively promoted slavery as a positive good. Kirkpatrick devotes an entire chapter to Evangelical pastors’ arguments justifying White dominance, arguments that Blacks were little more than animals who didn’t have souls, insisting that God had decreed the propriety/necessity of slavery, and arguments emphasizing that Jesus never spoke out against enslavement.
Southern Evangelicals, having cited chapter and verse, successfully enlisted the Bible to justify the overwhelming majority of slaveholders and non-slaveholders in defense of slavery as ordained by God.
The parallels between the psychology of antebellum slaveholding and today’s racists are unmistakable. The poor Whites who formed the bulk of the Confederate army identified with the slaveholders; they hated Black enslaved people and believed them to be inferior.
As Kirkpatrick writes, it would be naive to think that the psychological pathologies that enabled slavery didn’t continue to shape the nation’s economic, social and political systems over the century and a half that followed the Civil War.
In his final chapter, Kirkpatrick draws a compelling parallel between today’s Trump supporters and the Southern Whites who fought for slavery and for White Christian social dominance. He compares the South’s belief in the “Lost Cause”–the revisionist belief that the South’s losses in battle were the result of chicanery–that the South had been the victim of “Yankee vandals” engaged in an immoral and political power grab– to Trump’s Big Lie that his election had been stolen through fraud and theft.
Kirkpatrick draws a straight line between today’s MAGA movement and those “Lost Cause” Southerners. Like “Lost Cause” believers, Trump supporters feel cheated and victimized–and are consumed with resentment and rage, “denying to themselves just how fearful they are about the changes taking place in the social and political fabric of our nation.”
The fact that the rioters who stormed the Capitol constituted a lynch mob dramatically links the events of January 6, 2021 back to the racist white supremacy of American slavery and post-Reconstruction violence of the Jim Crow era in American history.
The chapter traces what Kirkpatrick calls the “through line” of racist White supremacy and the psychology of those pre-Civil War slaveholders to today’s MAGA GOP and Trump.
I don’t want to suggest that today’s White Christian ideology comes solely from “Lost Cause” Southerners; this video (sent by a reader) of 22,000 American Nazis gathered in Madison Square Garden before WWII demonstrates that bigotry didn’t come only from the South.
Americans are just now coming to terms with the realities of the nation’s past. Much of that past is immensely positive–but making continued progress will requires us to grapple with the other parts, the parts that were wrongheaded, savage, and shameful.
We will never understand where we are if we don’t know where we’ve been, and we won’t defeat the MAGA throwbacks unless we understand the complicated and ugly roots of their hatreds.
Accurate history matters.