The posthumous masterwork of an influential black historian tells how slavery itself undermined the Confederacy
By Robert Roper
December 1, 2006
In the spring of 2005, when Bitter Fruits of Bondage, a brilliant, cogent, relatively short new book on the Civil War, saw publication, its author, Armstead L. Robinson, had been dead for 10 years. Formerly an associate professor of history at the University of Virginia, the founding director of the Carter G. Woodson Institute for Afro-American and African Studies, and the institutional godfather of black studies programs across the United States, Robinson died of a stroke at 48, overweight and overworked but not, according to those who knew him well, overwhelmed. Right up to his last days, he had been productively, expansively at work, ever deepening, enriching, and refining his magnum opus.
Robinson was that most rare historian, one who exercises a profound influence upon a field yet never in his lifetime publishes a book within it. Indeed, so seminal a figure was he in the history of the South and so legendary the book that he never quite managed to produce, that wags in the academy referred to him as “Mr. Forthcoming.” By the time of his death, the book that had been rumored for nearly 20 years had entered into myth, and perhaps the kindest interpretation of its nonappearance made reference to a presumed perfectionist streak in the warm, lively, formidably curious Southern scholar. Bitter Fruits of Bondage: The Demise of Slavery and the Collapse of the Confederacy, 1861–1865, an account of why the Confederacy collapsed, had begun as a doctoral dissertation at the University of Rochester, where in the mid-1970s Robinson studied under the then-Marxist (now Catholic-patriarchalist) historian of slavery and the slave-owning class, Eugene D. Genovese. Or, to take a slightly longer view, it began as part of his mammoth senior thesis at Yale, where as an undergraduate Scholar of the House, he studied with C. Vann Woodward. Both his thesis and his Rochester dissertation focused on developments in the Civil War West, that vast but historiographically semi-overlooked region beyond the Appalachians and east of the Brazos, and on why and how the slave system fell apart.
Robinson had grown up there, in the Mississippi Valley. His father’s family came from Mansura, Louisiana, a town of 2,000 some 200 miles upriver from New Orleans. They were black Lutherans, an exotic species in the Deep South: Armstead’s father, deWitt Peter Robinson, who studied at the Emanuel Lutheran College and Seminary in Greensboro, North Carolina, became pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in New Orleans, and later of Cross of Calvary Lutheran in Memphis. The Reverend Robinson’s maternal uncle and two of his brothers also became pastors; his wife, Ruth Dickinson Robinson, attended the Greensboro seminary; and two of her brothers became Lutheran
pastors as well.
Armstead, born in 1947, went to Hamilton High, for many years the only high school for blacks in Memphis. There he attracted the interest of several teachers and of a local attorney, Jared Blanchard, who tried to open a few doors. He was admitted to Yale in 1964, not as one of a favored cohort benefiting from the redress of an appalling historical inequity, but as one of the mingy handful ushered into the Ivy League each year “on the merits.” In his class, there were 18 African Americans out of 1,061 men admitted. Midway through his Yale career, 1966, the college graduated just six black men from an entering class of 1,024. But by 1968, and partly as the result of a determined noise raised by students like Robinson himself, Yale entered 43 black freshmen in a class of 1,025 (4 percent as compared to 1.7 percent Armstead’s year).
Henry Louis Gates Jr., one of this enlarged number of black freshmen arriving in 1968, has written, “In an accident of history, our cadre of blackness arrived on the Yale campus in the same year as did the Program in Afro-American Studies. … Located on the fringe of the campus, a hundred yards or so from the New Haven Green, Afro-Am had been established at the insistence of, and through the sensitive planning of, a handful of … remarkably sophisticated” black undergraduates, Robinson prominent among them. Robinson and a few other seniors were as idols to Gates, he writes in The Future of the Race, a 1996 book he wrote with Cornell West.
In a historical moment that valorized angry, radical gestures, Robinson was more than sufficiently angry, yet strangely levelheaded, too, able to talk to everyone. Perhaps it was being related to all those Southern pastors—Lutherans of probity and a quiet persuasiveness. At age 20, he took a lead role in assembling at Yale a group of distinguished personages for the purpose of assessing black studies. On a weekend early in 1968, deans and provosts mingled with noted historians and sociologists, political scientists and black psychiatrists, and young men with large hair and stern expressions. Maulana Ron Karenga, founder-chairman of the group known as US, based in the Watts Roper JS RR BW CK.qxp 11/17/2006 3:00 AM Page 90 community of Los Angeles, shared a podium with McGeorge Bundy, president of the Ford Foundation, and the exchanges were frank and sometimes witty.
Armstead, unlike some other young men of his time, had a grip on the earnest reality of the day, the hour, the opportunity. He would take an extra year to finish at Yale because of his involvement with black studies (his work included co-editing a book, Black Studies in the University, that remains a vividly readable document of the times). Perhaps because he was writing his 600-page senior thesis in the same period, a thesis that traced the consequences of small actions undertaken by obscure and unimportant people (poor blacks under Reconstruction in Shelby County, Tennessee, among other places), he developed, or further awakened to, a sense he would always have that we are all up to our ears in history, whether we see it or not. And that the future spins forth from what we do here today. The necessary reforms of Reconstruction had been smothered in their political cradle fewer than a hundred years before that weekend of symposium repartee, and, therefore, since influential people were asking him what to do, Robinson had a plan. Yes, indeed, he did.
The Yale approach—influenced as it was by administrators, students, and scholars like anthropologist Sidney Mintz and political scientist Robert Dahl—was intellectually ambitious, interdisciplinary, and internationalist. Its aim was not to favor and thereby possibly ghettoize the study of black experience, but to locate that experience within the most sweeping of New and Old World narratives. Other examples of Robinson’s forethought suggest that he may have been half-aware already of what he was taking on: a lifelong headache. Possibly also a fatal heartache. The debate over black studies has never ended. As the sociologist Karen Fields, who in the 1980s and 1990s directed black studies at the University of Rochester (a program nurtured by Robinson, who served as curriculum consultant), has said, “I discovered that there is no one so junior in the academy, no department so obscure, no scholar so normally cautious and polite as not to be willing to hold forth boldly about the untenability of black studies as an idea, and about the dangers that co-hiring with it poses to academic excellence.”
Ask yourself as you read this essay—you, most fair-minded reader—how you actually feel about the idea of black studies. If you are white, and if you have never studied in such a program or on your own read widely in African-American history, or married into or otherwise acquired an identification with the subjects of that history, I suspect that you probably harbor a suspicion that black studies is less intellectually defensible than, say, musicology. Or urban studies. Or Southeast Asian history.
Black studies is too politicized, the argument goes. It’s an exercise in “identity politics.” Too often its positions of leadership have been granted to nonscholars, or to semischolars who got their degrees on the cheap somehow (probably in some other black studies program). Granted, the recently retired president of Harvard was a bit out of line in some of his imputations of unscholarly behavior, but isn’t it true that highly rewarded black studies notables have written lightweight or even frivolous books? Appeared often on TV? Produced rap CDs?
This indictment, which appears to serve as a default position for many good people, resembles other ideas about African-American endeavors that have proved historically embarrassing, to say the least. What really transpires in Afro-American studies programs is different. Nearly 40 years ago, as he designed an architecture for black studies that is still in place across the range of higher education today (at Yale, Harvard, Duke, and the University of Virginia; at UCLA, William and Mary, University of Houston, Antioch, and Princeton, to name a few of the institutions where he consulted), Robinson was too possessed of the particular moment to speculate about how long-lived the suspicion of his new idea would be. The important thing was to get the ball rolling. Lay out the foundation stones, in an intelligent and attractive pattern. Begin. Yale became the first major university to offer a degree-granting program in African-American studies, and Robinson had been an indispensable part of that work. Few students concerned for reform in the 1960s could say as much.
Bitter Fruits of Bondage shows few signs of its prolonged gestation. Although a number of scholars and editors had a hand in the project, helping to shape the manuscript of more than 1,200 pages that Armstead’s widow, Mildred W. Robinson, a law professor at the University of Virginia, delivered to the university press a few months after his death, there is a seamlessness and a potent coherence to the narrative. It begins in full stride:
Recently I delivered a lecture on the rise and demise of the Confederacy at the shrine of the “Lost Cause,” the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia. Given the topic, my affiliation with the University of Virginia history department, and the similarity between my first name and the surname of a quite prominent clan of the First Families of Virginia, the Armisteds, this particular lecture attracted a much larger than usual gathering of Civil War buffs. … Many of my audience … no doubt expected … an updated version of the prevailing orthodoxy about the war. But the version of “The War” I presented bore little relationship to the traditional account. My thesis was that Southern defensiveness about slavery had precipitated the war and that Confederates were defeated because, in the end, white Southerners had lacked the will to go on.
The prevailing orthodoxy that Robinson invokes is a version of events familiar to anyone who has read any of the major works of Southern history published in the last 140 years. Basically, the idea is that the Confederacy, despite brilliant generals (mostly in the Virginia theater) and a populace on fire with newly minted Southern nationalism (such that, over the war’s course, 75 to 85 percent of the white male population served—the comparable figure for the North is 50 percent), could never have triumphed. Northern advantages in manpower and productive capacity were simply too great. Yet, on the strength of that fierce nationalism, and by dint of a willingness to suffer and die at high rates—roughly one in three Southern soldiers perished, compared to one in six men in blue—the South persisted for an unthinkable four years.
To this account, Robinson makes a tart rejoinder: the Civil War was not, technically, a civil war at all. Civil wars are fought for control or “for redress of regional issues within [a] preexisting framework.” The South did not aim to control the territorial United States, to replace Lincoln and his government; it aimed for independence and a sundering of that territorial unity. Secession was for the purpose of creating a new nation-state—one that enshrined slavery, it goes without saying.
As a war of national liberation, then, the rebellion was short-lived and in some ways quite paltry. Wars of independence are almost always fought against larger, more powerful adversaries. Consider the American Revolution, which lasted seven years and seemed utterly hopeless at points, or the Dutch revolution against the Spanish, an 80-year struggle (1568–1648) that involved horrific reprisals against a population fighting desperately on its home ground. The Dutch, like other peoples seeking freedom, were simply not to be bested in the lands where they lived.
A “sense of inevitability pervades Civil War studies,” Robinson wrote, yet there was nothing inevitable about the outcome of the war. Neither the presumed moral rightness of the Union effort, which came to include emancipation, nor Southern industrial underdevelopment was determinative. For that matter, the agrarian South “reconfigured its weak industrial sector for wartime with surprising facility,” and the South was in some ways enormously wealthy. The international trade in cotton, with the American raw product favored by textile manufacturers in the North and overseas, gave Confederate policymakers an inflated idea of King Cotton’s power to dictate outcomes—to frighten foreign governments, for example, into recognition of Southern independence.
Slavery, the cornerstone of Southern wealth, conferred a great advantage, at least on paper—the huge reservoir of black manpower freed Southern whites to report for military service at the aforementioned rate of around 80 percent. (Fifty percent of eligible whites volunteered in the first summer of the war, a sign that, at least at the beginning, intense national feeling animated the South.) But the Southern cornerstone would prove a “millstone,” Robinson says. Slaves made up 40 percent of the Southern population. Southern propagandists wrote fulsomely of the loyalty of slaves, but intense anxiety over possible slave rebellions exercised the planter class and the Confederate political elite that served it. Right from the start, Southern governors defied requisition orders from the government in Richmond; thus, for example, the governor of Arkansas, Henry M. Rector, refused to hand over thousands of weapons seized in 1861 from a federal arsenal at Little Rock and instead distributed them to home-defense units.
The signal Southern victory at First Bull Run on July 21, 1861, only 30 miles outside Washington, might have had an even more profound impact on the course of the war had Southern generals commanded reserve troops with which to march on the capital. Jefferson Davis, present at the battle, urged his commanders to do just that, but they could not: home-front defense had drained the Rebel army of thousands of men and weapons. Indeed, early in the war, “the [Southern] states, collectively, possessed twice as many guns as the Richmond government,” Robinson writes.
What can only be called planter-class perfidy—carefully documented by Robinson in his sober, judicious, but colorful account of the war in the West—deepens the picture of the Confederacy as a system at war with itself. Confederate efforts to build defenses were undercut by planters’ refusal to send slaves to work on roads and battlements; slaves were too valuable, as workers and commodities, to risk. Meanwhile, when owners did supply slaves, Southern soldiers often refused to work alongside them. It needs to be remembered, Robinson tells us, that slave ownership was highly skewed both geographically and socioeconomically. There was a Black Belt in the Deep South, suited to plantation-style agriculture and, by the 1850s, almost wholly devoted to cotton production, and then there was a large subsistence sector, comprising millions of acres of mostly upcountry terrain. Slave owning was rare there. The plantation elite, those who owned more than 20 slaves plus substantial land, made up less than 3 percent of the free Southern population. Southern yeomen, who did most of the fighting and dying, recognized early on that they were suffering in a cause in which they had, technically, scant economic interest.
By the spring of 1862, with passage of the Southern conscription act, the watchword for these yeomen became “A rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” The notorious act of April 16 of that year instituted compulsory service for all white men between the ages of 18 and 35. Whole regiments were summarily reenrolled for a period of three years or the war’s duration. Yet, planters owning 20 slaves or more were made exempt a few months later. Fear of slave rebellion remaining high, overseers also were exempted, and anyone able to provide a living, breathing substitute might do so; in effect, this allowed the planters, as well as other persons of means, not to serve at all.
Many did serve, of course, displaying great valor. But over the next two years, at least 50,000 Southern gentlemen bought their way out of service. At the same time, the Union blockade was coming into strong effect, and Confederate leaders campaigned to persuade Southern farmers to plant foodstuffs (mostly corn) instead of cotton. “But noblesse oblige did not overcome … individualism among the planters,” Robinson discovered, and “the fabulous prices offered for cotton in the wake of embargo and the blockade induced a number to plant more cotton and less food.”
Eventually, “Excessive production of staple crops like cotton and underproduction of food crops combined to produce a subsistence crisis, the very sort of disaster that … draft substitution and exemption for plantation managers [were] intended to prevent. When news about the lack of food at home reached the camps, many yeoman soldiers went home, with or without official leavetaking.”
Mildred Robinson, Armstead’s third wife, whom he married in 1987, recalls getting to know the still youthful professor:
[H]is command of his field [was] forever impressed upon me when roughly 18 months after we met, he regaled me during a drive from Memphis to Atlanta for eight enthralling hours with a detailed history of the region through which we were passing. His presentation included topography, demographics, resident socioeconomic descriptions, and extensive descriptions of the conditions of battle including such things as the number of foot soldiers, how much cavalry, who had what arms, where the critical [gun emplacements] were, what the weather was like, what the crop conditions were like, the status of slave activity, and so forth. He embellished his presentation with the stories [of slaves and other locals]. … It was quite astonishing. These anecdotes recalled from diaries, letters, newspapers and other writings of the period, information [from his] archival research in the Library of Congress and in state libraries across the South [constituted an] intuitive force and … made history come alive for me in a way that had never been true before. In essence, he presented his book to me during that drive.
They were traveling through his terrain: the lands west and south of the Appalachians, along the line of advance that Sherman, after the great victories in the West, would follow in the opening to the last, terrible act of the war. Perhaps no American has ever belonged to a region of a country, and to a bloody history, more intrinsically and more authentically than Robinson at that time, when, according to Mildred Robinson, he had pretty much completed his legendary archival researches:
[A]s was his style from the Scholar of the House Project forward, he sought to research the project to the bottom. In other words, if he had a pile of papers, he never considered himself finished until he got to the last paper in the file. … He spent several summers in the stacks at the National Archives working his way through the record of Continental Army Commands. … He came away with stories about Sherman. When he came into the Army [Sherman] was sent to Kentucky and as he scanned the amount of resistance he was facing, he wrote a series of reports in August of 1861. He wrote that it would take four or five years and probably two million men in the Army before the North could subdue the South. When they got this, the people in Washington thought he was suffering from combat fatigue. They said, “He’s become mentally unbalanced from the strain of the work, he must be relieved,” and that’s what they did. They relieved him … sent him back to Saint Louis to cool out.
The terrain and the story belonged to Robinson not because he was a black man, although surely that didn’t hurt. Who he was, where he came from, and what he and his family had needed to do to succeed surely had sensitized him to the likelihood that 10 generations of black people walking and working this land, inhabiting it in the millions, must have amounted to something. Must have had a telling impact on virtually everything. Nor did the terrain and the story belong to him because he was a Southerner, although, again, that also didn’t hurt—he, too, thrilled to tales of martial courage, knew the purely military history down to the last minié ball, and fortunately had come of age when, as Barbara Fields, a historian at Columbia, has written, “Jim Crow was dead (at least as a legally sanctioned regime) [and] it became possible to be both Afro-American and Southern without a disabling sense of irony or paradox in the combination.”
No, the world that they were traveling through belonged to Robinson because he had pretty much put it all together. The story lived in him as vividly and multifariously as it had ever lived in anyone else (speaking now of the history of the collapse, not of the entire war), and, manifestly, he could bring it forth. During that memorable ride, he courted his future wife by speaking history to her, history, that most romantic of tongues, for eight ours straight.
At the National Archives, he was fortunate and charming enough to win the favor of Sarah Dunlap Jackson (1919-1991), a legendary guardian of the deepest of deep Civil War records. Jackson, a graduate of Johnson C. Smith College, of Charlotte, North Carolina, officially no more than an archival assistant, had read her way through most of what she guarded and had helped organize it, including the massive holdings of the War Department, Adjutant General’s Office, Freedmen’s Bureau, and Bureau of Colored Troops records. With a mind and a background not unlike Robinson’s own, but of a generation and gender denied his opportunities, she had made herself into “one of the [most] knowledgeable historians of American life,” according to Ira Berlin, a scholar of slavery at the University of Maryland. Jackson must have liked Armstead’s research style: omnivorous, thorough, catholic.
The story of the Confederate collapse was fundamentally a story of slavery, of contradictions within the institution itself. This was Robinson’s great discovery, although, as he admitted freely, it was not entirely his: other scholars had beaten him to it. Charles Harris Wesley, one of the triumvirate of foundational black intellectuals from earlier in the 20th century (the other two being Carter G. Woodson and W. E. B. Du Bois), wrote a monograph, “The Collapse of the Confederacy,” while still a graduate student at Harvard in the early 1920s. Herein are to be found most of the concepts developed at more length and with a transforming richness of detail in Bitter Fruits of Bondage: that struggles for national liberation elsewhere have been far more tenacious; that “states’ rights” meant, once Jefferson Davis’s government took office, renegade governors working at odds with the national purpose; that desertions were substantial among the yeomen soldiers and they even had a peace movement; that speculation, and the refusal to foreswear cotton profits, poisoned national feeling.
Wesley, who was not allowed to present his paper as a dissertation at Harvard (one of his thesis readers, Albert Hart, told him, “I won’t hear it, it can’t be done”), paid some attention to the problems that the presence of a population of free Negroes represented for Southern authorities. But the destabilizing influence of the enslaved population—those millions who might abscond, rebel, slaughter the plantation mistress in her bed—had to wait several decades for a scholar able to see what had hardly been hidden at all. Armstead’s deep familiarity with the correspondence among Southern leaders—Davis to his generals and vice versa, Southern governors and senators to each other and to their wives—suggested to him the dimensions of the problem, simply by how often and with what concern they referred to it. But his discoveries on the other side of the divide, among the enslaved themselves, were most illuminating:
“[N]either Lincoln nor Davis could prevent slavery from emerging as the dominant issue in a prolonged war,” he wrote. “The slaves did not rise as a body or in insurrections, but Confederate measures to forestall revolt had taken a heavy toll on Southern resources.”
“Slaves listened to conversations among whites, purloined newspapers and letters, and shared what they learned through the slave grapevine. The more loudly their masters and mistresses criticized [Lincoln and his policies], the more they saw him as their best hope for freedom.” As a slave, Dora Franks would recall after the war, “I think Abe Lincoln was next to the Lord. He done all he could for the slaves. … People in the South knowed they’d lose their slaves when he was elected president.”
In other words, the outcome was in the air quite early. An alertness to the possibilities of the situation seems to have arisen generally among the slaves. “Runaway slaves had been seeking freedom in Northern encampments [from the very beginning of the war],” Robinson writes, “and wherever the Yankees went they attracted a large number of younger slaves, most of them men determined to claim the freedom they believed Union armies had brought with them.” When Federal forces approached a locale, or were merely rumored to be approaching, slave discipline quickly dissolved, slaves began to flee, and plantation owners often found it necessary to abscond as well, taking those of their human chattels they were still able to compel.
Hundreds of thousands made their way across the Union lines. Two hundred thousand black men bore arms for the North, but slaves contributed materially in other ways too. In Grant’s prolonged campaign to take the sturdy citadel of Vicksburg, for example—“one of the stellar campaigns in all military history,” Robinson argues—escaped slaves provided what would now be called actionable intelligence that proved important. Robinson, quoting Grant: “A negro man came in who informed me … that a good landing [for the Union army’s crossing of the Mississippi] would be found at Bruinsburg, from which point there was a good road leading to Port Gibson some 12 miles in the interior. The information was found correct, and our landing was effected without opposition.”
“Grant could move with the assurance of a native defending his home soil,” Robinson says, “because black and white Southerners shared their intimate knowledge of local terrain with him. Such information enabled him to adopt the kind of tactics employed so successfully by Lee and Jackson in the Virginia theater, dividing his forces to make long sweeping runs around the enemy. Grant seized on this advantage to gain an element of tactical surprise he never relinquished.”
The Southern cornerstone—slavery—the engine of wealth and the centerpiece of “our Southern way of life,” as Confederate writers called it, proved to be what the defeat was about, let alone the initial sectional conflict. Lines of social fracture widened as an unrepresentative government beholden to a planter aristocracy ruled in a manner protective of the interests of that minority of wealth and at the expense of other classes. Catastrophic Southern reversals in the field, as in the wholesale rout at Missionary Ridge on November 25, 1863, had everything to do with high rates of desertion among the yeomanry and with their widespread disaffection from the plantergovernment.
Robinson’s analysis of the contradictions within Southern society and the slave economy amounts to a kind of Marxist analysis without rhetorical agenda. One sees the influence of the kind of sophisticated assessment of class interests encountered in the work of British historian E. P. Thompson. But even more, one recognizes the native strain of the new social history: coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s, Robinson naturally assimilated himself into the fractious but dynamic school of historians centered in those years at the University of Rochester. Eugene Genovese, Herbert Gutman, Stanley Engerman, and others looked to tell the story of slavery and Southern society in vastly greater detail. “Early practitioners [of social history] strove to demonstrate the influence of ordinary people on the historical process,” writes Joseph Reidy, a professor at Howard and one of Robinson’s close colleagues. “They emphasized the process of class conflict both as a major motive force in history and as a means of examining the role” of ordinary people, not just generals and presidents.
Thus, his picture of what the yeomen soldiers were feeling and experiencing as the war went on depends largely on their own words, as for example in Robinson’s report of what one Amos Ginn, who came from a nonslaveholding family in swamp country near Beaufort City, South Carolina, said after the war:
He had found himself in the army after “three Confederate soldiers in uniforms with guns came to my father’s house and took me and my brother off. … I did not desert because I did not want to bring trouble on myself and my people at home.” He searched for another method of escaping service and found it when he allowed himself to be captured [at Missionary Ridge]. … “I was glad I was in good hands [he told his captors] and never had wanted to fight against them.”
There is both an intimacy in Robinson’s work—the product of his reading of countless letters, diaries, and other most personal documents—as well as a bracing largeness of ambition and comprehension. His is not the style of exhaustively astute studies of a single squad of left-handed Alabama artillerymen in the Battle of Feebleman’s Gap. No, Robinson wanted to answer the largest, most central of Civil War questions: Why did the Confederacy, which fought so brilliantly so often, and with such reckless courage, not persevere? And what about slavery—what structural role did it play as the South put itself on a war footing? Thus, even as an undergraduate at Yale, he was writing expansively, seeking to embrace the complex Civil War reality in 600-page armfuls. He wrote and worked as a 20-year-old as if he had no time to spare (although, paradoxically, plenty of time to publish).
In his urgency and in the size of his ambition, Robinson recalls other
historiographical traditions as well, for example, that of Progressives Charles Beard and Frederick Jackson Turner, who also focused on social conflict and oppressed groups. He learned from some of the best, most dynamic white historians of his era, but probably his most immediate intellectual affiliation is with Wesley and Du Bois. Their insights were often also his own, and he was excited (one suspects) to discover how true and resonant were the insights of these black forebears: that the story of those “lost to history” is decidedly not lost, given good archival work; that the full story of black people in America during the 19th century fails to separate itself, to divide from all the rest.
In this way, his career-long, sometimes Herculean efforts to seed the American academy with black studies departments appears self-serving. To tell the story right required ideas and tools from many disciplines; to tell the story of what might be called not-black studies, that of the Confederacy, of our native-born nationalism based on white supremacy, required an intimate encounter with enslaved black folk above all else. As Barbara Fields has written, Robinson’s lifework as both institution builder and historian
required that longstanding conventions of racecraft in the American academy be overturned, conventions that regarded Afro-Americans as a unicellular organism floating beyond the main currents of national and international affairs, an exception to history rather than a part of it. Afro-American studies, as Armstead came to conceive it, thus challenged … the common sense of the academy … the automatic relegation of anything touching on Afro-Americans to an institutional back room where resources and respect were in equally short supply.
He located his subject not in that dusty back room, whose door might be closed again some day, but spread throughout the whole mad, bloodied, beloved American mansion.
Robert Roper is the author of Now the Drum of War: Walt Whitman and His Brothers in the Civil War, Mexico Days, and The Trespassers.
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