“Happy men we must have been!” (A People’s History…Ch. 9)

Camus linked happiness (which, he said, we must imagine, as some sort of ethical imperative, I guess) with bondage in a most compelling way. Sisyphus, that old fool who dared to challenge the gods and help oppressed beings, was doomed to an existence of eternal boulder pushing; he’d get it up the hill, maybe pause to breathe for a second, then watch as all his hard work went for nothing: down the hill the boulder went. All is not lost though, for in that struggle is everything. All existential meaning is in that boulder – or in the relation between Sisyphus and the boulder – for us to make. It’s a tempting proposition. It’s also one grounded in a world and a worldview where capitalism reigns.

In other words, imagining Sisyphus happy amidst his suffering – indeed, because of it – is a dastardly hegemonic leap of the imagination. For who does it benefit for us to accept that Sisyphus is happy? Who does it benefit to imagine that blacks were “happy” as slaves? We must do anything but imagine the dictates of a white male in a white world; I deny the imposition that Sisyphus is happy. That he endures suffering and survives? He’s doomed to that fate. That he finds meaning within that plague? Remarkable. Inevitable even. But hardly is it a sign or promise of happiness. And what of happiness where injustice prevails? I wish a new context for Sisyphus’ toil and joy, one where he is actually free, not abstractly free in the way that philosophers (historically the domain – or at least at the unwitting leash – of the privileged) are fond of espousing.

Chapter 9 tracks the before and after of the Emancipation Proclamation. I’m intimately familiar with everything in this section, thanks to this fantastic online course offering from Yale. As I wrote about on the blog before, it’s worth following for the professor alone. He’s basically Harrison Ford, so you’re learning American History from Indiana Jones. (Who knew that Americans would prove to be the real bad guys after all!)

Anyway, this chapter is an excellent distillation of a lot of that course, or at least its themes. Namely: blacks fought for their freedom constantly and weren’t subject to internalized oppression after the war – they kept fighting for their autonomy; Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth are the real MVPs*; John Brown certainly had his skin in the game**; “Such a national government would never accept an end to slavery by rebellion. It would end slavery only under conditions controlled by whites, and only when required by the political and economic needs of the business elites of the North.”; i.e. there is no morality in the political arena, only money – morality is a money’s favorite mask; war is always aimed at the diminution of liberty (thanks, 1984) and the expansion/consolidation of status quo political structure; Lincoln wanted to save the Union aka preserve the status quo, i.e. his political will facilitated the endurance of white supremacy, as a (not-so-silent-at-all-except-to-people-who-choose-not-to-see-the-truth-of-history-and-now) specter more than an outright living menace; where freedom is given, it’s mostly taken away, buried somewhere else – good luck finding it; end slavery? how about preserve “enormous national territory and market and resources?”; the Supreme Court is shit; Booker T. Washington’s political passivity advocacy perfectly suits the white agenda (as did MLK’s nonviolence – do you notice a Malcolm X national holiday?); this country needs a serious reckoning with itself, and by “this country,” I mean every living soul in it. If this land is our land, then let’s finally own up to it, instead of just blindly owning it.

 


*From Sojourner Truth: “You may hiss as much as you like, but it is comin’…I am sittin’ among you to watch; and every once and awhile I will come out and tell you what time of night it is…”

**John Brown, before he was hanged: “I, John Brown, am quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.” Strikingly ominous today…

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