Life of the Mind

The Making of a Racist: A Southerner Reflects on Family, History and the Slave Trade

Charles B. Dew. University of Virginia Press, 2016. 167 pages + 16 pages Notes and Index. $23.95.

By John McWilliams

Charles Dew’s short book is a memoir with broad cultural reach, an even-handed, cleanly-written overview befitting an historian retiring after a distinguished professional career. As book and chapter titles suggest, its first half is a story of the making of a racist (himself) growing up in the South of the 1940s and 1950s, followed by the slow but decisive unmaking of his racism during undergraduate years at Williams College. There is nothing theoretical, melodramatic, or confessional about Charles Dews’ remembrances. In order to underscore the sectional and national importance of his experience, he describes himself as one of a great many comfortable “sons of privilege” of the segregated South who absorbed their racism by unthinking “osmosis.” Nor does Dew take any personal credit, or express any smug sense of acquired virtue, while recounting his emerging enlightenment about race prejudice. His narrative voice earns trust by its plainspoken honesty. Unlike Faulkner’s tormented aristocratic sons, Dew’s recreated self remains a son of privilege who confronts the racist sins of his Southern heritage with self-protective sanity. 

Anyone familiar with Eyes on The Prize will reencounter many of the stereotypes of the mid-twentieth century segregated South. There are also, however, distinctive contributions. Dew shows us that, as a boy and adolescent, he had been a self-proclaimed “Confederate” years before he became conscious of race, but that the one had led imperceptibly to the other. To Dew the boy, Negroes were familiar figures woven into the carpet of outdoor public life. “The racial etiquette that governed exchanges between the races in my native South” blocked him from knowing Negroes as human beings, including his family’s two Negro servants. Dew’s enlightenment comes about almost entirely through things he reads in the North, watches on television, and then observes in his own South—not through knowing any Negro with any intimacy. During the early years of civil rights controversies, young Charles Dew was in Williamstown, not Montgomery. How many of today’s liberals (I include myself) followed a similar pattern, acquiring new understanding at a safe distance, while benefiting from opportunities of education and travel deriving from the social and economic position that was maintaining the racial divide, North and South. 

As an historian of the South, Dew sees slavery and segregation, not as separate eras divided by the Civil War, but as a continuum based upon “the overarching, unquestioned assumption of white superiority and innate black inferiority.” Two pertinent, interrelated questions recur throughout the volume. On a cultural level, why have most white Southerners been so long unable even to see, let alone acknowledge, the “evil” directly before their eyes? On a familial level, in the grieving words of the Dews’ Negro servant named Illinois, “why do the grown-ups put so much hate in the children?” Dew offers many partial answers to both questions: sheer human greed, man’s inhumanity to man, “the Fifth Horseman FEAR,” the image of “a black seed in a white womb,” social custom, private comfort and, at best, a desire to bequeath economic assets and/or class advantages to one’s children. Neither question, however, can be fully answered to the satisfaction of either author or reader. There can be no single answer, no mono-causal explanation. The cause is all of these and indefinably more. 

Dew’s later chapters concern his professional study of the contexts and meaning of an August 2, 1860, broadside from a Richmond auction house listing the expected range of today’s prices for slaves, commodified and categorized by age, sex, height, and condition. When Dew first held this broadside in hand, the jolt of the effect was clearly like the difference between looking at an image of a painting in a book, and confronting the original painting itself. Dew researches in scrupulous if excessive detail the determination of slave prices, the means by which “parcels” of slaves were gathered and transported, the slave dealers’ correspondence and the practices of the Richmond market. Example: the single handwritten line “Good young woman & first child $1300 to $1450” reveals both that young “breeders’” commanded a high price, and that families were routinely separated on the auction block to raise more money. From the broadside and correspondence, almost nothing emerges, however, about the motives of the trade and the feelings of those participating in it. Contrary to today’s expectation, there appears to be no evidence of repression of guilt, but plenty of anxiety over loss of assets, especially in 1860. 

One may say that an historical ghost presides over both the familial and professional halves of Dew’s memoir—the frequently mentioned figure of his influential ancestor Thomas Roderick Dew, author of the first comprehensive statistical justification of Southern slavery, titled Review of the Debate in the Virginia Legislature of 1831 and 1832, and later President of the College of William and Mary. Thomas Roderick Dew, a skilled writer and knowledgeable casuist, repeatedly judged slavery to be “evil” and “unchristian” both in origin and in 18th century British trade practice. For that reason, his economic and political arguments against Colonization and for the necessity of maintaining chattel slavery to avoid race war or civil war remain hard to refute, both for the world of 1831 Virginia and beyond it.  

By memoir’s end, the ghostly influence of a thinker like Thomas Roderick Dew acquires an even greater importance. Dew based his argument on the claim of observable inequality in racial abilities, but he simultaneously argued that “the history of the world has too conclusively shown, that two races, differing in manners, customs, language, and civilization, can never harmonize upon a footing of equality.” The reader is drawn to assume that, even if race revolutions should occur, the white man’s separation from the inferior black race will forever remain, foreclosing any prospect of true equality. To be sure, T.R. Dew’s descendant would end the destructive persistence of his ancestor’s assumption. From their opposed judgmental perspectives, however, the books of both men suggest that Evil truly strikes us only when it presents itself as a new reality. Most of us do not see the evil now around us because it is already, in our inherited view, the way things are, the way things always will be. True transformation must therefore come to us from without, gradually and irregularly, throughout the lifetime of the individual and the culture. 

John McWilliams (ΦBK, Princeton University, 1962) is an emeritus professor of humanities at Middlebury College and a resident member of the Beta of Vermont Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.


(Posted on 2/3/2017 )