Fugitive Slave Margaret Garner

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NIKKI M. TAYLOR — DRIVEN TOWARD MADNESS — 2016

This book itself provides a full account of what we can know about the case and it refers every detail it mentions to the source or sources available, and that is what is important: the author tries to stick to the documents and cover them all no matter what the particular points of view and contradictions they may contain. This being said there is a lot more to discuss than just this fair treatment of the info.

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Then we have to say the book is ambiguous from the very title using the word “madness” because the author systematically sets side by side what the people said and thought at the time of the drama and what we could say and think one hundred and fifty years later. The title is typical because “madness” in the US at the time was a word used against black slaves systematically to characterize their rebellious or resisting spirit which was considered as a psychological impairment that blocked the slaves from being good slaves since these black Africans (who were not Americans since they were chattel) could not be anything else but slaves by nature and by divine decision if not scheme. Then “madness” is a deeply racist word. Today the word madness is used with a meaning that has nothing to borrow from medicine or psychology. Extreme situations, behaviors, ideas, actions, or whatever, are mad in their extremism. It’s obvious that the treatment of this “disease” at the time of events was to punish with heavy work and whipping till submission is obtained. And do not misinterpret me. Whipping the disobedient and rebellious slave, but at the same time whipping the other slaves, spouses (fake because slaves could not marry officially in a church of any affiliation, except where the French Code Noir was implemented and kept in Louisiana and the Mississippi valley, though it was only kept in the state of Louisiana officially, and the Catholic Church kept the French tradition of christening, marrying and integrating black free Africans and slaves) and children who could be of some emotional value to the afore-mentioned slave, with extremes we cannot even imagine, to bring the rebellious slave back into obedience and submission. The book alludes to it at the end but forgets to compare with the normal French or Spanish practices, and yet it is the heritage of the French practice in the State of Louisiana that will enable this state to be reconquered long before the end of the Civil War and it will be this state that will give the necessary majority for the 13th amendment to be ratified. This ambiguity between words and phrases from the 1850s slave states and the same words and phrases today is not systematically exploited and clarified.

That explains why the author who actually speaks of the trauma of slavery and actually mentions Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) does not enter the discussion between this PTSD and the other version of the problem under the name of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, PTSS. A disorder is medical a syndrome is the visible consequence of a particular material situation, in this case traumatic stress caused by slavery itself, the treatment of the slaves by Anglo-Saxon mostly Protestant white Americans, the famous WASPs. If it is a disease, hence a disorder, the treatment has to be medical and can be physically constraining, whereas if it is a syndrome it has to be dealt with in its cause, hence slavery itself and the stress and trauma it imposed onto the slaves and we know that such a long-lasting trauma reproduces itself in the people concerned by it over many generations, and we know today the trauma is just as severe for the African-American descendants of the slaves as it is for the white American descendants of the slave-owners. True enough, the book considers some of the anti-slavery activists of the time and how they turned Margaret Garner into a heroin, into a precursor, into a beacon for the future liberation of slaves, but the book remains at a distance on this point and clearly now and then refuses the idea of Margaret Garner being a heroin and her action being anything else but gruesome, repulsive, barbaric, etc. Today it is, but one hundred and fifty years ago it was quite different.

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In fact, and that is surprising, the author seems to miss the historical dimension of the events. At the time, a man like Karl Marx analyzed the Civil War as an economic problem in the USA where emerging free-enterprise and free-market(s) capitalism was emerging in the north, the old slavery system with no salaries (hence no labor market), no free economic market for the majority of the working population (the slaves) surviving on the plantations and in the farms on a more or less autarkic satisfaction of basic needs, this old slavery system in the South could not survive. Some other people at the time and historians today would consider the events under discussion here as the emergence of some historical force and evolution that made slavery both non-durable and non-sustainable. It had to be brought to an end. And the author cannot then discuss this historical perspective that led to reconstruction, then segregation, then civil rights and today the George Floyd protest movement. In the long run, Margaret Garner concentrated the attention of the world on the inhumanity of this systematic and systemic segregation and rejection of the Blacks in the American society, a fact and situation that explains why the Blacks are nearly three times more susceptible to die of COVID-19 than their real demographic position in the society at large. And we could add to this the situation in US prisons, or even in various US social elites like University professors, industrial CEOs, Congress, both House of Representatives and Senate, Supreme Court, and justice at large, etc.

But there is more concerning an evaluation of the racist slave system. If we accept the following ideas:

1- The desire of the Slaves to be free.

2- The need for society to get rid of slavery and to repair the damage.

3- The historical evolution at stake here and that condemns slavery, segregation, — and all the extreme forms this latter practice may take — by the need for the economy to become a fully free market economy, even if some controls are necessary to regulate such markets.

Then we can understand why in this case no one on the white side ever spoke of what the author calls “rape.” In fact, at the time, it was not “rape.” It was a normal procedure to increase your capital by turning the black female slaves into procreative machines. The children are not worth a lot before seven or eight, but then they can be sold to work, and if the children are female, they represent double capital and have double value, as a future worker and a future procreative machine. Of course, white farmers and planters, even as early and young as twelve or thirteen, impregnate the black female slaves to increase the capital of the farm or plantation in just a few years. No one on the white side at the time would speak against this very profitable practice. That is not mentioned and exploited by the author who even says that the girl who is killed and is less than two years old does not represent a great loss. At two the author is right. But at seven or eight the girl is extremely valuable.

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At the same time, the author should not use the word “rape” for these events. That’s a modern term and it does not work then. It is, when the victim is a female black slave, unwanted, unwarranted, imposed purely procreative sexual intercourse. But the author should have also considered the same practice with male slaves, at times very young, and this time with no procreation in perspective, only for enjoyment of the act and the violent humiliation it imposes onto the black male slave. But even in this situation we must not conclude too fast this was rape. It was not because it was part of the definition of the slaves themselves. They could be used by any white person (males essentially) for their immediate satisfaction of their impulses and drives with an extra gratification in the case of the impregnation of females. Seen within this context, Margaret Garner’s rebellion is not in anyway criminal. It is an attempt to spoil the capital investment and the future profit of the white slave-owner of hers. And nothing else. In the same period in France (and Europe) a woman like Louise Michel was running around in France giving lectures to essentially male working class people, and indirectly their wives, on the simple subject which was totally illegal: “Do not make children for them to become the victims of the next war.” That was a call to implement contraception a long time before modern means existed, and that was illegal and might bring some fines or prison terms. And here Margaret Garner has a point: attack the slave-owners in their capital, in their profit, in their property and the children these slave-owners impose onto black female slaves are nothing but demographic capital.

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Maybe today we can be shocked by such infanticide and filicide, but that has existed before over many millennia. We all know about Medea, the Colchian Turkic woman Jason used to get the golden fleece, who was rejected by Jason several years later for a good Greek Indo-European wife. In the same way Medea attacked her unfaithful and ungrateful husband in his demographic capital, and that hurts a lot, doesn’t it? And the Greeks made Medea into a divine personality in their own mythology, showing that for Greek Gods infanticide and filicide were not serious crimes, even some children were exposed in the mountain and Oedipus is well-known as for this fate. They became infanticide and filicide when in the 17th century in Europe they started going back to the theme. And even so it was entertaining. We seem to forget too the total lack of any protection for children in the Middle Ages — at least before the Magna Carta in England. Shakespeare is full of such infanticides and filicides.

To conclude I regret the book is written from a modern point of view and not from how the events could be considered at the time, in spite of the quotation of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s poem “The Slave Mother, a Tale from Ohio” written in 1857. Maybe the author stresses too much on Margaret Garner’s own point of view that she liberated her children by entrusting them to God. To counterbalance this opinion the author discusses in length the possibility for the father of the youngest daughter killed by Margaret Garner who “has to be white” due to the very pale shade of the young child. That sounds too much like the old Medea plays in which Medea kills her children because they are Jason’s and she wants to make Jason suffer. I consider a more capital-oriented killing is in phase with this 19th century of emerging capitalism.

Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU

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Written by

Dr Jacques COULARDEAU, PhD in Germanic Linguistics (University Lille III) and ESP Teaching (University Bordeaux II) has been teaching all types of ESP

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