Coondogging Indentured Servitude

I began this blog to write about teaching writing. I stopped teaching two years ago and have increasingly (and perhaps unavoidably) swerved both in my activities and writing toward the political maelstrom in which we now find ourselves.

In addition to the Trump phenomenon, we have in Virginia been caught up in the blackface controversy. I have written about the bandwagon effect and my own early blackfacing below. I have risked entering into some heated conversations with many of my friends over this issue. Many progressives and more centrist democrats too quickly, I thought, called on Northrop to resign (including my two favorite candidates for president). The news pundits, such as those on CNN, jumped all over this.

I am a bit disappointed–uncertain why I should be disappointed that my friends and political bedpeople should not see the world as I see it–to see some of these knee-jerk reactions, not that I don’t engage in similar responses to issues that trigger me, short-circuiting my thought processes. Trump supporters, several of whom are my friends, simply can’t be in this blackface game: their support of Trump’s more recent race-tinged and misogynist behavior puts them out of the blackface conversation. But the rest of us . . .

This morning I turned on the TV, which is, in a large part responsible for the ubercirculation of misinformation (Ok, Trump, we agreed on something), to find Poppy Harlow and Jim Sciutto ventriloquizing some holier-than-thou critiques of Northram’s phrasing in a recent interview in which he 1. noted how he has been recently schooled on white privilege and 2. used the phrase of “indentured servants” to refer to the Africans who were first brought to America. People, including Harlow and Sciutto, are now jumping on another doesn’t-he-get-it? bandwagon.

I respect that many pundits and reporters on CNN and some on Fox News are trying to keep their fingers on truth. But the nature of the media, privileging fast news, perhaps necessarily distorts; once a story (like Warren’s DNA), gains traction, the pundit continue to circulate the tropes that seem like truth. And over and over again until someone asks them to pull up and think again–by which time, we have generally gone to another story.

When Northram explained in a subsequent statement that he had first called the early indentured servitude of blacks “slavery,” one of his historian friends had corrected him by saying that the first African’s brought to America were “indentured servants.” Having some interest in history, I thought the historian might have been right and so took the trouble to do a little checking. Yes, Northram’s friend and Northram seemed to have it right. I have found no source that supports the claim that blacks were immediately treated as slaves. The move from indentured servitude to slavery was gradual from 1611 to 1705, when slavery was codified in Virginia. This is history. We are in danger when newscasters and their public so quickly rewrite history. Poor Governor Northrop was simply trying to be right. But he was not in tune with the more popular narrative and so once again was put in stocks for a public shaming.

I am not an enthusiastic Northram supporter. I’m a new Virginian and catching up on local politics. But I want to protest any disinformation program that shifts the conversation from real to imagined problems. If any reader has gotten this far, he or she might also check the varied meanings of “coondogging.” The pundits were nailing Northam for being a racist in the 1980s because he was called “coondog.” Rather than jump on another bandwagon, they should have checked how the label has been used. I didn’t find one meaning that suggested a white racist. One of the meanings referred to the act of slapping an unsuspecting male (duh) in the balls.

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