Killing Your Past To Become Your Future

By Curtis Price

July 14, 2020

In 1861 enough nonslaveholders hurled themselves into a prolonged bloodbath to enable a proudly proclaimed slave republic to sustain itself for four ghastly years. These “plain folks” suffered terrible casual­ties and privations on behalf of a social order that objectively oppressed them in a variety of well-known ways. Many contemporary Northerners and indeed even some Southerners, not to mention subsequent histori­ans, expressed wonder at the nonslaveholders gullibility, ignorance, and docility. Slavery, it has long been asserted, had numbed the lower-class whites quite as much as it had ostensibly numbed the enslaved blacks. Southern abolitionists, for understandable reasons, became the bitterest proponents of this argument and railed in frustration at the non­slaveholders’ groveling before the aristocratic pretensions of the haughty planters.

Yet, we know very well that those nonslaveholders were touchy, proud people who hardly specialized in groveling and who were as quick as the planters to shed blood over questions of honor. We know also that they seized and maintained substantial political rights and were largely responsible for some of the most democratic state constitutions in the United States.(1)

The argument for their supine capitulation to an overbearing aristoc­racy reduces to the assertion that someone other than themselves ought to have been the judge of their own best interest—that they were in­competent to understand their own world and their place within it. Ever since Rousseau, those who believe themselves democrats but have difficulty accepting majority rule have been prone to square this ideo­logical circle by claiming that the people have been duped and that their words and actions do not reflect their own inner will. Presumably, some­one else is to be the guardian and agent of the people’s will. Those who argue in this manner, without meaning to be satirical, claim for them­selves the honor of defending genuine democracy against the voters.

The nonslaveholders have always been prime candidates for such treatment. Ostensibly, they lived in an unreal world in which they could not understand who and what they really were. I do hope that I may be forgiven for treating this elitist cant as unworthy of attention. If a social class acts against its own apparent collective interest, then the historian should at least provisionally assume a rational basis for its action, rather than trying to force it into a posthumous encounter ses­sion in consciousness-raising.

The most attractive general interpretation of the loyalty of the non­slaveholders to the regime has stressed the commitment of the white South to racial supremacy. This is, of course, an old argument—which is no reason to slight it, especially since George Frederickson has re­cently repackaged it so nicely as “Herrenvolk Democracy” and intro­duced considerably more sophistication into the discussion.(2) And, in fact, one would have to be mad to discount or to try to minimize the extraordinary power of racism as an ideological force for political and social cohesion. But there are at least two difficulties with the Herren­volk thesis.

First, it is not at all obvious that the nonslaveholders took the equation of slavery and racial subordination for granted. If they had felt sufficient reason to oppose slavery on the grounds taken by men like Henry Ruff­ner, Cassius Clay, and Hinton Helper, the argument that slavery was indispensable to racial dictatorship would have appeared as dubious as it eventually proved to be. Yet, such questions could not even be discussed during the late antebellum decades outside certain privileged border-state sanctuaries. To be sure, the silence in the Lower South and in much of the Upper South as well can in part be attributed to a subtle and not-so-subtle reign of terror, as Clement Eaton has so forcefully demonstrated.(3) But, again, the nonslaveholders were not political and moral marshmallows. Their easy acquiescence in an enforced consensus itself requires an explanation that takes full account of their toughness, pride, and strong sense of being men with rights equal to those of the richest planter.

The second difficulty with the Herrenvolk thesis is that it bypasses the living history. Let us suppose that racism explains everything—that it is logically sufficient to explain the loyalty of the nonslaveholders to the regime. We could not, therefore, conclude that other explanations were false or even inferior if, taken together, they could also account for that loyalty, with or without the factor of racism. On the contrary, the slaveholders and nonslaveholders were bound together by links firm enough to account for the political unity of the South; it was pre­cisely the conjuncture of these economic, political, and cultural forces, including intense racism, that made secession and sustained warfare possible.

For the moment, we may bracket the question of the scope and depth of that loyalty. To speak of Southern unity is to recognize no more than that effective degree of consensus necessary to remove the slavery issue from antebellum Southern politics and necessary to drag most of the Southern Unionists, with whatever misgivings, down the secessionist road. If we can get that far, it will be possible to open the brackets and take full account of the bitter social divisions beneath the surface of white society, as well as the evidence presented by Roger Shugg and others of growing stratification and class conflict.(4) The problem is pre­cisely to explain the impressive degree of class collaboration and social unity in the face of so many internal strains.

To begin with, it is essential to distinguish sharply between the yeo­men of the plantation belt and those of the up-country. But to do so is not so simple once we move from model building to empirical verifica­tion. First, the categories changed over time. In a restless society with a moving frontier, a self-sufficient locality in one census year often be­came a staple-producing locality in the next. The up-country of the early days of Virginia or South Carolina passed into extensions of the plantation belt as new crops, techniques, and transport facilities were developed. Second, there was a large intermediate area. Winn Parish, Louisiana, for example, was a hotbed of unionist radicalism and oppo­sition to secession and then to the Confederacy; later, it became a center for Populist and socialist movements and then gave us Huey and Earl Long. On the surface, it would seem to have been, in antebellum times, a nonslaveholding parish, par excellence. Yet, twenty-five percent of its population was black; one-third of the whites owned at least one slave; and firm ties existed with the plantation belt along with intense mutual hostility. (5)

Nevertheless, in such “plantation states” as Alabama and Mississippi we can identify large isolated enclaves, not exclusively up-country, which were only peripherally integrated into the slave economy. And here, we confront more than evidence of Morton Rothstein’s dual economy—as valuable as his insight is likely to prove. (6) We confront, rather, evidence of a dual society that did not simply follow the class lines dividing commercial from subsistence farmers. Farmers in these up-country counties resembled farmers in the interstices of the plan­tation belt in being nonslaveholders within the subsistence orbit of a more generally dual economy, but, beyond this first approximation, they might more profitably be understood as a distinct social class. The critical element in their social position was the geographic isolation, not of their particular farms, but of their locality as a whole. Hence, unlike the farmers of the plantation belt, they controlled the local political process and shaped a regional culture of their own. All available evidence attests to the distinctiveness and insularity of their culture. True, little comprehensive work has been done since the pioneering work of Frank Owsley and his protégés, but folklorists, musicologists, and anthropologists have been doing work that points toward the de­lineation of a discrete way of life.

In a variety of ways, the up-country made the slaveholders and espe­cially the secessionist politicians nervous. Up-country farmers were not bashful about sneering at the aristocratic pretensions of the planters. In many instances, they took the plantation counties as a negative reference point for their own voting behavior. And many defiantly op­posed extremist and anti-Union measures.

Yet, we might also note that some of these counties went for secession and many others split or tamely acquiesced. The fire-eating Albert Gallatin Brown built much of his power on such districts in Mississippi. (7) Moreover, those who try to correlate up-country districts with a specific behavior pattern have been driven to distraction by the apparent ideological inconsistencies, quite as much as by the methodological difficulties.

At issue is the limited concern of these quasi-autonomous social worlds with the great questions of Southern and national politics. We might, for example, wonder why some of the same up-country districts in Mississippi followed Brown into support of proslavery extremism and secession and yet ended by deserting the Confederate cause.

This apparent inconsistency was expressed less dramatically in more typical up-country counties of the Lower South, which moved from moderate Unionism to acceptance of secession and then to defection from the Confederacy. It is not at all clear, that is, that they were not initially motivated by allegiance to particular local leaders whom they had come to trust to defend their regional autonomy against the plantation belt and indeed against all outsiders.

On the terrain of political ideology, the up-country, notwithstanding its manifest hatred for the pretensions of the gentry, was held loyal to the slave regime by the doctrine of state rights—or rather, of opposition to the centralization of political power. So long as the slaveholders made few demands on these regions, their claims to being champions of local freedom and autonomy against all meddling outsiders appeared per­fectly legitimate. Whatever else Northern abolitionists and free-soilers may have been, they were outsiders who claimed the right to determine local institutions. Conversely, the provincialism of the up-country held to a minimum demands on the slaveholders for extensive expenditure for an infrastructure capable of modernizing the nonplantation areas. There is, in fact, little evidence that the great majority of the up-country farmers wished to exchange their proud isolation and regional way of life for integration into the commercialized economy of the despised plantation belt. Certainly, things were different in West Virginia, East Tennessee, and some other areas, but there, the economy was being integrated into that of the neighboring free states to produce a quali­tatively different social setting, the full scope of which deserves extended study.

In the Lower South, at least, those up-country farmers who swore loyalty to the Union and those who swore loyalty to their state were generally of a piece. Their first loyalty in fact was to their own local community, and either the Union or the state might either respect or threaten that community autonomy. Hence, the difficulties that befell the Confederacy, when the up-country desertion rate soared; hence, the movements of outright treason to the Confederacy that accompanied the imposition of necessary war measures. The exigencies of war had forced the Confederacy to do to the up-country the very things it had sworn to oppose. The whole point of secession, after all, was to defend local rights against the pressures of centralization. Confederate conscription, taxation, requisitioning, in a word, outside domination, had to be per­ceived in the up-country as a betrayal of trust. (8)

The slave South held the allegiance of its second society not because the yeomen farmers and herdsmen outside the plantation belt had been duped, nor even because they were ignorant. Rather, their alleged ig­norance was an ignorance on principle—that provincial rejection of an outside world which threatened to impinge on the culture as well as the material interests of the local community. The slaveholders could abide the autonomy of the up-country not because they necessarily respected its moral foundations but because they could be—and indeed had to be—indifferent to its development. The last thing the slaveholders of the plantation belt wanted was an additional tax burden to finance the opening up of areas regarded as potentially competitive or simply irrelevant to the plantation economy. Much less did they wish to pro­mote the development of areas that might have to proceed with free labor and might, therefore, develop a marked hostility not merely to slaveholding aristocrats but to slavery itself. The solution lay in a mutually desired silence and limited intercourse, notwithstanding oc­casional struggles over a few more roads and schools and, perhaps even more important, demands for ritualistic respect and recognition. This type of silent understanding has had many parallels elsewhere—in Sicily, for example.

The main problem of interpretation, then, concerns the yeomen of the plantation belt itself. Antebellum dissent, such as it was, and war­time desertion centered in the up-country. The commitment of the farmers of the plantation belt to the regime, by normal political stan­dards, became much firmer. Why? The answer of race will not, by itself, do. The up-country yeomen hated and feared the blacks and wanted them under tight racial control. But the up-country yeomen also were quick to identify slaveholders with slaves—to perceive the organic con­nection between the two, not only materially but culturally. To the up-country yeomen, slaveholders and slaves were two peas in the same pod. The plantation-belt yeomen also saw the master-slave relationship as organic, but they yielded much more easily to planter leadership. (9)

Those who wonder at the plantation-belt yeomen’s support of slavery might well begin by asking themselves a question. Why should the non­slaveholders not have supported slavery? After all, men and women normally accept, more or less uncritically, the world into which they are born. Something must drive them to reject and resist the social order that, at the least, offers them the security of a known world.

Let us take Joshua Venable, dirt farmer of Hinds County, Mississippi. Josh owned no slaves, worked forty acres of so-so land more or less competently, and struggled to keep his head above water. Fortunately for him, he was kin to Jefferson Venable, owner of the district’s finest Big House, Ole Massa to a hundred slaves, and patron to the local judge as well as the sheriff. Moreover, Josh Venable’s wife was kin to John Mercer, himself “massa” to only ten or twelve slaves but decidedly a man on the make. The marriage, in fact, brought the Venables and the Mercers into an uneasy conviviality. Massa Jefferson Venable had to swallow a bit to tolerate his parvenu relatives at table, especially since John Mercer could not be broken of the habit of spitting on the floor in the presence of the ladies. But, business is business, and kinfolk are kinfolk—even by marriage.

Now, poor Josh Venable himself rarely got invited to Cousin Jeff’s home and virtually never to his dining room table. Rather, he was usually invited to an outdoor affair—a barbecue to which many of the nonslaveholders of the neighborhood were also invited to celebrate lay-by or the Fourth of July. Josh also had to notice that he was only invited when many neighboring slaveholders were urged not only to come but to bring all their “niggers.” Still, kin was kin, and Josh got an ostentatious welcome as a member of the family. Ole Massa Jefferson, his own self, once took him by the arm to the barbecue pit to meet the new state senator, whom Ole Jeff had just bought and who might come in handy.

Now, of course, Josh resented his cousin—so much so that he continued to hope that he would someday own even more slaves himself and maybe even reach the pinnacle of success—some day he might be able to make Cousin Jeff a low-interest loan to cover his famous gambling debts, not to mention those debts for somewhat unclear expenditures in New Orleans. But, how far could he carry his resentment toward Cousin Jeff? Everyone, including Josh, knew that his cousin may have been a little stuffy, may have put on airs, but that he always had a helping hand for anyone in the neighborhood, black or white. Josh raised some extra corn and a few hogs. What was he supposed to do, hand-carry them to Cincinnati? Wait to sell them to unreliable drovers, who specialized in hard bargains? Cousin Jeff was always ready to pay a fair price even though he could just as easily have increased the orders through his factors and not bothered with such local trivia.

Josh also knew any number of local farmers who raised two or three bales of cotton. If they had to spend $125 each for a cotton gin and then pay the costs of individual marketing, they could not have covered costs. Yet, there was good Ole Jefferson Venable, and two or three other such worthies, ready to gin the cotton for a fair service charge of 9 or 10 per cent and market it with his own large crop to insure a fair price for his poorer neighbors. No one ever accused Ole Jeff of trying to make a dollar off his neighbors. On the contrary, he was quick to send food supplies to help someone down-and-out. And everyone saw how he sent a few of his hands to help a sick neighbor get in his small crop when everything hung in the balance. If it were not for Ole Jeff and a few others like him, how could many of the poorer farmers make it? The planters occasionally hired the sons of poor neighbors for odd jobs or even to help with the cotton picking. They hired a relative here or there to oversee their plantations. If a small farmer got lucky and was able to buy a slave before he could profitably use him, there was Jeff ready to rent him. for a year. Alternatively, if a farmer got lucky and needed the temporary services of a slave he could not yet afford to buy, there was Jeff ready to send one over at the going rate. And everyone remembered how the local planters sent their slaves to throw up houses for new settlers and did everything possible to help them get started. Certainly, that kind of neighborliness was normal in rural areas through­out the United States. But in the South population was much more scattered, and it would have been hard to help people get on without the work of those slaves. What then could lead Jefferson Venable’s neighbors to see him as an enemy? He in no way exploited them— except perhaps for the poor white trash he occasionally hired for odd jobs and treated with contempt. And they were no-account anyway.

Plantation-belt yeomen either aspired to become slaveholders or to live as marginal farmers under the limited protection of their stronger neighbors. And there was nothing irrational or perverse in their atti­tude. White labor was scarce and unreliable, at least if a farmer needed steady help. Any farmer who wanted to expand his operations and make a better living had to buy slaves as soon as possible. It was, therefore, natural, as a matter of inclination and social conscience, to be ready to ride patrol, to help discipline the slaves, and to take part in the political and police aspects of the slave regime—in short, to think and act like slaveholders even before becoming one. That many were moti­vated by racism, sadism, or a penchant for putting-on-dog is undeniable. But even without those pleasantries, the path of social duty emerged as the path of self-interest.

Under the best of circumstances, a class of independent proprietors, with limited spatial range and cultural horizons, could hardly be ex­pected to put hard questions to these relationships. No matter how poor or marginal, small farmers were in no position to make sophisticated analyses of the indirect workings of the slave system as a whole and to conclude that they were oppressed by the very planters who played Lord Bountiful or in any case did not bother them. But this particular class of farmers had had its own political history in relation to the planters, upon which some reflection is in order.

As shorthand for a complicated historical development, we may focus on one or two features of the democratic upsurge of the Jacksonian era. If one reads the political speeches and dwells on the rhetoric, the South after 1819 was torn by the bitterest kind of class warfare. The farmers rose against the aristocracy, the debtors against the creditors, the people against the privileged few. The ensuing political reforms, as Fletcher Green and Charles Sydnor in particular have so well shown, were in fact formidable. Politically, the South underwent substantial democrati­zation. The haughty aristocrats were beaten, although more thoroughly in Mississippi and Alabama than in Louisiana, not to mention South Carolina.

And yet, this period of democratization coincided precisely with the great period of territorial, demographic, and ideological expansion of the slave regime. In its wake came the suppression of Southern liberal­ism. Those who brought democracy to the Southwest also brought plan­tation slavery and the hegemony of the master class. At this point the Herrenvolk thesis is usually trotted out to resolve all contradictions. Unfortunately, it cannot explain how the racism of the yeomanry, no matter how virulent, led the farmers to surrender leadership to the slaveholders instead of seizing it for themselves. And they did surrender it. It is not merely or essentially that lawyers attached to the plantation interest dominated politics-after all, in a democratic society lawyers usually do. The main question is the social interests they serve, not their own class origins. Quantitative studies of social origin and class have solemnly revealed what every fool always knew: politicians are not them­selves usually bankers, industrialists, planters, or in general very rich men—at least not until they take office. The fact remains that the democratic movement in the South effectively removed the slavery question from politics and thereby guaranteed the property base of the slaveholding class—which is all a hegemonic politics is supposed to do.

This process of democratic expansion under slaveholder hegemony emerges from a critical view of antiaristocratic rhetoric. Consider some of the major recurring issues: a more equitable legislative apportion­ment; transfer of the state capital to the interior and away from the centers of entrenched wealth; credit and banking policies to aid debtors rather than creditors; internal improvements designed to open up those areas suitable to staple-crop production; and a final solution to the Indian question. In each case, we find the rhetoric of class war—the poor against the rich, the people (defined as white) against the aristocrats. But, “the people*’ turn out to be planters-on-the-make as well as yeoman farmers trying to move up the social and economic scale. In Mississippi, for example, the goal was to break the power of the arrogant nabobs of Natchez and to permit the rapid settlement and development of the interior. But that development always concerned the development of the slave-plantation system itself—of the extension of one side of the dual economy. The struggle, above all, pitted old and conservative slaveholders against bold new men whose commitment to the social order did not deviate one whit from that of the nabobs themselves. Room had to be made for free competition, which, despite pretenses, required public power in Mississippi as elsewhere. The new men re­quired new money, and the old banking monopoly, tailored to the limited interests of the Natchez aristocracy, had to give way before a policy that would create the credit necessary to buy land and slaves for the interior.

The demands, by their very nature, brought a significant portion of the planter class of the interior into coalition with the democratic yeo­manry, whose interests appeared largely the same. Thus, wealthier and more successful men in the interior easily assumed leadership of the movement. Among those of common interest, the men of wealth, education, and influence—or, at least, men who looked like a good bet to become so—were obviously better equipped to formulate policy. And when the crash came, the interior planters themselves retreated into the conservative policies they had helped overthrow: by that time, they were established and needed sound money rather than loose policies designed to advance the interests of some new competitors. By that time also, the farmers of the up-country as well as of the plantation belt had felt the ravages of speculative banking and were ready to accept the lure of hard money or at least fiscal responsibility. In short, so long as the yeomen accepted the existing master-slave relationship as either something to aspire to or something peripheral to their own lives, they were led step-by-step into willing acceptance of a subordinate position in society. They accepted that position not because they did not under­stand their interests, nor because they were panicked by racial fears, and certainly not because they were stupid, but because they saw them­selves as aspiring slaveholders or as nonslaveholding beneficiaries of a slaveholding world, the only world they knew. To have considered their position in any other terms would have required a herculean effort and a degree of sophistication capable of penetrating the indirect and subtle workings of the system as a whole.

It was not impossible that ordinary farmers could have accomplished that herculean effort and attained that sophistication. The secession crisis and especially the defection from the Confederacy demonstrated the fragility of the up-country’s loyalty to the regime. And even in the plantation belt, the slaveholders were by no means sure that such argu­ments as that of Hinton Helper would not take hold among a basically literate, politically experienced, and fiercely proud white population, if economic conditions deteriorated or free discussion was encouraged. The slaveholders contained the threat by preventing the message from reaching the people—by placing the slavery question beyond discussion. It did not, however, require a genius to recognize that a hostile free- soil regime in Washington, the constant agitation of the slavery question within the national Union, or some internal crisis that upset the delicate ideological balance within the South might lead to the emergence of an antislavery movement at home. Secession and independence had much to recommend them to the dominant propertyholders of so dangerous a world.

How loyal, then, were the nonslaveholders? Loyal enough to guaran­tee order at home through several tumultuous decades, loyal enough to allow the South to wage an improbable war in a hopeless cause for four heroic years. But by no means loyal enough to guarantee the future of the slaveholders’ power without additional measures. The full measurement of this problem lies ahead of us, although William Freeh- ling’s forthcoming book on the South in the fifties should answer many questions. But what seems especially clear is that the yeomanry, both of the up-country and of the plantation belt, have yet to receive the careful attention they deserve. Without it, much of the Southern experience must remain in the shadows.

Until recently, we knew little about the actual lives of the slaves, and many said we would never know because the data were not available. Yet, Rawick and Blassingame, Levine and Stuckey, and others as well, have demonstrated the value of the old adage, “Seek and ye shall find.” In retrospect, the work of Frank Owsley, Blanche Clark, Herbert Weaver, and others of their school appears all the more impressive despite sins against statistical method and a tendency toward romantic reconstruction. (10) Much as a new generation of scholars has been able to uncover the story of the slaves by taking a sympathetic view of their lives, their aspirations, their struggles for survival, so did the Owsley school point a similar direction with regard to the yeomen. One would hope that a new wave of research, however, will pay close attention to the fundamental cultural as well as economic cleavages that separated the farmers of the up-country from those of the plantation belt.

One thing is certain: we shall never understand fully the triumph and eventual demise of the slave system of the South, nor the secret of the slaveholders’ success in establishing their hegemony in society, nor the nature and extent of the persistent threat from below within that very hegemony until we study the daily lives, the religion, the family and courtship patterns, and the dreams of the ordinary farmers of the slave South—which means that we shall have to study them with the same kind of sympathetic understanding and fundamental respect that so many fine scholars are now bringing to the study.

1. See esp., Fletcher M. Green, Constitutional Development in the South Atlantic States, 1776-1860 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1930); and “Democ­racy in the Old South,’’ Journal of Southern History 12 (February 1946): 3-23.

2. George M. Frederickson, The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), esp. chap. 2.

3. Clement Eaton, The Freedom-of-Thought Struggle in the Old South (New York: Harper and Row, 1964).

4. Roger W. Shugg, Origins of Class Struggle in Louisiana: A Social History of White Farmers and Laborers during Slavery and After, 1840-1875 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1939).

5. John Price, “Slavery in Winn Parish,” Louisiana History 8:2 (1967): 137-48.

6. Morton Rothstein, “The Antebellum South as a Dual Economy: A Tentative Hypothesis,” Agricultural History 41 (October 1967): 873-83. Of special relevance is a work formally addressed to French history but with far-reaching implications for many other parts of the world: Edward Whiting Fox, History in Geographic Per­spective: The Other France (New York: Norton, 1971).

7. See esp., James Byrne Ranck, Albert Gallatin Brown, Radical Southern Nation­alist (New York: Appleton-Century, 1937).

8. This well-studied subject might usefully be reinterpreted in the light of the insights advanced by Eric J. Hobsbawm, Primitive Rebels (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1968), and Bandits (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969)

9. In short, the yeoman of the up-country and of the plantation both perceived slavery as embodying an organic social relationship, although they judged the effects differently. Their perception was accurate. I have tried to sketch that organic relationship in Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York: Pantheon, 1974), especially Book One.

 10.  Frank L. Owsley, Plain Folk of the Old South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1950); Blanche Henry Clark, The Tennessee Yeoman, 1840-1860 (Nashville: University of Tennessee Press, 1942); Herbert Weaver, Mississippi Farmers, 1850-1860 (Nashville; University of Tennessee Press, 1946).

(Agricultural History, Vol. 49, No. 2 (Apr., 1975), pp. 331-342)

John Bell, a son of the South, moved to those “Cities of despair/ Where black and white fight over the same grey jobs/ They both came north for” (I am probably mangling from memory the poem by Phillip Levine). I never knew much of John’s early life before he ended up in Baltimore except that he had done time in North Carolina and served in ‘Nam.

Baltimore – a cramped, monotonous city of no-trees, no-grass, brick row-houses stacked like coffins on end with white marble sarcophagi steps, each embalmed with thwarted life. Then and now, Baltimore can only tear down, it never builds up; it destroys, not nurtures. John either developed or brought north his heroin habit, I can’t say which.


“This is the dark time, my love/All round the land brown beetles crawl about./The shining sun is hidden in the sky/Red flowers bend their heads in awful sorrow” – Martin Carter, Guyanese poet

I met John in crisis in the late 80s while working as a street outreach worker/case manager for IVDUs with HIV. He had tested positive for HIV and like so many at the time, his life collapsed before his very eyes. This was pre-AZT, where the only drug available was “hope,” that pharmaceutical of doubtful efficacy.

 It’s hard from the vantage point of today to remember the war-like intensity of that era. Gay men with AIDS volunteering at the agency where I worked would disappear and then you would hear in whispers that so-and-so had tied a plastic bag around his head and “called it a day.” The Larouchites held meetings calling for quarantine and claiming mosquitoes spread HIV: The only people who came to those meetings were poor black folk with HIV. The director of a Black Nationalist clinic in DC “discovered” a  cure for AIDS from Kenya called Kemron which he claimed was being “suppressed” by the white supremacist medical establishment. Poor people from Baltimore dropped out of medical care and spent their last dime running to DC to get this “miracle” treatment which like most miracles cost dear and failed to deliver. The white doctors at Hopkins knew it was a fraud but were afraid of being labeled “racist” by speaking out. So the doctors stayed mum, demonstrating, then and now, how white guilt can harm black lives as much as white hatred.

In this maelstrom, John always kept cool. His burning intense eyes and an aura of calm radiated to those around him. But behind this surface, he was riven with conflict and uncertainty. He would repeatedly relapse, disappear into the streets and the shooting galleries, then go into rehab.  “Rinse, lather, repeat”: building his life up and smashing it down. Fortunately, John had a good union job with the railroad with seemingly inexhaustible rehab benefits. (As an aside, knowing that John’s job was to inspect the track for damage in northern Maryland and knowing too that half the time, John would be nodded out in his Amtrak truck, I always held my breath catching the train until it passed into Pennsylvania. )

One day I heard that John had signed himself into a rehab program in Philadelphia, which also had a long-term half-way house. When he finished, he decided to stay in Philly, a move that probably saved his life by escaping from the stagnation and slow-motion death that is Baltimore.

He got involved in Philadelphia Act-Up, which alone among Act-Ups was dominated by straight black and Puerto Rican people in recovery. His quiet charisma came to the fore and he quickly became a leading member. He spearheaded a counseling program to inmates with HIV and traveled all over the state giving presentations. He was arrested many times for civil disobedience in Act-Up actions. When I’d visit him in Philly, he was always excited about some new project or workshop he was giving. He teased me and said all that “hippy, Commie, pinko” stuff I talked to him had finally sunk in.

How do people change and remake themselves, why do some remain prisoner of their environment and others challenge it, even when they are both subject to the same external conditions? It seems to me that this consciousness is truly an independent factor; a wildcard not determined by structure alone. Whatever the chain of causation, John Bell escaped his chains. He killed his past to become his future.

When John died, his partner Gloria asked me to speak at the memorial meeting because I was the one person who linked John’s past and present. The room was packed with people from Narcotics Anonymous, Nation of Islam, gay men, lesbians, and transgenders – and the former Commissioner of the Pennsylvania prison system: a true testimony to the impact John had on people.

When I got up to speak, I said there are two types of people, “circle-the-wagon” types and bridge types. The circle-the-wagon types associate and mingle only with people sharing their identity or views while bridge people cross boundaries and disregard socially imposed branding. Bridges, of course, can get stepped on but they always lead to somewhere else. John Bell was of this latter mettle. Today, the “circle the wagons” types can be seen most clearly in identity politics, the cramped, stifling dogma that reduces human complexity to a group label, something that John’s life in practice was admirably a direct refutation of. Today, a clinic serving newly-released inmates in Philadelphia, the John Bell Health Center, bears his name; a fitting tribute.

One thought on “Killing Your Past To Become Your Future

  1. A very thoughtful, intense, well written piece. A call to examine how we may choose to live our lives, circling the wagon, or extending ourselves much like bridges to unknown, unfamiliar, often uncomfortable places, if only for the good of mankind.
    “Rinse, lather, repeat”: building his life up and smashing it down. Such powerful imagery puts to shame this reader’s somewhat safe, sheltered existence, needing a shake up.
    I could argue being on the front line of war and doing time, everything else is relative. But the writer’s treatment of the subject in the story reveals a man who is a lot more, tortured if you will.
    Clearly, the writer, like his subject is no ordinary circle the wagon type.
    Curtis Price, again does Gasoline and Grits quite proud.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.