A few weeks ago, I watched Here Come the UKIPers. I know what you’re thinking, but bear with me. To be honest, the show was pretty unremarkable, and didn’t actually tell us much about UKIP as a political entity besides the fact that, SHOCK HORROR, there are some out of touch racists in it. I should say now that, no, I don’t buy the whole “I’m from a different generation” excuse. If you grew up during or after the sixties and seventies, you should know why you can’t use the term “negro” to describe a black person, or say that all Jewish people have “hooked noses”, so stop. Doing. It.
Anyway, whilst the show itself was (to paraphrase AA Gill) little more than an excuse to point and laugh at UKIP, it did get me thinking about another issue, namely the question of whether we should judge the past according to our modern moral and cultural sensibilities. It goes without saying that there are some things which are morally unjustifiable, no matter the time period. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about the first or the twenty first century, things such as slavery or genocide can never be justified, and anyone who tries to do so is a prick. An obvious statement, perhaps, but I felt it needed to be said. However, there are plenty of examples where people have advocated or done things which were perfectly acceptable, or even progressive, by their contemporary standards, but which seem less so when viewed from a modern perspective, and as historians it’s important that we reflect on how we can judge and assess these events without inadvertently straying into the realms of anachronism.
A good example of this dilemma is the Society for the Colonization of Free People of Color of America, otherwise known as the American Colonization Society (ACS). The ACS was formed in 1816 in order to promote racial equality between whites and non-whites, more specifically freed black slaves, a laudable aim by anyone’s standards. However, their solution to the problem was to establish a colony for free blacks in Africa (Liberia), a solution which, with the power of hindsight, we can say was over simplistic and culturally insensitive at best, and outright racist at worst.
There were several flaws with the ACS’ plan, the most fundamental of which was their assumption that all black Americans wanted to return to Africa, an assumption which meant the ACS ignored the crucial fact that many freed slaves saw themselves as Americans, and not as Africans. Were they unhappy with their social and political status in America? Of course they were, but they still saw themselves as Americans, and wanted to improve their lot in their own country, rather than being sent to a foreign continent which they had never lived on.
Indeed, the fact that the ACS believed all black Americans instinctively wanted to return to Africa meant they ignored another blindingly obvious issue, namely that the colonists had no practical knowledge of their new surroundings. On the most basic level, they didn’t know what crops they could grow or when they should be planted, and the poor housing conditions and a lack of medical supplies meant diseases such as yellow fever were rife.
These issues were exacerbated by the fact that the colony was regularly attacked by neighbouring tribes. Going back to my first point, the ACS established Liberia on the flawed premise that all “Africans” belonged to one homogenous culture, an idea as absurd as assuming all “Europeans” belong to one homogenous culture. As a result, the ACS established Liberia without properly reflecting on the political and cultural tensions it could cause in the area, and since the colony was established on such a flawed understanding of both Africa and black Americans, it’s fair to argue that the ACS’ plans were, fundamentally, racist.
However, at the same time for anyone in the twenty first century to dismiss the ACS’ plans as ‘racist’ is to ignore the historical context in which the organisation was established. The fact is that the ACS was established during a time period when a large percentage of the American populace believed black people were inherently inferior to white people, and as such the idea that they could ever hope to reach the level of ‘civilisation’ achieved by white people was simply beyond the Pale. When placed in this context, you begin to understand how radical the ACS’ plans for a colony which would be populated, and more importantly governed, exclusively by freed-black people really were.
The same historical context also partially explains the reason why the ACS chose to establish their colony in Africa, rather than in an uninhabited area in the Mid-West. Was their decision based on a fundamental misunderstanding of black identity? Yes, of course it was. But it was also a decision made on the grounds that the ACS wanted their colony to succeed so as to prove to white supremacists that black people could achieve the same level of ‘civilisation’ as white people if given the opportunity. In the minds of those who ran the ACS, the only place where a free black colony could succeed was in Africa, not in America, as it was the place where they would be most free from the racial prejudice which had held them back for so long.
Which brings me back to my opening question: how do we reconcile the fact that whilst the ACS’ plans were progressive for their time, by twenty first century standards they were overly simplistic, bordering on racist? I think the answer is fairly simple, and that is that we need to make relative, rather than absolute, judgments about the past when talking about ethical and moral issues. To me, to argue that X was enlightened and justifiable for its time but isn’t by modern standards is a logically consistent and perfectly reasonable conclusion to come to, and in my opinion we seem to have lost sight of this.
Admittedly, this might just my personal experience, but browse the comments section of any internet article or YouTube video, and you’ll see what I mean. People seem unwilling, or worse still unable, to talk about a whole host of issues, both contemporary and historical, in anything other than absolute terms, even if doing so means they have to manipulate facts to support their viewpoint, or ignore evidence which contradicts it, and we cannot afford to let this happen to the practice of history.
To ask the question of whether, for example, the ACS was or wasn’t racist is to ignore the most fundamental aspect of history, namely that our attitudes regarding discrimination, war, human rights, labour relations, religion and, well, anything with a moral or ethical dimension have evolved drastically over time. As historians, it is our job to explain (or at least try to explain) how and why our attitudes towards these issues have changed, and whilst this task does involve a degree of judgment, at the same time we need to make sure that in judging the past we do not reduce complex debates down to a simple yes/no dichotomy.
As the example of the ACS shows, what we consider enlightened today will likely be seen as reactionary tomorrow, and any conclusions we reach about the past must reflect this. We will always judge past events by our modern standards, but whilst we should never ignore the faults of organisations such as the American Colonisation Society, or attempt to make excuses for them, we should also ensure we consider them in their proper historical context and remember any good that they did do, so as to come to a conclusion which properly reflects their historical legacy and impact, and is not simply a reflection of our contemporary attitudes and opinions.
I should add that the ACS promoted the idea of a free black colony on the grounds that it would solve the issue of racial inequality without having to address the abolition question. I was going to include it in the main body of the post, but decided against it on the basis that I didn’t feel it related to the central premise of the post i.e. can we judge the past according to our current ethical standards? That, and the post was already far too long. Still, it’s an important point to make, as it raises the question of whether Liberia should be seen as a true experiment in promoting racial equality or simply as a political compromise, so I put it in as a post-script.