The Historian Behind Slavery Apologists Like Kanye WestHistorians in the News
tags: slavery, Kanye West, Ulrich B Phillips, Slavery Apologists
... Modern scholarship has debunked ... [the whitewashing of slavery by people like Kanye West], accurately depicting slavery as an inhumane institution rooted in greed and the violent subjugation of millions of African-Americans.
Yet countless Americans have not learned these lessons. They cling, instead, to a romanticized interpretation of slavery, one indebted to a book published 100 years ago.
In the spring of 1918, the historian Ulrich Bonnell Phillips published his seminal study, “American Negro Slavery,” which framed the institution as a benevolent labor agreement between indulgent masters and happy slaves. No other book, no monument, no movie — save, perhaps, for “Gone With the Wind,” itself beholden to Phillips’s work — has been more influential in shaping how many Americans have viewed slavery.
Born in 1877 into a Georgia family with planter roots, Phillips developed an abiding sympathy for the Old South. He studied history at the University of Georgia and then as a graduate student at Columbia University under the tutelage of William A. Dunning, a scholar with a pro-Southern bent.
After earning his doctorate in 1902, Phillips set out to correct the slanted picture of the Southern past that he believed prevailed at the time. “The history of the United States has been written by Boston and largely been written wrong,” he lamented. “It must be written anew before it reaches its final form of truth, and for that work, the South must do its part.”
Phillips certainly did his. During his 30-year career, he published nine books and close to 60 articles, earning a series of prestigious professorships that culminated in a “very flossy job,” as he put it, at Yale University. This 1930 appointment reflected his stature as the country’s leading historian of slavery and the South, as well as the influence of his most important book, “American Negro Slavery.”
He was a prodigious, albeit selective researcher. Phillips found evidence in plantation records and Southern travelogues that bolstered the book’s benign interpretation of slavery, while downplaying evidence that did not. In his hands, plantations became idyllic sites where white families had modeled the habits of civilized life for their childlike black charges. “The plantations,” Phillips wrote, “were the best schools yet invented for the mass training of that sort of inert and backward people which the bulk of the American negroes represented.” ...