Lovable Racists, Magical Negroes, and White Messiahs

Lovable Racists, Magical Negroes, and White Messiahs

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In this incredibly timely book, David Ikard dismantles popular white supremacist tropes, which effectively devalue black life and trivialize black oppression. Lovable Racists, Magical Negroes, and White Messiahs investigates the tenacity and cultural capital of white redemption narratives in literature and popular media from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to The Help.

In the book, Ikard explodes the fiction of a postracial society while awakening us to the sobering reality that we must continue to fight for racial equality or risk losing the hard-fought gains of the Civil Rights movement. Through his close reading of novels, films, journalism, and political campaigns, he analyzes willful white blindness and attendant master narratives of white redemption—arguing powerfully that he who controls the master narrative controls the perception of reality. The book sounds the alarm about seemingly innocuous tropes of white redemption that abound in our society and generate the notion that blacks are perpetually indebted to whites for liberating, civilizing, and enlightening them. In Lovable Racists, Magical Negroes, and White Messiahs, Ikard expertly and unflinchingly gives us a necessary critical historical intervention.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226492773
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/19/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 160
File size: 508 KB

About the Author

David Ikard is professor and director of African American and diaspora studies at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of Breaking the Silence: Toward a Black Male Feminist Criticism and Blinded by the Whites: Why Race Still Matters in the 21st Century, as well as coauthor of Nation of Cowards: Black Activism in Barack Obama’s Post-Racial America.

Read an Excerpt


Good Slave Masters Don't Exist: Lovable Racists and the Crisis of Authorship in Twelve Years a Slave

The treatment of enslaved Africans varied. Some slaves reported that their masters treated them kindly. To protect their investment, some slaveholders provided adequate food and clothing for their slaves.


Ghostwritten by David Wilson, a white attorney and aspiring novelist, Solomon Northup's slave narrative, Twelve Years a Slave, abounds with shady white characters, including slavers, who receive disturbingly flattering and even heroic treatment. The most revealing in this regard is Solomon's description of his first master, William Ford, at the outset of chapter 7; a description which is conspicuously juxtaposed to a heart-wrenching scene at the end of chapter 6 of a slave woman, Eliza, being torn from her daughter during a slave auction. From a writerly perspective, to borrow Toni Morrison's coinage, the juxtaposition of these scenes exposes a curious anxiety about painting all white slave owners as complicit in human trafficking, dehumanization, labor exploitation, and religious terrorism. As the reader will recall, Eliza was coerced into concubinage by her former master, now deceased, and, consequently, gave birth to two of his children, a boy and girl. Eliza's son had just been sold off when this scene occurs. In utter desperation, Eliza pleads with Ford, who has just made an offer for her, to also purchase her daughter. Ford relents and offers to buy her daughter at a "reasonable price." The auctioneer-owner Theophilus Freeman, whom Solomon describes as a cold-blooded monster of a man, refuses to sell her, noting that her Eurocentric features make her a highly lucrative commodity; the implication being that he can groom and eventually sell her as a high-end concubine to wealthy white men. The chapter ends with a diatribe on Eliza's agony over her forced separation from her children.

Chapter 7 opens with a rather inexplicable homage to Ford and good slave masters. Indeed the shift in tone and message startles the reader:

In many northern minds, perhaps, the idea of a man holding his brother man in servitude, and the traffic in human flesh, may seem altogether incompatible with their conceptions of a moral or religious life. From descriptions of such men as ... Freeman, and others hereinafter mentioned, they are led to despise and execrate the whole class of slaveholders, indiscriminately. But I was sometime his slave, and had an opportunity of learning well his character and disposition, and it is but simple justice to him when I say, in my opinion, there never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford. The influences and associations that had always surrounded him, blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of Slavery. He never doubted the moral right of one man holding another in subjection. Looking through the same medium with his fathers before him, he saw things in the same light. Brought up under other circumstances and other influences, his notions would undoubtedly have been different. Nevertheless, he was a model master, walking uprightly, according to the light of his understanding, and fortunate was the slave who came to his possession. Were all men such as he, Slavery would be deprived of more than half its bitterness.

Though Ford is no less complicit and accountable than Freeman for participating in the enslavement and dehumanization of blacks, Solomon makes a clear and indeed dramatic distinction between the two men. To wit, Solomon experiences Freeman as inhumane and cruel because he has no conscience about separating mothers from their children or grooming children to be concubines and prostitutes. In contrast, Solomon experiences Ford as kindhearted and fair because Ford has the emotional wherewithal to empathize with Eliza's suffering as a mother to the point of attempting to purchase her daughter. Of course, in order for us to embrace Solomon's perspective we have to accept that Ford, a shrewd businessman whose wealth depends largely on slave labor, is oblivious to the market value of Eliza's biracial daughter. Moreover, we must ignore the fact that Ford's purchasing of Eliza is what precipitates the separation of mother from child. Granted, the separation of mother and child may ultimately have been inevitable given the circumstances, but Ford's participation therein was certainly not.

Indicative of many scholars who engage with white supremacist ideology in Twelve Years, Tara T. Green argues that Solomon's flattering portrait of good slave masters is strategic. Solomon makes sure to separate the sin of slavery from the white sinners in slaveholders because he does not want to alienate his mostly white abolitionist-minded audience. That is, he "avoid[s] placing all white people into the category of the wicked" because he is acutely aware that even his politically sympathetic white readership has deep investments in white supremacist ideology and seeing whites generally (including slaveholders) as innately well-intentioned and with morals. Green references Frederick Douglass's 1845 Narrative — wherein he makes distinctions among whites in terms of their (mis)treatment of slaves — to identify, contextualize, and defend Solomon's tactic of appeasing whites. Crucially overlooked in this comparison is the extent to which Douglass interrogated and repudiated the notion of "good slave masters" in the Narrative. He is most insulted by Mr. Auld's gesture of giving him a small portion of his earned wages back to him. Rather than view such a gesture as laudable (because most slave masters were not willing to compensate the enslaved even a little), Douglass sees it as a wicked and pathological tactic that allowed Mr. Auld to assuage his guilt for enslaving and robbing him. Indeed, Douglass deciphers the apparatus of complicity in oppression upon which the white supremacist system of slavery is premised. Brilliant strategist that he is, Douglass accepts the insufficient bribes, manipulates Mr. Auld into trusting him, and then eventually escapes to freedom.

It is thus deeply problematic, if not shortsighted, to compare Twelve Years to the Narrative because Solomon Northup did not have the authorial control or political agency that Frederick Douglass possessed. While it is certainly plausible that Northup's flattering portraits of good white slave masters as rendered through his white ghostwriter, David Wilson, was a strategy rather than a true reflection of his feelings toward whites, it is equally, if not more, plausible that the filter of white authorship and editorial privilege altered or even undermined Northup's interrogation of white supremacist slavery in the text. Even from what little we know about Wilson, there is ample reason to believe that he took great liberties with Solomon's story. As Solomon Northup's biographer, Sue Eakin, explains, Wilson was infatuated with the popularity and financial success of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. She opines that the uncanny resemblances between characters in both texts reveal Wilson's desire to reproduce the global prestige and financial success of Stowe's Uncle, a text that condemns the practice of slavery even as it reifies the basic tenets of white supremacy. Did Wilson's desire to recreate the financial and political success of Uncle prompt him to take liberties with Solomon's accounts of slavery, especially in regards to the treatment of white supremacy and Christianity? The heightened and violent state of white surveillance during the antebellum era (even among antislavery whites) makes it is difficult to fathom that Solomon was free to interrogate the white supremacist underpinnings of chattel slavery. Even if we conclude Twelve Years accurately reflects Solomon's perspectives on Ford and "good masters," we are still left to ponder to what extent his perspectives were a consequence of blacks' forced reliance on white sponsorship for authorial legitimacy, social justice, and physical protection. Did Solomon's feelings of obligation to his white sponsor, Henry Northup, inform how he engaged white supremacy in Twelve Years, including the use of Christianity to manipulate, pacify, and terrorize the enslaved? To what degree did Solomon's undeniable investment in white supremacy — conscious and unconscious — obscure his perspective about good slave masters?

Alas, these are questions that will likely remain unanswered because only scant information exists about the lives of Solomon Northup, Henry Northup, and David Wilson. That said, even if we were somehow able to retrieve historical documentation that could settle the question of whether David Wilson took political and creative liberties with Solomon Northup's story, such knowledge would provide only limited insights into why an abolitionist text would offer such competing notions of white slaveholding culture; why it would sympathize with rather than obliterate the southern romance of lovable slave masters and contented slaves.

Departing sharply from conventional readings of Twelve Years, I will engage Solomon's flattering rendering of good white slave masters and his curiously stereotypical and, at times, unsympathetic rendering of black women as a problem of white supremacist ideology rather than as a subversive tactic to critique it without alienating white readers. Indeed, this chapter will treat Solomon's conspicuous blind spots regarding manipulative, paternalistic slavers such as Ford as a result of what I call "lovable-racist thinking." A lovable racist is a white character who is rendered in such a way that it encourages the reader or viewer to see his/her racism or inhumanity toward blacks or people of color as a minor, if not justifiable, character flaw. In order for lovable racists to escape serious scrutiny as racists, they must be validated in some way morally, ethically, or socially as "good people" by the very group that they exploit and/or discriminate against. Within this lovable-racist calculus, the validating black/brown character is also elevated to hero status by virtue of his/her ability to see the lovable racist's redeeming qualities beyond their racist behavior. As readers/viewers we are often seduced into identifying and empathizing with lovable racists because they are typically chief protagonist(s) and thus the most developed and sympathetically rendered character(s) in novels, nonfiction texts, television series, and films. Indeed, it is highly unlikely that anyone would read Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and identify more with nigger Jim than with Huck Finn. Or that anyone would watch the film "Gran Torino" and identify with the gangbanger set, over the gun-toting, xenophobe, and racist Walt Kowalski. The reason for this is that the novel and film render the racialist white characters in such a way as to endear them to us — though Huck Finn is a sadistic and cruel man-child who delights in torturing Jim, he ultimately winds up appearing caring and humane toward Jim. Walt Kowalski wins our collective hearts with his conventional patriarchal fathering of Hmong teenagers Thao and Sue, which includes sacrificing life and limb to protect them from black and brown gangbangers. This political calculus amplifies the humanity of the white racist characters while erasing, or rendering trivial, the humanity of the raced other(s). In fact, this is done with such great effect in "Gran Torino" that Walt emerges as a white messiah/Christ figure as well as a lovable racist. Because the film treats the gangbangers as heartless thugs, ignoring not only their humanity but also the white supremacist capitalism that has decimated their community, the viewers cheer when they get their comeuppance and lionize Walt for his messianic self-sacrifice.

The open secret of American history is that until recently — say, the last fifty years — black experiences of white domination have been largely erased or distorted to the point of romance. What this phenomenon has meant — and means — is that the black creative enterprise, including writing, theater, film, and music, has taken on greater significance in the contemporary moment in terms of correcting this white historical erasure. Logistically speaking, the reader should keep in mind that when I refer to Solomon as the author of Twelve Years heretofore, I am doing so with an understanding that Solomon's experiences are being filtered through the perspective of a white man in David Wilson, who was most likely free to embellish/alter the slave narrative as he saw fit. If, racially speaking, Wilson was like the overwhelming majority of whites of his day (including many abolitionists), then sustaining white supremacy was not incompatible with wanting to end slavery. After all, slavery was economically disadvantageous to working-class whites — the bulk of society — because it suppressed the value of white labor. While the cultural capital of dominating blacks ultimately trumped these disadvantages for most southern workingclass whites, it was a key bone of contention for many northern whites, meaning that the motivation to abolish slavery for many whites was driven by self-interest and economics, not a desire for racial equality and social justice. If indeed Wilson did take political liberties with Solomon's story, these sociohistorical phenomena provide possible motives why, as a northern white, he would do so. If, alas, the text accurately represents Solomon's mindset, then it exposes more about the deleterious consequences of internalized white supremacy and white supremacist terrorism on black consciousness than it enlightens us about the racial realities of slavery.

Lovable-Racist Thinking and the Erasure of Black Subjectivity

To, at once, identify the tenacity of lovable-racist thinking (especially in the post–Civil Rights era) and the potential to expose and explode it in the twentyfirst century, this chapter will put Twelve Years in critical dialogue with the latest film adaptation, "12 Years A Slave." More pointedly, this chapter argues that "12 Years" operates politically to "correct" the lovable racists' (mis)representations of black humanity and white goodwill. To be clear, what is being corrected is not the historical record per se, but rather Solomon's warped white supremacist/apologist perspective on white culpability, paternalism, and religious practice. Attentive to the serious limitations of Solomon's racial insights in the slave narrative, the film"-12 Years" refocuses on Solomon's social and ideological conditioning as a black subject in a pathologically white supremacist society — a move which allows us to see why an otherwise self-actualized man would romanticize white paternalism and become a policing agent therein. What this move also throws radically into focus is that celebrated white paternalists, like Mr. and Mrs. Ford in the slave narrative, are, in fact, willfully blind agents of human atrocities or what I am calling lovable racists. The key corrective intervention here is that refocusing on Solomon's racial conditioning allows us to see the complexity of black humanity in the ways that Solomon and other blacks cope with and negotiate hyper white surveillance, racial terrorism, and legalized dehumanization. Unlike the slave narrative which privileges Solomon's perspective and complicity within the lovable-racist calculus, the film includes the critical perspectives of other enslaved blacks and clears a space therein to interrogate the problems of lovable-racist thinking.

That the key voices of interrogation in the film happen to come from black women (who, with few notable exceptions, are cast in the slave narrative as weak and unsophisticated) is hardly an accident. Screenwriter John Ridley, in collaboration with director Steve McQueen, takes a decidedly intersectional approach to refocusing the critical gaze as it concerns lovable racists and white supremacist pathology in the slave narrative. That is, Ridley attends to unique intersectional race, gender, and class dynamics of the experience of the enslaved so that we can see that Solomon's insights about how to negotiate slavery are not necessarily representative or inclusive of all blacks, especially black women. Indeed, the film employs black women to critique white male supremacist pathology in all its various iterations, including how it implicates white women (like Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Epps), and enslaved black men, like Solomon, in the erasure of black women's unique status as both victims and agents of rebellion. Concomitantly, Eliza emerges as a key mouthpiece for interrogating Solomon's romanticized view of Ford as a "good master" and what I call his "double consciousness survivalist thinking" and symptoms of "battered slave syndrome." Invoking W. E. B. Du Bois's theory, the term double consciousness survivalist thinking reflects a mindset of fear, anxiety, and accommodationism driven largely by hyper white surveillance, terrorism, and group-oriented violence. I use the term battered slave syndrome, which recalls the term "battered wife syndrome," to clear a space to think about Solomon's blindness toward paternalist whites, like the Fords, as symptomatic of his violent physical and psychological conditioning under slavery. Indeed, I want to register how the violent and paternalist relationship between slave and master, which is ostensibly structured upon a white patriarchal model in which the enslaved (across gender lines) are feminized and infantilized, informs Solomon's investment in white paternalism and, by turns, his unwillingness to escape by himself or with the help of other slaves. A key symptom of battered wife syndrome is the conditioned belief, borne of fear and violent verbal and physical assault, that you cannot escape the abusive relationship; that compromising with your abuser on his terms, and with the misguided belief that things will get better over time, is the best way to manage the relationship. Ridley's decision to expose Solomon's double consciousness survivalist mindset and battered slave syndrome behavior via Eliza (who is represented in the slave narrative as being without agency or political consciousness) is crucial, considering the tendency within black spaces, from slave narratives to current discourses of black struggle, to radically downplay or erase the intersectional complexities of victimization and personal/political agency. It is also through the women characters in the film — namely Eliza and Patsey — that white women's conspiracy with white men in slavery is thrown brilliantly into focus. This is an important intervention considering that white women's agency as co-conspirators in oppression with white men receives relatively little critical attention in discussions of slave culture.


Excerpted from "Lovable Racists, Magical Negroes, and White Messiahs"
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Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago.
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Table of Contents

Foreword by T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting
Chapter 1 Good Slave Masters Don’t Exist: Lovable Racists and the Crisis of Authorship in Twelve Years a Slave
Chapter 2 Constituting the Crime: White Innocence as an Apparatus of Oppression
Chapter 3 “We Have More to Fear than Racism that Announces Itself”: Distraction as a Strategy to Oppress
Chapter 4 “Only Tired I Was, Was Tired of Giving In”: Rosa Parks, Magical Negroes, and the Whitewashing of Black Struggle
Chapter 5 Santa Claus Is White and Jesus Is Too: Era(c)ing White Myths for the Health and Well-Being of Our Children

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