On the Roots of Racism in America

In Alex Haley’s influential novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family, he tells the tale of an African man who is captured in his native land as a boy, sold into slavery and transported to America, where he lives out his days working on the plantation. The book goes on to tell the story of his children and grandchildren, who face many trials and tribulations but eventually go on to find happiness and success in the country that was forced upon their family as a home. For class Wednesday, we are going to trace the history and “roots” of slavery and racism in the United States, and some of Haley’s words in the novel certainly provide some interesting food-for-thought. Looking back at the past, for example, one character wonders what another’s “true name had been – the name of his African forefathers – and to what tribe they had belonged. He wondered if the gardener himself had known. More likely he died as he had lived – without ever learning who he really was.”  Another character “thought that it was impossible for a ‘massa’ to perceive that being owned by anyone could never be enjoyable,” while another “was weeping for all of history’s incredible atrocities against fellowmen, which seems to be mankind’s greatest flaw.” Through the plight of centuries of slaves and their families, Haley powerfully shows the reader the sad, deplorable truism that “It is the way of the world that goodness is often repaid by badness.”

This is nowhere more clearly seen for those of us living in the United States than in our sickening history of slavery and racism.  On the one hand, the early years of our nation are a wondrous and inspiring tale of growth, innovation, and development, as our founding fathers essentially created a grand new experiment in democracy, freedom, and nation-building.  On the other hand, that very edifice – the very foundation of our country – was literally and figuratively built on the backs of slaves like those depicted in Haley’s novel.  For this blogpost, I want you to write two paragraphs, in which you share your thoughts about the nation’s roots in slavery.  I actually don’t have a specific question or prompt in mind here, but want YOU to respond to what you are assigned for class today as you see fit.  For instance, you might think about new issues and ideas that you never knew about before, you might consider how the videos assigned for class are somehow revealing about issues in our education system or the politicians who run our society, you might connect the assigned material to the historical ideas and issues we have covered so far this semester, or perhaps draw specific connections to Black Lives Matter, police brutality, and our current political moment.  In other words, just “riff” a bit and offer us something that we, in turn, might think about as we work together to explore the slave “roots” of America. 

Musing on Machiavellian (& Hobbesian) Ideals

By definition, a “leviathan” is a kind of massive sea monster, and for this blogpost we are going to literally and figuratively play with that premise by exploring two “monsters” of political rhetoric:  the dark-hued theories about power espoused by Niccolo Machiavelli in The Prince (1513) and Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan (1651).  Hobbes generally believed that there were profound misunderstandings in his age about the nature of sovereign power, and he had a cynical view of English politics and rule. Writing a century earlier, and about the complexities of Italian city-states, Machiavelli arguably took an even more cynical view, and his advice has had such a profound effect on subsequent political thought that his very name has come to have sociocultural meaning (with “Machiavellian” a pejorative term that is used to denote an individual who is noted for “cunning, duplicity, or bad faith” – especially a ruler whose behavior is manipulative, deceitful, and/or deceptive.)

In response to the cold-hearted – yet chillingly pragmatic – views of Hobbes and Machiavelli, in this blogpost I want you to do three things: 

1) Try and compare/contrast the political thought of Hobbes and Machiavelli. In what way are their approaches, theories, and conclusions similar, but also, in what crucial ways do they seem to diverge?

2) Pick out a provocative quotation from either Leviathan or The Prince and connect it to one of our recent historical examples (perhaps especially Joan of Arc or Elizabeth I).  Try to place your chosen comment(s) within the historical context of the day, and explore how it might open up some new perspectives on one of our recent readings. 

3)  Finally, pick another quotation – likely from the other assigned author – and think about the ways in which this notion logically applies (or not) to our own day and age.  You might consider:  is this particular suggestion for political behavior a wise one, a good way for a ruler to (justly) navigate the challenging political waters of the twenty-first century?  Or would his premise be problematic in some way, shape, or form if taken up by a modern-day politician?