No community, let alone a society, remains calm in the face of a drastic change in the status quo, especially if the party inheriting control is perceived, or is made to appear, as incompetent and deplorable. The situation becomes tenser if the new leadership is preceded by a reputation propagated by myths and misinformation, and backed by no evidence. Alas, the very same situation becomes a lot more predisposed to chaos and violence if racism, prejudice, pride, credulity, and ignorance are involved. No work epitomizes this truth more than The Prostrate State: South Carolina Under Negro Government, a book by James Shepherd Pike.
There is no denying the myriad of works with a hint of or exposing racism in American literature. When the work of a supposedly “moderate progressive” journalist has the attributes of a personal manifesto instead of a journalistic endeavor, and aims to fuel efforts to reverse black enfranchisement owing to deeply held and irrational personal convictions, it exposes the spirit of the times, the flaws in the collective thinking of a society, and ultimately, the author’s dubious morals and absence of perspective and prudence.
Reconstruction Era South Carolina
James Shepherd Pike was a Reconstruction Era journalist from New England who just happened to be on assignment to cover South Carolina’s Reconstruction government, which was predominantly comprised of African Americans. Indeed, he produced The Prostrate State: South Carolina Under Negro Government, considered a masterpiece and a long-enduring torch of racism in American literature. To fortify the argument that racism served as main base for Pike’s work, and not the exercise of reason, truth, and credibility, necessary is the inclusion of this excerpt:
"Seven years ago these men were raising corn and cotton under the whip of the overseer. Today they are raising points of order and questions of privilege. They find they can raise one as well as the other. They prefer the latter. It is easier, and better paid.…"
This statement of Pike's reeks of ignorance and obliviousness, at the very least. But to further understand the reasons that influenced the writer’s views, an examination of the social and political dynamics of Reconstruction Era South Carolina is essential. There was nothing more demeaning and weakening to the fragile and hypocritical self-esteem of white Southerners than the thought of their former slaves participating in democracy, let alone holding public office. The morale of these former slaveholders had not even fully recovered from the crushing Confederate defeat in the Civil War, yet were now confronted with a sight they could never have imagined happening.
To add insult to injury, in the aftermath of the Civil War, Congress granted African American men suffrage and barred former Confederate officers from voting. The rule of law was not enough to restrain the conveyance of sheer indignation of the “disenfranchised” whites. And so, vile and uninformed racist notions prevailed in the aftermath.
To an extent, this can be attributed to a “reversal of fortune” or a mild version of a a deserved fate. White, former slave owners South Carolinians were now stripped of a basic right while African Americans, formerly in the fight for meager morsels of dignity and identity, now held considerable political power over their former masters.
The racist notions ranged from mundane to horrendous to dehumanizing. Many white South Carolinians pledged not to vote again as long as there were blacks in power. One Tennessee man even expressed disgust at the thought of being governed by former black slaves, a situation he could not stomach and refuses to entertain. The collective racist rant of whites was that blacks, especially former slaves, would never be equal to whites. The collective scarcity of education of blacks did not help matters, either, an inadequacy which racist whites pounced on vigorously.
Marginally educated former slaves who were now elected into public office, as well as the illiterate ones, indeed faced a tall order – educating themselves – as most whites refused to help for their pride is being stepped on. Empowered by the new ruling, African Americans flocked to Union-sponsored educational institutions and freedmen schools to acquire literacy education particularly prioritizing the completely illiterate. With zest, they attended political meetings to get to know the advocacies of election candidates. As expected, the former slaves rallied behind the Republican Party. For it was the Republican Party that ended slavery and fought for their human rights.
The Prostrate State: South Carolina under Negro Government
James Shepherd Pike's book The Prostrate State: South Carolina Under Negro Government was originally published in newspapers as he was a journalist sent to South Carolina to give reports on the government's reconsctruction. All his articles were combined and published in a book. In this book, he shaped the minds of readers to think that the new African American leaders were incompetent, corrupt, lazy, and were even embezzling state funds.
His published statements were in an effort to again replace the reformed government with white leaders. In Pike's eyes, the slaves were just causing a disturbance in their master's supposed to be seat. It should be noted that he did not recognize the slaves here as free nor worthy of their newfound political power over their former masters. It is quite obvious that Pike only shares events based on what would support his stance. However, as was stated earlier, the African Americans were doing all they can to keep up with the times and be educated.
This effort of the African American former slaves to educate and integrate themselves into society, be viable members of said society, as well as the educational and economic improvements in Reconstruction Era South Carolina under the governance of African American legislators, constitute what is sorely lacking, or may have been purposefully ignored, in Pike’s The Prostrate State: South Carolina Under Negro Government.
The title of the book itself reeks of prejudice. Painting South Carolina lying prostrate, its white populace made to appear subjugated by black former slaves who now led the state, and whose fault only lay in the color of their skin and history of oppression. Throughout The Prostrate State: South Carolina Under Negro Government, Pike made unsubstantiated claims ranging from exaggerated assertions like newly-elected black lawmakers succumbed to the temptation of power by resorting to extravagance in their lifestyles to contemptible statements as seen in the following excerpts:
“…In the place of this aristocratic society stands the rude form of the most ignorant democracy that mankind ever saw, invested with the functions of government. It is the dregs of the population habilitated in the robes of their intelligent predecessors,and asserting over them the rule of ignorance and corruption, through the inexorable machinery of a majority of numbers. It is barbarism overwhelming civilization by physical force. It is the slave rioting in the halls of his master, and putting that master under his feet.”
“… The Speaker is black, the Clerk is black, the door-keepers are black, the little pages are black, the chairman of the Ways and Means [committee] is black, and the chaplain is coal-black.… It must be remembered, also, that these men, with not more than half a dozen exceptions, have been themselves slaves, and that their ancestors were slaves for generations…”
These excerpts come nowhere near the realm of objective, perceptive, and historically aware observation, tenets that journalists are supposed to diligently uphold. It should not be hard even for the less enlightened reader to be surprised and eventually arrive at these questions: What is it Pike’s preoccupation with the blackness of the legislators, isn’t that manifestly ignorant and leaning towards physiognomy, a pseudoscience? Isn’t it too judgmental to underestimate the ability of a group of people by virtue of their ancestors’ unfortunate fate? Is this book not irrelevant? Where did Pike gather information?
Pike’s The Prostrate State: South Carolina Under Negro Government is a collection of incendiary statements made to stoke the irrational sentiments of Southern white folk. It is to be noted that they were still unrecovered from consecutive defeats – the emancipation of slaves in 1863, the Confederate defeat in 1865, and the enfranchisement of black males in 1867. The book was widely read yet its truthfulness and reliability was hardly questioned. A book made up of provocative fabrications, the combination of hearsay and ridiculous claims was swallowed and treated as fact by blind and prejudiced racist readers.
A most startling but unsurprising truth is that the ethos of James Shepherd Pike, not to mention his field of work as a journalist, was not scrutinized one bit by his readers. A task that was only fulfilled when credible scholars reexamined the issue decades later. This drives the argument to the manner with which Pike gathered his information. Later on, research pressumes that accounts of the South Carolina legislature were gathered from Democrats who were unwavering opponents of the enfranchisement of African Americans. In actuality, Pike conferred with only one black resident when he conducted research for his book.
Supported by concrete evidence, prudent scholars eventually uncovered the reasons behind Pike’s assertions in his book. Prior to his time as correspondent in South Carolina, Pike had already held a relatively tamer hostility towards African Americans. This is evidenced by his statements that freed slaves should be sent away from the United States or designated to their own reservation. While a northern Republican and a lifelong anti-slavery, Pike’s views were far from what Southerners at the time pictured archetypal abolitionist Northerners.
Pike's opposition to slavery did not necessarily translate to advocacy for the human rights of African Americans. His spiteful personal views on racial disparity would have remained benign and uninfluential had he not been a journalist. But the reality was the contrary, he was an influential writer in his own right. He was a journalist guided by distorted values and a seething yet contained hate towards a historically disenfranchised people.
The publication of his book not only continued the norm of racism in American literature, but paved the way for even more hostile racism in American literature, as well as smaller circulations, in the decades to come. The Prostrate State: South Carolina Under Negro Government would inflame not only the aspirations of racists but also exalt stereotypes and tropes that would, until this day, serve as demagogue pillars of racism.
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Muthanga, Bachelor James. A Book Review about "The Prostrate State: South Carolina Under Negro Government" by James Shepherd Pike. 2018, https://www.grin.com/document/415940
Pike, James Shepherd. The Prostrate State: South Carolina Under Negro Government, NY: D. Appleton, 1874.