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"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Friday, January 15, 2010

Haiti, Slavery, and Muhammad Ali: Reflections on "Pat" Robertson's Family Legacy

As a so-called evangelical, minister, and scholar I do not normally use this blog to write about current themes or express my opinion on matters beyond the limits of the John Brown study. However, once in a while an issue arises that seem so spiritually apropos of the Brown theme, or so strongly interconnect in principle to his life and values, that I have to make an exception. Certainly the recent remarks about the devastating Haitian earthquake by televangelist mogul, right-wing activist, and Christian Zionist "Pat" Robertson demand some sort of evaluation and critique.

I. Evangelicals, John Brown, and Haiti

According to a report published by ABC news on-line (Jan. 14), Robertson said: "You know ... something happened a long time ago in Hait . . . . They got together and swore a pact to the Devil. They said, 'We will serve you if you get us free from the French.' True story. And so, the Devil said, 'OK, it's a deal.' And they kicked the French out. . . . You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after another."

It is actually a popular notion among many white evangelicals in the U.S. that Haiti's impoverished plight is specifically the result of the prevalence of "voodoo," or witchcraft, in that country. While I hardly embrace the practice of "voodoo" myself, I find such reasoning speculative and self-serving. As Robertson's words may reflect popular thinking among many white evangelicals, it suggests that perceptions of Haiti are steeped by generations in a politically conservative and culturally condescending mindset. This accepted church pew wisdom, that Haiti's historic plight can be reduced to the practice of African witchcraft, reflects ignorance, not malice. Many white evangelicals simply do not comprehend the whys-and-what-fors of Haiti's place in the western world, nor are they sensitive to the nature of systemic racism in the historical development of U.S. domestic and foreign policy. In this regard they are no different than most whites in the U.S., who have no idea that the Haitian liberation movement was not only rooted in the same political ideas underlying the "American Revolution," but that the Haiti's remarkable triumph over the French actually prevented Napoleon Bonaparte from invading North America. Had it not been for Haiti's bold stance for independence, there would have been no Louisiana Purchase and Napoleon may very well have advanced in North America to the undermining of this nation.

In contrast to "Pat" Robertson, the evangelical Christian abolitionist John Brown was a great admirer of Haiti's revolution, especially the heroic leadership of Toussaint L'Ourverture, the carriage driver-turned-brilliant military commander who led Haiti's forces, blocked the Napoleonic invasion, and ultimately died in a European prison, after being betrayed into the hands of the French tyrant. Brown studied Toussaint with great zeal and read anything he could find on the black hero and his revolution. To Brown, the liberation of Haiti was not the work of the devil, but rather the kind Providence of God and a true demonstration of the fact of black equality.

In turn, the Haitian people loved John Brown's legacy. After his hanging in Virginia, the Haitian people mourned Brown's death in ceremony and celebrated his life and legacy by naming a main thoroughfare after him. Haitians collected money to send to Brown's widow, and Haitians opened their arms to African Americans wishing to expatriate themselves to the free black nation. Among those who supported this effort in conjunction with the Haitian government were Brown's son, John Jr., and his first biographer, James Redpath. Redpath's association with Haiti is another story in itself, but his admiration for Brown and Haiti is perhaps best exemplified by his 1863 publication of John R. Beard's Toussaint L'Ouverture: A Biography (1853), very likely the same biography that John Brown read so devoutly during his last days in Virginia. Redpath went beyond Beard, however, by personally seeking--and finding--Toussaint's own prison autobiography, which he included with the Beard biography.

Redpath notes in his prefacing remarks that in his day there were "three versions of Haytian [sic] history,--the white, the black, and the yellow: the white representing the pro-slavery party, the black that of the negroes, and the yellow that of the mulattoes. The abolitionists of England and America have adopted the negro standard." Redpath understood then, as we should now, that one's perspective on Haiti is defined by one's politics, and that in the U.S., politics are inseparable from issues of race and racism--and this is precisely the point of "Pat" Robertson's reading of the recent tragedy in Haiti. His interpretation of the Haitian earthquake is actually his interpretation of Haiti, and his interpretation of Haiti is essentially that of the pro-slavery party in its most refined and advanced version.

Pat Robertson's interpretation of the Haitian earthquake is actually his interpretation of Haiti, and his interpretation of Haiti is essentially that of the pro-slavery party in its most refined and advanced version.

II. "Pat" and the Slave Master Legacy

Marion Gordon Robertson, a.k.a. "Pat" Robertson, was born in 1930, from a long line of elite Virginians. On his website, PatRobertson.com, he boasts of his descent from statesmen and noblemen and even posts his family's genealogical descent as recorded in Count D'Angerville's Living Descendants of Blood Royal in America (1964).

On another page of his website, Robertson recalls his family and upbringing, recalling his father, Absalom Willis Robertson (1887-1971), a lawyer and Democratic politicians from Virginia who served in the House of Representatives and the Senate. "Pat" writes of his father, that in 1946 he was elected to fill the U.S. Senate seat, "and there he served for 20 years, becoming one of the handful of senior conservative southern Democrats who controlled much of the business of the United States Senate." He goes on to write: "Both my mother and my father instilled in me the responsibility that we had to our family tradition" [my emphasis]. As "Pat" himself points out, this family tradition included the veneration of Confederate generals and slave masters like Robert E. Lee.

Daddy Absalom and the "Southern Manifesto"

What "Pat" does not reveal on his website is that his father was also a strident supporter of school segregation. The elder Robertson actually was one of nineteen southern senators to sign the so-called "Southern Manifesto" (1956), which condemned the Supreme Court's decision in favor of school desegregation in the landmark case, Brown v. Board of Education. According to Time magazine (Mar. 26, 1956), this pro-segregation document was conceived and advanced by South Carolina's premier political figure of the era, Strom Thurmond. The "manifesto" thus required its signers "to exert 'all lawful means' toward reversing the Supreme Court's desegregation decision." Thurmond and his allies called the Court's decision an "unwarranted exercise of power," complaining in the document that the landmark decision was "creating chaos and confusion" in the South and "destroying the amicable relations between the white and Negro races that have been created through 90 years of patient effort by the good people of both races." Of course, had there truly been "amicable relations" between whites and blacks in the South, there would have been no need for the Civil Rights movement. But it was the very nature of racists in the South to blame civil rights activism in the 20th century, just as it was in the nature of slave masters to blame abolitionists for disturbing and upsetting the peaceful, contented state of "their" slaves in the 19th century.

Clearly, another part of "Pat" Robertson's "family tradition" was this strident devotion to racial segregation. While Reverend Doctor Robertson has seemingly abandoned his father's overt devotion to racial segregation, it is nevertheless true that he has neither acknowledged it nor apologized for it on his proud website. Indeed, his silence in this regard is telling: it tends to convey the impression that he is not entirely honest nor sincere in his role as a so-called evangelical leader, many of his faithful followers being the Christian descendants of enslaved blacks. It may also suggest that his devotion to justice and equality are actually limited despite his claims to represent the righteous Kingdom of God and His Christ.

A Lesson from Ben

In light of this facts, it is probably no surprise that after years of being supported by his faithful African American sidekick, Ben Kinchlow, on his "700 Club" program, Robertson apparently threw Ben under the bus when he left the Club for his unsuccessful run for the presidency in 1988. Now, I'm no great fan of Ben Kinchlow either; I'm particularly disappointed in his blind devotion to the Zionist State of Israel which, like that of Robertson (and most televangelists), is a fundamentalism-turned-political idolatry that is the exact opposite attitude displayed toward poor, dark nations like Haiti. Nevertheless, I remember very distinctly talking with a highly respected black evangelical leader not long after Robertson's failed attempt to take the White House. This black leader, apparently on a first-hand basis, complained of the sense of betrayal that Kinchlow felt after being put aside. He had exerted real leadership and influence as co-host of the "700 Club," the leader told me. But when "Pat" made his move for the White House, he promptly handed over the reins of the program to his son, Gordon. Unfortunately Reverend Ben had to learn a hard lesson. Helping Massa steer the wagon doesn't mean you own a piece of the plantation. (Kinchlow has since ventured out on his own, essentially parroting Robertson's ideological bent; in 2008, "Pat" even welcomed Ben back to the Club house to promote his new book, Black Yellowdogs, a black conservative production.)

Speaking of Plantations . . . Some Interesting Robertson Family History

Another key aspect of Robertson's family tradition are his proud Virginia aristocratic roots. According to an on-line genealogy by William Addams Reitwiesner, one of those roots is Great-Great-Grandfather, Larkin Willis, born a few months before John Brown was born, on February 26, 1800. Larkin Willis was born in Culpeper County, Virginia and died in Woodland, Orange County, Virginia, on February 21, 1856 (about the same time that Brown was facing off with pro-slavery terrorism in the Kansas territory). Of course, Willis would have despised John Brown, and he probably despised abolitionists in general, given that he was a bona fide slave holder.

According to the 1850 slave schedule,* "Pat" Robertson's great-great grandfather owned 27 human beings as property--a real asset to the "family tradition" given the amount of stolen profit that surely accrued from the labor of these enslaved people. The slave schedule provides no names, only age and sex. "Pat" can also brag that his forebear owned 17 males ranging from 7 to 63 years of age, and 10 females, ranging from 9 to 55 years of age. We have no idea if Massa Larkin raped any of the women or if he beat the men, but even if he was a moderately "good" master, it would not be unusual for a little of both to have taken place. After all, brutality and sexualized violence were essential to the nature of the so-called "Peculiar Institution."

Chumps and Champs in the Family Tree

Another point of "Pat" Robertson's noble line is also worth noting: According to Reitwiesner, Robertson is also a direct descendant of John Armistead (1635-98), who is also the great (x7) grandfather of the world champion boxer and sports legend, Muhammad Ali (nee Cassius Clay). Based on Reitwiesner's genealogical research, I assume here that this stream of Ali's family lineage turned "black" sometime in the 19th century, when Armistead's descendant, Armstead Morehead (1808-65), a farmer from Green Ridge, Logan County, Kentucky, "sired" (and I use that term loosely) a son with his enslaved female property, known only as "Dinah." The offspring of this legalized rape was Thomas Morehead, who was kept a slave by his father until the Civil War. Thomas, who died in 1913, fought for the Union along with his white half-brother, James Morehead.

III. "Pat" Thus Considered

What can we learn from these genealogical and historical reflections upon the background of Marion Gordon "Pat" Robertson? First, I suggest that we can observe in both recent and remote family history that he can be as ashamed of his family line as he is proud of it. Frankly, it always amazes me when the descendants of slave holders either defend their ancestors or refuse to apologize for their sins--as if having held slaves and stolen their bodies and their labor was something of a minor offense, easily put aside in the grand scheme of things. If my forebears owned slaves I'd be godawfully sorry about it to say the least. I would make every effort to acknowledge and renounce this shameful blot, particularly if I were a famous evangelical Christian leader. Certainly I would make some effort to acknowledge the guilt of my ancestors instead of pretending to be an heir to some great and noble legacy.

People like "Pat" Robertson hide the bones of their family's slaves in the folds of their ancestral records and pretend that it's just water under the bridge, even though it's really blood in the ground crying out against them. If "Pat" Robertson is a man of God, he needs to come clean and show a little humility on behalf of his segregationist and slave holding forebears. By the way, somebody ought to raise the issue of reparations to "Pat." After all, repayment for damage is a biblical principle and "Pat" is supposed to be a righteous man of God. Perhaps he should do some genealogical research and start cutting some checks.

Second, it is no surprise that "Pat" can reflect such a condescending snobbery in his misinformed summation of the background of Haitian independence. Although dressing his critique in religious language, "Pat" did not simply blame this chapter of Haiti's problems on "voodoo" as do many white evangelicals in their ignorance. The televangelist struck specifically at the Haitian overthrow of white supremacy, declaring: "the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after another" (my emphasis).

This is no small point: If you will, the televangelist is also the slave master in this episode. He attributes the ability of black people to "get themselves free" to the work of the devil. From the slave master's standpoint, only the devil would connive to remove the chains of slavery and colonialism. Furthermore, according to Robertson, Haiti, the little black mouse that roared, is "cursed" because it had the audacity to overthrow white leadership--something that is inherently valued by "Pat" Robertson. It is a fact of history that Southern slave holders looked at Haiti with fear and contempt because they dreaded the possibility that "their" blacks would rise up and do the same thing. In his own way, "Pat" has demonstrated the resentment of his forebears by declaring the small black nation "cursed." He believes this as much as his great-great grandfather believed he had a right to own black people as property.

"Pat" may slip and squeeze his way out of it, and even his naive black followers will probably let him off the hook. On Pat's website, a spokesman for the Robertson television network has argued that his boss's remarks "were based on the widely-discussed 1791 slave rebellion led by Boukman Dutty at Bois Caiman, where the slaves allegedly made a famous pact with the devil in exchange for victory over the French." This "history," taken along with "the horrible state of the country has led countless scholars and religious figures over the centuries to believe the country is cursed." The spokesman concludes by denying that "Pat" spoke of the earthquake as a manifestation of "God’s wrath." It may be that Massa "Pat" never attributed the Haitian earthquake to God's "wrath," but in fact he has done far worse. He has not only misrepresented the nature of the Haitian independence movement, which was won by Providential heroes like L'Ouverture and Dessalines, but he has attributed a "cursed" status to Haiti, something that white racists have generally done to Africans for centuries in justification of enslaving them.

A Closing Word to "Pat" Robertson

From one clergyman to another, Reverend "Pat," whether or not there is a curse on Haiti, there is a far greater curse upon teachers of God's word who mislead the church and bring shame on the gospel of Jesus Christ. Watch your words and your doctrine carefully lest you find yourself reading the handwriting on the wall: MENE, MENE, TEKEL.

*1850 Slave Schedule, Orange County, Virginia, August 15, 1850, p. 11

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