White Honor, Black Lives: North Carolina Courts and the Insolence Defense

Posted: June 18, 2007 in africans, America, American History, American South, History, insolence, Me, my life, North Carolina, North Carolina Courts, North Carolina History, prejudice, race, slave, Slave Trade, slavery, South, Southern History, Southerners

Here are some excerpts from a graduate level paper I wrote a few years ago. The first part is merely restating the position of other scholars (proving I understood their work), the second part is my original work in reviewing and analyzing several North Carolina Supreme Court decisions regarding slaves, free blacks, white men, white women, and the theme that tied it all together- honor.

Here are a few excerpts. The full paper can be found in Word format file linked at the bottom of this post. Citations have been omitted from this posting and can be found in the complete paper provided below.

Why couldn’t slaves possess honor?

Four reasons explain the perception of slaves as beings without honor. First, plantation life led many whites to view blacks as hopelessly depraved and indifferent to correction. Second, laws enacted by the legislature created a wall that kept slaves from acquiring the ability to meet the requirements of the duel and honor. Third, “scientific” literature on race fed into white beliefs that blacks lacked the capacity of bearing honor, from their flat noses to their skin color. Lastly, the peculiar institution required total submission from slaves. If slaves had been granted honor it would have required the reciprocal ability to defend that honor— an ability that would have proved dangerous to the system itself.

An interesting quote:

A free man, who hath been taught from his infancy to look for humility and obedience in a slave, and who feels every moment of his life the vast superiority that he has over him, early learns that tamely to submit to words of reproach from a slave is degrading to the last degree, and that a blow, even the slightest, is the greatest dishonor. At such an insult, therefore, his passions are inflamed to the utmost pitch; and if, in such a state, he slay the offender, he has a right to claim the benefit of that rule which regards mercifully the frailty and infirmity of human nature. If any precise rule could be laid down, I would say that a word from a slave was a provocation equal to a blow from a free man; and the most trifling assault, to a deadly stroke.” State v. Tackett, 8 N.C. 210, 217-218. [Emphasis added].


An odd obsession with the nose?
But what of the African’s nose? Greenberg’s work provides scholars an idea of the importance of this one facial feature to the ante-bellum white Southerner. Greenberg quotes an ante-bellum writer that “no organ of the body is so characteristic as the nose.” He suggests that “the community seemed to regard the nose as a sacred object,” an object that according to racial scientists never differed between Negroes in its flatness and lack of distinction. One of these scientists even devotes several pages to refuting that the Negroes flat nose is due to environment more than nature. He concluded, “Flat nose[s] are congenital, not artificial.” To the Southern reader associated with the meaning of a prominent and aquiline nose, this would serve to confirm the belief in the inferiority of the character of blacks. This is reflected in a review of Campbell’s book commenting on the argument for a environmentally flattened nose, “one would imagine that thumps violent enough to flatten its poor little nose, must keep the juvenile martyr in a state of constant depletion from that important organ.”

To read the whole paper click below. [white_honor_black_lives.doc ] .

This paper isn’t the final draft- as said draft was lost in a hard drive crash. So there are numerous correction still required.


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