Thursday, December 29, 2016

Cannibalism on Southern Plantations

This isn't the cheeriest topic, but I did want to respond to Tim's request (via a comment on my recent posting defending Vincent Woodard's The Delectable Negro):

Meanwhile, perhaps you could, for the record, list the page numbers where Woodard “documents several examples of literal cannibalism on antebellum plantations.” I’d like to read up on those as well.

Let me begin by backpedaling.  After rereading a number of ambiguous passages, I see that only the following two clearly refer to instances where whites literally consumed body parts of slaves:

pp. 59-62: Lilburn Lewis' literal butchering of his slave Georges

pp. 91-94: "After [Nat] Turner was captured, he was hung, skinned and bled, and his body was boiled down to grease."  Admittedly, Woodard doesn't prove that it was Turner's oil that local whites consumed as castor oil, but the preponderance of the evidence he presents (particularly the refusal of local blacks to swallow any castor oil for two years) is good enough to convince me.

And, for what it's worth, footnote 14 to Chapter 2, on p. 252, says the following: "Here I am thinking of persons such as Frederick Douglass, David Walker, John S. Jacobs, Solomon Northup, Harriet Jacobs and Moses Roper, among others.  Most of these individuals I treat in later chapters.  Typically, somewhere in the body of their slave narratives or some other such writing, these African-Americans made reference to a culture of human consumption that shaped and informed slave life.  Their oftentimes very personal and intimate observations on this topic had the effect of implicating plantation owners or broader U.S. culture in cultural practices of consumption."

I'll be the first to admit that Woodard's insinuation here, that any of these authors documented literal cannibalism in the antebellum South, is shockingly thin.  (If there were such a case, I'm sure he would have highlighted it in Chapter 2.)  Yet I also find the notion that Lilburn Lewis was unique in his cannibalism ludicrous.

Again, as I acknowledged in my original posting,  The Delectable Negro would have been a stronger book had Woodard resisted the temptation to stretch and sensationalize his meager evidence.  But the fact that he badly overplayed his hand doesn't mean there is no truth to his claims.

No comments: