REX NELSON: Epistemology of ignorance (2022)

Philosopher Charles Mills calls it the epistemology of ignorance. Epistemology is the study of how we know what we know. According to Arkansas historian Guy Lancaster, the epistemology of ignorance is therefore “a way of knowing that deliberately misinforms the individual or group about the nature of reality.”

Given recent debates about race in America, this subject is ripe for discussion. Lancaster, editor of the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas, believes it’s something every Arkansan should ponder.

“This epistemology of ignorance is a deliberately fashioned framework designed to facilitate specific political projects,” he writes. “After all, Arkansans who supported secession and Confederate war upon the Union knew very well what they were fighting for. The first session of the state’s secession convention produced a list of reasons for separating from the Union, and every single one of them pertained to slavery in one way or another.

“The maintenance of slavery was at the heart of the Confederate projects. But, come the 1890s, the narrative around the war began to change as Confederate ‘patriotic’ societies started promoting what has become known as the Lost Cause myth.

“This myth was designed to redeem the South in the eyes of future generations by downplaying the role of slavery in secession and by presenting the South’s loss as something of a preordained but salvific act. In other words, the Lost Cause was a project aimed at deliberately miseducating Southerners, white and Black, about their collective past.

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“And although the Lost Cause originated in the former Confederacy, Northerners themselves soon began to sideline the experience of African Americans in their memory of the war in order to celebrate unity with their former Southern opponents.”

Lancaster believes that white Americans have “long been trained either to be ignorant of the Black presence in American history or to disregard Black claims upon that history. This is not a judgment upon your value as a person but rather a judgment on the systems that insist upon misinforming us about the reality of our heritage. . . . Much of our history remains invisible to us. This is not due to a lack of original sources or a paucity of published works on particular subjects. Rather, this invisibility is based upon our ways of conceiving the past.”

Lancaster relates a conversation he had with a man about the Unionist sentiment in parts of Arkansas.

“The story of the Arkansas Peace Society, a pro-Unionist organization in the Ozarks, has been fairly well documented, most recently in a book by James J. Johnston,” Lancaster says. “Less well known are the Union sympathizers of the Ouachita Mountains. One band of Union sympathizers and Confederate deserters under the command of Andy Brown fought the Confederate Homeguard at McGraw’s Mill in Montgomery County in February 1863. . . . Such instances were well known to my conversation partner. However, I astonished him when I claimed that some 80 percent of the population of Chicot County were likely against secession and the Confederacy.”

“No way,” the man said to Lancaster. “Sure, in the uplands, where slavery was not that common or that profitable, there was general opposition to secession. But in a place like Chicot County, cotton plantations were immensely profitable, and people there would have been very interested in protecting the institution of slavery. Where is this 80 percent figure coming from?”

Lancaster replied: “That is the percentage of the enslaved population in the county in 1860.”

The man said: “Oh, I guess I wasn’t thinking about them.”

“That’s a common enough mistake—not to think about the slaves,” Lancaster writes. “Or, at least, not thinking of them as anything other than background to the story of the Civil War, not thinking of them as people with their own volitions and desires, not thinking of them as people whose own feelings about their condition of violently enforced servitude may have had an impact upon the larger historical narrative. This, despite the fact that we know that many freed slaves immediately enrolled in the Union Army in order to free their brothers and sisters, parents and children.

“If you are white, like I am, you simply are not accustomed to thinking about the slaves themselves as agents, even when telling the story of a conflict rooted in slavery.”

For Arkansans who want to learn more about this state’s long history of violence against its African American residents, there are several good books available. Two of them are collections of essays edited by Lancaster—“Bullets and Fire: Lynching and Authority in Arkansas, 1840-1950” and “The Elaine Massacre and Arkansas: A Century of Atrocity and Resistance, 1819-1919.”

Speaking of the 1919 Elaine Massacre, the University of Arkansas Press has released an updated edition of Grif Stockley’s 2001 “Blood In Their Eyes.” It was Stockley who first made

large numbers of Arkansans aware of the events in Phillips County.

On Sept. 30, 1919, white law enforcement officers attempted to shut down a meeting of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America that was being attended by black sharecroppers. Gunfire erupted. The next day, white men from across the Delta converged on the area, and one of the deadliest incidents of racial violence in U.S. history ensued.

For the updated edition, Stockley enlisted the help of Lancaster and history professor Brian Mitchell of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Mitchell describes Stockley as a man who has made “honest discourse and criticism of the state’s more controversial past possible. A son of the city of Marianna and an apologetic heir of Southern gentility, he has chipped away at the gilded facade of Southern ‘race relations,’ exposing its ugliest episodes.”

Other books I recommend include the aforementioned book by James Johnston “Mountain Feds: Arkansas Unionists and the Peace Society” and Van Hawkins’ “Moaning Low: From Slavery to Peonage, Involuntary Servitude in the Arkansas Delta.”

”The epistemology of ignorance can obscure the reality of other historical institutions and events,” Lancaster says. “For many Americans, a police officer symbolizes law and order, stability, even peace. But this ignores a great deal of our history. In Arkansas, as far as research to date has been able to determine, the police never arrested a single white man for the crime of lynching, even when those lynchings occurred in broad daylight.

“Indeed, one of the photographs of the 1927 lynching of John Carter shows a Little Rock cop in the vicinity of the lynching, looking at the people in the area. By the time the mob drove Carter’s corpse down West Ninth Street to burn it, Little Rock policemen were reportedly taking shelter in their basement and refusing to come out and restore order. No one was ever prosecuted for that crime.

“Likewise, during World War II, Sgt. Thomas P. Foster, a Black soldier, was beaten and shot by white law enforcement after attempting to question them about their beating of another Black soldier. No one was ever held accountable for the murder. For many, interactions with law enforcement have historically been predicated upon either indifference or hostility. And thus do calls to ‘restore order’ ring hollow, for the order often sought—and the means by which it is restored—could well be deadly.”

Lancaster says social divisions in Arkansas stem from “how we view the history that has brought us to the present moment. Many remain unaware of the darker aspects of our shared history or see atrocities as existing independent of their own proud heritage. … But we have the potential to learn.”

The good news is that Arkansas historians have done important work in recent years while revealing the state’s true history. It’s up to us to educate ourselves so we can chart a better path for Arkansas.

—––––– –––––—

Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas


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