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The first literary "race warrior"
Mary Howard Schoolcraft broke ground with a nightmarish narrative of hate
In 1860, Mary Howard Schoolcraft, a member of the slaveholding plantation elite class, published The Black Gauntlet: A Tale of Plantation Life in South Carolina, an obscure novel in the “anti-Tom” genre that took a sharp turn from defending the all-too-real dystopia of slavery to describe a fictional race war in its closing pages.
Anti-Toms were novels written as rebuttals to the literary phenomenon Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852. These pro-slavery novels were popular at the time, but the genre as such did not survive the end of slavery. Representative titles included Aunt Phillis's Cabin and Life at the South; or, "Uncle Tom's Cabin" As It Is.
Painting a typically anti-Tom vision of idyllic life on the plantation, The Black Gauntlet follows the Wyndham family of South Carolina, whose members had a tendency to launch into lengthy monologues about the merits of slavery and the natural inferiority of dark-skinned people. The bulk of the novel is believed to be loosely based on Schoolcraft’s life. The book was not particularly successful; its existence was promoted in newspaper ads but not widely discussed otherwise.
The politics of secession were centrally concerned with race and slavery; Schoolcraft’s novel is perhaps the most obsessively racist of the antebellum secessionist dystopias, advancing a biblical view of slavery that claimed Africans were descended from Ham, the son of Noah, whose son was cursed to be a servant or slave in a reinterpreted story from Genesis. Over time, Ham had come to be understood by some White racists as the progenitor of the Black race, thus inheriting this divine mandate to servitude.
This racist interpretation of the Bible had been batted around for centuries, but the desperate efforts of pro-slavery partisans to justify the continuance of the “peculiar institution” raised the Curse of Ham to a place of prominence, through dozens of articles and books—including a historical novel about Noah and his descendants, also published in 1860, by America’s very first dystopian author, a vituperative racist named Jerome B. Holgate, whose more infamous racist literary output was discussed in my last newsletter.
“God has placed a mark on the negro, as distinctive as that on Cain,” Schoolcraft wrote, “and I do not believe there is a White man, woman, or child, on the face of the earth, who does not, in his deepest heart, regard the African an inferior race to his own. … Slavery is God's ordinance for one set of His rebellious creatures.”
While most of the book runs from the recent past through the time of publication, its final chapter abruptly leaps into the future, predicting a time when Black men marry White women and the eventual election of the “Ethiopian equality party” candidate as 18th president of the United States. In this moment of seeming triumph, a Black insurrection inexplicably breaks out, resulting an extensive slaughter of White Southerners. “For a season, the extermination of the White race seemed inevitable,” Schoolcraft wrote. “…But with its usual want of induction and power of combination, the negro failed.” The White population fights back, and:
[H]ecatombs of Blacks were sacrificed in every village and city of the South. Streams of African blood, borne down by their affluents, swelled the currents of the Perdido, the Mobile, the Coosauhatchie, the Altamahah, and the Savannah, the Rappahannock and Potomac, and tinged the mighty tides of the Mississippi and Missouri. In a few months a million of negroes were put to the sword.
The Southern states secede and form an economic superpower with backing from Europe, allowing the “United States South” to continue under the auspices of slavery, while the progeny of the Wyndham clan direct all their efforts into converting slaves to Christianity. The book closes with a glimpse of the Wyndhams leading a procession of redeemed slaves into heaven on Judgment Day.
The Black Gauntlet’s deranged attitudes toward race and slavery were all too common in its day, but the novel can claim the dubious distinction of being the first entry I could find in the genre of “race war” dystopia. The concept of race war was not new; it represented a growing anxiety in the American South, partly fueled by the real life slave uprising in Haiti at the turn of the century, and the much more recent efforts of John Brown to violently end slavery in America, which culminated in his arrest and execution just one year before The Black Gauntlet was published.
But Schoolcraft’s book appears to be* the first to fictionalize a nationwide race war with genocidal elements, a theme that extremist authors would return to again and again in a genre that would slowly but steadily expand.
Fiction has long been a powerful tool for those seeking to foment fears of a race war, as extensively discussed in this newsletter. Given its obscurity, the novel probably didn’t influence the emergence of the “race war” genre nearly as much as the more-popular post-war “Chinese invasion” novels, but the long and winding road to The Turner Diaries began with Mary Howard Schoolcraft’s fevered imaginings.
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* One reason you will see me qualifying statements with “appeared to be” and “first I could find” is that I have learned the hard way that the dystopian genre is so huge, and so poorly documented, that I can’t rule out new discoveries even after working on this for several years. For instance, I would certainly have included The Black Gauntlet in my paper on The Turner Legacy, had I known of its existence then.