Roll, roll Jordan, roll
I want to go to heaven when I die
To hear Jordan roll
– negro spiritual “Roll, Jordan, Roll” (performed here by the Black Gospel Quartet)
I discussed an old and mutual friend this morning over coffee with a good friend. I didn’t personally know this old friend… an old friend that had passed away recently at the age of 82. My coffee mate had known this friend personally though… my coffee buddy had this old friend of ours as his graduate advisor in college. Our old friend was Dr. Eugene Genovese. Dr. Genovese was the author of Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1974)… the seminal and foundational academic tome on slavery.
As an undergraduate history major at Middle Tennessee State University, I had taken a class on the antebellum South in my senior year. This was a time before the Internet, so I had no access to the class’ syllabus or book list. I walked into Dr. Hunt’s class as a soon to be graduating senior and soon to be commissioned U.S. Army officer… I assumed I knew my world… I assumed I knew my cultural history as a Southerner… I assumed I understand how to think holistically… I assumed I was educated… I was wrong.
I was amazed that the syllabus and book list were fairly short… seems we were going to read some book with a title of an old negro spiritual… something about slaves. I knew that the antebellum South was primarily based on slave labor… I knew that even in the early 1990s, slavery was still a topic that could divide a room. Politics and religion are so often seen in black and white terms… slavery literally was a black and white term… slavery was all entangled in politics and religion… but I couldn’t fathom how I was about to be educated. Immediately after all my classes that day… a mix of history and literature (I have a minor in American literature)… I ambled to the campus bookstore and began buying my books. Upon spotting and lifting Roll, Jordan, Roll, I knew I was either going to sink or swim with this giant… this dense… this intense… book on my chest. It is one of those heavily researched history books that is nothing but tiny print, page upon page of end notes… and paper that is extremely thin so the publisher could keep it all in one volume. This was a book that I would either get or not get… there would be no middle ground.
College for me had been an early mix of beer, fraternity parties, young ladies, a short hiatus of military service, and then a return to college for second go around that included nose to grindstone studying… I had half-assed my way out in 1990… and now in 1992 I had to make up for lost ground. This final class on antebellum Southern history had been nothing more than a quick decision of needing one more history class to graduate… and an interesting title. Colonial American and Civil War history had been mainstays in my college education… now I was going to learn about that period between these two eras… I was about to learn how politics, religion, and economics are interwoven… I was about to learn an important life lesson… I was about to learn about connecting the dots.
Dr. Genovese was a Brooklyn-born Italian, he was a youthful communist… a communist that was booted from the party… later he was booted from military service for being a communist… a bad communist, but a communist nonetheless. Arguably, Dr. Genovese examined the society of slavery because of his political and idealistic views on society and the working classes. Dr. Genovese wasn’t new or unique… the rise of American politics and capitalism following World War II made a lot of men iconoclasts and wonder about the fairness in the workplace and voting booth. Later in life… again in no unique way… Dr. Genovese moved away from the ideals of his youth and sought solace in the personal dogmas of the Catholic Church… a private story of the prodigal son.
I was unaware of Dr. Genovese’s politics when I began reading Roll, Jordan, Roll. I was completely unaware of how to comprehend the magnitude of his research. I was unaware that I was going to learn how to read and think critically… Roll, Jordan, Roll taught me how to learn.
Roll, Jordan, Roll showed how Dr. Genovese viewed the antebellum South as an internal and closed system that united the white and paternal Southern society that economically and physically exploited slavery… and in the end, dehumanized the slaves themselves. Christianity was shown as the way both slaves and whites survived and justified their positions and life. Whites… primarily slave owners and white Southern society as a whole… viewed Christianity and the Bible as the source of their paternal responsibility to protect, train, and use the slaves like “little children,” whereas slaves used Christianity as source of solace and resistance. Dr. Genovese placed paternalism at the center of the master/slave relationship… paternalism… Christian-based paternalism… allowed slave owners to view themselves as benevolent and justify their use of slavery as an economic tool. Politically, paternalism gave this “peculiar” institution of slavery a benign feeling in response to the growing abolitionist movement.
Roll, Jordan, Roll provided me personally with information to fill the gaps of my knowledge of my Southern… my white Southern… history. It provided information on why there was the institution of slavery, it provided information on how slavery existed within a society that held the Bible in such high regard. Roll, Jordan, Roll was the first time I saw the direct… almost linear… connection between economics, religion, and politics. Roll, Jordan, Roll showed me how the lust for power… the dominating desire for power… can make men not worry about something as inhuman as the enslavement of their fellow-man.
This giant book… both literally and figuratively… showed me that there is no vacuum within the world of men’s interactions. There is no clear black and white divide between right and wrong… there is no simple thing in life. Roll, Jordan, Roll showed me that life is full of nuances… full of complexity. Roll, Jordan, Roll taught me that I would have a lifetime of education… that education neither starts nor ends with school… this book taught me that I would spend a lifetime of learning… Roll, Jordan, Roll pushed me out the front door and out into the world.
I didn’t know Dr. Genovese personally… but Dr. Genovese was (and is) an important person in my life. When thinking about college… I like to joke about beer consumption and chasing tail… but really, I think about how it was the first time that I got questions answered. College… Dr. Hunt… and Dr. Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll taught me that one must dig deeper and that one must never accept any standard or rote answer to any question. Dr. Genovese, I still have your book… I still thumb the pages… magical words that gave me more insight than any fictional novel. Dr. Genovese… thanks. Dr. Genovese, I hope you have heard the mighty Jordan River roll and a mighty host of a choir… a choir of mixed colored faces… rejoice in a rousing rendition of an old negro spiritual as you cross the wide and rolling waters.