Fanny Kemble felt accused from the moment she arrived at her husband’s Georgia plantation in December of 1838. On the faces of his slaves, she saw the same sad and fearful expression, conveying “a sense of incalculable past loss and injury and a dread of incalculable future loss and injury.” Deep down, she must have known that, for all her pity, and despite her small acts of kindness toward “these wretched people,” as she called them, she was complicit in their oppression.
Kemble, a famous actress in England before she married Pierce Butler, gave up earning her own living to be kept by a wealthy husband whose family had lived off the unpaid labor of slaves for two generations. From the comfort of her Philadelphia mansion, she could entertain abolitionists. She could even write against slavery, but this did not change the fact that, as Butler bluntly put it, “the act of marrying a slave owner made her also a slave owner...”
At moments in her Journal, Kemble admits as much to herself:
I am getting perfectly savage over all these doings, and really think I should consider my own throat and those of my children well cut if some night the people were to take it into their heads to clear off scores in that fashion.
She cannot pretend to be pure, cannot stand above the ugly reality she witnesses. Sad and fearful, and guilty, she fled the Georgia plantation after four months.
A century later, white outsiders who, like Kemble, became insiders in the South—the Jim Crow South—felt the same complicated emotions as they contemplated the situation of the blacks. Refugee Jewish scholars from Hitler’s Germany who came to the United States and wound up teaching in black colleges in the segregated South, were dismayed to find themselves transformed overnight from victims to oppressors, owing to their white skin. Their response was quietly to circumvent the Jim Crow Laws, inviting their students into their homes while holding them to the same high standards they had expected of their students back in their German universities, replicating as best they could in their impoverished circumstances the vibrant academic community they had lost. Tellingly enough, few returned to Germany after the war.
Lisa Lieberman's translation of Jean-Paul Sartre's essay, "Paris Under the Occupation" can be purchased for $1.99 through Amazon Kindle Books, Apple Bookstore Quick Reads, Barnes and Noble Nook Books, Kobo and Google Books. Her current project, Lost Belongings, explores the moral and political choices of exiled Holocaust survivors after the war.