The Past is a Foreign Country

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

— L.P. Hartley, from The Go-Between

The title of Dymphna’s post from a couple of nights ago reminded me of an old song from my childhood, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny”. I could remember the tune and the first couple of lines, and I had a vague idea that it had been composed by Stephen Foster.

But I was wrong — I looked up the Wikipedia entry on it, and it was written in 1878 by a black man named James Bland.

I had also forgotten how “racially insensitive” — as Wikipedia puts it — the full lyrics were. But, really, how could they be described that way, given that they were written by a black person, and a freed slave at that?

Anyway, here they are, a relic of a bygone and foreign era:

Carry me back to old Virginny.
There’s where the cotton and corn and taters grow.
There’s where the birds warble sweet in the spring-time.
There’s where this old darkey’s heart am long’d to go.

There’s where I labored so hard for old Massa,
Day after day in the field of yellow corn;
No place on earth do I love more sincerely
Than old Virginny, the state where I was born.

Carry me back to old Virginny.
There’s where the cotton and the corn and taters grow;
There’s where the birds warble sweet in the spring-time.
There’s where this old darkey’s heart am long’d to go.

Carry me back to old Virginny,
There let me live till I wither and decay.
Long by the old Dismal Swamp have I wandered,
There’s where this old darkey’s life will pass away.

Massa and Missis have long gone before me,
Soon we will meet on that bright and golden shore.
There we’ll be happy and free from all sorrow,
There’s where we’ll meet and we’ll never part no more.


Exercise for advanced-level students of political history: Analyze the above song without referring to the concepts of “racism”, “white privilege”, “discrimination”, “white supremacism”, or “racial stereotyping”.

Couldn’t do it, could you?

It’s hard to examine artifacts such as this one without falling into the trap of “presentism”, which is the tendency to view historical events solely through the lens of current concepts, rather than understanding them on their terms, in their own contemporaneous context.

I can only essay an occasional glimpse into what such songs might have meant in the late 19th century. I know that minstrel shows were a popular form of entertainment well into the 20th century, and more so in the North than in the South. In fact, when I moved to England in the mid-1960s there was a popular program produced for BBC television called The Black and White Minstrel Show. By that time the genre was considered too impolite to show on TV in the USA, but the British were much later in their descent into Political Correctness.

When I was a kid, songs such as “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” and Stephen Foster’s minstrel ballads were still considered acceptable musical fare. The word “darkies” was too impolite for common usage, but it was OK to sing it in traditional songs, along with all the plantation-darkey dialect found in the lyrics. The words in those songs were gradually rewritten during the 1960s — I remember when “darkey” became “fellow” in “Ring Ring De Banjo” when we sang it in school (and “de” had become “the”). By 1970 or so the songs had been abandoned altogether, pitched headlong into the memory hole along with the rest of our benighted WAYCIST past.

However… Let’s look at the illustration at the top of this post and see if we can tease out its meaning on its own terms, in its own context, free of presentism.

I assume it was printed on the cover page of one of the editions of the sheet music for the song. A careful look tells us that the artist meant no insult or disrespect to the Negroes he depicted. Quite the contrary: they were depicted as making music, for which black people were greatly respected at the time. That’s why the minstrel shows were so popular: white people loved to hear black people make music. That’s why Stephen Foster attempted to rip off the energy (to use the anachronous argot of a later era) of music made by darkies.

Take a close look at the face of the banjo-player. You’ll see that he is depicted as handsome and intelligent — no enormous lips, no hint of the bug-eyed feets-don’t-fail-me-now look — and his posture suggests that he is an accomplished musician. The same goes for the mammy: despite her plantation attire, she is limned with respect.

The musical instruments at either side of the lithograph emphasize the musical accomplishments of black people.

There is no glossing-over of their poverty or backward condition, yet the picture suggests that their music allows them to rise above it.

Eighty years later, during my elementary school days, the last fading echo of this attitude towards black people still lingered in white popular culture. And now, sixty years further on, it is as far removed from us as phlogiston and whale-oil lamps. It’s just gone.

The past is a foreign country.

Nevertheless, the illustration is appropriate for current events, given the raucous minstrel show currently underway in Richmond. They’d be well-advised to tum the old piano, however, because that banjo’s out of tune.

23 thoughts on “The Past is a Foreign Country

  1. Did you notice how politely they described their home, their history, and their hope for the future. They were able to, and could afford to forgive what they had suffered for what they knew would be theirs upon their passing.
    The hope of Heaven has been taken away by the politically correct atheists. All that is left is a dystopic now in which everyone is upset at everyone else. With everyone at each other’s throats nothing is ever accomplished and the tide of anarchy continues to rise.
    Gee, I wonder who is master-minding the present. My guess is it is the same entity that couldn’t stand, even with ears plugged, the divine worship that was common in the past.

    • Indeed, you are wise to point to the spirituality of the blacks of the past.

      I believe that was their greatest asset and their greatest accomplishment.

      It is said that the greatest movement of God in modern times was that among the black slaves of the US. It is truly a miracle that so many willingly accepted the religion of their masters and often became some of the greatest Christians white America had ever known.

      It is now considered a crime to say that many black slaves openly forgave their masters and often served them more dutifully after becoming Christian. I don’t see this as blacks ‘selling out’, I see it as something which ought to make every black young man and woman of the US feel very proud and honoured to have such wise, honourable and strong ancestors.

    • Well said, acuara !

      Destroy the spirit / virtue of Gratitude, and then what blessings should we give thanks for? Paint the past as black as possible. Lie, if need be. Better yet, simply ignore the past, and encourage a spirit of ‘victimhood’ instead.

      Then you have a surly, resentful population, which can be goaded into becoming the Mob, and turned loose on your enemies.

      The Baron’s choice of that quote of Hartley was perfect for the title of this post … the Past is a foreign country indeed.

  2. I live in the heart of what was the terminus of the ‘Underground Railroad’ here in Ontario, Canada.

    I have read hundreds of ‘Slave Narratives’; the tales of run-away slaves as told by the slaves themselves.

    In regards to this song, I discovered that it was quite common for slaves to speak well of their masters and the masters’ family. Many truly did have a love and a longing for the land they worked as slaves.

    Blacks today do themselves no favours to deny this.

  3. The lyrics conjure hiraeth, a Welsh word for home and hearth and the soul’s longing for both.

    Nice essay, Baron.

      • The term, “lacks focus”, is what semiliterate critics use because they don’t know how to spell, “idiomatic”.

      • Hygge does not have the component of longing. Hygge is when you are where you have longed to be, feel truly at home, among congenial people. It is being seated around the fire with tea and cake, feeling safe from the darkness – safe enough to joke about all terrors. Hygge is what Tolkien embodied as the Shire.
        Danes will not give up on their jokes because without the freedom to laugh, they will lose their hygge too.

        Islam, by the way, is the antithesis of hygge.

        Islam + Denmark = cartoon crisis.

  4. There is even another side to “presentism”: the firm believe that the present is “right”. There is an excellent essay by Paul Graham (Computer Programmer) — wikip. him — that argues — basically starting from the principles of homogenity of space and time — that the firmest believes of ages are just fashions:
    What you can’t say

  5. It’s really amazing (best word I can find) to me when I consider the re-writing of or history that’s going on. Where’s the outrage that rose from the Taliban destruction or the Buddha’s in A-Stan? We’re doing the same exact thing here with every statue removed, plaque ripped down, park, street and school renamed and symbol banned.

    It’s true that history is written by the winner, but there is still a story to be told, lessons to be learned and dynamics to be observed in the past. But, we’re busy wiping away our actual history and making up fantastical versions of it with new programs… blacks and women in leading roles during programs set in the Revolutionary period… because that’s “fair”.

    One of many dangers that I see coming from this is that our new mindset will have some determination that outcomes must be “fair”. Try engaging in any sort of contest with Vladimir Putin, expecting a “fair” contest or mutually agreeable set of rules… And, you’ll have your head handed to you. Or we will, if led by these dissolute and spineless latter day Americans.

    • Coldsteel: “Where’s the outrage that rose from the Taliban destruction or the Buddha’s in A-Stan? We’re doing the same exact thing here with every statue removed, plaque ripped down, park, street and school renamed and symbol banned.”

      You know the answer to this – you’ve known all along. I’m surprised someone still has to ask this question…

      The short answer is: Those who made the Buddha statues that were blown up were not WHITES and therefore – according to the Neo-Bolsheviks – they are morally superior to whites and are therefore “victims”.

      Goes to the poisonous utterings of the slime of humanity like Fanon, Gramsci, Baran-Wallerstein, etc…

      Those here in the US who were targeted – the statues torn down, the street names erased, etc – were and are all WHITE PEOPLE. Specifically white males. And therefore are “evil oppressors”. You’ll get no outrage past a few at the local level, so don’t bother looking for it…

      Outrage that is easily countered by busloads of out-of-State agitators and malcontents shipped in for the sole purpose of playing Brownshirts to the locals’ “Evil Whitey Racist, Inc”… they’re meant to dish a beat-down to those same “evil racist whites”. Teach us a lesson for being uppity… for daring to think we can maintain a shard of the past.

      Go here. Read. Understand.

  6. As a child of poverty-plagued, white, small-plot truck farmers in Kent County Delaware, I applaud your piece.

    We shared this land with two black families. We all were in the same social structure: POOR working class. I and my pal, Jim Walls, ended up with two degrees and three post-graduate degrees started at the land grant black college, Delaware State, in Dover. We couldn’t make sense of H Rap Brown, SNIC, OR ANY OF THE SOCIAL UPHEAVALS OF THE 1950s TO 1960s. WE MARRIED WITHIN OUR RACE. Served honorably in the Marines and are now growing older with so many forgiving memories we could fill a book or two about life lessons of racial harmony among poor men and women.

    Have any of you listened to Tony Joe White’s “Willie and Laura Mae Jones”? So it was….another place and another time.

  7. This post, and the comments, show how even distortions of (what should be) normal human relations can have positive outcomes, dependent on the generosity of those involved- here, (former) slaves, which I suspect derives from the way their former owners behaved (ie better than some others).

    For the perspective of a well-disposed owner (by the lights of his culture), I recommend the Letters of the Younger Pliny (an eminent Roman, AD 61-113); his concern for the welfare of his slaves is evident, but it wouldn’t have occurred to him, at this phase of the Empire, to question their status. He also gives a graphic eyewitness account of the destruction of Pompeii (he helped organise the rescue attempts), and corresponds with the Emperor Trajan about the early Christians.

    • From the slave narratives I have read, many slaves were not too quick to condemn even many of the less generous masters. The sense of loyalty to the master and his family was often very strong. Many slaves felt a sense of security which a predictable, even if difficult, life on a plantation or workshop provided. 19th century life in the South was often dangerous, unpredictable and difficult for most whites.

  8. The only way to understand the black American now and particularly the urban black is to understand that they are a displaced peasantry, uprooted from the South and cast adrift in a country where they were first slaves and then sharecroppers and finally exiles. The soul of Black America persists now on farms that brave families carved out of the Jim Crow South. All over the North in the summer blacks head South for the big family reunions which are a vital part of American Black life of which few whites have an inkling.

    • Agreed.

      I knew a man who was a machinist in a large Ford factory in Detroit during the 1920’s – 1950’s. He said that most of the blacks in the factory who had come from the South to work in the factories enjoyed the higher wages but either detested factory life or at least had trouble adapting to it.

      The North with its industrialisation and cold climate was not always a refuge or a paradise for blacks from the South. Many family bonds and important ties to culture were broken. It seems street gangs and rap music is partly an expression to find a lost sense of identity. It is sad really.

  9. The outlandish but often truthful Jesse Lee Peterson, an outspoken American black man, believes that blacks were given a golden opportunity in slavery; the chance to leave a backward and oppressive Africa for a land of greater opportunity. Slavery, he posits, helped to create strong character and beneficial spirituality; things now spat upon by current black culture in general.

    • Maybe so, but the forced dislocation from one’s ancestral culture must have been traumatic (and not only for slaves).

      • Yeah, ask Australia. For a long time, England led the world when it came to displacing its own people. And now the present generation is forced to reap the whirlwind. Sad.

        • I’m not sure what to think of Jesse’s belief, but I thought it was interesting for a black man to say such things. He states that the culture and regressiveness of African nations is nothing for any black American to pine for.

          I’ll leave it to the blacks themselves to determine how they view such things.

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