An Epistemology of Ignorance

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.

For example, I was once in conversation with a man on the prevalence of anti-Confederate sentiment in Arkansas during the Civil War. Of course, 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. 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, and later that year, a Union expedition to Mount Ida recruited a number of local men to the cause.

Such instances were well known to my conversation partner. However, I astonished him immensely when I claimed that some eighty percent of the population of Chicot County were likely against secession and the Confederacy. “No way!” he insisted. “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 eighty percent figure coming from?”

Cotton picker near Arkansas City (Desha County). Courtesy of the Arkansas State Archives.

“That,” I said, “is the percentage of the enslaved population in the county in 1860.”

“Oh,” he said. “I guess I wasn’t thinking about them.”

And that’s a common enough mistake—not to think about the slaves. 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.

This is the result of what philosopher Charles W. Mills called an “epistemology of ignorance.” Epistemology is the study of how we know what we know, so an “epistemology of ignorance” is a way of knowing that deliberately misinforms the individual or group about the nature of reality, “a particular pattern of localized and global cognitive dysfunctions (which are psychologically and socially functional), producing the ironic outcome that whites will in general be unable to understand the world they themselves have made.”

This epistemology of ignorance is a deliberately fashioned framework designed to facilitate specific political projects. 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 project. But, come the 1890s, the narrative around the war begins to change as Confederate “patriotic” societies start 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. And although the Lost Cause originated in the former Confederacy, as historian David Blight has documented, 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.

In other words, if you are white, chances are that you 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.

On the last weekend in May, Arkansans taking part in a national movement protesting black deaths at the hands of police officers blocked part of Interstate 630 in Little Rock. It was likely no accident that the protestors chose this particular roadway, given that its construction added to the blight of the West Ninth Street neighborhood (which had already been hollowed out due to the national Urban Renewal project) and continues to serve as a potent marker of the racial and economic divide in Arkansas’s capital city. State media remarked upon the symbolism of this protest, which caught some members of the public off guard, as they were unaware how this interstate highway is perceived by communities not their own.

In a like manner, the “epistemology of ignorance” can obscure the historical reality of other historical institutions and events. 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. However, by the time the mob drove Carter’s corpse down to 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, Sergeant Thomas P. Foster, a black soldier, was beaten and shot by white law enforcement after attempting to question white law enforcement 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. For example, in rural Phillips County in September 1919, the meeting of a black sharecroppers’ union was attacked by white law enforcement, and after the union members fired back, rumors soon spread of a “negro insurrection,” and soon posses and vigilantes were swarming the area, sparking what is now known as the Elaine Massacre. Governor Charles H. Brough called out federal troops to “restore order,” but there are reports that they perpetrated atrocities themselves.

More than anything else, the source of our social divisions here in Arkansas, and in the United States at large, 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. And many simply do not see how paeans celebrating ostensibly neutral concepts such as “stability” and “law and order” can sound to populations whose suffering has been predicated upon those very same concepts. But we have the potential to learn, and we have the responsibility to explore the reality of our heritage and exercise an imagination rooted in truth so that we can begin to understand the chain of events that has brought us here—and, by doing so, begin the process of reconciliation left abandoned for so long.

By Guy Lancaster, editor of the CALS Encyclopedia of Arkansas

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