Monday, September 2, 2013

A Quaint Look at Country-Style Racism Circa 1887

Shams, or Uncle Ben’s Experience with Hypocrites is one of those curious books from way back in the day.  That day is 1887, to be exact.  Benjamin Morgan, author of the work, wrote a tome well over 100 years ago detailing Uncle Ben’s train trip across the country with his wife.  As the title indicates, he encounters shams and hypocrites along the way, but he also encounters things far stranger to his simple, God-fearing country mind.

Black people.

Chinese people.

 And Jews.

Oh my!

For Uncle Ben (though not so much for his wife, who is portrayed as far more intelligent than he) these people are so alien that it is like he is encountering creatures from Mars.  Of course, I understand that this novel is a product of its time, but reading it I couldn’t help but think it was the kind of thing David Duke would take a liking to in the worst way.  Uncomfortable?  Yes, a bit, but only because I’m not really used to such casually racist descriptions and observations.  (Jews have big, hooked noses and are greedy, for example.)  Morgan didn’t have to promote those stereotypes in his writing, but that he chose to do so and that it was probably well-received at the time is absolutely telling of the era.

Reading Morgan’s book was an exercise in tolerance in many different ways.  The plot was nothing more than warnings about people and how city life differed from good ol’ country livin’.  The racism comes across as being so normal that it was even more offensive than it would have been had it been written to actually stir the pot of xenophobia.  And then there was Uncle Ben.  Yes, we he was trusting rube with absolutely zero street smarts, but he, like so many other people I encounter on a daily basis, came off as if he knew everything about everything there was to know.  Spending several hundred pages with the man was far from fun, and I kept hoping he’d get stabbed or contract some “city disease” most likely given to him by a Chinese man, but he didn’t.  (For the record, if anything were to kill Uncle Ben, it would’ve been a strange Chinese man.  Here’s the book’s description of them: “Their pigeyes and pigtails, greasy, yellow faces and heathenish countenances; their funny shoes, and pantalets breeches, with their shirts hanging outside, was so different from any other kind of folks that I couldn’t keep from looking at them as I would a menagerie, and the way they lived, ate, slept and done business was so peculiar that I come to the conclusion that they must have been dropped down onto the earth from some of the planets.  I presumed they fell from Jupiter, as they look as though they might be a cross between a Jew and the original Peter, for the way they live, move and have their being, is strongly suggestive that they came from some celestial climate, and are bound for the place to which it is said Peter carries the keys, and have stopped temporarily on the surface of old earth to pick up what they can, like flies in the summer, and carry it along with them.  Like the bothersome flies, they are content with a little at a time, but they are all the time after that little, and when I found out there was about 25,000 of them in this city, I could readily see how they managed to get pretty much all the subsistence away from the respectable white laborers.”  Again, this kind of stuff went on for several hundred pages.)

I bought this on eBay, and that’s where it will end up at again sometime soon.  I’m glad I read it, though, as it’s not often you get to read an original copy of something that old, but one read-through is good enough for me.  Maybe I can get Duke to bid on my copy.


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