The Brutes of Jamestown

JAMESTOWN_OVERVIEW_01I’m hypersensitive to language in my history text. Every “somewhat” and “oddly enough,” and “ultimately” alerts me to hidden judgments, conclusions built on the basis of evidence or—perhaps—assumptions.

Here’s one from the section about early troubles in the colony of Jamestown, which were, the book reports, “to a large degree their own making.” After a list of missteps, the author says,

And they could create no real community without women, who had not come to Jamestown. The settlers had no real households and thus no real stakes in the communities.

This assessment is probably fair. A bunch of men working for profit in a strange and challenging place would miss domestic comforts, especially if they left family and partners behind. Yet, being a male, a faint alarm always goes off in my brain when women are presented as the only civilizing influence on men, as if, without females, males would have no hope of self-regulation, no possibility of creating mutual support or expressing affection. If I were feeling especially touchy, I might howl over stereotyping, a bunch of sweaty men fighting, drinking, grabbing, and farting, always farting. Surely, the settlers were ahead of the animals they carried with them.

But my imagination contributes to my reaction. Maybe no one—any member of any group—appreciates hearing their membership insulted, and I’m defensive. These historians probably draw on evidence of male misbehavior, records of rules and punishment necessary to curb excesses and keep the workers laboring. And he wants to excuse them. The author also says it’s the absence of “real households” that creates trouble for the men. He suggests elsewhere that these men found themselves in an extraordinarily strange situation, as if they’d traveled to another planet. More importantly, even if it is a disparagement of males, one muted insult hardly measures up to the ravages of male privilege throughout time, the relentless stereotyping and denigration of women and minorities.

Still, I’ve seen the drawings. Jamestown included houses. I partly distrust and am partly ashamed of feeling as I do, but some nagging misgiving persists, one I just can’t put away without comment. It’s silly to be bothered and I know that, yet I want to explain my reaction, irrational as it might be.

Why couldn’t the men create some facsimile of households? Could they be so ignorant of domesticity, have missed all the advantages of households they knew? And unless they were exclusively brutish, why does this history focus on their brutishness particularly?

In a larger sense, when does the image of the knuckle-dragging male become prescriptive instead of descriptive, the expectation instead of the reality, an inevitability preventing an ideal? I try to own the behavior of the Jamestown men and know that’s the way men were and, even now, often are. But men, like women (or members of any identifiable group) are subject to roles constrained by social expectations and constructs. Some presuppositions are invisible without scrutiny, so how can we work on developing our own ideal identities without noting—as I feel compelled to here—how we’re labeled?

It’s dangerous to say so. I don’t want to be lumped with men who insist on out-suffering every sufferer, who respond to accusations of sexism with counter-accusations rather than remedying their own deplorable behavior. Understandably, those men do little but draw further censure by being self-centered, oblivious of their unfair advantages, and obnoxious in their vehemence. I’ve benefited from male privilege. As a white, heterosexual, reasonably well-off man, I can’t claim membership in any disparaged group.

I like to believe, however, that I’m not simply being defensive. I’m really asking: Can you recognize your status (specifically, your unjustified, inequitable status) and also recognize that everyone—every level of every hierarchy in society—is, in some major or minor way, socially constructed? Doesn’t change begin with that recognition?

How would the bros back in Jamestown have felt about history’s characterization. If some future historian arrived on a time-riding surfboard to tell them, they might have made some effort to overturn their future image.

Perhaps not. Most women would scoff. Not a single male in my class thought of the first Jamestown settlers as barbarians, just typical guys. Speaking for myself, however, it isn’t easy to listen to flaws conferred upon me as a type of person instead of as an individual. I want to be able to express frustration with the boxes people put me in and, maybe, lead others out. I’m not sure how far we can get by assuming objections to male stereotypes are defensive, misguided, or irrelevant. People need the right to say they feel misunderstood or mislabeled. I have to be okay with being irked by descriptions of men being lost without women, even if I’m accused of overreaction or denial.

Some ads make men look stupid. If you’re not a male of that type—and who wants to be a male of that type?—those ads are hard to watch. However, they’re also a call to arms. If you don’t like them, show you have a brain, show you can raise children, show you’re not ruled by your libido, show you can call out men who devalue women. Show you could make a home even in Jamestown, and show those brutes aren’t you. Begin by saying you don’t like what society (or history) says you are. Then you have to hope you’ll shake a few prescriptive stereotypes loose.

I’m not really objecting to the text. It’s generalizing on the basis of conditions much more complicated than its one or two sentence description. A host of causes contributed to what happened in Jamestown and, besides, it’s irretrievably passed.

Why complain? I shouldn’t complain. As I’ve said, I disapprove of men saying, “Hey, we’re victims too!” But I can’t help myself. Not every lament about the depiction of males IS that statement. Who wins a debate over the hierarchy of prejudice? Don’t all assumptions need to be illuminated to be addressed?

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1 Comment

Filed under America, Apologies, Arguments, Dissent, Doubt, Essays, High School Teaching, Identity, Laments, Modern Life, Opinion, Resolutions, Thoughts, Worry

One response to “The Brutes of Jamestown

  1. dhefko

    Thank you for representing. I may have missed this in one of your earlier posts, but I’m curious what has led you to the teaching of history.

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