Saturday, February 15, 2014

Antislavery Writings in Resolving Hypocrisy

Review by Bill Doughty
George Washington ensured his slaves were freed but not till after his death.

By the time George Washington died he had resolved the greatest hypocrisy of his life. 

Much of the "Last Will and Testament" of the first American president, a man who fought the Revolutionary War for liberty and equality, is dedicated to freeing his slaves and funding their care and education. In many parts of the young country at the time it was illegal to teach slaves how to read.

Jefferson did not resolve the same hypocrisy and, in fact, compounded it through his actions.

Lincoln confronted and resolved the issue on behalf of the nation five decades after Washington's death.

"American Antislavery Writings: Colonial Beginnings to Emancipation," edited by James G. Basker and published by the Library of America, offers hundreds of stories, narratives, poems, letters and songs. The book includes Washington's will related to his slaves.

Among the several passages written by Abraham Lincoln in this book is Lincoln's "Peoria" speech on the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which permitted slavery in the new territories leading to the West. Lincoln argued for the blessings of freedom and against those who found legal and biblical justification for slavery as morally justified.
"Let us turn slavery from its claims of 'moral right,' back upon its existing legal rights, and its arguments of 'necessity.' Let us return it to the position our fathers gave it; and there let it rest in peace. Let us re-adopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it, the practices, and policy, which harmonize with it. Let north and south -- let all Americans -- let all lovers of liberty everywhere -- join in the great and good work. If we do this, we shall not only have saved the Union; but we shall have so saved it, as to make, and to keep it, forever worthy of the saving. We shall have so saved it, that the succeeding millions of free happy people, the world over, shall rise up, and call us blessed, to the latest generations."
One of the highlights in this exceptional compilation is an excerpt from "Twelve Years a Slave," the 1853 narrative of Solomon Northrup.  "Northrup presents a detailed sketch of the sadistic slave master Edwin Epps that is almost mesmerizing in its graphic horror," Basker writes. (Northrup's memoir was depicted in a top movie of 2013 directed by Steve McQueen and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong'o, Michael K. Williams, Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt.)
From the book "Uncle Tom's Cabin" by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Another highly recommended gem in "American Antislavery Writings" is the poem by John Greenleaf Whittier, "The Slave Ships."

Of course, this book includes abolitionist writings of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman and John Brown.  It also includes words of patriots and poets such as Patrick Henry, Benjamin Franklin, Noah Webster, Edmund Quincy, Emily Dickinson, William Cullen Bryant, Elizabeth Margaret Chandler, Louisa May Alcott, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Former president John Quincy Adams represented Joseph Cinqué and other African captives who had freed themselves from captivity while aboard a Spanish schooner slave ship. Amistad was discovered off Long Island by the U.S. Navy brig Washington. 

President Martin Van Buren ordered the Amistad's slaves be returned to Spain, but Adams argued before the Supreme Court, "the right of personal liberty is individual." He said, "The moment you come, to the Declaration of Independence, that every man has a right to life and liberty, an inalienable right, this case is decided."

One of the strongest condemnations of slavery in America comes at the end of the book in Charles Sumner's "Eulogy on Abraham Lincoln."
"Traitorous assassination struck him down. But do not be too vindictive in heart towards the poor atom that held the weapon. Reserve your rage for the responsible Power, which not content with assailing the life of the Republic by atrocious Rebellion, has outraged all laws human and divine; has organized Barbarism as a principle of conduct; has taken the lives of faithful Unionists at home; has prepared robbery and murder on the northern borders; has fired hotels, filled with women and children; has plotted to scatter pestilence and poison; has perpetrated piracy and ship-burning at sea; has starved American citizens, held as prisoners; has inflicted the slow torture of Andersonville and Libby; has menaced assassination always; and now at last, true to itself, has assassinated our President; and this responsible Power is none other than Slavery. It is Slavery that has taken the life of our beloved Chief Magistrate, and here is another triumph of its Barbarism. On Slavery let vengeance fall."
This book also includes a chronology of the slave trade in the colonies and efforts to abolish it in the new nation under the 16th president and 13th Amendment.

This week my generation remembered the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the Beatles from Britain to the United States. In 1964, the Beatles, like Elvis before them, skyrocketed to fame playing music inspired by African-American Rhythm & Blues. (Recommended: timeline  in Dr. Portia K. Maultsby's "History of African American Music.")

The 50 year marker back to 1964 can be used as a yardstick back in time.
Muddy Waters helped plant seeds of rock & roll.

Subtract another 50 years. What were people listening to in 1914, the year World War I began?  The great blues artist Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield) was born the year before. Big Bill Broonzy, who would be a key influence to John Lennon years later, was already playing music and getting ready to move to Chicago. It was the very early beginning of commercial jazz and blues, but the hot group was the American Quartet, who performed top hits, "It's a Long, Long Way to Tipperary," "Rebecca of Sunny-Brook Farm" and "Do You Take This Woman for Your Lawful Wife."  Sobering to think that, in 1914, women did not yet have the right to vote.  

Back another 50 years -- 1864, popular forms of music were "parlor" and "minstrel."  That was the year songwriter Stephen Foster died.  Foster's complicated and evolving views about slavery are discussed in an online essay by Matthew Shaftel in University of California at Santa Barbara's "Music and Politics" journal.
Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln fought for emancipation.

Another 50 years -- from 1864 to 1814 -- puts us in the midst of the War of 1812 and four years before the birth of free-thinking philosopher Frederick Douglass. Beethoven and Schubert produced music of the time and Francis Scott Key wrote the Star-Spangled Banner ("O'er the land of the free...").  Key was a slaveowner who helped found the American Colonization Society, which strove to send free African Americans back to Africa and led to the establishment of Liberia.

Back another 50 years: Fifty years prior to 1814 takes us to 1764, when Bach and Mozart were producing music 12 years before 1776

Phillis Wheatley, 1753-1784
Those few 50-year yardsticks take us back quickly to the beginning of our nation when slavery was the norm but when the voices of abolition were already building. 

"American Antislavery Writings" includes a number of songs and poems starting with the brilliant Phillis Wheatley, America's first African American woman writer.

Wheatley addressed the hypocrisy of slavery in a letter to the Rev. Samson Occum just two years before the Declaration of Independence, addressing her thoughts to "those whose avarice impels them" to support slavery.  "This I desire ... to convince them of the strange Absurdity of their Conduct whose Words and Actions are so diametrically opposite. How well the Cry for Liberty, and the reverse Disposition for the Exercise of oppressive Power over others agree, -- I humbly think it does not require the Penetration of the Philosopher to determine."

Basker's compilation includes uncredited Anonymous authors, with many voices rising to a crescendo in the 1840s. Women used verse to illuminate the plight of mothers separated from children and vice versa.

Margaret Lucy Shands Bailey of Virginia wrote for anti-slavery periodicals including "National Era," in which Harriet Beecher Stowe first serialized "Uncle Tom's Cabin."  Bailey's "The Blind Slave Boy" was put to music and published in 1844.
"Come back to me mother! Why linger away from thy poor little blind boy, the long weary day!I mark every footstep, I list(en) to each tone, And wonder my mother should leave me alone! There are voices of sorrow, and voices of glee, But there's no one to joy or to sorrow with me; For each hath of pleasure and trouble his share, And none for the poor little blind boy will care."

The case against slavery was won with a combination of cold logic, warm emotion and hot passion that led to a necessary war to preserve the United States.

This book shows how the nation lived up to the ideals expressed by Jefferson, fought for by Washington and realized by Lincoln.

This is a recommended read for this Presidents Day and during Black History Month.

No comments: