Saturday, November 30, 2013

Misuse of Slavery and the Holocaust Rhetoric

"Comparing anything to Holocaust, slavery a mistake," by Kathleen Parker, Columbian Syndicated Columnist, on 28 November 2013 -- Meet Simile and Sui Generis.

Simile, to refresh memories, is a favorite rhetorical device of writers that compares two essentially unlike things that nonetheless have similar characteristics: The quarterback was like a locomotive.

Sui generis, the Latin phrase meaning unique or one of a kind, is a helpful restraint upon the former. Some things, even if they share certain characteristics, shouldn't be compared. Sui generis is the braking system on a rhetorical locomotive, or at least it should be. That was a metaphor, by the way, and not a very good one.

We in the news business could stand to apply the brakes to our runaway impulse to "similize." I personally love a good simile, which is often a way to inject levity into a column. But lately, we've seen instances of simile-itis that might have saved readers and viewers some angst, even if writers and pundits were left with less to say.

In recent weeks, we've heard news people and others compare Obamacare to Katrina and Iraq. Sarah Palin compared our national debt to slavery. Countless times in recent years we've seen "Nazi" applied to people with whose policies or politics we disagree, none so frequently as George W. Bush, though President Obama, too, has had a few turns.

All of the above are clearly sui generis and should be retired from any future similes unless they are referring to truly like things, not just a single person's impression of the world while musing on current events. Katrina is like Sandy because they were both natural disasters, though significantly more people died in Katrina than in Sandy. Iraq is sui generis and nothing like Vietnam, to which it was sometimes compared.

Nazis and the Holocaust shouldn't be compared to anything else. The systematic, state-sponsored extermination of 6 million Jews, as well as others, is sufficiently horrific to stand alone. Pro-lifers who sometimes characterize abortion as a Holocaust are probably not helping the cause of revelation.

Finally, slavery merits its own place in America's memory. To compare it to anything else, especially something as mundane as debt, is wrong on its face. Indentured servitude to China might have been a better choice for Palin, who prefaced her remark with, "This isn't racist, but …" Note: Anytime you start a sentence with "This isn't racist, but …," you probably shouldn't finish it.
Rhetorical crime

These recent examples of similes gone awry raise two questions: What is the impulse that drives our need to make such comparisons? And why do we react so viscerally when we do?

The impulse is usually to elucidate, i.e., this is as bad as that. But it is also partly lazy. Do we really have so little imagination that all we can do is summon Katrina every time an administration fails to meet our expectations? Or Hitler to denote our impression of bad? Surely, it is a rhetorical crime to turn someone so evil into a cliché.

From a purely political perspective, the impulse may be driven by the desire to remind people of the past transgressions of political foes. Thus, when commentators say Obamacare is like Katrina, the mind flits from Barack Obama to George W. Bush and only the differences, rather than the single similarity of administrative incompetence, register: People died in Katrina and President Obama only wants to help people. Through subliminal jujitsu, the real comparison lands in the community psyche.

Conversely, as Salon political writer Brian Beutler suggested during a recent conversation, even Republicans may see benefits to this comparison in that it neutralizes the ongoing, negative liability of Katrina for the GOP. But then the cycle continues into absurdity. If Obamacare collapses and Republicans present Americans with Ryancare, we likely can expect Democrats to characterize every glitch as the GOP's Katrina II.

To the most important point, comparing a horrific tragedy or atrocity to anything else trivializes and diminishes it. By trying to capture, quantify and categorize others' suffering, we trespass on the sacred.

Some things are like nothing else — and should be left to rest in peace. []

Friday, November 29, 2013

Ask A Slave: Thanksgiving

Ask A Slave is a satirical web series based on the actress' time working as a living history character at the popular historic site, George Washington's Mount Vernon.

Starring Azie Dungey as Lizzie Mae and directed by Jordan Black. All questions and interactions are based on true events.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving From The US Slave Bllog
From the US Slave Blog

"Why We Shouldn't Celebrate Thanksgiving" By Robert Jensen

From  AlterNet, "No Thanks to Thanksgiving," by Robert Jensen, on 22 November 2005 --  One indication of moral progress in the United States would be the replacement of Thanksgiving Day and its self-indulgent family feasting with a National Day of Atonement accompanied by a self-reflective collective fasting.

In fact, indigenous people have offered such a model; since 1970 they have marked the fourth Thursday of November as a Day of Mourning in a spiritual/political ceremony on Coles Hill overlooking Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts, one of the early sites of the European invasion of the Americas.

Not only is the thought of such a change in this white-supremacist holiday impossible to imagine, but the very mention of the idea sends most Americans into apoplectic fits -- which speaks volumes about our historical hypocrisy and its relation to the contemporary politics of empire in the United States.

That the world's great powers achieved "greatness" through criminal brutality on a grand scale is not news, of course. That those same societies are reluctant to highlight this history of barbarism also is predictable.

But in the United States, this reluctance to acknowledge our original sin -- the genocide of indigenous people -- is of special importance today. It's now routine -- even among conservative commentators -- to describe the United States as an empire, so long as everyone understands we are an inherently benevolent one. Because all our history contradicts that claim, history must be twisted and tortured to serve the purposes of the powerful.

One vehicle for taming history is various patriotic holidays, with Thanksgiving at the heart of U.S. myth-building. From an early age, we Americans hear a story about the hearty Pilgrims, whose search for freedom took them from England to Massachusetts. There, aided by the friendly Wampanoag Indians, they survived in a new and harsh environment, leading to a harvest feast in 1621 following the Pilgrims first winter.

Some aspects of the conventional story are true enough. But it's also true that by 1637 Massachusetts Gov. John Winthrop was proclaiming a thanksgiving for the successful massacre of hundreds of Pequot Indian men, women and children, part of the long and bloody process of opening up additional land to the English invaders. The pattern would repeat itself across the continent until between 95 and 99 percent of American Indians had been exterminated and the rest were left to assimilate into white society or die off on reservations, out of the view of polite society.

Simply put: Thanksgiving is the day when the dominant white culture (and, sadly, most of the rest of the non-white but non-indigenous population) celebrates the beginning of a genocide that was, in fact, blessed by the men we hold up as our heroic founding fathers.

The first president, George Washington, in 1783 said he preferred buying Indians' land rather than driving them off it because that was like driving "wild beasts" from the forest. He compared Indians to wolves, "both being beasts of prey, tho' they differ in shape."

Thomas Jefferson -- president #3 and author of the Declaration of Independence, which refers to Indians as the "merciless Indian Savages" -- was known to romanticize Indians and their culture, but that didn't stop him in 1807 from writing to his secretary of war that in a coming conflict with certain tribes, "[W]e shall destroy all of them."

As the genocide was winding down in the early 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt (president #26) defended the expansion of whites across the continent as an inevitable process "due solely to the power of the mighty civilized races which have not lost the fighting instinct, and which by their expansion are gradually bringing peace into the red wastes where the barbarian peoples of the world hold sway."

Roosevelt also once said, "I don't go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn't like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth."

How does a country deal with the fact that some of its most revered historical figures had certain moral values and political views virtually identical to Nazis? Here's how "respectable" politicians, pundits, and professors play the game: When invoking a grand and glorious aspect of our past, then history is all-important. We are told how crucial it is for people to know history, and there is much hand wringing about the younger generations' lack of knowledge about, and respect for, that history.

In the United States, we hear constantly about the deep wisdom of the founding fathers, the adventurous spirit of the early explorers, the gritty determination of those who "settled" the country -- and about how crucial it is for children to learn these things.

But when one brings into historical discussions any facts and interpretations that contest the celebratory story and make people uncomfortable -- such as the genocide of indigenous people as the foundational act in the creation of the United States -- suddenly the value of history drops precipitously and one is asked, "Why do you insist on dwelling on the past?"

This is the mark of a well-disciplined intellectual class -- one that can extol the importance of knowing history for contemporary citizenship and, at the same time, argue that we shouldn't spend too much time thinking about history.

This off-and-on engagement with history isn't of mere academic interest; as the dominant imperial power of the moment, U.S. elites have a clear stake in the contemporary propaganda value of that history. Obscuring bitter truths about historical crimes helps perpetuate the fantasy of American benevolence, which makes it easier to sell contemporary imperial adventures -- such as the invasion and occupation of Iraq -- as another benevolent action.

Any attempt to complicate this story guarantees hostility from mainstream culture. After raising the barbarism of America's much-revered founding fathers in a lecture, I was once accused of trying to "humble our proud nation" and "undermine young people's faith in our country."

Yes, of course -- that is exactly what I would hope to achieve. We should practice the virtue of humility and avoid the excessive pride that can, when combined with great power, lead to great abuses of power.

History does matter, which is why people in power put so much energy into controlling it. The United States is hardly the only society that has created such mythology. While some historians in Great Britain continue to talk about the benefits that the empire brought to India, political movements in India want to make the mythology of Hindutva into historical fact.

Abuses of history go on in the former empire and the former colony. History can be one of the many ways we create and impose hierarchy, or it can be part of a process of liberation. The truth won't set us free, but the telling of truth at least opens the possibility of freedom.

As Americans sit down on Thanksgiving Day to gorge themselves on the bounty of empire, many will worry about the expansive effects of overeating on their waistlines. We would be better to think about the constricting effects of the day's mythology on our minds.  (source: AlterNet)

Monday, November 25, 2013

Shakespeare and Hip-Hop

Can you tell the difference between Shakespeare's sonnets and hip hop lyrics? By rapping some of Shakespeare's famous lines, Hip hop artist Akala reveals the striking and enlightening parallels between today's hip hop and the Bard's plays.  (source: TED Talks)

As reported by The UK Guardian  "Shakespeare: How do I compare thee to hip-hop? Mobo award-winning rapper Akala is running a series of workshops for teenagers on the links between Shakespeare and hip-hop," by Andrew Emery, on 15 April 2009  --  In a community hall in Hoxton, London, a small piece of alchemy is taking place. A group of teenagers who only minutes before were fidgeting with their mobile phones, are up on stage reciting one of Shakespeare's best known sonnets in rap. It's on a damp spring morning that they're comparing thee to a summer's day, but how did they get here?

Well, it seems they're a part of the burgeoning hip-hop theatre scene. But this isn't We Will Rock You for rap fans, it's a rapidly growing exploration of hip-hop as a performance culture being undertaken by at least nine different theatre companies around the UK. The Arts Council is providing funding to at least four companies which specialise in hip-hop theatre, while the likes of Hype Dance Company in Sheffield and Zoo Nation are taking the dance elements of the culture that gave the world breakdancing to a new audience.

Mobo award-winning rapper Akala (also known as younger brother to Mercury-prize winning Ms Dynamite), meanwhile, is running a series of workshops that tease out the links between hip-hop and Shakespeare. But why? "I actually did a song called Shakespeare three or four years ago," says Akala, "It was a comedic parody that I was the rapping reincarnation of Shakespeare. Not that I am, but there is a genuine relationship between poetry of all forms and that song made me ask – if Shakespeare was alive today, would he have been a rapper?" My kneejerk reaction would normally be to reply: wouldn't he just be a playwright? We do still have those. But Akala makes a compelling case: "Rap gets a hard time based on this new school of MCs from America who only rap about tits and arse and jewellery. But if you look at real hip-hop, your KRS-Ones, your Chuck Ds, it's poetry, it's social commentary, it's documenting history. And in three or 400 years, people will probably look upon it as such. There were those who frowned upon Shakespeare's work in his time, but it was a reflection of reality."

The nine teenagers at today's workshop aren't here because of their love for the Bard. In a Q&A session, only two of them say they'd have come if today hadn't involved rapping. That begins to change when Akala engages them in a series of exercises that explore the close relationship between the rhythms of modern hip-hop and the iambic pentameter of Shakespeare. He hands out cards printed with a couple of lines. We have to decide whether they're the work of the playwright or a rapper. It's harder than you'd think. The kids are adamant that certain words and phrases are those of a rapper, but they're actually from Shakespeare. And vice versa. It's a hook, and it's only half an hour later that they're translating Sonnet 18 into hip-hop verse.

Some of the kids tell me that they hate how Shakespeare is taught at school – how boring the approach is. But will this send them scuttling back to Othello with a fresh eye? Akala says the aim isn't that limited: "It's about showing them what's attainable. And if Shakespeare is presented as the most unattainable, highbrow entity, but then it's made relevant to them, what else might be? It's part of a wider effort to open kids up to what they wouldn't traditionally be interested in." Chanelle Newman, project manager for the Hip-Hop Shakespeare company, is already seeing the effects. "By the end of the workshops you get to see that it opens their mind up to other things such as theatre acting or going to see more Shakespeare plays. "

The danger – if there is one – in such an approach, is that it might be seen as both patronising and naff to use hip-hop as a backdoor to introducing young people to what is often viewed as "high culture". Is turning Sonnet 18 into a rap the equivalent of turning children's food into funny animal shapes in order to get them to swallow something unpalatable? Keith Saha runs the innovative 20 Stories High theatre group in Liverpool and he thinks it can be if it's handled wrongly. "All sorts of industries use hip-hop as a branding tool to sell to a yoof market that they don't understand and can't connect with," he says. "Unfortunately, the arts, and theatre in particular, is one of them. Akala is a great example of a genuine artist who has a passion for both hip-hop and Shakespeare and what he does really works. But a lot of the time big arts organisations are clueless in how to attract young people to their venues; they have boxes to tick in terms of attracting new audiences and the results can be embarrassing, misguided and often offensive."

Saha points to innovators such as physical theatre pioneers Benji Reid and Jonzi D as people who are making a difference in bringing these seemingly disparate strands of culture together – largely because they're from a hip-hop background. Akala feels that people might see it as patronising, but if they do it's because they don't understand the cultural import of hip-hop. "By calling things 'high culture', we're viewing something as having more value because of the way it's presented. Shakespeare isn't any more of a high culture than hip-hop," he says. "The most sacred histories of ancient African nations were recorded by a man known as a Griot, who was effectively a rapper. He would recite the nation's history over a beat of a drum. So when hip-hop is put back in its proper cultural context as a tradition that dates back hundreds if not thousands of years, you realise that it is the same as The Iliad. Sir Ian McKellen said he didn't fully understand the connection, but after seeing the workshop, he did. He's one of the most respected Shakespearean actors of our time, and to have someone like that take what you're doing seriously, shows how much of a genuine parallel there is."

Akala has convinced at least one of our teenage attendees, AJ, who is busy exploring the thematic similarities – love and desire, wealth and poverty – between rap and Shakespeare. AJ says: "Because hip-hop tells stories, Shakespeare is a good subject. And with the music and the beats and the rapping, it makes an old subject brand new." He's also made a convert out of this rythcynic. As a former teenage rapper (a dismal one), and a writer about hip-hop for the last 18 years, I was convinced such a project would manage to demean both Shakespeare and my beloved music by softening their more difficult edges in order to slot them together. But it's precisely their spikiness, their engagement with real life, their playfulness with language, that makes them such perfect bedfellows. Hip-hop and Shakespeare might seem like madness, "yet there is method in't".  (source: The UK Guardian)

Friday, November 22, 2013

Byron Hurt - Beyond Beats and Rhymes

<i>Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes</i> filmmaker Byron Hurt
Byron Hurt - Beyond Beats and Rhymes

From Soul Culture [UK], "FILM REVIEW: Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes," by David Mensah, on 26 October 2009  --  It might seem a slight exaggeration to say that Hip-hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes is one of the most brutal yet skilful attacks carried out on an American institution since 9:11, but at times that is precisely what Byron Hurt’s didactic and sometimes dizzying documentary feels like. And not only is the attack merciless but multidirectional. For in the cutting tenor of his argument Hip Hop is sexist, overly misogynistic, homophobic, infantile and generally misanthropic on the whole. The only thing which withholds Hurt’s debate from seeming like a superfluous and superficial church sermon is the mere fact that, for the most part, he’s right.

After all Hip Hop has carried out some of the most brutal and at times skilful attacks on the ears and integrity of the general public. Beyond Beats and Rhymes offers some of the most notorious examples: In 2004 rapper Nelly is reported to have pulled out of a visit to Spelman College where he was to locate bone marrow donors for leukaemia patients, only to decline because, understandably, some female students were unhappy about his then recent video “Tip Drill”, in which he is seen swiping a credit card down a woman’s backside. At a summer jam 50 Cent scolds Jah Rule by showing images of him crying and calls him a “Bitch ass nigga”. These and other atrocious illustrations are presented as specimens for the current condition of Hip Hop. And to be fair Beyond Beats and Rhymes does seem a little like it’s overreacting at times. But to be fairer still Hurt’s report on the genre is more of a personal enquiry than anything else. He wants to know why he has fallen out with the music he loves and why the sound which used to help psych him up before playing in American Football games now merely repulses and disconcerts.

The answer is fifty five minutes of swiftly edited audio-visual samples which range from Biggie Smalls “You’re nobody ‘till Somebody Kills You” to D.W. Grifith’s civil war epic Birth of a Nation, along with a whole batch of interviews that present a broad panoply of opinions concerning what has happened to the music Hurt loves. Chuck D professes that Hip-hop has, “commodified us (blacks) as being a one trick image”, while Dr Jalani Cobb (Spelman College) says the genre exemplifies “a lineage of black men trying to deny their own frailty”. The most damning indictment of all comes from Talib Kweli, who puts it quite simply: “We’ve entrusted the media and corporations to tell us what Hip-hop is”.

The above assertion is without doubt the most telling clue in Hurt’s search for a core truth. If Hip Hop is now a multi-million dollar toy in the hands of corporate puppet masters then surely this is so because someone somewhere is buying into it. Or as one scholar puts it; an artist with the aggressiveness and brutality of ‘50 Cent can only be commercially viable in a nation that supports violence’. For in hindsight Hip Hop (or at least mainstream/commercial Hip Hop culture which is pretty much the only thing Hurt discusses) is ‘pure Americana’. It is ferocious, extreme, money oriented, misguided and ‘hyper masculine’. In short it is all of the negative traits which supposedly sum up the United States, merely symbolised and visualized through a male dominated caricature of black culture.

It seems slightly problematic that Hurt only discusses mainstream Hip Hop and completely overlooks other forms of the genre which are nothing like the hulking demon he describes. He also tends to overcomplicate his points by squeezing in a little too much information, making Beyond Beats and Rhymes slightly bewildering in places. Despite these errors it is Hurt himself who is the most enthralling addition to the documentary. He is presented here as noble but never self righteous and his approach to the subject matter always appears genuine. In fact his representation is quite similar to that of American politician Al Gore in his documentary An Inconvenient Truth, in which he stresses that the planet has been damaged irreversibly by humanities misuse of its resources. In a sense Hurt is making a similar point about our buying into commercial Hip Hop music. Perhaps, he seems to be saying, the collective human psyche has been damaged irreversibly to the point of docility and ignorance by popular culture, of which Hip Hop is a prime constituent.  [source:  Soul Culture [UK], "FILM REVIEW: Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes," by David Mensah, on 26 October 2009 ]

Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes

Hip Hop Futures by Tricia Rose

Jay Z and his daughter Blue Ivy

From the UK Guardian, "Jay-Z – dropping the word 'bitch' doesn't begin to cover it: The rapper's vow to stop using one word didn't impress me. Hip-hop has so much to answer for, not least hostility to women," by Tricia Rose, on 17 January 2012 -- Sean Carter, who performs under the name Jay-Z, has apparently vowed never again to use the word bitch in the wake of the birth of his daughter, Blue Ivy Carter. And while I celebrate and congratulate his new fatherhood, this vow didn't impress me.

It doesn't begin to address his role in contributing to and profiting from the global power of a hyper-sexist brand of hip-hop masculinity. I need to hear quite a bit more about how he feels about this legacy and its impact on millions of black girls and boys before getting all teary-eyed.

Hip-Hop Artist The Game Kissing His Daughter Cali

Sure, hip-hop didn't invent sexism, nor has it been the only musical genre to profit from promoting it. The vast territory that is popular music is a treasure trove of sexist ideas and images. And it is also true that racist, rightwing critics have targeted hip-hop as a way to continue the demonisation of black men while remaining silent on countless other sexist images, sounds and stories that define US culture.

As I noted in The Hip Hop Wars, just because your enemy is wrong, it doesn't make you right. It is quite true that hip-hop has played a starring role in making sexist ideas sexy, visible and funky. Through the power of black music, style, swagger and lyrical creativity, Jay-Z and many other highly successful rappers (e.g, Snoop Dog, 50 Cent and Lil' Wayne) have expanded the visibility and value of aggressively sexist lyrics. And, frankly, if you want to find openly celebrated sexism against black women, there is no richer contemporary source than commercial, mainstream hip-hop.

This hasn't happened because commercially powerful artists have randomly or dutifully dropped a sexist word here or there to punctuate an infectious beat. Whole identities in countless songs rely on excessively sexist behaviour and name-calling to define the protagonist's power and importance.

Lil Wayne and Son

More than in any other genre in the history of black music, commercially celebrated hip-hop swagger depends on a brand of manhood that consistently defines black women as disrespected objects. And fans of all racial background, but especially young white males, who make up the bulk of US consumers, eat it up.

Black women know much about the brutality of colonialism, racism, economic exploitation and incarceration and their targeted impact on young black men. In the interest of protecting black men and boys from the extraordinary violence they face, many women have spoken out on behalf of men and remained silent about the violence done to women. They worry that naming their own suffering will add to black male suffering. But the forces aligned against black men roll on anyway, don't they? And, as Audre Lorde so powerfully reminded us, "your silence won't protect you".

Some members of the hip-hop generation have spoken up. Some young women have courageously responded in protest; and films Daphne Valerius's The Souls of Black Girls and Byron Hurt's Beyond Beats and Rhymes challenge fans on the subject. But the biggest players in commercial hip-hop – the artists and the major corporations that promote and distribute them – have shielded themselves from sustained engagement and accountability.

The Hip Hop Wars, By Tricia Rose

A progressive, feminist, anti-racist community is not born, it is made. Through widespread exchange of ideas about how these injustices are perpetuated we learn why it is in all of our interests to fight for justice for all. This is why direct engagement and accountability matters so much. It should not be about finger pointing, or separating "them" from "us". Part of the power of sexism and racist sexism is their capacity to seem so normal they almost disappear from view: they recruit us all into participation even when we know better.

But at the same time, we cannot continue to defend or silently condone commercial mainstream hip-hop's hefty contribution to the hostility and disrespect endured by black women. To do so is not to defend black men or hip-hop; it is to defend sexism against black women.  (source: UK Guardian)

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism

From a book review in Z-Magazine's November 2008 issue, by Bill Fletcher, "Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918" -- Jeffrey Perry has constructed a masterful examination of the life of the little known, though immensely significant, Black radical Hubert Harrison. In the first volume of what Perry promises to be a two volume work, Perry examines Harrison from birth till 1918, ending just prior to Harrison’s entrance into the back-to-Africa movement of Marcus Garvey.

Harrison, a native of St. Croix, was among the early immigrants to the U.S. from the non-Spanish-speaking Caribbean. This migration, which in fact continues through today, proved to be a transformative process in re-shaping “Black America.” The infusion of new blood into Black America from the West Indies brought with it significant leaders, not the least being Marcus Garvey and Hubert Harrison. It also brought with it changes in the basic culture and patterns of Black American politics.

 "Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918," by Jeffrey Perry

Perry provides important background on St. Croix and its history, helping the reader to better understand the circumstances that shaped Harrison and his thinking. Central to this was the significance of both race and class for Harrison, a fact that would play out in his political evolution from his initial and militant critique of Booker T. Washington to his stint as a Socialist Party activist to his advocacy of a left-wing, revolutionary nationalist (though internationalist in many respects) race consciousness—an advocacy conducted both inside and outside the Garvey movement.

Harrison’s evolution is itself quite interesting in what it says about the early 20th century U.S. left. Harrison assumed that the Socialist Party (SP), with its anti-capitalist approach, would be a natural home. Nothing could have been further from the truth, however. The SP, badly divided between left and right wings, all but ignored race as a central feature of U.S. society. Even some of its most outspoken and courageous leaders, such as Eugene V. Debs, failed to appreciate the role of race and racism in the de-formation of U.S. democracy, the oppression of people of color, and the division of the working class.

Ultimately, Harrison concluded that the “radish socialism” (a term coined in the 20th century suggesting red or socialist on the outside, and white or white racist on the inside) offered no future for radical politics or for the Black freedom struggle. Interestingly, this did not result in Harrison moving away from radicalism, but rather he began a process of redefining both Black politics and radical politics.

Harrison’s political “location” makes him a fascinating character. As Perry documents, it was Harrison who influenced the development of Marcus Garvey. Garvey chose to move away from Harrison’s anti-imperialism, and instead embraced a much less confrontational (and safer) politics, at least in the beginning. Harrison’s own personal weaknesses, including but not limited to managing funds, contributed to his being eclipsed by Garvey, who was much better at building organization. Again, as documented by Perry and contrary to popular mythology, Garvey was no more charismatic and no better a speaker than Harrison.

Hubert Harrison needs to be read and absorbed in order to appreciate the growth of 20th century Black radicalism. Mainstream history, including mainstream African American history, can blatantly overlook key players, organizations, and movements. Rather than getting a full appreciation of the development of a process, one gets only glimpses. This can be seen even in some examinations of Black radicalism when it is told through the biographies of “great” figures.

Perry examines Harrison as a man of and for a movement. This is not a book written by a Harrison sycophant, despite Perry’s deep admiration for Harrison. It is a critical examination of a pivotal figure at a key and poorly understood moment in time.

It is unfortunate that Perry chose to tell Harrison’s story in two volumes. Though there is much to say about Harrison and his life, the political challenges faced by Harrison and the choices he made need to be available in accessible form to activist readers.

That said, Hubert Harrison is an excellent work and a great contribution to scholarship in connection with Black radicalism. Perry must be applauded for introducing, and in some cases reintroducing, this influential, though paradoxically all-but-forgotten figure to scholars and activists of the 21st century. (source: Z-Magazine's November 2008)

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The White Women of the Black Renaissance

In the New York Times, Martha A. Sandweiss reviews the book Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance, by Carla Kaplan, in an article entitled, "Uptown Girls," on 20 September 2013  --  Time hasn’t been kind to the white women who participated in the Harlem Renaissance. As philanthropists and activists, authors and patrons, they sought a place for themselves in that remarkable outpouring of African-American art during the 1920s and ’30s. Some, constrained by social expectations, effaced the records of their work. Others made it difficult for historians to treat them with much seriousness. What, after all, can we do with someone like Nancy Cunard, a British steamship heiress raised on a remote English estate, who felt no shame in proclaiming “I speak as if I were a Negro myself”?

“Miss Anne” — the dismissive collective name given to white women — makes bit appearances in the literature of the era as a dilettante or imperious patron; later, she’s depicted as a thrill-seeking “slummer.” Always, she lurks in the shadows of her male counterparts in scholarly studies of the movement. But she was there, encouraging writers, underwriting cultural institutions, supporting progressive political causes. And many leading Harlem Renaissance figures — including Langston Hughes, Alain Locke and Nella Larsen — had reason to be grateful to her. At least for a while. Like everything else about Miss Anne, those relationships got complicated.

 The White Women of the Black Renaissance, By Carla Kaplan

In this remarkable work of historical recovery, Carla Kaplan, author of “Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters,” does well by a group of women who got so much wrong. She resurrects Miss Anne as a cultural figure and explores the messy contradictions of her life, moving her from the periphery of a story about white patronage and boundary-testing interracial liaisons to the center. With a focus on six of the roughly 60 white women active in the Harlem Renaissance, Kaplan delineates Miss Anne as a counterpart to the better known flapper or “new woman” of the Roaring Twenties. But this is really a collection of individual stories, a group biography that lets the idiosyncrasies of the individual women shine through. “Negrotarians,” as the writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston called Harlem’s white patrons, were a diverse crew, full of good intentions, startling blind spots and astonishing self-confidence.

“Miss Anne in Harlem” gives just passing attention to the era’s quieter patrons, like Mary White Ovington, a founder of the N.A.A.C.P., or the philanthropist Amy ­Spingarn. Kaplan’s eye is on the women who raised more complicated questions about racial self-identity. So we meet Cunard, a self-appointed expert on African-­American life, who organized and self-published a massive 855-page anthology, “Negro,” an “entirely documentary” record of the race, even though she’d made only brief trips to America and had never been to Africa. And we encounter Charlotte Osgood Mason, an imperious anti-Semite and collector of African art, who demanded that her Harlem protégés call her “Godmother.” It would be easy to dismiss such women as high-handed interlopers. But Kaplan urges us to take them seriously and to use their sometimes overwrought, even outrageous, expressions of cross-racial solidarity as a way to understand a broader set of questions about racial identity.

Mary White Ovington,

The book is full of fresh discoveries. ­Kaplan learns that Lillian Wood, author of the radical 1920s anti-lynching novel “Let My People Go,” was actually white, not black, as other scholars have imagined. She reveals that Josephine Cogdell Schuyler, the white daughter of a Klan member and the wife of the African-American journalist George Schuyler, collaborated anonymously on much of her husband’s work and used several pseudonyms to write for his journal, conveying the false impression of a community of white women who shared her anti-racist views.

But the focus of the book remains squarely on the larger issues of racial identity raised by Miss Anne’s deep personal identification with African-American life. Miss Anne wanted to suggest that race was a constructed ideal, yet she stumbled over the internal contradictions of her impulses. She fought against racial essentialism and the perverse logic of America’s one-drop rule, which proclaimed that even a trace of African heritage made one black, but she also celebrated the seeming vitality and distinctiveness of black culture. Josephine Cogdell Schuyler wrote in her diary the night before her wedding: “To my mind, the white race, the Anglo-Saxon especially, is spiritually depleted. America must mate with the Negro to save herself.” In a similar expression of romantic racialism, the philanthropist Charlotte Osgood Mason lauded “the creative impulse throbbing in the African race.” As Kaplan suggests, white men could sometimes get away with ideas like this; a dose of black culture offered a useful inoculation against the debilitating sterility of the industrial world. But white women who sought an intimate connection with African-­American life were seen as traitors to the race, even sexual deviants.

Charlotte Osgood Mason 

What was race anyway? That’s the big question Miss Anne’s actions raised. If race was simply a myth or fiction, could one reimagine racial identity as something based on affiliation rather than blood? Some of the writers of the Harlem Renaissance asked much the same thing. In Nella Larsen’s “Passing” and James Weldon Johnson’s “Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man,” for example, light-skinned protagonists of African-American heritage successfully pass as white, demonstrating that racial identity could hinge on voluntary association and careful self-presentation. Their radical acts blur the color line and expose the absurdity of the one-drop rule. Approaching the color line from the other side, Miss Anne reframed the issues. If race wasn’t determined by biology, why couldn’t a white woman feel black? Why couldn’t she repudiate her own culture to embrace another?

Many Harlem intellectuals decried racial essentialism, just as Miss Anne did. But a conflicting set of values celebrated “race pride.” Many excoriated the biracial Jean Toomer for not wishing to be included in anthologies of Negro literature, and conversely praised the anti-lynching activist and N.A.A.C.P. executive secretary Walter White for identifying as black when his appearance gave no suggestion of his African ancestry. Even the protagonists of Larsen’s and Johnson’s novels about passing, came to regret their decisions. They could pass across the color line, but it was not worth the cost of losing their families, their people, their race. Race might be a fiction. But somehow, it still mattered.

File:Fannie Hurst.jpg
Fannie Hurst 

Miss Anne didn’t have it easy. White critics viewed her as sex-crazed or degenerate, and her desire to speak for others made her a problematic figure in the black community as well. When Fannie Hurst included a stereotyped mammy figure in her best-selling novel “Imitation of Life,” Zora Neale Hurston, once close to Hurst, wrote an essay titled “You Don’t Know Us Negroes,” criticizing books by white writers that “made out they were holding a looking glass to the Negro” but “had everything in them but Negroness.” I am a “better Negro” than most of the Negroes I know, Charlotte Osgood Mason told the Jamaican-American poet Claude McKay. Small wonder that her protégés Langston Hughes and Hurston broke from her iron grip.

Miss Anne makes for a messy heroine. But in Kaplan’s deeply researched book, she becomes a useful cultural type, for all her inconsistencies and inability to effect broad social change. As Americans debate whether this might truly be a “post-racial” age, Miss Anne’s ambitions and failures remind us what happened when an earlier generation of earnest and committed (if sometimes misguided) women questioned the meaning of the color line, and pushed for the right to define their own racial identities. They discovered that even if race is a fiction, the power of race is real.  (source: New York Time)

Friday, November 15, 2013

Kidnapping Free People of Color in the USA

From the PBS Series, Africans in America "Kidnapping in Pennsylvania (1783 - 1826)" -- The passage of the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act, fueled a huge and vastly profitable underground industry that took full advantage of the inferior legal status of free and enslaved blacks. The law made it possible for a white person to claim any black person as a fugitive, and placed the burden of proof on the captive. Free blacks living in Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and other cities near the borders of slave states were especially vulnerable, though several well-known cases demonstrate that no state was immune.

Slave speculators (or slavers) -- who legally purchased the rights to runaways, captured them, and then resold them at a profit -- often seized blacks at random, banking on their inability to prove their status to the satisfaction of a magistrate. In one case, a slave speculator who attempted to seize AME Bishop Richard Allen found himself in debtors' prison, charged with attempted kidnapping, false accusation and perjury by Allen, who dropped the charges several months later.

Although Pennsylvania passed a law against kidnapping in 1788, penalties were so light as to be ineffective. In a 1799 petition, Absalom Jones and other Philadelphia blacks petitioned Congress against slavery, specifically focusing on the Fugitive Slave Act and the practice of kidnapping.

In 1820 lobbying by PAS produced a stronger anti-kidnapping law, providing penalties of twenty-one years imprisonment at hard labor. The increased demand for slaves created by the passage of the Missouri Compromise, though, made the rewards of kidnapping worth the risk to many slavers.

That same year, John Read, a free man who lived in Kennet Township (in Chester County, Pennsylvania) killed two white men who broke into his home in an attempt to capture and enslave him. It was well known that Read carried a pistol, having had a previous experience with an attempted kidnapping several years before. On the night of December 14, two men named Shipley and Griffith called for Read to open his door, claiming to have a search warrant for stolen goods. Suspecting that they were kidnappers, Read advised them to return at daylight to conduct their search.

When the men ignored his warning and burst in with pistols cocked, Read called out, "It is life for life!" Griffith, a slavemaster, yelled "Rush on, Shipley; damn the Negro, he won't shoot." Read shot one and clubbed the other to death. He was acquitted of murdering Griffith, but convicted of manslaughter in the death of agent Shipley, for which he was imprisoned for nine years. The state had sought the death penalty.

In a letter dated October 21, 1823, from Charleston, South Carolina, Phillis Cox sought the help of Dr. James Rush, the son of Dr. Benjamin Rush and himself a physician, in proving her free status. She requested that he "look at the re[c]ording-office and get a coppy of my free papers and send them on to me as I am made a slave heair." Cox included a list of "names of persons that well noes me to be free Borne in that state." Southern states required that a white person appear in person to identify the captive; the testimony of blacks, whether slave or free, was inadmissible, either to establish free status or in the prosecution of the kidnapper.

A kidnapping ring discovered to be operating in and near Philadelphia in the mid-1820s provided evidence of how similar rings functioned. With relatives and a mulatto man as accomplices, Joseph Johnson preyed on children between the ages of eight and fifteen, luring them onto a ship with promises of work, then transporting them south and selling them into slavery.

Children provided a low-risk target, even if their cases somehow attracted legal intervention. Dramatic changes in children, resulting from growth and physical abuse, made indisputable identification difficult even for relatives -- whose testimony would not have been allowed in any case -- much less for a white patron, who would have to bear the expense of traveling South to make the identification. In a two-year period, at least a hundred black children were abducted from Philadelphia alone.  (source: PBS)

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Martin Luther King's Assassination: ‘Hellhound on His Trail’ by Hampton Sides

A Book Review from the Los Angeles Times, "‘Hellhound on His Trail’ by Hampton Sides: A bestselling author reconstructs an assassin’s life and the events leading up to the killing of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.," by Art Winslow, on 25 April 2010  --  Told that his activities were "unwise and untimely," the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. responded, in his famous 1963 "Letter From Birmingham Jail," that while he was committed to nonviolence, "I am in Birmingham because injustice is here." Five years later, he was in Memphis, Tenn., for similar reasons — to demonstrate in support of 1,300 city sanitation workers who were on strike — when he was gunned down on a motel balcony, waiting to go to dinner. He was in high spirits, for his associates from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had that very day won a court battle allowing King to lead a march in the city.

James Earl Ray, the dodgy career criminal and escaped convict who murdered King and helped turn 1968 into the sad, tumultuous year that it was, is the man with the gun in Hampton Sides' "Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin." And yet there are hellhounds aplenty in Sides' book, notable among them George Wallace, J. Edgar Hoover and J.B. Stoner, chair of the National States' Rights Party and publisher of hate literature, who contended that Ray "should be given the Congressional Medal of Honor." (Stoner eventually became one in Ray's long line of attorneys and was the first of them to suggest that "agents of the federal government," not Ray, killed King.)

Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin, By Hampton Sides

Wallace, the former governor of Alabama, was running a segregationist-minded, third-party campaign for president and found a supporter and volunteer in Ray (Wallace referred to civil-rights legislation as "an assassin's knife stuck in the back of liberty," a view he disowned years later). Hoover, director of the FBI, had nursed a vendetta against King for a decade, called the civil-rights leader "Burrhead" and other names and fretted privately to President Lyndon Johnson that it was "clear [King] is an instrument in the hands of subversive forces seeking to undermine our nation."

Sides has managed to frame a grim cutout of the 1960s within a few weeks of springtime 1968 by following the paths of King and Ray in a deadly pas de deux. We are reminded of the other momentous political events fitting within this tight time frame: LBJ's game-changing announcement that he would not run for reelection (March 31) occurred a handful of days before King was assassinated (April 4), and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was shot on the presidential campaign trail (June 5) as authorities were closing in on Ray. After nine weeks on the run, King's murderer was seized in London on the day of RFK's funeral service in New York (June 8).

One challenge for Sides is that King's trajectory is among the most well-charted of any modern political figure (David Garrow's "Bearing the Cross" and the third volume of Taylor Branch's King biography, "At Canaan's Edge," for the last years, are good examples), and an exacting look at Ray's criminal past, the assassination, his guilty plea, imprisonment and the evidence can be found in Gerald Posner's "Killing the Dream," published a dozen years ago. As Sides' source notes make clear, he has surveyed the enormous range of available literature (including memoirs of on-the-scene principals such as Andrew Young, an SCLC staffer in 1968, and Ralph Abernathy, the longtime trusted colleague who succeeded King as head of the leadership conference), examined FBI files, oral histories and other archival documentation, and expended the journalistic shoe leather to go back and reinterview multiple witnesses and participants in the hunt for the killer (including then-U.S. Atty. Gen. Ramsey Clark).

The result is a taut, vibrant account that shows the synchronicity of movements as King and his colleagues plot political strategy and follow his speaking itinerary, while Ray draws ever closer in what would seem an erratic path if we didn't know, as in myth, that a tragedy foreordained lay on the road ahead.

Sides' writing is trenchant on King's political aims and concerns, stuffed with sharp first-person quotations, chilling in detail and particularly haunting in evoking the confusion and pathos in the minutes following the single crack of Ray's rifle. Half of "Hellhound on His Trail" builds up to the murder, the remaining half follows law-enforcement attempts to identify and track down the unknown assailant, and the efforts by King's bereft circle to carry on his work in earnest.

On the night of King's death, a curfew was instituted in Memphis and the National Guard was called in (eventually numbering 4,000 guardsmen) with its helicopters and half-tracks. The city "for all intents and purposes, was girding for war," Sides writes, a reflex if nothing else in a nation jittery from riots in Watts, Detroit, Newark, N.J., and elsewhere from 1965 on. Callers to a popular white radio station — one of the shameful but telling details studded throughout the book — repeatedly requested that "Bye Bye Blackbird" be played. When the FBI office in Atlanta (where King was code-named "Zorro") received the news of King's death, an agent named James Rose "nearly jumped up and down with joy," exclaiming, "They got Zorro." Fires were set in Washington and other cities, and a day later LBJ went on national television (for a second time) to make a brief statement, pleading that violence "must be denied its victory."

When King's widow, Coretta, arrived at the Memphis airport to claim his body, aboard a plane that had been provided by RFK, not a single official from the city of Memphis — not Mayor Henry Loeb III, not the director of police, nor any city councilman — showed up to greet her. She refused to leave the plane. On April 9, the day of King's funeral in his home city of Atlanta, most flags were at half-staff, "but some flew upside-down, sending a message not of sorrow but of bitterness and defiance."

In his final weeks, King had been stumping for a new plan: launching a Poor People's Campaign in which an army of the impoverished would occupy a tent city on the National Mall in Washington. The Memphis strike represented "the Washington campaign in miniature," he told his staff. To King, the entire nonviolent approach was on the line — a previous march in Memphis had gone awry, turning violent with hurled bottles and bricks and even looting, deeply embarrassing King, who felt the need to show it was an aberration.

King never got his chance, thanks to the man who called himself by a variety of names, among them Eric Galt and Ramon Sneyd, aliases that Sides uses in his narration. Galt/Sneyd/Ray dressed in a suit but stayed in flophouses, drove a white Mustang (his getaway vehicle), frequented whorehouses and came from a family of fellow felons. One or another of his brothers may have given him aid, the likely limits of a conspiracy if there was one. That, at least, is the implication of the House Select Committee on Assassinations' 1979 report and the conclusion reached by Posner in "Killing the Dream."

Sides is skeptical but not definitive on the conspiracy question, simply pointing to the views of others. Like them, though, he is struck by lingering questions about Ray's precise motivation — unanswerable, since Ray died in prison in 1998. What we do know is what the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., or "Daddy King," knew when he heard of his son's fate: "The child, the scholar, the boy singing and smiling — all of it was gone."  (source: Los Angeles Times)

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Assassin James Earl Ray's Road to Memphis

As reviewed by the New York Times,"Tracing King’s Killer in a World of Shadow," by Janet Maslin, on 21 April 2010 -- In writing “Hellhound on His Trail,” the hands-on historian Hampton Sides (“Ghost Soldiers,” “Blood and Thunder”) has undertaken a hugely risky proposition. He has pieced together a viscerally dramatic account of the last days of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and intercut Dr. King’s story with the maneuverings of James Earl Ray, the man tried and convicted as his assassin. The potential for exploitation is immense, especially in light of Mr. Sides’s most visible literary influence. Here is the King assassination as imagined not only in the black and white of the civil rights movement’s era but in James Ellroy’s noir.

When Mr. Ellroy writes of sleaze, conspiracy, corruption and murder (as he frequently has, most famously in “L.A. Confidential,” “My Dark Places” and “The Cold Six Thousand”), he revels in this stuff. Mr. Sides’s objectives are entirely different, even if Ray’s tastes for strip joints, Brylcreem, aliases, guns and cheap motels are inevitably part of the story. Mr. Sides writes in forceful, dignified, obscenity-free language and creates the momentum of a tightly constructed nonfiction film. His book, which takes its title from the Robert Johnson blues song, arrives in conjunction with “Roads to Memphis,” a documentary to be broadcast on PBS May 3.

Not many documentaries have the lean, unsparing urgency that can be found in Mr. Sides’s streamlined version. Remarkably, he has embroidered the facts without losing a sense of veracity. He augments the truth, but he does it responsibly. He skirts certain issues, like the question of whether or not Ray acted alone, without losing his sharp focus. And he brings to life the story of Dr. King’s last days without bogging it down in too many small particulars. Both Dr. King and Ray come to life in these remarkable pages, generating great suspense without surprise, thanks to readers’ terrible foreknowledge of what will happen when these two cross paths.

In order to achieve such verisimilitude, Mr. Sides has drawn on a wide spectrum of sources. Some, like David Halberstam, are unimpeachable. Others, like the members of Dr. King’s inner circle who wrote memoirs about the assassination, are more self-conscious in their efforts to shape history. And some have been all but ignored in mainstream accounts of the assassination. In the furor that surrounded the shooting and focused all attention on the event itself, some ancillary figures were either hidden or overlooked.

But Mr. Sides draws on the recollections of Georgia Davis, the Kentucky state senator and Dr. King’s illicit companion, who says she was with him on the last night of his life. He includes the fact that Loree Bailey, one of the white owners of the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King was shot, collapsed and died in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. He reminds readers of the terrible grief endured by the King family, not only at this moment but six years later when Alberta King, Dr. King’s mother, was gunned down while playing a church organ. As for Ray’s own version of events, Mr. Sides takes even that into account. “As they say, a busted watch tells the truth twice a day,” he writes.

Mostly “Hellhound on His Trail” is a tight two-man story, cutting back and forth between Dr. King and a shady figure who in 1968 was calling himself Eric Starvo Galt. (The last name perhaps comes from John Galt, the heroic figure in Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged.” Mr. Sides says he also thinks that the middle name comes from a James Bond character.)

 A news reporter stands in the room rented by the assassin who shot Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in Memphis, Tenn., April 5, 1968. The civil rights leader was standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel when he was killed by a rifle bullet on April 4, 1968. James Earl Ray pleaded guilty to the killing and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. He died in prison in 1998. (source: The Salt Lake Tribune, AP Photo)

Mr. Sides begins by describing Galt’s 1967 escape from prison in Jefferson City, Mo.; he managed to hide inside a box filled with loaves of prison-baked bread. Beyond writing that “the kitchen was redolent with the tang of yeast,” Mr. Sides goes mercifully easy on the made-up particulars, preferring to take a cool, clinical view of Galt and his subsequent travels. Having thus dodged the remaining 18 years of his armed robbery sentence, he wandered to Mexico, where he typically managed to make himself barely noticeable. He was remembered as “a fidgety gringo who wore shades and mumbled when he spoke.”

Galt drifted to Los Angeles and graduated from bartending school. He took a correspondence course in locksmithing and worked as a volunteer for the presidential campaign of George Wallace, whose incendiary speeches and claims that a “whole heap of folks in this country feel the same way I do” are enough to give the hate speech in “Hellhound on His Trail” a startlingly contemporary aspect. Then the book, without presuming to explain Galt’s inner workings, follows him east toward Memphis, where he knew Dr. King could be found.

“On this night, the Leader was full of charity,” Mr. Sides writes, about a generous gesture made by Dr. King to the Rev. Jesse Jackson moments before the shooting. “He zestfully tugged at his coat lapels, as was his habit when he felt confident and ready for the world. He was clean shaven, sweet smelling and dressed to the nines. He looked at Jackson and flashed a broad smile.” And he was within the gun sights of Galt, who had positioned himself at a window above in the filthy communal bathtub of a rooming house behind the Lorraine Motel.

“Hey, that sounded like a shot,” one of the rooming house’s denizens said soon afterward. “It was,” Galt replied as he hastily escaped, according to the F.B.I.’s subsequent investigation.

“Hellhound on his Trail” makes spellbinding use of such blunt simplicity. And it winds up sounding lifelike and authoritative if not comprehensive. Who sent Ray on this mission? Mr. Sides doesn’t know. How did Mr. Jackson wind up inaccurately telling television reporters that he was the last person to whom Dr. King spoke? Mr. Sides addresses this question but doesn’t harp on it. He doesn’t have to.

Mr. Sides was a 6-year-old in Memphis when Dr. King was shot. His main objective in this bold, dynamic, unusually vivid book is to bring an adult’s perspective to events that he could neither fathom nor forget.  (source: New York Times)

George Washington Fields' Great Escape From Slavery

From The New York Times Disunion, "No More a Slave," by Kevin M. Clermont, on 25 October 2013 -- Most people who study the Civil War are familiar with the classic autobiographical narratives, written by such luminaries as Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. But there are countless other unpublished works, written by lesser-known men and women who successfully navigated the treacherous path from slavery to freedom. One of these, “Come On, Children: The Autobiography of George Washington Fields, Born a Slave in Hanover County, Virginia,” recently rediscovered in museum archives in Hampton, Va., is a particularly stirring and valuable account of a slave’s path to freedom.

Fields was born into slavery in 1854. But he won his freedom when, in 1863, his mother, Martha Ann Fields, led a small group in an escape to Hampton, which by then was under Union control. As a young freedman, Fields worked to support his family, and pursued an education at the storied Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute. He next headed north and eventually found employment as a butler to the New York governor, Alonzo Cornell, the son of the founder of Cornell University, who encouraged Fields to enroll in the law department at his namesake institution. In 1890 Fields became Cornell’s first African-American graduate. He then went home to Hampton where — though blinded in 1896 — he became a leading attorney in the region before his death in 1932.

Fields’ autobiography is a remarkable document. It recounts his journey from bondage to freedom to success through a blend of humor and wisdom, grounded in a set of values he inherited from his strong-willed and deeply religious mother, qualities she demonstrated during the escape.

The plantation where the Fields family was enslaved was in Hanover County, a hot spot of military activity throughout the war. On one side was Richmond, the capital that the Confederacy simply had to retain. On another side, on a spit of land opposite Hampton, sat Fortress Monroe, which had never fallen from Union hands. In July 1863, a small battle broke out near the plantation, and Fields’s mother saw her chance to flee, along with him and five of his siblings. They followed the retreating Union soldiers, only to discover that to protect their retreat the soldiers had burned the sole bridge across the Pamunkey River, which separated Confederate-held Hanover County from Union-held King William County. Fields described the moment:
Here we stood on the brink of the river and still in the rebels’ territory. What could we do? What should we do? All eyes were upon mother, who seemed for a while somewhat bewildered. She had a brother who was a slave to a man named Wickham, who owned a farm four miles away and several bloodhounds. He was head man on the farm and had charge of these, and how to get to her brother without arousing the hounds was the question. She had visited him often during the day by traveling the main county road, but she dared not take this way for fear that she might encounter the Rebel pickets. Suddenly being, so it seemed, prompted by a certain premonition, she picked up the iron pot, placed it on her head and said, ‘Come on, children,’ and leaving the road entered the thickets and led the way, parting the bushes and the high weeds as she traveled alongside the open fields.
All that night we wended our way through thorns and briars, with our feet and hands torn and bleeding. Occasionally we could hear what seemed to us to be a large snake darting through the leaves and dried grass. The whippoorwill and the large gray owl seemed delighted to accompany us from the start to the end of our journey. She with her song, and he with his whoo-whoo. On our way we came to a stream, which made up from the main river, around the head of which we had to travel, and back to the river which was our only guide to the farm where my uncle lived.

By 3 a.m. Martha Ann Fields had led them to their uncle’s hut. Once the bloodhounds were calmed, she had to get her family across the Pamunkey River. Fields wrote:
Uncle John had a boat which he had dug out of a large tree, the bottom of which he had flattened. This he used as a kind of ferryboat to cross the river into King William. The boat could only carry two persons at a time. Mother inquired of uncle if he could put us across. He answered in a rather doubtful way he thought he could. ‘Come on,’ said he, and we followed down to the brink of the river, where we could hear the water madly dashing over the falls it had made for itself by piling up trees and other debris, which had become stationary permanently; then the gurgling deadly roar as it pursued its course brought to us another period of dread and terror. Uncle John left us for a moment and went down the steep muddy incline to the river to see if his boat was there, for he had often lost it, it having before been frequently torn from its mooring by the force of the rushing waters.
He on his return said, ‘She is all right, Martha Ann, and I guess I will take you over first.’
‘No,’ said mother, ‘I want you to carry all of my folks over first.’
Madison Lewis, who was paying court to one of my sisters and who subsequently married her, was the first to cross, but because of the steep incline and the slippery condition of the bank of the river, he had a terrible time reaching the level land, which he succeeded in doing by pulling himself up from first one tree or shrub to another. Uncle John, for fear the children could not do this, got a spade and dug clay and dirt steps in the bank so that we had little difficulty in reaching the level. One by one we were carried over, Uncle John instructing each to hold on to the young trees and bushes as we ascended. Next to the last came George W. Fields, or Cock Robin as he was called at his slavery home, with his little sister Catherine in his arms. As we came to the shore, uncle tied the boat to a tree and then, getting out, drew it near and got us both out and carried us to the level. All were over now but mother and, oh, how anxious we were until we saw her come climbing up the steps, catching hold of first one tree and another until she was on the level with us all. Then Uncle John brought from the boat the oblong iron pot.
He and mother talked, and suddenly he said, ‘Hush, Martha Ann, I think I hear a horn blow, and look over yonder, there is a big light in the sky, and dar is where dem Yankees is.’
‘Yes,’ said mother, ‘I hear that horn now, too. Well, John, I am going to see if I can find the Yankees, for they is certainly in King William and so are we.’

In a torrential downpour, she led the group to a Yankee division’s encampment. Things briefly looked up, until a rebel troop movement sent soldiers and escapees fleeing to the main army at White House on the York River. The soldiers then put the escapees on barges that took them to safety. Fields recalled:

As we journeyed down the river, someone raised the following hymn, in which all joined:
Oh freedom, oh freedom / Oh freedom, oh freedom / over me, over me / And before I would be a slave / I would be buried in my grave / And before I would be a slave / I WOULD be buried in my grave / And go home to my Lord and be free
Martha Ann and her children arrived at Fortress Monroe as freed people, rather than with the “contraband” status of blacks who had arrived there in 1861 and 1862, because Hanover County was now one of the Virginia counties under the coverage of the Emancipation Proclamation. Coming just after the contrabands, they still arrived in time to participate in the turbulent remaking of Hampton, where Southern slaves, free blacks, Union military and Northern missionaries had embarked on their first large-scale encounter. They were free people setting out to build what they hoped would be a new, freer world for themselves and their children.  (source: The New York Times)


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