Slavery at Mount Vernon

Thompson_comp_newMary Thompson is the author of The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret”: George Washington, Slavery, and the Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon. Here is a taste of Robin Lindley’s interview with Thompson at History News Network:

Robin Lindley: How did Martha Washington see and treat slaves? It seems she was more dismissive and derogatory than her husband concerning black people.

Mary V. Thompson:  Like her husband, Martha Washington tended to doubt the trustworthiness of the enslaved people at Mount Vernon.  Upon learning of the death of an enslaved child with whom her niece was close, she wrote that the younger woman should “not find in him much loss,” because “the Blacks are so bad in th[e]ir nature that they have not the least grat[i]tude for the kindness that may be sh[o]wed them.”  

The Washingtons never seemed to realize that they only knew Africans and African-Americans as people who were enslaved, which meant that they were not interacting as equals and any ideas they may have had about innate qualities of this different culture were tainted by the institution of slavery.

Robin Lindley: I realize that direct evidence from slaves is limited, but what did you learn about how slaves viewed George Washington? 

Mary V. Thompson:  Because Washington was so admired by his contemporaries, many of whom came to Mount Vernon to see his home—and especially his tomb—those visitors often talked with the slaves and formerly enslaved people on the plantation in order to learn snippets about what the private George Washington was like. 

Extended members of the Washington family, former neighbors, official guests, and journalists, often wrote about their experiences at Mount Vernon and what they learned about Washington from those enslaved by him. Some people were still angry about how they were treated, while others were grateful for having been freed by him.

Robin Lindley: In his early years as a plantation owner, Washington—like most slave owners—saw his slaves as his property and he bought and sold slaves with seeming indifference to the cruelty and unfairness of this institution. He broke up slave marriages and families, and he considered black people indolent and intellectually inferior. However, as you detail, his views evolved. How do you see the arc of Washington’s life in terms of how he viewed his slaves and slavery?

Mary V. Thompson: That change primarily happened during the American Revolution.  Washington took command of the American Army in mid-1775.  Within three years, he was confiding to a cousin, who was managing Mount Vernon for him, that he no longer wanted to be a slave owner.  In those years, Washington was spending long periods of time in parts of the country where agriculture was successfully practiced without slave labor and he saw black soldiers fighting alongside white ones. He also could see the hypocrisy of fighting for liberty and freedom, while keeping others enslaved.  There were even younger officers on his staff who supported abolition.  

While he came to believe that slavery was something he wanted nothing more to do with, it was one thing to think that slavery was wrong, and something else again to figure out what to do to remedy the situation.  For example, it was not until 1782 that Virginia made it possible for individual slave owners to manumit their slaves without going through the state legislature.  After an 8-year absence from home, during which he took no salary, Washington also faced legal and financial issues that would also hamper his ability to free the Mount Vernon slaves.

Read the entire interview here.

When Government Inaction or Delay Shaped the Course of Infectious Disease

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A Civil War field hospital in Virginia, 1862 (Library of Congress; Photo by James Gibson)

Over at The Atlantic, Jim Downs, professor of history at Connecticut College and author of Sick From Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering During the Civil War and Reconstruction, writes about “the epidemics America got wrong.”  A taste:

By late March 1863, hundreds had died in Alexandria, Virginia. The mortality rate had almost doubled in just one night, and even quadrupled in other parts of the country. Three thousand people were dead in less than a month in North and South Carolina. The numbers in Louisiana, Georgia, and parts of Mississippi were equally as high. As a smallpox epidemic tore through the country, more than 49,000 people died from June 1865 to December 1867, the years an official count was kept.

Smallpox exploded at this time not because of a lack of protocols or knowledge—a vaccine even existed—but because political leaders simply didn’t care about the group that was getting sick. Government inaction or delay—due to racial discrimination, homophobia, stigma, and apathy—have shaped the course of many epidemics in our country. In the 1980s, for example, HIV spread as the government barely acknowledged its existence.

Now the United States is facing the coronavirus pandemic. Once again, the threat a disease poses has been magnified by the slow speed with which the government has reacted. And although this disease is not concentrated within any one community, it is poised to exacerbate existing inequalities. The lesson of past outbreaks of infectious diseases is that public officials must take them seriously, communicate honestly, and tend to the most vulnerable. If the United States has not always lived up to that standard, we now have the perfect opportunity to apply the lessons of our past mistakes.

Downs concludes:

History has shown us time and time again that epidemics worsen when the federal and state leaders with the power to implement preventive efforts fail to take it seriously. In the past few years, public-health and national-security officials have issued warnings that the U.S. was not ready for a pandemic, but the government failed to act then. Now the coronavirus is in all 50 states. In the 1860s and in the 1980s, communities had to find a way to help themselves. Today the government has a chance to not make the same mistake again.

Read the entire piece here. And let’s keep learning from the past in these troubled times.

An African-American Pastor Guides His Congregation Through the 1918 Influenza Epidemic

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Francis J. Grimké (1850-1937) pastored the 15th Street Presbyterian Church in Washington D.C., an African-American congregation, for nearly fifty years.  He was an active member of W.E.B. Du Bois’s Niagara Movement and was involved in the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909. Church historian Louis Weeks has published a short introduction to Grimké at the website of the Presbyterian Historical Society.  Here is a taste:

Throughout his ministry, Francis Grimké stood for equal rights and the end of racism against black Americans. He eloquently demonstrated this during his sermons and lectures, such as his address at the Union Thanksgiving Service at Plymouth Congregational Church, Washington, D.C., in 1919: “On an occasion such as this, it is well for us to ask ourselves the question, What reason or reasons have we, as an oppressed, aggrieved, circumscribed class in this country, in the midst of this great white population, to be thankful during this past year?” He answered the question with the Bible, specifically the Sermon on the Mount and the Golden Rule of Jesus. He went on to appeal to Reformed teachings about respect and citizenship, condemned lynchings and pervasive racism, and lauded black leadership “no longer to submit quietly to the acts of violence that a certain class of whites have felt free to inflict upon (us).”

In my efforts to think historically and Christianly about our current coronavirus pandemic, I stumbled across Grimké’s November 3, 1918 address, “Some Reflections, Growing Out of the Recent Epidemic of Influenza That Afflicted Our City.” Here is how he begins the address:

We know now, perhaps, as we have never known before the meaning of the terms pestilence, plague, epidemic, since we have been passing through this terrible scourge of Spanish influenza, with its enormous death rate and its consequent wretchedness and misery.  Every part of the land has felt its deadly touch–North, South, East and West–in the Army, in the Navy, among civilians, among all classes and conditions, rich and poor, high and low, white and black. Over the land it has thrown a gloom, and has stricken down such large numbers that it has been difficult to care for them properly, overcrowding all of our hospitals–and it has proven fatal in so many cases that it has been difficult at times to dig graves fast enough in which to bury them. Our own beautiful city has suffered terribly from it, making it necessary, as a precautionary measure, to close the schools, theaters, churches, and to forbid all public gathering within the doors as well as outdoors. At last, however, the scourge has been stayed, and we are permitted again to resume the public worship of God, and to open again the schools of our city.

Now that the worst is over, I have been thinking, as doubtless you have all been, of these calamitous weeks through which we have been passing–thinking of the large numbers that have been sick–the large numbers that have died, the many, many homes that have been made desolate–the many, many bleeding, sorrowing hearts that have been left behind, and I have been asking myself the question, What is the meaning of it all? What ought it to mean to us? Is it to come and go and we be no wiser, or better for it? Surely God has a purpose in it, and it is our duty to find out, as far as we may, what that purpose is, and try to profit for it.

Grimké offered his congregation several lessons about the meaning of the 1918 influenza epidemic that killed over 675,000 Americans and over 2800 in Washington D.C.:

1. Humility. Humans are at the mercy of viruses and diseases. It reminds us that there are some things that we cannot control. Grimké writes, “How easy it would be for God to wipe out the whole human race, in this way, if he wanted to; for these terrible epidemics, plagues, the mighty forces of nature, all are at His command, are all His agents. At any moment, if He willed it, in this way, vast populations or portions of populations could be destroyed.” This was Grimké’s Calvinism at work. He believed in a providential God who sometimes brought suffering to his people. He referenced the Book of Job and Psalm 91 on this front.  God’s ways are mysterious.

2. Follow the advice and instructions of experts. In their attempts to curb the influenza and “safeguard” the general public, Washington D.C.’s public health commissioners closed theaters, schools, churches, and large public gatherings. Not everyone was happy about this. Grimké writes, “There has been considerable grumbling, I know, on the part of some, particularly in regard to the closing of the churches. It seems to me, however, in a matter like this it is always wise to submit to such restrictions for the time being.” The local government’s exercise of power in this moment was indeed “extraordinary” and would “not be tolerated under ordinary circumstances,” but the circumstances in Washington D.C. and the nation during the epidemic were far from “ordinary.” Grimké warned his congregation not to “needlessly run into danger, and expect God to protect us.” He added that, “All the churches, as well as the community at large, are going to be stronger and better for this season of distress through which we have been passing.” Listen to the experts. Self-quarantine an practice social distancing.

3. Influenza does not discriminate based on race. Grimké has a message to his white neighbors: “during this epidemic scourge, if he gave any thought to the matter, if a particle of sense remained in him, he must have seen the folly of counting upon a white skin. Did the whiteness of his skin protect him? Did the epidemic pause to see whether his skin was white or black before smiting him?” Grimké believed that God was bringing this epidemic, at least in part, “to beat a little sense into the white man’s head” and “show him the folly of the empty conceit of his vaunted race superiority.” For once, he added, “a white skin counted for nothing in the way of securing better treatment–in the way of obtaining for its possessor considerations denied to those of darker hue.” Grimké was not very optimistic that his white neighbors would learn this lesson from the epidemic.

4. When churches close, the life of the faithful and the larger community is weaker.  Grimké called attention to “the sincere regrets that I have heard expressed all over the city by numbers of people at the closing of the churches.” He used these sentiments to encourage people to start attending church on a more regular basis now that the doors of congregations were open once again.

5. The possibility of death is always before us and we should live accordingly.  The 1918 epidemic, in Grimké’s words, “kept the thought of death and of eternity constantly before the people.” Grimké used this reality to preach the Gospel: “You who are not Christians, who have not yet repented of your sins, who have not yet surrendered yourselves to the guidance of Jesus Christ, if you allow these repeated warnings that you have had, day by day, week by week, to go uneeded…God has opened the way for your salvation, through the gift of His only begotten Son, who died that you might have the opportunity of making your peace with God….”

6. We should not fear because God is with us in the midst of life’s storms.  Here is Grimké: “While the plague was raging, while thousands were dying, what a comfort it was to feel that we were in the hands of a loving Father who was looking out for us, who had given us the great assurance that all things should work together for our good. And, therefore, that come what would–whether we were smitten or perished, we knew it would be well with us, that there was no reason to be alarmed.”

Leslie Harris Weighs-In on the 1619 Project

1619

Leslie Harris, a professor of history at Northwestern University, fact-checked The New York Times 1619 Project.  Here is what she said in a recent piece at Politico:

On August 19 of last year I listened in stunned silence as Nikole Hannah-Jones, a reporter for the New York Times, repeated an idea that I had vigorously argued against with her fact-checker: that the patriots fought the American Revolution in large part to preserve slavery in North America.

Hannah-Jones and I were on Georgia Public Radio to discuss the path-breaking New York Times 1619 Project, a major feature about the impact of slavery on American history, which she had spearheaded. The Times had just published the special 1619 edition of its magazine, which took its name from the year 20 Africans arrived in the colony of Virginia—a group believed to be the first enslaved Africans to arrive in British North America.

Weeks before, I had received an email from a New York Times research editor. Because I’m an historian of African American life and slavery, in New York, specifically, and the pre-Civil War era more generally, she wanted me to verify some statements for the project. At one point, she sent me this assertion: “One critical reason that the colonists declared their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery in the colonies, which had produced tremendous wealth. At the time there were growing calls to abolish slavery throughout the British Empire, which would have badly damaged the economies of colonies in both North and South.”

I vigorously disputed the claim. Although slavery was certainly an issue in the American Revolution, the protection of slavery was not one of the main reasons the 13 Colonies went to war.

The editor followed up with several questions probing the nature of slavery in the Colonial era, such as whether enslaved people were allowed to read, could legally marry, could congregate in groups of more than four, and could own, will or inherit property—the answers to which vary widely depending on the era and the colony. I explained these histories as best I could—with references to specific examples—but never heard back from her about how the information would be used.

Despite my advice, the Times published the incorrect statement about the American Revolution anyway, in Hannah-Jones’ introductory essay. In addition, the paper’s characterizations of slavery in early America reflected laws and practices more common in the antebellum era than in Colonial times, and did not accurately illustrate the varied experiences of the first generation of enslaved people that arrived in Virginia in 1619.

Both sets of inaccuracies worried me, but the Revolutionary War statement made me especially anxious. Overall, the 1619 Project is a much-needed corrective to the blindly celebratory histories that once dominated our understanding of the past—histories that wrongly suggested racism and slavery were not a central part of U.S. history. I was concerned that critics would use the overstated claim to discredit the entire undertaking. So far, that’s exactly what has happened.

Read the rest of her nuanced perspective here.

Click here for our collection of posts on the 1619 Project.

Teaching Alice Walker’s “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens”

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On Monday we wrapped-up the “Creation” unit in Created and Called for Community.  I began the class with a review.  Over the last two weeks we read:

  • Genesis 1 and 2
  • Bruce Birch’s theological commentary on Genesis 1-3: “The Image of God.”
  • James Weldon Johnson’s poem on Genesis 1 and 2: “The Creation
  • J.R.R. Tolkien’s short story “Leaf by Niggle.”

We spent the last day of the Creation unit discussing Alice Walker‘s 1983 essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens.” As is our custom, we began by “sourcing” the text.  Here is a taste of my colleague Kerry Hasler Brooks‘s introduction to Walker:

Alice Walker is a celebrated American writer, intellectual, and activist who has becoming a guiding voice of black feminism.  Drawing on her childhood in a small Georgia town gripped by the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow oppression, [Walker is the] author of more than 40 works of poetry, fiction, scholarship, memoir, and children’s literature.  Walker is best known for her 1982 novel The Color Purple.  This Pulitzer Prize-winning story celebrates the brave survival of black women assaulted by sexual abuse, racism, and poverty in the American South in the early twentieth century….

Walker’s essay added yet another layer of complexity to our understanding of creation and its implications for how we live. As we have seen, the Judeo-Christian tradition teaches that all human beings are created in the image of God and thus have dignity and worth. I was pleased to see how many students made a strong connection between this Christian view of human identity and their critiques of racism, poverty, and patriarchy.

But I wanted my students to take a deeper dive into the text. I encouraged them to consider Walker’s story in the context of what we have learned about the Christian’s call to creativity.  I reminded them of Tolkien’s idea of “sub-creation.” God created the world. We are created in the image of God.  We should thus be engaging in the advancement of God’s creation through our earthly labors.  As Tolkien taught us in “Leaf by Niggle” (with the help of the eschatological reflections of N.T. Wright that I introduced), our creative work, even if incomplete or unfinished, will one day be part of what the New Testament describes as the “new heavens and new earth.”

Walker’s African-American women–including her own mother–showed creativity amid the worst kinds of systemic oppression.  I asked the students to provide examples from the essay of how the creative work of these women revealed their dignity as God’s image bearers.  Racism, poverty, and patriarchy has tried to strip these women of their dignity. But their creative impulses, born of the divine spark within them, could not be squelched so easily.  The creative impulse is resilient within us because it comes from God. I wondered aloud if this impulse might even be a way to prove the existence of God.

Several students wanted to talk more about Phillis Wheatley, the first African-American woman to publish a book of poetry.  Walker writes about the “contrary instincts” that Wheatley felt as both a writer  and “a slave, who owned not even herself”:

Yet because she did try to use her gift for poetry in a world that made her a slave, she was “so thwarted and hindered by….contrary instincts, that she…lost her health…”  In the last years of her brief life, burdened not only with the need to express her gift but also with a penniless, friendless “freedom” and several small children for whom she was forced to do strenuous work to feed, she lost her health, certainly. Suffering from malnutrition and neglect and who knows what mental agonies, Phillis Wheatley died.  

Wheatley wrote, she created, amidst her frailty and weakness. I asked students to bring Wheatley’s story into conversation with the final pages of Tolkien’s “Leaf by Niggle.” All of my students agreed that the obstacles to Niggle’s creative energies were trivial when compared to Wheatley’s, but there were also some similarities. If Tolkien and Wright are correct, one day her poetry, which brought some light to the darkness of eighteenth-century slavery in America, will contribute to the new heavens and the new earth that creation “groans” for in Romans 8.  And that light will be much, much, brighter.

Other students referenced Walker’s story about the “anonymous Black woman in Alabama, a hundred years ago” who stitched a quilt that now hangs (or at least it did in 1983) in the Smithsonian Institution. Walker writes, “Though it follows no known pattern of quilt-making, and though it is made of bits and pieces of worthless rags, it is obviously the work of a person of powerful imagination and deep spiritual feeling.” I have a few history majors in my courses so I asked them to tell us something about what life might have been like for Black woman in Alabama in 1883. They were gave their fellow students a quick lesson about segregation and Jim Crow America. This quilt teaches us, again, that race-based systems of oppression cannot kill the creative impulse. Why? Because such an impulse is part of our DNA as human beings created in the image of God. (Repetition is important in a class like this! 🙂 ).

Another student commented on Walker’s mother as a story-teller.  Here is Walker:

But the telling of these stories, which came from my mother’s lips as naturally as breathing, was not the only way my mother showed herself as an artist.  For these stories, too, were subject to being distracted, to dying without conclusion.  Dinners must be started, and cotton must be gathered before the big rains.  The artist that was and is my mother showed itself to me only after many years.

By this point in the class, several students were making connections between Walker’s essay and previous readings. The stories that Walker’s mother told have not only enriched Walker’s life, but will also enrich all of us in the coming Kingdom.

Walker ends the essay by describing how her mother brightened their “shabby house” with flowers and gardens:

I notice that it is only when my mother is working in her flowers that she is radiant, almost to the point of being invisible–except as Creator: hand and eye.  She is involved in her work  her soul must have.  Ordering the universe in the image of her personal conception of Beauty. Her face, as she prepares the Art that is her gift is a legacy of respect she leaves to me, for all that illuminates and cherishes life.  She has handed down respect for the possibilities–and the will to grasp them.  For her, so hindered and intruded upon in so many ways, being an artist has still been a daily part of her life.  This ability to hold on, even in very simple ways, is work black women have done for a very long time.

For Walker, her mother’s gardens left her with a “heritage of a love of beauty and a respect for strength.” In “search of my mother’s garden,” she writes, “I found my own.” This is a wonderful reflection on how we connect with our personal histories. It should also inspire the work of the historian as she mines the past in search of forgotten stories of human beings–African-American women in Walker’s case–who engaged in acts of creation amid suffering. (And by telling these stories in compelling ways the historian also participates in the work of sub-creation). Walker’s essay should also inspire Christian historians to seek out these untold stories and interpret them as small glimpses of a coming kingdom where shalom will replace the brokenness of the world in which we create.

One day, hopefully soon, we will all get to enjoy the beautiful gardens of Alice Walker’s mother.

Today we move to the “Community” unit. We will begin with Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail.  Follow along here.

How American Descendants of Slavery Are Connecting With Their Roots

Slave Ship

Check out DESCENDANTS, a Washington Post series about African-Americans searching for their roots.  Here is a description:

For many Americans, blended ancestry is an integral part of their identity. The mosaic of hyphenated heritages preserves cultural connections beyond the United States, lineages that build pride and a sense of belonging. But for Americans descended from enslaved Africans, the roots of their ancestry are often a mystery. Family trees go dark after five or six generations, a reminder that 150 years ago, black people weren’t considered people.

Genealogists refer to this as “the brick wall,” an obstruction in African American lineage that dates to 1870 when the federal Census began recording African descendants — 250 years after they were first hauled in chains to what would become the United States.

Before then, their lives existed on paper only as another person’s property. To penetrate the brick wall, black Americans frequently must rely on the names of their ancestors’ owners.

“You can find them through [their owners’] tax records, estate records, slave schedules and wills,” said Mary Elliott, the “Slavery and Freedom” curator for the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Even after abolition, the black experience has fallen victim to campaigns that obscure the darkest parts of the American story, diminishing African Americans’ connections to their pasts and warping the collective memory of the nation’s history.

But in recent years, black Americans have pursued new efforts to uncover their stories. From exploring sunken vessels of the Middle Passage to reconstructing museum exhibits that chronicle slavery, African Americans are breaking down the barriers that separate them from their ancestors and reconnecting with a lineage once lost.

There are four video episodes:

Episode 1: “America’s Last Known Slave Ship”

Episode 2: “Diving With a Purpose”

Episode 3: “The Genetics of Race”

Episode 4: “The Lost Cause”

Learn more here.

Teaching James Weldon Johnson’s “The Creation”

James Weldon Johnson

James Weldon Johnson

Yesterday in my Created and Called for Community (CCC) class at Messiah College we discussed James Weldon Johnson‘s poem “The Creation” (1922). It is one of seven poems in his 1927 collection God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse.  Read it here.

My colleague (and Dean) Peter Powers, a scholar of religion and the Harlem Renaissance, writes:

“The Creation”  is found within the collection of God’s Trombones, which Johnson conceived as an interlinked set of sermons modeled on the style of traditional African-American preachers. Johnson thought of these preachers’ voices, with all their power and emotional range, as God’s trombones,” and saw clear links between the preaching, writing, and music-making of African Americans during this time.  All three forms of expression conveyed originality and creativity, and so could serve as wellsprings of African-American aspirations of freedom .

In writing these sermons into poetry, Johnson sought to communicate both authenticity and dignity.  He was troubled by many writers of his time (both white and African American) who used literary conventions and cliched dialect that depicted African American speech as malformed and unintelligent.  Johnson felt such depictions could perpetuate racist stereotypes that African Americans were incapable of significant cultural achievements in written English.  So instead of deliberately using misspellings and outrageous grammatical constructions, Johnson evoked the oral tradition in a more nuanced way through sentence structure, syntax, and word choice.  The aesthetic choice suggests that the oral tradition is high art in and of itself, as well as the basis for producing other great works of art.  This idea–that great art should be rooted in the folk tradition even as it transcends it–became a signature aesthetic of the Harlem Renaissance.                

“The Creation” is a sermon. It is meant to be preached. So I decided to play a reading of the poem by African-American clergyman and vocal artist Wintley Phipps. I asked the students to follow along with the printed text and try not to get caught-up with the images. I wanted this exercise to cultivate the moral imagination.

I asked the students to compare Johnson’s interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2 with the actual Old Testament text they read on Monday.  Several students connected Johnson’s poem to the second creation account (Genesis 2:4-2:25), an account that reveals the personal and compassionate nature of God.

We talked about the poem as a product of Jim Crow America.  I wanted the students to see that James Weldon Johnson’s understanding of humanity was more theologically and biblically sound than the views of the Christian defenders of segregation.  We returned to Bruce Birch’s essay and talked again about the Judeo-Christian belief that all human beings are created in the image of God.  Human dignity and worth has nothing to do with the color of one’s skin. Johnson knew this.

One student connected Johnson’s poem to Bruce Birch’s distinction between the “ethic of doing” and the “ethic of being.”  In “The Creation,” Johnson writes:

Then God walked around,

And God looked around

On all that he had made.

He looked at the sun,

And he looked at the moon, 

And he looked at the stars; 

He looked at the world

With all  its living things,

And God said, I’m lonely still.

Then God sat down–

On the side of a hill where he could think;

By a deep, wide river he sat down;

With his head in his hands,

God thought and thought ,

Till he thought: I’ll make a man! 

This student noted that before God acted to create humankind, he thought about it.  Johnson says that God “thought and thought” with “his head in his hands.” It was an important reminder that we often need to engage intellectually with the world before we act in the world.

Finally, I told the students that Johnson’s poem serves as a wonderful transition from this week’s focus on the biblical creation story to next week’s conversations about creativity.  Johnson wrote a poem about creation.  But “The Creation” is also a creative work.  Because we are created in God’s image we are called to creativity.  More on this next week.

Follow along here.

Conservative African American Intellectuals Respond to *The New York Times* 1619 Project

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Bob Woodson

The World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) is calling attention to Episode 63 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  This is our interview with Kings College (PA) history professor Thomas Mackaman, a critic of The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project.  Mackaman is the historian who interviewed several prominent American historians–Gordon Wood, James McPherson, Victoria Bynum, James Oakes, Richard Cawardine, Clayborne Carson–who criticized the history behind the project.

Last week another source of criticism emerged.  The Woodson Center, a conservative nonprofit that “helps community and faith-based organizations solve issues facing their communities,” has announced the “1776 Project.”  Here is a description:

“1776″ is an assembly of independent voices who uphold our country’s authentic founding virtues and values and challenge those who assert America is forever defined by its past failures, such as slavery. We seek to offer alternative perspectives that celebrate the progress America has made on delivering its promise of equality and opportunity, and highlight the resilience of its people. Our focus is on solving problems. We do this in the spirit of 1776, the date of America’s true founding.

In an interview with The Washington Times, Woodson Center founder and president Bob Woodson said, “Most of the contributors of the 1619 Project purport to speak for all of black America with a false and harmful narrative, one that perpetuates victimhood and ignores successes…Through 1776, we choose to highlight America’s promise and to elevate the inspiring stories of blacks who rose and achieved and thrived–in spite of prejudice.”

Woodson has gathered a group of “top black academics, columnists, social service providers, business leaders, and clergy from across America who are committed to telling the complete history of America and black Americans from 1776 to present with a look to the future in answer to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous question, ‘Where do we go from here.'” The list includes Clarence Page, Shelby Steele, and John McWhorter.  It is worth noting that there are no historians on the list.  This should raise some red flags.

Watch the press conference here.  Check out the 1776 website here.

African Americans and Faith in the Age of Revolutions

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An 1863 Jubilee celebration

Did African Americans have faith in 18th-century revolutions?  Did African American religious faith have anything to do with their support of these revolutions?  Over at the Age of Revolutions blog, James Sidbury, a historian at Rice University, tries to sort it all out.

Here is a taste:

If any answer to a question about black people’s faith in revolution during the Age of Revolution hinges on contingencies—which black people? when? where?—questions about the role of faith in black people’s responses to the Age of Revolution are even less susceptible to generalization. The late eighteenth century was famously the time when evangelical Christian movements first sought black converts in English-speaking North America. Baptist and Methodist churches engaged in the most successful outreach to the enslaved. Many black Christians were drawn to Old Testament stories of a vengeful God’s complicated relationships with his enslaved Chosen People; their faith held that God would deliver his newly Chosen from bondage just as he had delivered Israelites from Pharaoh. This could and did inspire both a revolutionary commitment to bring God’s justice to Earth, and a quietist conviction that the enslaved must wait for divine deliverance. When black Virginians debated a planned uprising in 1800, both cases were made. One conspirator argued for delaying the insurrection until “God had blessed them with an Angel” like the one he sent when “the Israelites . . . were carried away [from Egypt] by Moses.” He was answered with a passage drawn from Leviticus in which God promised that “five of you shall conquer an hundred and a hundred, a thousand . . . enemies.” The potential conspirators’ faith was integral to the way they thought about revolution, but faith did not create lines separating those who rebelled from those who did not. Instead, it offered narrative tools the enslaved could use to think about the daunting problems that revolution posed.

Faith created communities of people who could trust one another enough to risk the collective resistance necessary for revolution. An unusually clear illustration of this dynamic can be seen in a little-known 1800 uprising in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Freetown was a British colony that had been organized by the Sierra Leone Company and settled by black Loyalists about a decade after the end of the Revolutionary War. Most of the settlers had been slaves in North America. Whether in Nova Scotia, where they were first taken after the War, or in Freetown, they organized themselves into tight-knit religious communities. Some were Baptists, others Wesleyan Methodists, and still others Huntingtonian Methodists. All chose to migrate to Africa within congregations, and all lived and organized themselves in Africa as congregational communities. From their arrival in 1793 until the uprising in 1800 they grew increasingly unhappy about the political and religious authority claimed by the white Governors sent by the Company. The settlers had seen their passage to Africa in explicitly religious terms, celebrating their arrival by hailing the “Year of Jubilee” when “ransomed sinners” returned “home.” Soon after their arrival, they petitioned the Company in the name of “Preachers of the Gospel” and the “Setlers in this Place.” In later complaints, they compared themselves to the “Children of Esaral” seeking “the promise land.” These black settlers living in Africa conceived of their mission in explicitly spiritual terms, and their understanding of their churches as gathered communities allowed them to organize an uprising to fight the Company for the right to live as autonomous black communities. When they rose to that fight, they concluded the document in which they asserted their right to live under their own laws by declaring that document, and by extension their community, to be “just before God and Man.”

Read the entire piece here.

Who Was David Ruggles?

RugglesColgate University historian Graham Hodges introduces us to David Ruggles, America’s “first full-time black activist.”  Here is a taste of his piece at Zocalo Public Square:

After he escaped from slavery in Baltimore in early September 1838, Frederick Bailey was broke, homeless, and scared. As he huddled among barrels in New York City’s Chambers Street dock, the man who later became known as Frederick Douglass worried about slave catchers and rats. Suddenly a large black man wearing a stove pipe hat, spectacles, and a formal jacket and pants emerged and invited Douglass to his home at 36 Lispenard Street, just a few blocks away.

Douglass’ savior was none other than David Ruggles, a free black man who was the secretary and general organizer of the New York Committee of Vigilance or NYCV, an abolitionist organization that battled slave catchers, kidnappers, and slave traders—and offered succor to hundreds of self-liberated people.

David Ruggles was arguably the first full-time black activist in the United States. He operated New York’s first library and bookstore for black people, edited and sold newspapers and magazines, and founded a black high school and a literary society. An innovator, he combined his activism with commerce by operating a grocery that only sold products made without enslaved labor. Over the course of his life, Ruggles was a true 19th-century Renaissance Man, a visionary political leader, a savvy street fighter, and a healer. He didn’t share Frederick Douglass’ fame or good fortune, but he was an indelible influence on the younger man—crucial to forging the legend that Douglass was to become.

In his 1845 narrative and in subsequent writings, Douglass used capital letters when he credited Ruggles with saving his freedom. He wasn’t being hyperbolic. Having fled from slavery in Maryland, Douglass was highly vulnerable to slave catchers or “black birds” who preyed upon northern African Americans, seizing them to exchange for cash and shipment into perpetual bondage in the South. During Douglass’ first 10 days out of enslavement, it was Ruggles’ home he stayed in as he launched his life as a free man. There Douglass married his fiancé, Anna Murray, in a ceremony at Ruggles’ house officiated by Reverend James W. C. Pennington, who escaped from slavery himself in 1828 and now served as pastor of the First Congregational Church of Hartford, Connecticut.

Read the rest here.

Who Was Homer Plessy?

Plessy_marker

Most school children learn about Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 Supreme Court case that upheld racial segregation laws of public facilities as long as those facilities were “equal” in quality.  The case was overturned (defacto) by Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and other decisions.  This is one of this historical facts that many first-year college history students seem to remember (along the fact that Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin and Martin Luther King Jr. was a leader of the Civil Rights movement).

Over at The New York Times, Glenn Rifkin tells the story of Homer Plessy, the New Orleans “colored” shoemaker who sat in a whites-only car of a train and challenged Louisiana’s Separate Car Act.

Here is a taste:

When Homer Plessy boarded the East Louisiana Railway’s No. 8 train in New Orleans on June 7, 1892, he knew his journey to Covington, La., would be brief.

He also knew it could have historic implications.

Plessy was a racially-mixed shoemaker who had agreed to take part in an act of civil disobedience orchestrated by a New Orleans civil rights organization.

On that hot, sticky afternoon he walked into the Press Street Depot, purchased a first-class ticket and took a seat in the whites-only car.

He was seven-eighths white and could easily pass for a white man, but a conductor, who was also part of the scheme, stopped him and asked if he was “colored.” Plessy responded that he was.

“Then you will have to retire to the colored car,” the conductor ordered.

Plessy refused.

Before he knew it a private detective, with the help of several passengers, had dragged him off the train, put him in handcuffs and charged him with violating the 1890 Louisiana Separate Car Act, one of many new segregationist laws that were cropping up throughout the post-Reconstruction South.

For much of Plessy’s young life, New Orleans, with its large population of former slaves and so-called “free people of color,” had enjoyed at least a semblance of societal integration and equality. Black residents could attend the same schools as whites, marry anybody they chose and sit in any streetcar.

French-speaking, mixed-race Creoles — a significant percentage of the city’s population — had acquired education, achieved wealth and found a sense of freedom after the Civil War. But as the century drew to a close, white supremacy movements gained traction and pushed hard to quash any notion that people of color might ever attain equal status in white America.

The Separate Car Act spurred vigorous resistance in New Orleans. Plessy, himself an activist, volunteered to be a test case for the local civil rights group, Comite’des Citoyens (Citizens Committee), which hoped eventually to put Plessy’s case before the United States Supreme Court. The group posted his bail after his arrest.

When his case was heard in criminal court four months later, Judge John Howard Ferguson found Plessy guilty.

Read the rest here.

Clayborne Carson is the Latest to Talk to the World Socialist Web Site About the 1619 Project

Clayborne Carson


Clayborne Carson and former Black Panther Ericka Huggins at Occupy Oakland Protest, November 2, 2011

Clayborne Carson is professor of history at Stanford University and director of its Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute. He is the author and editor of numerous books on King and the civil rights movement, including The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr.

Here is a taste of his interview with Tom Mackaman at World Socialist Web Site:

Q. …I think one of the things that is missing in the lead essay by Nikole Hannah-Jones is any appreciation of the power of the contradiction that was introduced in 1776 with the proclamation of human equality, and also the impact of the Revolution itself. I thought in our interview with Gordon Wood he took that question up very effectively, pointing out that slavery became very conspicuous as a result of the Revolution. Also disregarded is the Afro-Caribbean historian Eric Williams, who analyzed the impact of the American Revolution on the demise of slavery. Instead the Revolution is presented as a conspiracy to perpetuate slavery.

A. Yes, and it’s wonderful to concentrate on that contradiction because that to me explains Frederick Douglass, it explains King. What all of these people were united on was to expose that contradiction—and we should always keep exposing it—the contradiction between the self-image of the United States as a free and democratic country and the reality that it’s not. If you are a black leader, your job is to expose that contradiction. If you go through a list of all the great orations in African American history, nearly all of them focus on that. They want to expose that and use that contradiction.

Read the rest here.

Click here to see our previous posts on the 1619 Project.

What White Evangelicals Can Learn About Politics From the Civil Rights Movement

 

MLK GRave

In June 2017, I spent ten days with my family and several colleagues from Messiah College traveling through the American South on a civil rights movement bus tour. Our trip took us to some of the most important sites and cities of the movement. We made stops in Greensboro, Atlanta, Albany, Montgomery, Selma, Birmingham, Memphis, and Nashville

Along the way we spent time with some of the veterans of the movement. In Atlanta we heard from Juanita Jones Abernathy, the wife and co-laborer of Ralph Abernathy, one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s closest associates. In Albany we sang civil rights songs with Rutha Mae Harris, one of the original Freedom Singers.

In Selma we met Joanne Bland, a local activist who, at the age of eleven, participated in all three Edmund Pettus Bridge marches. In Birmingham we talked with Carolyn Maul McKinstry and Denise McNair. McKinstry was fifteen years old when she survived the Ku Klux Klan bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963. That explosion took the life of McNair’s sister, whom she never had a chance to meet.

In Nashville, we listened to the inspirational stories of Ernest “Rip” Patton, one of the early freedom riders, and Kwame Leonard, one of the movement’s behind-the-scenes organizers.

As I processed everything that I learned on my colleague Todd Allen’s “Returning to the Roots of Civil Rights” bus tour, I kept returning to thoughts about the relationship between religion and politics. Donald Trump had been in office for under five months, but my anger and frustration upon learning that 81 percent of my fellow evangelicals had voted for him were still fresh.

As I listened to the voices of the movement veterans, walked the ground that they had walked, and saw the photographs, studied the exhibits, and watched the footage, it was clear that I was witnessing a Christian approach to politics that was very different from the one that catapulted Trump into the White House and continues to garner white evangelical support for his presidency. Hope and humility defined the political engagement and social activism of the civil rights movement. The movement served, and continues to serve, as an antidote to a politics of fear and power.

****

Those who participated in the civil rights movement has much to fear: bombs, burning crosses, billy clubs, death threats, water hoses, police dogs, and lynch mobs—to name a few. They feared for the lives of their families and spent every day wondering whether they would still be around to continue the fight the next day. For these reasons, many African Americans, understandably, did not participate in the movement and prevented their children from getting involved. The danger was very real.

Martin Luther King Jr. knew this. When we visited the old Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the church where King was baptized and where he (and his father) served as pastor, his final sermon, the one he delivered in Memphis on April 3, 1968, was playing over the speakers.

King was in Memphis to encourage sanitation workers fighting for better pay and improved working conditions. I sat in the back pew and listened:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m no concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He has allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing anything. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

It was a message of hope. Because of his faith, God had given him—and the women and men of the movement he led—all the strength they would need to continue the struggle. King made himself available to do the Lord’s will. Now he was looking forward. Was he talking about his eternal life in what now seems like prophetic fashion, or was he talking about God working out his purposes on earth?

No matter: King was confident in God’s power to work out his will: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” An assassin’s bullet took King’s life the next day, April 4, 1968, but the movement went on.

Can evangelicals recover this confidence in God’s power—not just in his wrath against their enemies but in his ability to work out his purposes for good? Can they recover hope? The historian Christopher Lasch once wrote this: “Hope does not demand a belief in progress. It demands a belief in justice: a conviction that the wicked will suffer, that wrongs will be made right, that the underlying order of things is not flouted with impunity. Hope implies a deep-seated trust in life that appears absurd to most who lack it.”

I saw this kind of hope in every place we visited on our trip. It was not mere optimism that things would get better if only we could elect the right candidates. Rather, it was a view of this world, together with an understanding of the world to come, forged amid suffering and pain.

Not everyone would make it to the mountaintop on this side of eternity, but God’s purposes would be worked out, and eventually they would be able to understand those purposes—if not in this life, surely in the world to come. The people in the movement understood that laws, social programs, even local and voluntary action, would only get them so far. Something deeper was needed.

There was something kingdom-oriented going on in these Southern cities. I thought of the words of the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy Kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

I saw this kind of hope in the eyes of Rip Patton as he sat with us in the Nashville Public Library and explained why (and how) he had such a “good time” singing while incarcerated with other freedom riders in Parchman Prison in Jackson, Mississippi.

I heard this kind of hope in the voice of Rutha Mae Harris as she led us in “This Little Light of Mine” and “Ain’t Gonna Turn Me ‘Round” from the front of the sanctuary of the Old Mount Zion Baptist Church in Albany.

As I walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, I wondered if I could ever muster the courage of John Lewis and Joanne Bland as they marched into the face of terror on Bloody Sunday. Such audacity requires hope.

But too often fear leads to hopelessness, a state of mind that political scientist Glenn Tinder had described as a “kind of death.” Hopelessness causes us to direct our gaze backward toward worlds we can never recover. It causes us to imagine a future filled with horror. Tyrants focus our attention on the desperate nature of our circumstances and the carnage of the social and cultural landscape that they claim to have the power to heal.

A kernel of truth, however, always informs such a dark view of life. Poverty is a problem. Rusted-out factories often do appear, as Trump once described them, like “tombstones across the landscape of our nation.” Crime is real

But demagogues want us to dwell on the carnage and, to quote Bruce Springsteen, “waste our summer praying in vain for a savior to rise from these streets.” Hope, on the other hand, draws us into the future, and in this way it engages us in life.

*****

It is nonsensical to talk about the civil rights movement in terms of political power, because even at the height of the movement’s influence, African Americans did not possess much political power. Yes, the movement had its leaders, and they did have time in the national spotlight. But when the movement leaders entered the halls of power, they were usually there to speak truth with a prophetic voice. King, for example, was willing to break with Lyndon Johnson when he disagreed with him on the Vietnam War, even if it meant losing access to the most powerful man on earth.

Most of all, though, the civil rights movement was shaped by people of humble of means who lived ordinary lives in ordinary neighborhoods. Many of them never expected to step onto a national stage or receive credit for leading the great social movement in American history. These ordinary men and women fought injustice wherever God had placed them. They offer us a beautiful illustration of what scholar James Davison Hunter has called “faithful presence.”

For Hunter, a theology of faithful presence calls Christians to serve the people and places where they live. The call of faithful presence, Hunter writes in his book To Change the World, “gives priority to what is right in front of us—community, the neighborhood, and the city, and the people in which these are constituted. It is in these places, through “the joys, sufferings, hopes, disappointments, concerns, desires, and worries of people with whom we are in long-term and close relation—family, neighbors, co-workers, and community—where we find authenticity as a body of believers. It is here, Hunter adds, “where we learn forgiveness and humility, practice kindness, hospitality, and charity, grow in patience and wisdom, and become clothed in compassion, gentleness, and joy. This is the crucible with which Christian holiness is forged. This is the context in which shalom is enacted.”

I thought about Hunter’s words as I stood in the hot Selma sun and listened to Joanne Bland explain to us the significance of a small and crumbling patch of pavement in a playground behind Brown Chapel AME church. This was the exact spot, she told us, where the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery marches began. For Bland, who was raised in a housing complex across the street from the church, this was a sacred space.

The humility on display during the civil rights movement was just as countercultural then as it is now. This is usually the case with nonviolent protests. Those who participated thought of themselves not as individuals but as part of a movement larger than themselves.

Rip Patton was a twenty-one-year old music major at Tennessee State University when he met Jim Lawson in 1959. Lawson trained Patton (and others) in nonviolent protest. Soon Patton found himself seated at a lunch counter in downtown Nashville, where he would be spit on, punched, covered with ketchup, mustard, salt, and water.

Patton did not retaliate because he had been educated in the spiritual discipline necessary for a situation like this. Martin Luther King Jr. was leading a political and social movement, but he was also the high priest of a spiritual movement, something akin to a religious revival.

The civil rights movement never spoke the language of hate or resentment. In fact, its Christian leaders saw that all human beings were made in the image of God and sinners in need of God’s redemptive love. Many in the movement practiced what theologian Reinhold Niebuhr described as “the spiritual discipline against resentment.” They saw that those who retaliated violently or with anger against injustice were only propagating injustices of their own.

Instead, the spiritual discipline against resentment unleashed a different kind of power—the power of the cross and the resurrection. This kind of power could provide comfort amid suffering and a faithful gospel witness to the world.

The Mississippi voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer said it best: “The white man’s afraid he’ll be treated like he’s been treating the Negroes, but I couldn’t carry that much hate. It wouldn’t have solved any problems for me to hate whites because they hate me. Oh, there’s so much hate! Only God has kept the Negro sane.”

****

Where does all this reflection leave us? Where did it leave me as I got off the bus and headed back to my working-class, central Pennsylvania neighborhood. How might hope and humility inform the way we white American evangelicals think about politics and other forms of public engagement?

It is time to take a long hard look at what we have become. We have a lot of work to do.

This essay draws heavily from Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, which was recently released in paperback by Eerdmans Publishing

The Author’s Corner with Anna Mae Duane

educated for freedomAnna Mae Duane is Associate Professor of English at the University of Connecticut. This interview is based on her new book, Educated for Freedom: The Incredible Story of Two Fugitive Slave Schoolboys Who Grew Up to Change a Nation (NYU Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Educated for Freedom?

AMD: I was exploring the archives at the New-York Historical Society and I came across a skit included in the records of the New-York African Free Schools. This 1822 skit depicts two students, one student chastising the other for having a slothful mother who keeps him from getting to school on time. I wanted to know what it was like to be a nine–year-old child, and to stand on stage and act out a script that depicted your mother–and by extension the other mothers at the school–as being too lazy, or too ignorant to understand the great importance of getting to school on time. Since that day, I’ve been told many times that this is, perhaps, the wrong question to ask. We can’t ever know how any historical person really felt, and in this case, the evidence made it seem like a particularly futile question to ask. These were children, Black children in a slave nation no less, reading words written for them by white adults, which they dramatized before a public that would judge them on their performance. In other words, we must recognize that these two schoolchildren were utterly subaltern: it’s a fool’s errand to try to hear them speak.

Educated for Freedom is a response to that objection. As I’ve researched the work of the school, and the lives of the two of the remarkable people who have attended it (one of whom, Dr. James McCune Smith, turned out to be one of the kids in the skit), I’ve realized that the historical and the literary documents offer ample proof that these children and others like them were part of broad conversations about the nation, about power and, most particularly, about the future.

So while this book is a biography of two men who became giants of Black abolitionism, I wanted to keep the dialogue open between their lives as adults and their experiences as children by pausing at moments when their “adult” work–in medicine, science, and politics—was shaped by Black children in their lives, sometimes strangers, sometimes fugitives, sometimes their own children. Much work on Black abolitionism has stressed the ways in which the activists sought, understandably, to gain access to a citizenship that was coded both male and adult. I sought to structure the book in a way that braided the personal with the political, the needs of a child, with the demands of a citizen, to reflect how mutually constitutive these terms were in the process of determining how slavery was defined, attacked, and defended in the years leading to the Civil War.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Educated for Freedom?

AMD: The book begins with Black students being told that they could never be fully American, and ends with one of those students speaking before Congress: that journey helps us understand the power of Black political organizing both in the public and private realms.  We can’t understand how the intertwined concepts of freedom and Americanness were transformed in the nineteenth century without fully recognizing the revolutionary work of African American students, parents and activists: people who were never meant to claim the role of free American citizens. 

JF: Why do we need to read Educated for Freedom?

AMD: Well, to start with, the lives of James McCune Smith and Henry Highland Garnet are incredibly exciting!  Smith and Garnet are far from household names, but they were players in many of the century’s most momentous events. The  impoverished sons of enslaved mothers, they managed to meet the Marquis de Lafayette, earn a Medical degree, fight off angry mobs, influence John Brown and his fateful raid, speak before crowds of thousands, challenge the terms of white abolitionism, and address Congress. Their lives and work allows us to reimagine  how we imagine the scope of African Americans’ influence in pre-Civil War America.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American Historian?

AMD: At first I thought I’d be a literary critic of the Renaissance! And then I enrolled in an early American literature class, and I was hooked. I was immediately intrigued by  how the New England settlers worked so diligently to place their suffering–and the suffering they imposed on so many others–within a coherent symbolic framework. Since then I’ve been fascinated with the stories we tell ourselves about the past, particularly about how often those stories return to the tableau of an endangered child.

JF: What is your next project?

AMD: I have two projects that I’m in the process of developing. The first, tentatively titled “American Orphans” builds on Educated for Freedom‘s argument that children are not bystanders in American history or rhetoric. Instead, they have been key to how the U.S. has explained itself symbolically. I’ll be researching schools, prisons, and other sites to chart how their  subjection to, and resistance of, their national role has shaped definitions of citizenship and freedom. I’m particularly interested in exploring how  the trauma of orphanhood became celebrated as an American rite of passage on the way to independence in ways that justified–even glorified–separating children of color from their homes and communities

My second project–in the very early stages–will be a developing series of biographies of the New York African Free School students aimed for younger audiences.

JF: Thanks, Anna Mae!

American Exceptionalisms

American Exceptionalism

Gutacker (left) and Foley (right) respond to questions at the panel on Race, Religion, and American Exceptionalism

Martin Spence is Associate Professor of History at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  He is writing for us this weekend at the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association in New York City.  Enjoy his latest post.  –JF

The interplay between race, religion and American exceptionalisms was the theme of a panel in the second round of papers at day one of the ASCH in New York city. The panel sits squarely in the center of the conference’s overall theme: Whose América: New Perspectives Contours and Connections in Church Histories.

The plural exceptionalisms was a key note sounded, particularly in the papers by Malcolm Foley (Baylor University) and Nichole Renèe Phillips (Emory University) which discussed how African American conceptualizations of American exceptionalism could critique America’s oppressive and violent racial attitudes while simultaneously affirming that the American experiment was indeed built on unique ideals. In fact, such endorsement of American exceptionalism was often used to call white Americans to reform. This suggests that American exceptionalism is not always a cipher of bellicose ethno-nationalism, but can also act as a sternly prophetic voice. Indeed, I was left pondering how severe critique of the nation’s sins can still be a form of implicit nationalism, since the very act of chastisement for sin tacitly accepts the normative status of national claims to uniqueness and special importance.

I was particularly intrigued by Foley’s presentation of Black Presbyterian Pastor Francis Grimke (1850-1937). Foley showed how Grimké was troubled by an apparent contradiction between African American experiences of inequality and violence in America and the foundational commitment and loyalty to the country that he witnessed among many African Americans. Yet, according to Foley, Grimké himself displayed some of this same ambiguity, castigating and critiquing, yet never able to quite give up on the America of the mind.

Meanwhile Paul Gutacker explored the way in which church history could be used by Americans of both European and African descent in the nineteenth century. European Americans drew on the broader myth of Protestant freedom and Anglo-Saxon liberty to envision America as the arena wherein the story of the English people would find its climax, the result of America’s victorious disaggregation of church and state. Gutacker focused part African American Christian leaders, by contrast, stretched further back to emphasize that the early church Bible belt was in North Africa, and that the most revered of all theologians, even among Protestants, Saint Augustine, was, of course, African. Interestingly, both African and European Americans could plug into the dominant anti-Catholicism of the era. Black theologians perpetuated a narrative that held the Catholic church as responsible for slavery, while European leaders saw anti-Catholicism as the great unifying creed of freeborn American Christians.

Anti-Catholicism, which was to some extent a proxy for nationalism in the nineteenth century in both Britain and the United States, will recur as a theme at ASCH in a panel on Sunday with papers from John Wolffe, Geraldine Vaughan and John Maiden. Prof. Wolffe told me in conversation after today’s panel that he sees anti-Catholicism scholarship making a resurgence. This is an intriguing fact given current hostility to immigrants and outsiders at work in American (and British) society at the moment. I am reminded of Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr.’s comment that prejudice against Catholics is “the deepest bias in the history of the American people.”

Civil War Historian James McPherson on the Problems with the 1619 Project

1619

What is the 1619 Project?  Get up to speed here.

Prize-winning Civil War historian James McPherson talks to Tom Mackaman at the World Socialist Website.  Here is a taste of the interview:

Q. What was your initial reaction to the 1619 Project?

A. Well, I didn’t know anything about it until I got my Sunday paper, with the magazine section entirely devoted to the 1619 Project. Because this is a subject I’ve long been interested in I sat down and started to read some of the essays. I’d say that, almost from the outset, I was disturbed by what seemed like a very unbalanced, one-sided account, which lacked context and perspective on the complexity of slavery, which was clearly, obviously, not an exclusively American institution, but existed throughout history. And slavery in the United States was only a small part of a larger world process that unfolded over many centuries. And in the United States, too, there was not only slavery but also an antislavery movement. So I thought the account, which emphasized American racism—which is obviously a major part of the history, no question about it—but it focused so narrowly on that part of the story that it left most of the history out.

So I read a few of the essays and skimmed the rest, but didn’t pursue much more about it because it seemed to me that I wasn’t learning very much new. And I was a little bit unhappy with the idea that people who did not have a good knowledge of the subject would be influenced by this and would then have a biased or narrow view…

Q. We’ve spoken to a lot of historians, leading scholars in the fields of slavery, the Civil War, the American Revolution, and we’re finding that none of them were approached. Although the Times doesn’t list its sources, what do you think, in terms of scholarship, this 1619 Project is basing itself on?

A. I don’t really know. One of the people they approached is Kevin Kruse, who wrote about Atlanta. He’s a colleague, a professor here at Princeton. He doesn’t quite fit the mold of the other writers. But I don’t know who advised them, and what motivated them to choose the people they did choose.

Q. Nikole Hannah-Jones, the lead writer and leader of the 1619 Project, includes a statement in her essay—and I would say that this is the thesis of the project—that “anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country.”

A. Yes, I saw that too. It does not make very much sense to me. I suppose she’s using DNA metaphorically. She argues that racism is the central theme of American history. It is certainly part of the history. But again, I think it lacks context, lacks perspective on the entire course of slavery and how slavery began and how slavery in the United States was hardly unique. And racial convictions, or “anti-other” convictions, have been central to many societies.

But the idea that racism is a permanent condition, well that’s just not true. And it also doesn’t account for the countervailing tendencies in American history as well. Because opposition to slavery, and opposition to racism, has also been an important theme in American history.

Read the entire piece here.

Abdul-Jabbar: Are Slavery Movies Good for African Americans?

hero_harriet-movie-review-2019

NBA Hall of Famer and public intellectual Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wonders if movies like Harrietthe new movie about Harriet Tubman–“risk defining African American participation in U.S. history primarily as victims.”  Here is a taste of his recent piece at The Hollywood Reporter:

On the one hand, these films are necessary to correct the misperceptions many Americans have about slavery as a result of inaccurate school textbooks, ill-informed teachers and conservative propaganda. Because many of them are prestigious enough to garner critical acclaim (12 Years a Slavealone won 32 awards, including three Oscars), they bring a gravitas to their message that people are more likely to take seriously. Such movies have the potential of raising awareness among white audiences about the horrific past so that they’re more sympathetic to the current economic and social plight of marginalized minorities, the cause of which is the domino effect directly from slavery.

On the other hand, some may see these films as snowflake overkill that desensitizes white audiences, putting them on the defensive about being blamed for something in which they had no part. That resentment could cause them to turn a blind eye to the current state of racial inequity.

I also worry that so many movies about slavery risk defining African Americans’ participation in American history primarily as victims rather than as victors in a continuous battle for economic and social freedom. The thousands of black soldiers who died fighting on behalf of the country, the martyred civil rights leaders, even our many scientific innovations and inventions that transformed American society — from refrigeration to blood banks — get dismissed, diminished or ignored because all that some white Americans remember are angry black faces crying “Unfair!” This puts a heavy burden on blacks to continually have to prove how vigorously they support the country that once enslaved them. They are expected to ignore the current inequities and just be grateful the country unlocked the chains. We stopped beating, branding, raping and lynching you — isn’t that enough?

Read the entire piece here.

Reenacting the 1811 German Coast Slave Uprising in Louisiana

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Check out Rick Rojas’s recent piece at The New York Times: “A Slave Rebellion Rises Again.”  Rojas covers the reenactment of an 1811 Louisiana slave rebellion know as the German Coast Uprising.

Rojas writes:

The 26-mile march, a re-enactment of the 1811 German Coast Uprising in southeast Louisiana, began Friday morning and will conclude Saturday. It was timed to the 400th anniversary of the arrival of enslaved Africans in Virginia, a moment that has ignited considerable reflection about the specter of slavery still hanging over the United States and the depths of its influence…

The performance was conceived, in part, to demonstrate how the ghosts of slavery have endured; the institution itself is gone, but the animosity and oppression have evolved and lingered. Staging a provocative revival of a violent rebellion, recounted in unsparing detail, stirred fears that the performance might turn into a very real confrontation.

Read the entire piece here.

Over at The New Republic, writer Nick Martin writes about the difficult work of diversifying historical reenactments.  Here is a taste:

Diversifying all forms of historical reenactment, whether an amateur showing, a school activity, or a professionally produced motion picture, is clearly a step in the right direction. That’s why communities of color have been focusing on this for decades: It’s a chance to render erased histories visible in a particularly physical way, taking up space the people in these histories have long been denied, and becoming a source of pride for communities of color. It’s hard to imagine any rational, good-faith objection to that: After all, white reenactors have been claiming for decades that education and pride in history is the whole point.

I am not a big fan of reenactments.  I don’t go to them. Reenactors think that history is all about authenticity–wearing the right number of buttons on a uniform or marching in a way that reflects the time period.  )Check out the late Tony Horwitz’s book Confederates in the Attic on this front). This approach to the past fails to let the past speak to the present and vice-versa.  Reenactments are antiquarianism, not history.  The doing of history requires an exploration of context, change over time, causation, contingency (which I guess could be captured in an reenactment as fans watch actors make choices), and complexity.

Yet reenactments, like historical movies or Broadway shows, do get people engaged with the past.  They have the potential to get observers to learn more about the past through reading or a visit to a historical museum that properly curates the past.

But the reenactment of the German Coast Uprising seems to be more of an example of reenactment as activism rather than reenactment as antiquarianism.  In other words, this seems to be something quite different from the traditional Civil War reenactment.  The goal is both understanding and social change.

Movies About Women of Color in History CAN Make Money

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Over at VOX, film critic and The Kings College (NYC) English professor Alyssa Wilkinson interviews Gregory Allen Howard, the writer of the screenplay for Harriet. Wilkinson writes: “it’s surprising that Harriet is the first biopic about such an important woman in American history, considering how this is an industry that loves making historical biopics — surprising, that is, until you remember that Hollywood has typically exhibited skepticism toward the idea that movies led by women and people of color can make money.”

Here is a taste of the interview:

Wilkinson: Hollywood has taken a really long time to accept the fact that movies about black people might be told on screen, and that audiences would embrace them. Were there any movies over the years that showed you what could happen if that ever changed?

Howard: Of course, and there are movies that proved that to my producers, too. For [producer] Debra [Martin Chase], it was Hidden Figures. Mine is 12 Years a Slave. See, what I had heard for all those years was, “Nobody’s going to pay to see the slave movie, Greg. Get out of my office.” But I said, “But it doesn’t matter. If the movie’s good, people will see it.”

“No, we don’t want it,” I’d hear back. “No one’s going to pay to see a slave story.” I swear to God, I heard that for over 20 years.

And then 12 Years a Slave came out and did massive business. It made almost $200 million worldwide. That’s when I took [Harriet]off the shelf again. And I said, “You can’t tell me what you’ve been telling me all this time.” And they said, “Yeah, but see, that was a different movie.” They came up with a different excuse.

But the truth was that the business was changing. If this movie has been made 10 years ago, it would’ve been an outlier, and no one in town wants to be an outlier. Fear drives our industry, and I don’t know that anybody’s ever gotten fired for passing on a movie.

But boy, if you say yes to something, or even go fight for it, you’re risking your career. You’re certainly risking your job.

Read the entire interview here.