LET’S TAKE A MOMENT TO ACTUALLY THANK THE PEOPLE WHO GAVE US THIS FREEODM.
I don’t care what your political beliefs are, these men and women are heroes
Nope. My mother and the universe gave me freedom. These people are pawns of imperialism, and regularly destabilize the growth and happiness of much of the world.
LET’S TAKE A MOMENT TO ACTUALLY THANK THE PEOPLE WHO GAVE US THIS FREEODM (SIC).”
YEAH LET’S DO THAT
At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy-a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.
Frederick Douglass, The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro, delivered at Rochester, New York, July 5, 1852
This is one of the most brilliant pieces of American oratory ever written. People always quote that second paragraph, but I think the key to understanding the speech is in the previous one. Besides being beautifully written (despite his moment of mock humility near the beginning) and stirring, this speech is bitterly funny. His “scorching irony” is really the only way a man in his position could have remarked on the murderous hypocrisies of the social, political, economic, and religious establishment (his comments on the church remain entirely relevant today) that sustained slavery.
Every July 4th celebration ought to follow the obligatory reading aloud of the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence with Douglass’ speech.
Some years back, a small Colorado goat-cheese maker called Haystack Mountain faced its version of a classic growth challenge: National demand was growing for its chèvres and other cheeses, and the company was struggling to find enough local goat farmers to produce milk. The solution came from a surprising source: Colorado Corrections Industries…Today six inmates milk 1,000 goats twice a day on a prison-run farm. After non-inmate employees cultivate the cheese at a company facility, it’s sold in Whole Foods…outlets, among other stores.
Here’s an eye-opening fact: if it weren’t for the widespread use of unpaid and underpaid prison labor to support the penal system, the U.S. justice system would collapse:
“If our criminal-justice system had to pay a fair wage for labor that inmates provide, it would collapse,” says Alex Friedmann, managing editor of Prison Legal News, an independent magazine that promotes inmates’ rights. “We could not afford to run our justice system without exploiting inmates.”
The exploitation of prison labor isn’t just an issue that affects prisoners and their friends and families. The more companies that use prison labor, the harder it will be for non-incarcerated folks to get jobs with decent wages. Taxpayers are also indirectly subsidizing these companies’ profits since we help pay for their labor force’s housing, food, clothing, and medical expenses.
The rampant exploitation of prison labor in this day and age is a fucking disgrace. What is even more outrageous is just how many major companies are profiting from this new form of slavery.
George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower
October 1778 - February 1860
“his talent is one of the best replies one can give to philosophers who wish to deprive people of his nation and his colour of the opportunity to distinguish themselves in the arts”.
Taken from the journal Le Mercure de France; Paris 1789.
Well this is interesting. It makes you wonder what might’ve been:
…[Bridgetower] visited Vienna later in 1803, where he performed with Ludwig van Beethoven. Beethoven was impressed, and dedicated his great Violin Sonata No. 9 in A major (Op.47) to Bridgetower, with the goodheartedly mocking dedication [downlo: yeah right] Sonata per un mulattico lunatico. Barely finished, the piece received its first public performance at the Augarten Theatre on 24 May 1803, with Beethoven on pianoforte and Bridgetower on violin. Bridgetower had to read the violin part of the second movement from Beethoven’s copy, over his shoulder. He made a slight amendment to his part, which Beethoven gratefully accepted, jumping up to say “Noch einmal, mein lieber Bursch!” (“Once more, my dear fellow!”). Beethoven also presented Bridgetower with his tuning fork, now held by the British Library. The pair fell out soon afterwards, Bridgetower having insulted a woman who turned out to be Beethoven’s friend; Beethoven broke off all relations with Bridgetower and changed the dedication of the new violin sonata to the violin virtuoso Rudolphe Kreutzer, who never played it, saying that it had already been performed once and was too difficult — the piece is now known as the Kreutzer Sonata. The Pulitzer-prize winning poet Rita Dove dramatized the relationship between Beethoven and Bridgetower in the book-length lyric narrative Sonata Mulattica.
The New York Times has a very interesting piece about Dove’s book:
Haydn almost certainly encountered him as a child in a Hungarian castle, where the boy’s father was a servant and Haydn was the director of music, and Thomas Jefferson saw him performing in Paris in 1789: a 9-year-old biracial violin prodigy with a cascade of dark curls. While the boy would go on to inspire Beethoven and help shape the development of classical music, he ended up relegated to a footnote in Beethoven’s life.
Rita Dove, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former United States poet laureate, has now breathed life into the story of that virtuoso, George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower, in her new book, “Sonata Mulattica” (W. W. Norton). The narrative, a collection of poems subtitled “A Life in Five Movements and a Short Play,” intertwines fact and fiction to flesh out Bridgetower, the son of a Polish-German mother and an Afro-Caribbean father.
Bridgetower’s story is a corrective to the notion that certain cultural forms are somehow the province of particular groups, said Mike Phillips, a historian, novelist and former museum curator who contributed a series of essays to part of the British Library’s Web site (at www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/features/blackeuro) that profiles five 19th-century figures of mixed European and African heritage, including Bridgetower, Alexandre Dumas and Pushkin. He also wrote the libretto for “Bridgetower: A Fable of London in 1807,” an opera in jazz and classical musica performed by the English Touring Opera, which had its premiere in 2007 in London.
“Bridgetower flourished in a time when the world outside Africa was like a huge concentration camp for black people,” Dr. Phillips said…He noted that while Bridgetower got a music degree at Cambridge and managed to earn a living as a musician, for much of his life the trans-Atlantic slave trade was at full throttle.
While little of his work survives today, Bridgetower associated with some of the major musicians of his time, including Giovanni Viotti, the violin virtuoso, and Samuel Wesley, the organist and composer…
Moreover…Bridgetower was crucial to the establishment of the Royal Academy of Music. This institution was the central influence on, and regulator of, Britain’s musical history at a time when the forms and structures of modern classical music were being invented, along with new instruments that produce the sounds heard in contemporary concert halls.
This piece is long, but worth reading (tw for violence). It goes into detail about how historians have concealed and downplayed Thomas Jefferson’s cruelty and greed (emphasis added).
The following bit about the economics of slavery is something that not nearly enough people know about:
We can be forgiven if we interrogate Jefferson posthumously about slavery. It is not judging him by today’s standards to do so. Many people of his own time, taking Jefferson at his word and seeing him as the embodiment of the country’s highest ideals, appealed to him. When he evaded and rationalized, his admirers were frustrated and mystified; it felt like praying to a stone. The Virginia abolitionist Moncure Conway, noting Jefferson’s enduring reputation as a would-be emancipator, remarked scornfully, “Never did a man achieve more fame for what he did not do.”
The critical turning point in Jefferson’s thinking may well have come in 1792. As Jefferson was counting up the agricultural profits and losses of his plantation in a letter to President Washington that year, it occurred to him that there was a phenomenon he had perceived at Monticello but never actually measured. He proceeded to calculate it in a barely legible, scribbled note in the middle of a page, enclosed in brackets. What Jefferson set out clearly for the first time was that he was making a 4 percent profit every year on the birth of black children. The enslaved were yielding him a bonanza, a perpetual human dividend at compound interest. Jefferson wrote, “I allow nothing for losses by death, but, on the contrary, shall presently take credit four per cent. per annum, for their increase over and above keeping up their own numbers.” His plantation was producing inexhaustible human assets. The percentage was predictable.
The irony is that Jefferson sent his 4 percent formula to George Washington, who freed his slaves, precisely because slavery had made human beings into money, like “Cattle in the market,” and this disgusted him. Yet Jefferson was right, prescient, about the investment value of slaves. A startling statistic emerged in the 1970s, when economists taking a hardheaded look at slavery found that on the eve of the Civil War, enslaved black people, in the aggregate, formed the second most valuable capital asset in the United States. David Brion Davis sums up their findings: “In 1860, the value of Southern slaves was about three times the amount invested in manufacturing or railroads nationwide.” The only asset more valuable than the black people was the land itself. The formula Jefferson had stumbled upon became the engine not only of Monticello but of the entire slaveholding South and the Northern industries, shippers, banks, insurers and investors who weighed risk against returns and bet on slavery. The words Jefferson used—“their increase”—became magic words.
Jefferson’s 4 percent theorem threatens the comforting notion that he had no real awareness of what he was doing, that he was “stuck” with or “trapped” in slavery, an obsolete, unprofitable, burdensome legacy. The date of Jefferson’s calculation aligns with the waning of his emancipationist fervor. Jefferson began to back away from antislavery just around the time he computed the silent profit of the “peculiar institution.”
THOMAS JEFFERSON is in the news again, nearly 200 years after his death — alongside a high-profile biography by the journalist Jon Meacham comes a damning portrait of the third president by the independent scholar Henry Wiencek.
We are endlessly fascinated with Jefferson, in part because we seem unable to reconcile the rhetoric of liberty in his writing with the reality of his slave owning and his lifetime support for slavery. Time and again, we play down the latter in favor of the former, or write off the paradox as somehow indicative of his complex depths.
Neither Mr. Meacham, who mostly ignores Jefferson’s slave ownership, nor Mr. Wiencek, who sees him as a sort of fallen angel who comes to slavery only after discovering how profitable it could be, seem willing to confront the ugly truth: the third president was a creepy, brutal hypocrite.
Contrary to Mr. Wiencek’s depiction, Jefferson was always deeply committed to slavery, and even more deeply hostile to the welfare of blacks, slave or free. His proslavery views were shaped not only by money and status but also by his deeply racist views, which he tried to justify through pseudoscience.
There is, it is true, a compelling paradox about Jefferson: when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, announcing the “self-evident” truth that all men are “created equal,” he owned some 175 slaves. Too often, scholars and readers use those facts as a crutch, to write off Jefferson’s inconvenient views as products of the time and the complexities of the human condition.
But while many of his contemporaries, including George Washington, freed their slaves during and after the revolution — inspired, perhaps, by the words of the Declaration — Jefferson did not. Over the subsequent 50 years, a period of extraordinary public service, Jefferson remained the master of Monticello, and a buyer and seller of human beings.
Rather than encouraging his countrymen to liberate their slaves, he opposed both private manumission and public emancipation. Even at his death, Jefferson failed to fulfill the promise of his rhetoric: his will emancipated only five slaves, all relatives of his mistress Sally Hemings, and condemned nearly 200 others to the auction block. Even Hemings remained a slave, though her children by Jefferson went free.
Nor was Jefferson a particularly kind master. He sometimes punished slaves by selling them away from their families and friends, a retaliation that was incomprehensibly cruel even at the time. A proponent of humane criminal codes for whites, he advocated harsh, almost barbaric, punishments for slaves and free blacks. Known for expansive views of citizenship, he proposed legislation to make emancipated blacks “outlaws” in America, the land of their birth. Opposed to the idea of royal or noble blood, he proposed expelling from Virginia the children of white women and black men.
Jefferson also dodged opportunities to undermine slavery or promote racial equality. As a state legislator he blocked consideration of a law that might have eventually ended slavery in the state.
As president he acquired the Louisiana Territory but did nothing to stop the spread of slavery into that vast “empire of liberty.” Jefferson told his neighbor Edward Coles not to emancipate his own slaves, because free blacks were “pests in society” who were “as incapable as children of taking care of themselves.” And while he wrote a friend that he sold slaves only as punishment or to unite families, he sold at least 85 humans in a 10-year period to raise cash to buy wine, art and other luxury goods.
Destroying families didn’t bother Jefferson, because he believed blacks lacked basic human emotions. “Their griefs are transient,” he wrote, and their love lacked “a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation.”
Jefferson claimed he had “never seen an elementary trait of painting or sculpture” or poetry among blacks and argued that blacks’ ability to “reason” was “much inferior” to whites’, while “in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.” He conceded that blacks were brave, but this was because of “a want of fore-thought, which prevents their seeing a danger till it be present.”
A scientist, Jefferson nevertheless speculated that blackness might come “from the color of the blood” and concluded that blacks were “inferior to the whites in the endowments of body and mind.”
Jefferson did worry about the future of slavery, but not out of moral qualms. After reading about the slave revolts in Haiti, Jefferson wrote to a friend that “if something is not done and soon done, we shall be the murderers of our own children.” But he never said what that “something” should be.
In 1820 Jefferson was shocked by the heated arguments over slavery during the debate over the Missouri Compromise. He believed that by opposing the spread of slavery in the West, the children of the revolution were about to “perpetrate” an “act of suicide on themselves, and of treason against the hopes of the world.”
If there was “treason against the hopes of the world,” it was perpetrated by the founding generation, which failed to place the nation on the road to liberty for all. No one bore a greater responsibility for that failure than the master of Monticello.
Speaking for the Negro, I can say, we owe much to Walker for his appeal; to John Brown [applause] for the blow struck at Harper’s Ferry, to Lundy and Garrison for their advocacy [applause], We owe much especially to Thomas Clarkson, [applause], to William Wilberforce, to Thomas Fowell Buxton, and to the anti-slavery societies at home and abroad; but we owe incomparably more to Haiti than to them all. [Prolonged applause.] I regard her as the original pioneer emancipator of the nineteenth century. [Applause.]….the freedom of Haiti was not given as a boon, but conquered as a right ! [Applause.] Her people fought for it. They suffered for it, and thousands of them endured the most horrible tortures, and perished for it.
The one truly good thing about Lincoln is that it’s inspiring some great articles and opinion pieces examining Abraham Lincoln’s life and legacy, the Civil War, and slavery. There was an excellent article in the NYT that pointed out how the movie never touches on the efforts of African Americans to free themselves. And here are excerpts from another thoughtful critique of Lincoln by Corey Robin (with a few parts I bolded):
Lincoln is most decidedly not a movie about Lincoln. The main character of the film is the 13th Amendment…The entire plot revolves around its passage. And what’s most fascinating about the film is that Spielberg, and his screenwriter Tony Kushner, shows that emancipation wasn’t the product of a lone heroic effort by a saintly Lincoln; instead, it depicts emancipation as a collective endeavor.
The film in fact does a remarkable job…of decentering Lincoln from his traditional role in our national narrative. Lincoln gets surprisingly little air time in the film. Many scenes are littered with the hapless attempts of three lowlifes…to get lame-duck Democrats on board with the 13th Amendment through promises of sinecures and patronage. In terms of getting the Amendment passed, Lincoln’s role is rather small. He only intervenes successfully in getting two or three votes.
[…]For all the decentering of Lincoln, for all the inclusion of multiple voices, the film studiously keeps black people in the audience—literally in the gallery, in one of the closing scenes, or in the bedroom or in the foyer, waiting, watching, attending. Black characters are almost always either looking up at their saviors (even allowing for the fact that Lincoln was tall) or wistfully after their saviors, as the latter depart for the halls of power. It’s true that the film opens with black soldiers telling Lincoln all they have done in the war, and telling him all that he should still do. Mary Todd Lincoln’s black servant speaks up every once in a while, as do some other servants. But that’s pretty much it.
What is so odd about this film…is that it really is trying to show that abolition is the democratic project of the 19th century. Democratic in it objective (making slaves free and ultimately equal) and democratic in its execution, involving a great many men beyond Lincoln himself, and a great many lowly men at that. But it is a white man’s democracy. In the film, in fact, Lincoln tells his colleagues: “The fate of human dignity is in our hands.” Our hands. Not theirs.
The inclusion of so many white players makes the exclusion of black players all the more inexplicable—and inexcusable. It’s just a weird throwback to the pre-Civil Rights era except that emancipation is now depicted as a good thing—just so long as it is white people who are doing the emancipating.
Robin also points out that Steven Spielberg was initially thinking about doing a movie focusing on the relationship between Lincoln and Frederick Douglass (why hasn’t there been an epic Douglass biopic instead of yet another Lincoln movie?). Additionally, Spielberg used Team of Rivals as source material, but chose to focus on 3 pages in the book—3 pages that happened to not discuss the role of black people in abolition efforts. All in all, the movie didn’t have to sideline black people in showing how the 13th Amendment was passed—that was a choice.
As for Kushner, who wrote the screenplay for Lincoln, he seems to hold some seriously messed up views about Reconstruction. In an interview with NPR, he said:
The inability to forgive and to reconcile with the South in a really decent and humane way, without any question, was one of the causes of the kind of resentment and perpetuation of alienation and bitterness that led to the quote-unquote ‘noble cause,’ and the rise of the Klan and Southern self-protection societies. The abuse of the South after they were defeated was a catastrophe, and helped lead to just unimaginable, untellable human suffering.
This is a really backwards, revisionist, white supremacist view of Reconstruction that focuses on the supposed plight of white southerners at the hands of a vengeful north. Please remember that many Reconstruction laws were passed specifically to protect freedmen and integrate them into society. Despite what some white southerners would have you believe, Reconstruction wasn’t entirely an effort by the north to humiliate and punish the south.
Kushner’s references to “the abuse of the South” and the rise of “self-protection societies” (what a fucking euphemism!) like the KKK has its roots in a white supremacist historical school of thought. Dunning argued that freedmen were incapable of participating in government and that white southern terrorism and barbarity to black southerners (e.g. the KKK) was a somehow justifiable or understandable reaction to Reconstruction.
Here’s historian Eric Foner’s criticism of the Dunning School:
Their account of the era rested, as one member of the Dunning school put it, on the assumption of “negro incapacity.” Finding it impossible to believe that blacks could ever be independent actors on the stage of history, with their own aspirations and motivations, Dunning, et al. portrayed African Americans either as “children”, ignorant dupes manipulated by unscrupulous whites, or as savages, their primal passions unleashed by the end of slavery.
When you get down to it, white southerners thought that not being allowed to prevent African Americans from exercising their newly won civil and political rights was a form of ‘abuse’ by the North. They were afraid of blacks gaining any measure of political and economic power. So the KKK and similar groups arose to terrorize black southerners into docility. As with the Confederacy itself, there’s no way to spin the KKK as anything but an expression of white supremacy. And if you do hear such spinning, watch out.
So don’t believe revisionist depictions of Reconstruction as a horrible, terrible thing. Despite the corruption and inefficiency, Reconstruction was overall better than the alternative. Remember that when Reconstruction ended, white southerners immediately passed laws that basically nullified the Fifteenth Amendment and kept black southerners politically and economically marginalized for decades, essentially ensuring that blacks would remain a source of cheap labor. When you hear Kushner refer to groups like the Ku Klux Klan as ‘self-protection’ societies, remember what those societies were actually protecting: white supremacy and domestic terrorism.
What’s important about Kushner’s reference to the Dunning account of Reconstruction is that it highlights the main problem with Lincoln: it suggests black incapability. It doesn’t matter the film’s depiction of whites as saviors and blacks as hapless victims was created without malicious intent—it still upholds a white supremacist historical narrative.
Lincoln is what happens when you have white people in charge of the story—white faces and white voices are centered and a white supremacist view of history is put forward. This is particularly problematic because the white people in charge are prominent artists like Spielberg and Tony Kushner and the story they tell will be viewed by millions of people, many of whom are unaware that the abolition of slavery is a bigger, more complex, and far more interesting tale than whites freeing blacks. There’s nothing artistically challenging or novel about yet another narrative in which whites save hapless, nameless people of color.
When slave owners try to Christianize their slaves, they bring Jesus in two forms — one is as a servant and that’s to say, ‘Hey look, service is good, service is godly so your work service is good.’ But they also present Jesus as master … you have to follow his lead to not lie, not steal. But when slaves take this Jesus, how they reconnect the dots is to say, ‘OK, well if Jesus is master, then my earthly master isn’t my only one, he’s not my most powerful one, in fact I have a master above my master … and that master can challenge the slave owner, can teach a higher law.’ And then when we get to service, when slaves hear that Jesus was a servant, they say, ‘Hey wait a second, he also suffered, he was crucified, but that wasn’t the rest of the story. The rest of the story was he was resurrected and not only was Jesus resurrected, but he resurrected his friends in the story of Lazarus.’
So for African Americans who have death all around them — and not just literal death, but also the death of families, you know when you see your wife or child sent away … Jesus has resurrection power for him and his friends. So what slaves do is they basically take those models of master and of servant and they just connect them differently than the way the slave masters intended and they create basically a wholly new form of Protestant Christianity.
Someone I follow on Tumblr (forgot who—if you know, please tell me) characterized this movie as “‘The Help’, but for your dad” and all of the reviews I’ve been reading are confirming this assessment. This piece is by Kate Masur, an associate professor of history at Northwestern who has written a book about reconstruction in D.C. As you might suspect by the title, she’s not impressed:
…[I]t’s disappointing that in a movie devoted to explaining the abolition of slavery in the United States, African-American characters do almost nothing but passively wait for white men to liberate them. For some 30 years, historians have been demonstrating that slaves were crucial agents in their emancipation; however imperfectly, Ken Burns’s 1990 documentary “The Civil War” brought aspects of that interpretation to the American public. Yet Mr. Spielberg’s “Lincoln” gives us only faithful servants, patiently waiting for the day of Jubilee.
This is not mere nit-picking. Mr. Spielberg’s “Lincoln” helps perpetuate the notion that African Americans have offered little of substance to their own liberation. While the film largely avoids the noxious stereotypes of subservient African-Americans for which movies like “Gone With the Wind” have become notorious, it reinforces, even if inadvertently, the outdated assumption that white men are the primary movers of history and the main sources of social progress.
As a young slave girl, Susie King Taylor secretly learned to read and write. Her skills proved invaluable to the Union Army as they began to form regiments of African American soldiers. Hired by the 1st South Carolina Colored Volunteers as a laundress in 1862, her primary roles were to nurse to wounded soldiers and to teach those who could not read or write. Taylor served for more than three years, working alongside her husband, Edward King, a sergeant in the regiment.
Photo: Susie King Taylor, 1902, courtesy East Carolina University
Another amazing woman.
Also a classic example of why, when writers say they can’t “realistically” have women with agency in prominent roles in historically-based fantasy, it is clear they do not know what they are talking about. Because women are everywhere, doing things usually ignored by “mainstream” history.
According to Wikipedia, she was also the only African American woman to publish a memoir of her wartime experiences, Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33d United States Colored Troops, Late 1st S.C. Volunteers (1902).
When I tell people I study Africans in Renaissance Britain, they often reply: “Oh, you mean slaves?” Despite the fact that Black History Month – currently being celebrated – is now in its 25th year, and that it’s more than 60 years since the Windrush brought the first postwar Caribbean migrants, it’s clear that many wrong assumptions about the black presence in Britain are still made.
It seems the emphasis on the horrors of slavery, including the commemoration of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act’s bicentenary in 2007, can leave many, especially the young, with a very bleak image of black history. The assumption that Africans in 16th- and 17th-century England must have been slaves is not only wrong, but dangerous.
… It was not legally possible to be a slave in Tudor and Stuart Britain and the hundreds of black people present in these isles during those centuries were not treated as slaves either. Africans such as Jacques Francis and Edward Swarthye were allowed to testify in court – a privilege denied to slaves in ancient Rome and the American south, as well as to English villeins.
This seems relevant to the discussion I’ve been seeing about the realism of putting African-descended folk in British history and fantasy stories.