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Posts Tagged ‘musings’

 

1VAGazetteApril11737

April 1 1737 Ad in Virginia Gazette

Imagine the infrastructure that had to have been in place in 18th century colonial America before the American Revolution.  Take just one ship arriving in one port city in Virginia, like York or Bermuda Hundred, both on the James River, with a cargo of nearly 500 African slaves.

People would have been herded off the ship and placed into a holding pen of sorts to wait for up to two weeks or more as they are advertised like stock, which in fact they are considered, in newsprint and by word of mouth.  Before they were led out onto an auction block to be sold individually or in small groups they would have been examined intimately, as they had been on the ship, to confirm their health. A few behind the scene deals would be made, of course. Not every slave would need to stand on the block before being transported to his or her place of servitude.

That’s one ship, one port and one delivery of slaves. But there were many ports in colonial America and many ships delivering their human cargo before loading their holes with colonial-made goods, like tobacco and molasses.

So imagine the growth in and the scale of operations over time – not one ship at one port with hundreds of slaves on board but multiple ships dropping off thousands of chained people who had homes and identities that were stripped away. Who had cultures millenia old that were dismissed in this new land. Who had languages, arts and religions that were deemed insignificant. Who had skin in wondrous shades of brown which made them seem so “other” that perhaps that otherness made it especially easy for people to dismiss their humanity.

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July 8 1737 Ad in Virginia Gazette

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August 3 1739 Ad in Virginia Gazette

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August 17 1739 in Virginia Gazette

Imagine how a concept of indentured servitude referred to in the early days of colonial life — you could eventually buy your way to freedom — evolved into something much more insidious and institutionalized as black African slavery became the engine for a growing economy. An economic growth that would help fuel the idea of creating an independent United States versus remaining colonies subject to British rule.

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May 25 1769 in Virginia Gazette

Not all were in agreement with slavery and eventually the slave trade from Africa would officially end around 1810 (though it would continue illegally long after).  As future generations of slaves were born, not in Africa but in the colonial and then United States, it became de rigeur not to allow them to learn to read or write. To prevent their gathering for worship except under very proscribed conditions. To prevent their free movement by chain, by brand and by paper pass. They were property – perhaps loved or respected by those who owned them – but they were property nonetheless.

9VaGazetteSep151752

September 15 1752 in Virginia Gazette

Tens of thousands and eventually millions of people would be born into a system that had evolved to maintain a “free” labor force through intimidation, denigration and willful ignorance of horrors against humanity. I say willful ignorance because even people who were kind to their slaves had to be aware of what would happen if their slaves ran afoul of patrols without their papers and so on.  The identity of the slaves, their sense of self and of their worth in this world, would be shaped by a cruel system as would be the identities of the people who maintained that system with both wealth and whip. Slavery as an institution, on that scale and by that design, exist no more in this country … but human nature remains the same … the good, the bad, the ugly and all that lies in between.

When I compare 18th century newspaper clippings about slave auctions, slaves being sold as part of estate sales, advertisements for the return of runaway slaves, and so on to slave narratives from the 1930s, nearly two centuries later, it is extremely sad and insightful to see how slavery in this country was nearly successful in keeping a people down and it is only because of visionary and courageous people, of all races, working hard across all of those centuries that I am able to sit here pounding away on my computer. Without fear.

Why revisit this past? In this age of 140-character messages, history is becoming increasingly sanitized. And I guess because I am reading too much in this 21st Century about people looking back with nostalgia about those former times.  The patrollers of those centuries, from the 17th into the late 19th centuries, riding through the countryside in various states rounding up brown people without papers were not civil servants – they were a fear mongering horde whose jobs enabled their most base behavior. I don’t care the color of the shirt, red, or the hood, white, all who wore them in those times did so to generate fear. And people are wearing those colors today.

There are far too many people who are fearful today. And that is wrong. That’s my random musing this Sunday. Back to nature photography next week. Maybe.

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That’s what he said. I made an assumption he was a man based on the timbre of his voice because I was rather blinded by the blowing sleet and snow. I couldn’t see.

I was trying to cross the street, making my way to the train, but the puddle that had formed in the intersection earlier in the day was so large I couldn’t tell where the sidewalk ended and so I was having to walk in the street but I couldn’t see and was just hoping the drivers could see me.

“Here, take my hand!”

And so I reached out and a mittened hand grabbed mine, holding me steady as I danced across the slushy lake to his side. With no windshield wipers for my glasses all I could tell was that he was a tall man dressed a bit more properly for the weather than me. “Thank you,” I said and then I shouted, “Stop!”

He had started across the crosswalk toward the other side but in helping me he hadn’t noticed that the street lights had changed. Not many cars on the road that night but there was one that streaked past.

We crossed the road together, walking into the wind. Though we could not really see each other we still managed to chat about the weather. By the time we made it to the station we had concluded jovially that after surviving that winter of three three-foot snowstorms in a row, how bad was this really?

Entering the station, my glasses instantly fogged. I stared at what I thought was his general direction and said, “Thanks again.” He replied, “And same to you.”

And I thought as I waited on the platform that once again a stranger had taken my hand.

 

 

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When I walked toward the river yesterday, I was so cold. I knew I couldn’t walk the length of the Esplanade photographing its wintry landscape but I felt compelled to try. I had not been to the river in a long time. Rivers have been on my mind of late.

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I’ve been thinking about rivers and how they branch and what you can find in those branches over time. How rivers can run deep, they can run shallow, they shape the land even as the land shapes the flow of the waters.

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Of late both a song and a poem about rivers periodically run through my mind. The song, composed by Sam Cooke, begins …

I was born by the river in a little tent
Oh, and just like the river I’ve been running ever since

It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gon’ come, oh yes it will …

The poem, as written by Langston Hughes, opens …

I’ve known rivers:

I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the

flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers. …

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My fingers already freezing, I made it to the river’s edge and began walking along an icy stretch.  I looked around waiting for something to catch my attention. I watched where the sunlight fell. Finally I came to a point, as may always be the case, when I had to decide how much further I could safely continue versus turning back.

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I paused, took a deep breath and looked around. I planted my feet and took a few photos. Right there. That was all I had. Just that given moment before I had to race into the nearest shop to warm myself. Later as I scrolled through the few pictures captured I was glad that I had decided to take action in that given moment. What to do in a given moment? That is the question I ponder as I follow rivers and as I do my best to follow the daily news.

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It is a deluge. A constant stream of information. A co-mingling of truth, lies, opinion, jargon and drama spread with too much rapidity across social media platforms, often without deep thought or editing. And not just at the Presidential level. The profound nature of the changes taking place right now in human history across this planet is quite breath-taking. It is paralyzing to some, invigorating to others, and then there is everyone in between. For me,  I am learning, as by the river, to pause and take a deep breath, and then to decide what I can do, from where I am, at a given moment.

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I’m not sure when I will be returning to the river, at least the Charles River. Too cold right now but Spring will come. The bared branches arching over the water will soon enough be green.

 

Sources & Additional Reading

The Negro Speaks of Rivers by Langston Hughes

A Change is Gonna Come by Sam Cooke

 

 

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Eventually, it would work this way — some places were safe and some places were not. If you could make it to the safe place, sometimes woods, sometimes city, then you were safe. But eventually laws were changed, compromises made, and so then even if you made it to the safe place, you could be forcibly brought back to the unsafe place. Sometimes people stood up for you. Sometimes those people were steadfast but there were times when even those pillars were pushed aside. That is what the children remember. How if they did not have the right papers, and especially if they had no papers at all, how the pattyrollers could pick them up, hit them, chase them with dogs. It did not matter if they had made it to sanctuary. Laws said that they were less than human. Only 3/5ths. Until a President put pen to paper.

The Forest Floor

It took me a while to understand the word drawn from the childhood experiences of the former slaves, their fears of the pattyrollers. These patrollers were charged with keeping track of slaves in the slave owning states and eventually given legal right to enter into free states and bring back those who had sought a free land.  Back into slavery the children would go … until a President put pen to paper.

That President was Abraham Lincoln. His pen upon paper produced the Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order issued on January 1, 1863.

In his famous eulogy for the slain President, Reverend Phillips Brooks made note that Lincoln served a divided nation and describes how Lincoln was able to stand forth in the struggle between two American natures.

We are told he did not come to the Presidential chair pledged to the abolition of slavery. When will we learn that with all true men it is not what they intend to do, but it is what the qualities of their nature bind them to do, that determines their career! The President came to his power full of the blood, strong in the strength of Freedom. He came there free, and hating slavery. He came there, leaving on record words like these … “a house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved; I do not expect the house to fall; but I expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.””

Brooks goes on with great eloquence, an eloquence that cannot be conveyed in a blog post but these words stand out to me … “Do not say that [slavery] is dead. It is not, while its essential spirit lives. While another man counts another man his born inferior …” Brooks ends the sermon with Lincoln’s own words delivered at Gettysburg. “He stood there with their graves before him and these are the words he said” –

“We cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men who struggled here have consecrated it far beyond our power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.””

Over 150 years after the American Civil War, I live in what is known as a sanctuary city and I work in a place of sanctuary. I read of students demanding that their campuses become places of sanctuary. I wear no blinders, at least on this subject. What has happened before can happen again. But it does not have to. It does not have to. All this said as a new President of a different character continues to put pen to paper.

 

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One day I stood before a giant globe atlas with a friend in elementary school. We liked to spin it round and round. That day, and I’m not sure why, he stopped the globe and pointed at a place. He looked at me and said with a smile, “That says nigger. That’s what my mama told me.” I squinted at the spot (I needed glasses) and then I said to him, matter of factly, “No. That says Niger. I think your mama got it wrong.” His smile faded. And then we went out to play.

One day in high school computer class (Pascal!) I sat next to a friend whom I’d known since elementary school. We were both geeky. I wore a short skirt and one of my first pair of pantyhose. I almost felt grown up. He kept rubbing my knee. I was beginning to think he might like me. I didn’t know how to giggle but I did smile at what he was doing. I guess he noticed because he said  all of a sudden, “Cynthia, my mother doesn’t like black people. She wouldn’t let me bring you home.” I simply said, “Okay.” And in my mind’s eye I remembered his mother and my mother talking cordially at a parent-teacher meeting.

One day not long ago I stood in a place where I was tasked to welcome strangers. Two men walked in, one wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with a Nazi symbol and the other wore a t-shirt that said, white people are the best people. I did not feel very welcoming but to be welcoming was my job. In the end, on that day, the gentlemen and I conversed about everything except what they wore on their shirts and the color of my skin. We went our separate ways both still existing and having to live with each other in this world.

All of these things happened to me before Trump was voted in as President. I don’t blame Trump for racism, conservatism, alt-right, Breitbart and all the other ugliness in this world. I blame him for fanning the flames of hate. I hold him accountable for the blinders he chooses to wear about what he has done and his active willful ignorance about the scale of the harm he will do to this nation and the world with his cabinet choices.

He has become the President of a flawed, great nation. That nation will not fall with his presidency but it may fracture in ways not even conceived of yet. Will I hold him, Pence and others accountable? Yes! But I will also hold myself and others accountable if we do not take every opportunity, each day, no matter how seemingly small, to become better educated, informed, engaged and active world citizens.

One day …

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Hope by George Frederick Watts

In 1959, Martin Luther King Jr would open a sermon with these words about shattered dreams, “Our sermon today brings us face to face with one of the most agonizing problems of human experience. Very few, if any, of us are able to see all of our hopes fulfilled. So many of the hopes and promises of our mortal days are unrealized. Each of us, like Shubert, begins composing a symphony that is never finished. There is much truth in George Frederick Watts’ imaginative portrayal of Hope in his picture entitled Hope. He depicts Hope as seated atop our planet, but her head is sadly bowed and her fingers are plucking one unbroken harp string. Who has not had to face the agony of blasted hopes and shattered dreams’?

English painter George Frederick Watts (1817-1904) would paint the first of several versions of Hope in 1885. Its symbolism would prove very popular and over time it would be massively reproduced. I read that by the 1930s however his work fell out of fashion and major galleries like The Tate removed his work from permanent display. So I do wonder when, where and how Martin Luther King first saw Hope. I do know when a young Barack Obama learned of the painting. It was in 1990. Pastor Jeremiah Wright would deliver a sermon, The Audacity to Hope. Wright’s words would move the young student who would eventually rouse a whole nation (mostly) with a notion that he would call, The Audacity of Hope.

So where is hope these days? In part its a personal question that we each have to grapple with on any given day depending on what’s happening in our lives.

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Hope by Edward Burne-Jones, 1896

Watts and later his friend Edward Burne-Jones each painted variations of Hope during dark periods in their lives. For Watts that period included the death of his adopted daughter’s child. Burne-Jones had been commissioned by a wealthy American to paint a dancing figure but as he dealt with the death of his friend and colleague William Morris he asked if instead he might paint Hope. I think of hope as something you hold on to or reach out for. And sometimes it even settles around you like a warm blanket when you least expect it. Or, as Emily Dickinson wrote,

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

Sources & Additional Reading

http://www.thekingcenter.org/archive/document/shattered-dreams

http://okra.stanford.edu/transcription/document_images/Vol06Scans/July1962-March1963DraftofChapterX,ShatteredDreams.pdf

http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/victorian-painting-g-f-watts-inspired-obama-harp-hope-article-1.358686

Watts Magazine, p.14+

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/42889

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