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Posts Tagged ‘slavery’

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This past year I read quite a few slave narratives by African Americans who were interviewed in the late 1930s to document their childhood experiences and memories of slavery prior to the Civil War. These people, ranging in age from octogenarians to centenarians, were also asked about their feelings toward the people who had formerly owned them. The wide-range of responses highlight the complex relationships that developed between those who enslaved and those who were enslaved within an institutionalized system of slavery as it existed in the United States for well over two centuries.

The following words that I call Winter into Spring were inspired by one man’s memory of the tough times after the Civil War and his continuing close relationship with the family who had previously owned him. In broken English, he conveyed the depth of his feelings using visual metaphors. He spoke only of his personal experience, but I was moved by something that I felt was universal … how people experience grief whatever its source. And so I took this man’s words, tapped into my own personal experiences and observations of others to draft the following. It may be a work in progress …

 

Winter into Spring

I remember the day, both of their days,

the soil covering them like I no longer could.

What can I say except losing them was like being a tree in the winter wood. 

Understood?

Every cold wind, so sharp, blowed my leaves and tore them loose.

They fell to the ground, crumbling to dust, as if to follow those two,

my master and mistress, into their graves below.

I was in a world so dark I could not see.

Naked and alone. Stripped bare like a tree soon to fall.

Then one day I felt whole.

It was a strange day. What day, do you say?

That day it was like Spring, and it come bringing light!

I could see.

Well I guess you could say that little tree it was me.

You asked me how it felt and now I’ve told you.

When they passed I felt done, but the day did come,

though I still sometimes wonder why,

when I finally felt alive again.

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God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

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Robert C. Winthrop. Charles Sumner. Phillips Brooks. Martin Luther King Jr. The lives of these four men span over 150 years. What’s the connection? For me, it’s in their words and actions, or lack thereof, on the subjects that humanity has struggled with since the beginning.  Most often these subjects involve issues of race, class and gender, issues that have always, it seems, inevitably produced tensions within defined societies that then threaten to tear those societies apart. As then as chaos looms or even reigns, individuals within those societies, like these men, must decide what to do, if anything at all.

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Robert C. Winthrop, 1850

It has been two years since I last wrote about Robert C. Winthrop in the context of Hope, the stained glass window that he purchased for Trinity Church in Boston. Winthrop, a one-time Speaker for the U.S. House of Representatives, was a complicated man.  He was a major philanthropist especially to educational institutions in the north and south believing that education was vital to blacks and whites. A contemporary of Frederick Douglass, he too gave anti-slavery speeches. He did not want slavery to spread but as far as ending slavery where it already existed, he differed with Douglass and other activists, like Charles Sumner.

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Charles Sumner, 1850

Sumner was a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts who became the leader of the anti-slavery movement in Massachusetts and a leader of the Radical Republicans. He was an incendiary speaker against slavery, one speech of which led to a physical attack on the Senate floor. When Sumner died in 1874 after a long career in domestic and international politics, people immediately remarked upon his anti-slavery leadership. One of those people who praised Sumner’s legacy was Phillips Brooks, Rector of Trinity Church, himself noted for his powerful oratory.

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Phillips Brooks, Rector of Trinity Church

The words were spoken on a Sunday morning at the end of his sermon.  Exactly what Brooks said in entirety, I do not know. What I do know I learned from Winthrop’s memoir. The diary entry he wrote in response to Brooks are thought provoking.

“I sometimes question whether the cause of religion is advanced when clergymen, from a pulpit on a Sunday, single out for especial admiration statesmen in no way identified with religious observances; and I have been led into this train of thought by the fact that my own rector, in the course of a fine sermon this morning, took occasion to make a brief but glowing tribute to Sumner, who, according to Henry Wilson, had not been inside of a church for twelve years past, unless to attend a wedding or a funeral. He spoke of him, moreover, as one who was ‘a friend to freedom when others were its enemies,’ and as  ‘hating slavery when others loved it.’

Precisely what was meant by this allusion to ‘others’ is not quite clear but it was interpreted by some in the congregation as referring to the party with which Sumner was originally associated. If so, I do not think it fair. The great Whig party loved freedom and hated slavery as much as he, though they could not adopt his mode of showing love and hate. It is a perversion of historical truth to stigmatize that party as having been, in any sense, a proslavery party.  …

We did what we could to keep the peace between North and South, hoping that a day would one day be opened, in the good providence of God, for gradual emancipation on some basis which would be safe for both blacks and whites. Emancipation came as a necessity of the Civil War which we had sought to avert. Perhaps it could have come in no other way, but we had always looked to the ultimate disappearance of slavery under the influence of civilization and Christianity, without endangering the Union or sacrificing half a million lives. …”

His words irritated me.

Upon reflection I realized why and then I found myself re-reading Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, written nearly 100 years after Winthrop put pen to paper.

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Martin Luther King, Jr, 1964

The 1963 letter opens “My Dear Clergymen, While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely. … I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.”

King goes on to affirm that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.” …

“I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection. … 

“Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.”

Well, fifty years later, you have only to read the headlines of a reputable news source. Indeed, now is the time, yet again, to lift our national policy from the quicksand of injustice of any kind for anyone.

An addendum: I recently saw a news story about a small town in coal country in a southern state. The mass majority of people left in the town are white, economically adrift with few job prospects and with little access to health care and food. Drug use is rampant, and there is great love of Trump because somehow there is a perception that he is just like them. After surviving in this strange new world through July 2017, I now realize I don’t need those people to ever like me, someone who is so different from them, and I don’t need them to vilify Trump and his cronies. At least not yet. First I need to see their living conditions improved … because what they are dealing with, whatever their beliefs, is indeed an injustice. And, as we have seen with this recent Presidential election, its that kind of injustice, as well as injustice regarding race and gender, that can too easily become a threat to justice everywhere.

 

Sources & Additional Reading

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Sumner

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Charles_Winthrop

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Luther_King_Jr.

 

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photo by patricia cobb

I feel I honored the memories of the children like Willis Cofer. 🙂

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CSinstallation

I have received many encouraging words about the installation. For me it was a truly collaborative process where people around me helped bring to life the picture in my head. I am thankful. We’ll see what the future holds in terms of future installations. Meanwhile, I do hope if you’re in the area you have a chance to walk beneath these branches.

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the completed trough

Nope, that is not the opening to one of my fairly gentle political posts. Just breathe. Those are the words I repeat to myself the night before I attempt to set up my first installation for the exhibit Peace: Cutting through Turmoil. My contribution to the show I guess I can say is a three dimensional representation of my artistic and emotional experiences after chancing upon 1930’s Federal Writers’ Project slave narratives in the public library, and then later reading more narratives online. It was a short paragraph that set me on this path, a recount of childhood memories of eating from a trough with a mussel shell. Shells pulled from the branches …

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What I am creating is ephemeral. Paper, prints, words produced to physically be on display for a little less than a month. A contribution that I think will be part of a powerful whole when viewed in the company of the works by the other participants who have esteemed careers in the arts. I feel a bit like the new kid on the block. A little scary but freeing too.

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It will be an assemblage of pieces and parts, words and images, some culled from nature, some acquired collaboratively with the aid of friends. The least ephemeral of the whole is the trough. While he did let me hold a chisel or two, it was Steve who carved the trough for me using a fallen tree, and a pivotal tool, both shared by friends.

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Shared by friends. No matter what happens with this project it has been a wonderful collaborative effort. I was even able to involve one of my littlest friends, aged 9 and going on 21, who agreed to hold a mussel shell for me.

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Hmmm. What else is there to say? Before this night is done, I have a few more shells to drill holes in and string, and I still need to discuss with Steve how to hang … oops, I can’t tell you what I intend to hang or from what. At least not yet. Meanwhile, I just breathe. 🙂

Peace: Cutting through Turmoil

Brick Bottom Artists Gallery, Somerville, MA

Opening Reception Thursday June 8, 6:00 – 8:00 pm

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I first met Lois Fiore as a fellow participant in an art show curated by the Riverside Arts Group. It was a pleasure meeting her and learning of this artist whose work has been shown in the Boston area for over 30 years. Not only was she engaging in talking about her artistic process, she expressed genuine interest in learning about me as a person. When I shared with her that, in addition to photography, I also write and on occasion combine words with images, she invited me to share my work. I shared a post about the unexpected impact of meandering through the Boston Public Library and randomly opening up a book.

It was a compilation of slave narratives from the 1930s. Excerpts had been placed in various categories one of which included childhood memories of food. After reading “mussel ’em, a work in progress,” Lois invited me to submit a proposal to be part of a new exhibit, an exhibit inspired by the recent Presidential election and the subsequent struggle by so many to perceive how they could possibly move forward through the ensuing chaos. The proposal was accepted for my first interactive installation.  I am truly looking forward to showing my work with the other artists in the exhibit PEACE: Cutting Through TURMOIL, on view June 8 – July 1 at the Brick Bottom Artist Building.

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If you’re in the area, I hope you’ll be able to drop by the opening reception or visit the gallery at another time. Meanwhile, I continue to work on the installation. More updates in the near future!

 

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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.

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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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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.

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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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