Saturday, 4 July 2015

Happy Fourth

On this, the fourth of July, America celebrates very bombastically and drunkenly its foundation. The denizens thereof engage in much merrymaking as they commemorate such noble values as heritage, rebellion, freedom.

To honour that heritage, some familiar faces:

These are the thirteen of our Presidents who held slaves. Be a sport, now; try to name them.

Heritage lies not only in personalities, though. America is also proud of various founding documents. Here, for example, is an extract from Thomas Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence:

If you look very carefully, you should be able to discern the words, "He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither." They don't sound familiar, do they? That's because they never made it into the final version. They were, however, recorded in this book.
That paragraph was replaced with the phrase, "He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us." Here, though, is an excerpt that *did* make it into the Declaration.

The underlined part reads, "...the merciless Indian savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions." What wholesome goodness!

After we made the Declaration of Independence a formal affair (an event which did not take place on 04 July 1776, so hop on your trust steed named Google and see where it takes you), Americans endeavoured to realise a Constitution. It was quite a bit of hard work, too. Here is one of the fruits of their labour:

Section 2 of Article 4 of the US Constitution reads, in part, "No person held to service or labour in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labour, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labour may be due."

That section is called the Fugitive Slave Clause. You probably weren't expecting that from a document which was supposed to reflect upon on our freedoms and liberties, did you? Well, there it is. The handwriting sure is pretty, though, isn't it? The 13th Amendment should have repealed that section. However, in 1988 the Supreme Court ruled that psychological coercion did not constitute a method of forcing someone into involuntary labour. Let's hope that modern anti-trafficking laws have completed that process.

Let's try another piece of American heritage, then. This is the Pledge of Allegiance, as quoted in a textbook from 1910. Just think: your grandfather or great-grandfather might have recited this pledge! This is a really exciting find.

You can't possibly mean to say that something is missing, can you? These are the words penned by the Pledge's author, Francis Bellamy himself! Bellamy was a Baptist pastor. He was also socialist.

Perhaps looking at America's heritage wasn't as satisfying as you thought it would be. A study of rebellion in America should be a happier read, then. First, here are some of the faces of rebellion in America:

This image depicts the Stono Rebellion of 1739, led by Jemmy Cato. He wasn't successful - everyone was caught and either killed or returned to slavery. Charles Deslondes, Quamana, and Harry (the latter two probably having no surnames) had a try of it in 1811 in the German Coast Uprising. In the end, everyone was captured or killed; and Charles was tortured before he finally died. Below is an artistic rendition of that rebellion.

Other rebellions were similarly unsuccessful. However, they began to lend themselves to a spirit of rebellion throughout America.

I hope that Nat Turner, Frederick Douglass, and Joseph Cinqué are familiar names to you. Nat Turner led his own rebellion and was murdered as a result. Frederick Douglass successfully escaped to freedom. Joseph Cinqué led the captives aboard the Amistad to freedom.

In 1841, Madison Washington let the Creole Revolt. This rebellion was successful. It, like Joseph Cinqué's Amistad rebellion, was successful.

Surely everyone remembers Harriet Tubman. She gained freedom in 1849 and started to conduct the rebellious Underground Railroad.

Below are artistic depictions of Harpers Ferry rebellion, in which Lewis Sheridan Leary; Dangerfield Newby; John Anthony Copeland, Jr; and Shields Green rebelled and unsuccessfully fought for freedom.

Wasn't quite what you thought it would be? Let's try freedom, then. Of course, by now we know that one of the clauses in the Constitution called for the return of fugitives. One of those fugitives was Oney Judge Staines. Here is an attempt at a likeness of her:

Oney Judge Staines was enslaved by Martha Washington, who was married to George Washington. You might remember him as the first President of America. His photo is up there, at the very top - you know, because he was a slaveholder. In 1796, Oney ran away while she was with the Washingtons in Philadelphia. They were planning to visit Virginia between Congressional sessions. Since Martha had willed Oney to her granddaughter, Oney knew that she needed to get free before that trip took place. "Whilst they were packing up to go to Virginia, I was packing to go, I didn't know where; for I knew that if I went back to Virginia, I should never get my liberty. I had friends among the colored people of Philadelphia, had my things carried there beforehand, and left Washington's house while they were eating dinner." So it was that in the mid-1790s, Oney packed up and ran off. George tried to get her back by force; and he also posted a notice in the newspaper.

By this time, George had already crafted American law in his favour. In 1793, the Fugitive Slave Act became law. It required anyone encountering a runaway seeking freedom to remand that person back to the slaveholder. Oney Judge Staines remained free, however, outliving both George and Martha. After one of his failed attempts to bring Oney Judge Staines back to him and Martha, George told his emissary, "I regret that the attempt you made to restore the Girl (Oney Judge as she called herself while with us, and who, without the least provocation absconded from her Mistress) should have been attended with so little Success. To enter into such a compromise with her [that she be freed on the Washingtons' deaths], as she suggested to you, is totally inadmissible, for reasons that must strike at first view: for however well disposed I might be to a gradual abolition, or even to an entire emancipation of that description of People (if the latter was in itself practicable at this moment) it would neither be politic or just to reward unfaithfulness with a premature preference [of freedom]; and thereby discontent before hand the minds of all her fellow-servants who by their steady attachments are far more deserving than herself of favor." That really is disappointing, isn't it, coming from someone who led America to freedom himself.

 Earlier, we heard about other freedom seekers who made it: Madison Washington in the Creole Revolt, Joseph Cinqué's Amistad rebellion, and Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass as they ran away to freedom. In fact, Frederick Douglass delivered an important monologue on July 4th, 1852 - less than a decade before the Civil War. In his speech, Frederick Douglass reviewed America's history and then turned to deeper issues of freedom. The speech is as long as a small book, so here are some excerpts:
I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me.
 Fellow-citizens; above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, “may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!”
 At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could I 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.
 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 cruelly 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 denunciations 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 these United States, at this very hour.

What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?
by Frederick Douglass
July 5, 1852

Thinking of a different freedom, were you? Perhaps a different colour of freedom? By the way, in case you hadn't caught on before this point, this blog post is in celebration of those Africans and Afro-descended persons who fought for their freedom. You already heard the white version, several times over, all of your life. I hope that this journey was eye-opening and educational for you. This post has attempted to expound on the concepts of heritage, rebellion, and freedom from perspectives different than those with which we all grew up.

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