Sunday, February 27, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: Black History Month

So anyway I'm reading a biography of David Ruggles and -

What's that, you never heard of him? Actually you have if you've read one of Frederick Douglass's three autobiographies. He's the free black abolitionist who advised and assisted Douglass during the New York phase of his escape from slavery. I didn't know that either when I picked the book up. The title attracted me: David Ruggles: A Radical Black Abolitionist and the Underground Railroad in New York City. I've been interested in the Underground Railroad since I was nine and first heard of it, and nothing is more attractive than a book about some aspect of an interest which is not generally covered.

The reason for this is simple: These books are idea factories. I'm only on page 79 and look what I've got:

Born free in Connecticut, Ruggles lived in an integrated neighborhood near the family of his parents' former owner and attended a school where one of the teachers promoted the idea that free blacks should recolonize Africa. Imagine a guidance counselor advising you that you can't expect to succeed in your country of origin and should, in your own best interest, go someplace else! A major conflict in the abolitionist platform was between those who called for an end to slavery and those who called for ending slavery by shipping all the slaves to Africa to Christianize it. This resulted in Liberia, a country whose history should be better known. Broadly speaking, black abolitionists regarded colonization proponents as part of the problem; a parallel between the colonization platform and the policy of relocating Cherokees from Georgia was explicitly drawn by them.

In his youth he got into trouble with another young black man whose family was less well-connected and who therefore got sucked into the prison-crime cycle, while Ruggles got off lightly and went on to be a sailor, storekeeper, and activist.

During the Revolution, Connecticut offered freedom in exchange for military service, and self-created a sizable population of black Patriots; in other colonies, the British were the ones offering that deal.

In the 1790s, barely 5% of Connecticut's white male population could vote; not much difference between being black and being poor white.

From p. 24: "In 1798, in a sensational moment, a mixed-race mob protected the eight-year-old James Mars from a Virginia slave catcher."

In colonial times, slaves regularly elected governors and kings in the spring.

Ship captains didn't check papers; a fifth to a quarter of coastal crews were black and seafaring was a good option for male runaway slaves as well as free blacks.

Under the 1808 Fugitive Slave Law and New York's pro-slavery judges, "kidnappers regularly came to the city and grabbed any black whose appearance resembled their quarry." If you've ever read a runaway slave advertisement, you'll know just how big a pool of people the descriptions would have opened up to this form of human trafficking.

Free blacks sometimes turned escaped slaves over to slave catchers for rewards.

Riots against slave catching were a regular form of resistance.

Consumer activism has a longer history than I thought; Ruggles advertised that his sugar was "free sugar," i.e. not produced by slave labor, and this was a selling point for abolitionist housewives.

"[White abolitionist Elizur] Wright chronicled the actions of Richard P. Haxall of Richmond, Virginia, who had taken a seven-year-old schoolboy, Henry Scott, off the city streets and hauled him before Richard Riker, the city recorder, who was about to condemn the lad into slavery. Wright intervened and stopped the proceedings even after Riker ordered the boy to jail until the matter could be settled...Wright then convinced William Goodell, Arthur Tappan, and a group of black citizens to bail Henry out and allow him to live with the Wright family."

In 1829, rioters drove a large proportion of the free black population out of Cincinnati. Those who left went to Canada and founded the town of Wilberforce.

July 1834 saw coordinated race riots in New York, with a mob attacking a meeting of free blacks to discuss abolition and spreading to sack stores, burn churches, and beat folks up. Various organizations blamed the abolitionists for provoking the violence. One white abolitionist bookseller, Isaac T. Hopper, was advised to take down his window display. "Hopper declared that he was not 'such a coward as to forsake my the bidding of a mob.' When a mob approached his shop intent upon ransacking it, Hopper walked out onto his steps and stared down the rioters, who then moved on without damaging his store."

The troubles with the national designation of themed time periods, like Black History Month and the International Year of the Woman, are many. Black history, women's studies, Latin-American culture, and so on are not separate things from the rest of life. We're all in this together. History and culture appear in most minds not as an integrated whole but as a series of high points, islands in a sea of normal, complexity cooked down to an easily-digestible simplicity that can be absorbed and forgotten. This is not useful, and for the most part theme periods work within this paradigm rather than upsetting it.

But one thing that is accomplished is, that librarians will pull out books like this one and put them on displays where patrons who aren't particularly looking to be enlightened have a chance to see it and be curious and get a taste of how the past relates to the present and how impoverished their public-school history curriculum was.

For my own part, interest in the complexity of history began with fiction, or with nonfiction packaged to appeal to fiction readers. I don't see enough historical fiction with black protagonists. When I do see it, it's normally based around the Civil War and slavery. These are of course interesting times; but other times, as the above indicates, were equally interesting. Because less familiar, I submit that the stories of Northern antebellum black people are even more interesting than those of slaves; or for that matter of Northern antebellum white people. Were you surprised to learn that Ohio had a sizable black population before the Southern Diaspora?

Yes, this stuff is hard to research. Yes, there's a profound discomfort inherent in examining how real people really behaved and spoke as opposed to how we want to arrange them into neat groups of folks we like and folks we don't like; and in seeing how little rhetoric has changed in America during its history. Yes, it can be hard to see your way clear to creating a protagonist with agency in social groups who have been systematically denied agency by the institutions of our democratic government. Those are all reasons to mine this nearly-untapped vein, not reasons to avoid it.

For an example of the possibilities, and the problems, of tackling such topics, I refer you to the remarkable, and remarkably uncomfortable, work The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, by M.T. Anderson. Totally worth the effort.

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