Tag Archives: American history

12 Years a Slave scores a new audience and Oscars

 

The Staking Out and Flogging of Patsey

The Staking Out and Flogging of Patsey, p. 256 in Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northrup, a Citizen of New York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853 (Auburn: Derby and Miller, 1853).

Last night (in case you missed it) the Steve McQueen directed, Brad Pitt produced 12 Years a Slave scooped up some Oscars last night. The movie and its casts won:

Best Picture

Best Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong’o

Best Adapted Screenplay by John Ridley.

Undoubtedly, this movie is bringing to the masses a more realistic portrayal of slavery’s cruel and exploitative nature. It has encouraged numerous people I know to read more slave narratives. I believe that Hattie McDaniel’s spirit smiled for Lupita’s Oscar win last night for bringing Patsey’s wretched story to life. I applaud Steve McQueen for including the fact that slavery continues in the present day.

Still, the best speech was Lupita’s and you’ll see why by watching this video. I think the real Patsey, Solomon Northrup, and scores of others who experienced the slavery period and its aftermath were pleased with her.

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The Tension Within

Some readers of this blog may have seen the recent outrage and subsequent cancellation of Ani DiFranco’s “Righteous Retreat” where songwriters, poets, and performance artists were to relax and find creativity at Nottoway Plantation in Louisiana.

First, let me say that I have never been to Nottoway Plantation (or anywhere else in Louisiana); but reports from Eichstedt and Small’s Representations of Slavery and some friends of mine who went last year makes me wonder about how they are coming to terms with the issue of enslavement and the struggle for power and citizenship that went on at the plantation during and after slavery.

That being said, I commend my friend, Nicholas Redding, executive director at Long Branch Plantation who has extended an invitation to Ms. DiFranco. Why should there not be a retreat of poets, songwriters, and performance artists at a plantation site? The opponents cite “genocide of black people” that took place at the plantation as their major reason for opposing the event.

Plantation sites are among many sites that have complex, complicated histories that are not always uplifting. Nor are they always sad. Readers of this blog know that I am opposed to moonlight and magnolia depictions of plantation sites. Violence and resistance are powerful themes within these sites that too often has been ignored in favor of presenting kind and gracious property owners where the labor of virtually everything occurred as if my magic (or what friends  of mine know I call the “Beauty and the Beast” syndrome ). These sites, however, did not routinely feature genocide ( which is the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, religious, or national group; see  T. Marcus Funk, Victims’ Rights and Advocacy at the International Criminal Court. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. p. 1).

The process of  the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and 17th and 18th century slave adaptation to the Americas and Europe generated social and religious alterations of various ethnic and/or tribal traditions within the slave communities and millions of people perished. However, the goal was to maintain a labor system to benefit a minority of European land and people owners. By the 1800s, with the African slave trade legally stopped (though illegal trading continued) in the United States and with natural increase of American born and bred enslaved people much of the social and cultural trends had already cemented and few people had any real knowledge of Africa as a continent (not to mention the variables of people, climates, flora, and fauna of that vast continent). These American born slaves considered themselves American and thus entitled to the ideals in the Declaration of Independence and the laws of the Constitution. So the enslaved community at Nottoway (and the thousands of other slaveholding properties) experienced periods of pain (physical and emotional), suffering, and desires for freedom; but, the Randolphs (and their contemporary slaveholders) did not systematically destroy Africans and Americans of African descent through mass extermination.

I believe as I have said here before, those of us entrusted as stewards of the plantations and the stories associated with these sites, have to create methods for understanding the histories (I am purposefully use of the plural because not everyone had the exact same experiences) of these sites while working with visitors to create meaning making and complicate modern understanding of historical people. If we do our jobs and people are paying attention, we may consider ways to see inequality in the present and make our own world better.

What the outrage does illustrate is that everyone needs to realize that this nation was created and maintained with biases for gender and race. We do not live in a utopian American culture. Thus there is no “post-racial” because of a dual election of Barack Obama. There is no “post-gender” because of Hillary Clinton, Ruth Ginsberg, Sonia Sotomayor, or Elena Kagan.

But back to the basics of this retreat and why I think poets, songwriters, and performance artists can go to plantations and honor the histories (as messy as they are) of these sites. The plantation owners battled for what they considered their rights. Extreme violence in the form of war developed to sustain slavery. Enslaved people, including women, battled for their rights in obviously different ways but still on the same turf.

Enslaved people sang songs to strengthen one another and to encourage resistance. They played drums and danced to celebrate. They told stories to make fun of slaveholders. They crafted mourning rituals to honor the dead. Some remained Islamic. Some Africans were already Christian when they arrived in the New World or Europe. Some hung on to elements of different African groups’ traditions and melded them with Christianity. 

Belisario01

So I close with a performance artist who survived slavery, who was a feminist, who was brave, and who challenged what people thought she ought to do. Her speech “Ain’t I a Woman” has different versions but this is the earliest transcription from June 21, 1851. The artist’s name was Sojourner Truth:

I want to say a few words about this matter. I am a woman’s rights. I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that? I have heard much about the sexes being equal. I can carry as much as any man, and can eat as much too, if I can get it. I am as strong as any man that is now. As for intellect, all I can say is, if a woman have a pint, and a man a quart – why can’t she have her little pint full? You need not be afraid to give us our rights for fear we will take too much, – for we can’t take more than our pint’ll hold. The poor men seems to be all in confusion, and don’t know what to do. Why children, if you have woman’s rights, give it to her and you will feel better. You will have your own rights, and they won’t be so much trouble. I can’t read, but I can hear. I have heard the bible and have learned that Eve caused man to sin. Well, if woman upset the world, do give her a chance to set it right side up again. The Lady has spoken about Jesus, how he never spurned woman from him, and she was right. When Lazarus died, Mary and Martha came to him with faith and love and besought him to raise their brother. And Jesus wept and Lazarus came forth. And how came Jesus into the world? Through God who created him and the woman who bore him. Man, where was your part? But the women are coming up blessed be God and a few of the men are coming up with them. But man is in a tight place, the poor slave is on him, woman is coming on him, he is surely between a hawk and a buzzard.

Sojourner Truth

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Museum of the Confederacy and American Civil War Center Merger

Rumors have circulated for the last several months that the Museum of the Confederacy was exploring a merger with the American Civil War Center at Tredegar. Today, the news broke that despite denying it initially, it is true.

In the initial rumors there was outrage from the Sons of Confederate Veterans and a group of Confederate Flaggers (which I refuse to discuss on this blog). In fact, some of my friends and acquaintances (who are not in either of those organizations) are dismayed. Still within this merger, it appears to me that the Confederate Memorial Literary Society is here to stay. It unclear at this moment, how the old museum space will be used (beyond the gift shop) and how many visitors may go to the Confederate Executive Mansion.

The Confederate Executive Mansion in the spring of 1865. Today, this building is surrounded by the Medical College of Virginia creating confusion for the Museum of the Confederacy’s visitors. Image in the Library of Congress’ collection.

It may come as a surprise to some of my readers that I have over the years been a member (and clearly remember not renewing for a while when there was a proposal to move the Brockenbrough-Crenshaw mansion from its original location) of the Museum of the Confederacy. I believe that the institution protects important documents and materials related to the wartime and post-war South through its gamble in creating a separate nation and the methods of remembering the Southern wartime experience. I know some talented folks over at the Museum. Yet, it is clear to me that they have been in a challenging situation with the Confederate Executive Mansion and its neighboring 1970s building now dwarfed by the expansion of the Medical College of Virginia.

The Museum of the Confederacy has had its fair share of interpretive challenges since 1896. Certainly for many decades the issue of slavery and its importance to the Confederate government and many of its white residents was ignored. The impact of slavery on and the notion of freedom among the millions of enslaved people living in the wartime south were also ignored. The 1990s saw the beginnings of changes to the familiar Lost Cause tropes and exploration of race and gender and the new satellite Museum of the Confederacy at Appomattox even explores the memory of the Confederacy and the flags.

Yet, for those who are so outraged, failing to support the Confederate Memorial Literary Society could contribute to the disintegration of the very artifacts and documents you profess to want people to have access to. There has to be a balance between the old line supporters of the Museum and new methods to engage the public. I hope that this will be successful; but, I am going to take a wait-and-see approach instead of throwing my hands up in protest or rolling out a red carpet too early. It remains to be seen if the larger public will throw in their support.

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“Was he bi-polar?!” OR Interpreting the Violence of Enslavement

This post’s title is inspired by comments that I have recently been asked while interpreting a slaveholder at work. I include the same overall historical facts in all of my tours of the plantation big house; though I vary the arrangement of the words. The owner of the property had a few enslaved laborers who were clearly his favorites. He complimented their “good conduct” and the work they performed. If unsatisfied with that work he “scolded” or “spoke to” those whom he liked. He gave monetary gifts at Christmas to most of the enslaved community (by 1860, 113 individuals) and for his favorites, he gave monetary gifts at other times of the year.

Yet, these were a few individuals and it is clear even as they were his favorites, he still believed white Southerners were superior to people of African descent. As members of the enslaved community resisted his authority, he, like the clear majority of slaveholders, turned to a variety of non-violent and violent methods to show that the slaveholder held considerable power. I’m interested in telling my visitors about the tug-of-war over who had more power (those who were enslaved or the enslavers) and the techniques both used in that power struggle.

So the question I hear “Was he bi-polar?” strikes me as strange because I have no belief that this plantation owner was bi-polar. I also have no ability to make that judgment 117 years after his death. What I think this stems from is a lack of our plantation sites or museums including the violence of enslavement.

Often visitors to historic plantation sites are invited to witness the “splendor” of furnished rooms or to understand the “hospitality” of the plantation owners. Yet the majority of the people who lived (and labored) on these plantations were people of African descent not welcomed into the grand parlors or elaborate dining rooms of the people who owned them.

The wonders of the Internet make is possible for us to see a variety of plantation rules, such as Joseph Acklen, who lived with his wife Adelicia at Belmont Mansion in Nashville and the sugar plantations she got after the death of her first husband (who was a well-known slave trader). As you can see here whipping was how he, his overseers, or agents dealt with the enslaved laborers he owned.

While it appears Thomas Jefferson preferred not to whip people, his overseers did perform the task (see Lucia Stanton’s “Those who Labor for My Happiness”: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello). Enslaved laborers at Mount Vernon, home of the nation’s Revolutionary hero and first president were whipped by overseers and Washington supported the whippings as a means to control those who resisted. Wesley Norris, former slave at Arlington, the Custis family estate (now dominated by the Arlington National Cemetery), recalled he, his sister, and one of their cousins ran away in 1859. Their escape failed and upon return to Arlington, he recalled Robert E. Lee, administrator of George Washington Parke Custis’ estate, ordering the overseer to whip them. The overseer having balked at this task, Lee had a local constable called in who was told by Lee to “lay it on well” (see Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters).

Aunt Sally being whipped

Slavery and violence go hand-in-hand. Slaveholders thought nothing about their carrot and stick methodology to try to control the enslaved men, women, and children on their properties. The interviews conducted with former slaves illustrates the personal experiences of individuals who coped with a series of non-violent threats (such as the thought of sale), non-violent actions (selling people, cutting off access to food, or restricting a person’s ability to leave the slave owner’s property), violent episodes (such as rape, mutilation, or the extremely common whippings), compliments, and rewards. I cannot think of a single slaveholding site or museum that exclusively discusses the brutality of enslavement (it would be historically inaccurate to do so); but I can think of many that refuse to engage with the vicious nature of human bondage.

We need all of these places to use the historical record (i.e., eyewitness accounts) to present a full record of the events that occurred on slaveholding properties. As hospitable as someone could be to a sibling or neighbor is as wicked as he or she may be to an enslaved person on a given day and then be complimentary of that same enslaved person some weeks later. I am not convinced that slaveholders were on the whole “bi-polar;” but, I am convinced that historic sites and museums still have more research to undertake and (most importantly) have to broadcast their findings in a responsible way.

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Understanding People Across Centuries

As we near the 400th anniversary of the marriage of Pocahontas, the daughter of Chief Powhatan to English colonists and tobacco planter, John Rolfe there are a series of events planned to commemorate her capture and marriage as well as the relationship between the English and Algonquin groups in Tidewater Virginia in the early 1600s.

I invite you to check out the plans as they are at this time here at the World of Pocahontas Schedule.

If you would, I’d invite you to fast forward a couple hundred years and move to the west of Tidewater Virginia to look at Montpelier, the plantation owned by James Madison, Constitution author and fourth president of the United States. Archaeological work continues on discovering more about the lives of the enslaved people who were living and working on the plantation during the early 1800s. This work is assisted in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities and you can hear a bit more about this work through the YouTube video Slave Quarters Excavation at James Madison’s Montpelier.

 

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About “Ask A Slave”

This past week I received approximately 20 people sending me a YouTube web show called “Ask a Slave” by Azie Dungey who portrayed an enslaved maid at Mount Vernon. Through this medium of YouTube she shares some insensitive and not very thoughtful questions asked by people at Mount Vernon (and at a host of other sites that deal with slavery). Like others I appreciate the explanation and intent behind the project. My friends want to know “What do you think?”

The problem I have with this show is that interpreting enslavement in eighteenth and nineteenth century contexts must be taken seriously by the presenter and also by the receiver. Poking fun at visitor inquiries is not the best method of interpreting (to be fair this web show is not claiming to interpret). However, the questions posed by visitors are their (albeit often poorly worded) way to find some information regarding the lives of people of African descent who were enslaved. It is the interpretive staff’s job (and if you’re lucky—their passion) to relay the truth of historical events.

As someone who regularly interprets slavery for employment and as a hobby, I have been asked many of the questions presented in the “Ask A Slave” episodes. Sometimes it is while I am portraying a real or composite character of the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries and other times it is while wearing modern clothing and doing third-person interpretation.

One issue visitors most often return to is why slaves did not run away from a degrading institution. The question, even in first person, should be answered thoughtfully and not flippantly.

Visitor Question at 18th century slave site: “Why don’t you just run away through the Underground Railroad?”

Flippant answer: “What is a railroad?”

Visitor: (internally agitated/angry) “You know what I’m talking about! Harriet Tubman and all that.”

Flippant answer: “Well, I don’t know about any Harriet Tubman or this railroad. Maybe you need to be checked into the insane asylum.”

I received this exact question from a young girl and her father in 2008 when I was portraying an enslaved man in Massachusetts at Minute Man National Historical Park. The event was built around those of us in historical reproduction clothing experiencing (and helping visitors experience) life outside Boston in the summer of 1774 with the port of Boston recently closed.

My friend Neal (at right) and I portrayed a New England slaveholder and his enslaved laborer, Peter, at Minute Man National Historical Park. Here we are in front of the Hartwell Tavern (built 1732-1733).

I was in the Hartwell Tavern, which had reproduction newspapers scattered about. I used the props and encouraged the father-daughter team to really think about where it was that an 18th century enslaved person would go. Through our day-long interactions, the daughter read the reproduction 18th century newspaper for runaway ads. She sometimes read them to me and as she read about red headed, freckled Irish indentured maids or Scottish male indentured servants I had to tell her, “But young lady, you see those people do not look like me. There are not a lot of people who look like me around here (see the 1765 Boston census here).”

Daughter: “Oh.”

She left and came back a while later and said “Well, can’t you get on a ship and leave?”

I said “Oh no! I can’t get on a ship. The port of Boston is closed because of the anger of the people here with the King. Remember that in the newspaper?”

The father and daughter: “Yes.”

Me: “Furthermore it may be a slave ship and then I get sold.”

Family: “Oh.”

Finally I explained (all while never breaking character), that I certainly could not go to Virginia or South Carolina or Georgia for slavery was there. I could go west but what about the Indians and I asked even if I left the colony, where would I land and be free? I asked them whether they liked sugar to which they said they did, the girl (like most kids) loving candy. I asked if she knew who harvested sugar in 1774. She did not. I told her that it was in the Caribbean islands where thousands of slaves worked, most of them only living a few years before dying and then the plantation owners there would bring in more people. We talked about tobacco and rice as well all based on fact but also what my character had heard through the grapevine.

This family walked away with some knowledge about 18th century slavery without reading a 400 page book and in fact, partly discovered through their own work why there were not wholesale disappearances of enslaved people in the 1700s toward some other place. The details about the coming of the Revolution were less important for me than those portraying the Sons of Liberty.

At our mid-19th century historical sites in the context of more vocal anti-slavery people, groups, and the presence of the Underground Railroad, interpreters have to balance why slaves did not run away with other methods of resistance.

All of this reminds me of a post I recently saw through social media where someone asked a friend of mine a very important question:

“What are some intelligent questions to ask a slave [someone portraying a slave is what was meant]?  I’ve wanted to engage some ‘slaves’ in conversation before, but frankly I feel too inadequate.”

Questions to first person characters do require some contextual thought. You should not ask someone portraying Mary Lincoln what it was like to have her husband murdered if you’re attending a program that talks about the Lincolns in 1863. The assassination is two years in the future. The same would be said for not asking someone portraying a slave in Florida what it is like to meet Frederick Douglass. Most enslaved people never met the “famous” folks of the past regardless of race, economic station, gender, etc.

I portrayed an enslaved man who was sent to construct earthworks around Petersburg, Virginia in the summer of 1862. Visitors asked about this type of work and I along with volunteers portraying Confederate soldiers compared and contrasted Civil War defenses with modern day military defenses.

I portrayed an enslaved man who was sent to construct earthworks around Petersburg, Virginia in the summer of 1862. Visitors asked about this type of work and I along with volunteers portraying Confederate soldiers compared and contrasted Civil War defenses with modern day military defenses.

Generally, any question you have is probably one that the interpreter is willing to answer. I’ll tackle some good ones that always need an answer:

  1. Why did the former slaves on this plantation/in this urban dwelling stay here after the Civil War?
  2. What kind of work do YOU do? What kind of work do other people do here? Easily flipped for non-character portrayals to “What kind of work did the enslaved people do here?”
  3. What is the most difficult thing for you each day?
  4. What fears did the enslaved people have regarding their interactions with the community at large and specifically their owner and his/her family?
  5. Can you tell me about your family? (And don’t leave it to the person having a spouse and some kids.) Follow ups: What do grandparents do here? What does your little girl do here? How do you take care of your children? When do you see your siblings?
  6. Where did the slaves live? What happened in the slave quarters? Why were those quarters built there and not somewhere else?
  7. When the slaves here got angry, how did they show their unhappiness?
  8. Have you ever been punished by the owner of this place? (And if the interpreter answers no, ask why not. If yes, the likelihood is the interpreter will tell you.) OR How were the enslaved community here punished? OR I’ve read about whippings but where were other ways that a master/mistress may discipline enslaved people?
  9. What sources do you have about slavery at this place? Did the owner leave records? Are there any interviews done with former slaves who worked and lived here?
  10. What types of food did the slaves eat? When did they have time to eat? Where did they eat?
  11. What will you do now that you’ve been emancipated?

These are just some immediate thoughts that came to mind. Others can be asked if you are in a very specific situation. The more you know the better questions and dialogue you can have with the interpreter(s). Tweaking the above questions will work for a first person conversation or one taking place in the 21st century with 21st century interpretive staff.

Again it bears repeating that this web series is not interpretation and it is not claiming to be; however, “Ask A Slave” may create uncertainty from the public to ask professional or volunteer staff the tough questions about slavery and those people who experienced it in bondage or as the slaveholder. As I visit historic sites from battlefields to plantations to museums in modern buildings dealing with historical events, I continue to be amazed that as much progress as one place has made another site has not.

I welcome questions and comments at work, in other presentations, and here. I ask questions when I am a visitor. I am not asking to simply create a “Gotcha!” moment. I am curious to see if the site has researched the lives of enslaved people and their work because it illustrates that the staff values that information and finds it important to share.

Often the change our historic sites need come from the questions visitors have. Hopefully some of what I have said above will allow all of us to think about what types of questions are we asking. Equally, our staff (professional or volunteer based) needs to be able to intelligently answer in a manner that allows people to get the most meaningful answer to create historical understanding.

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Upcoming Conversations about History

Dear Readers,

September looks to be a busy month. I’m planning to travel for the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Chickamauga, Georgia to do a timeline event in mid-September. I’ll report back on the details of this event once I return.

However, there are other things that I’ve agreed to do and wish to make you aware of, especially for the Virginia readers.

On Saturday, September 21st, I will be giving a presentation that I keep returning to: “Diamonds, Education, Emancipation, and Race: The Family of Silas Omohundro”. This presentation will be at the Museum of the Confederacy located at 1201 E. Clay Street, Richmond, Virginia. Parking is free with validation at the Medical College of Virginia’s parking deck located adjacent to the Museum. The presentation lasts an hour from 11-12. I will plan on speaking for about 45 minutes to leave time for questions and comments. This presentation usually leaves everyone a little stunned for a moment but then opens up interesting dialogue about the construction of race and the slave trade in pre-Civil War America. I want to thank Cathy Wright (fellow UNCG alum) for coming to hear my presentation earlier this year and inviting me to do this. I can only echo what has been said many times…this isn’t your grandfather’s centennial commemoration of the American Civil War. The cost is included with Museum admission. More information about the admission cost can be found here.

Also on Thursday and Friday, September 26-27, the Joseph Roberts Jenkins Center at Norfolk State University and the Hampton History Museum are hosting a conference focusing on 1619: The Making of America on September 26-27, 2013.  This conference will focus on new questions of biology, literature, law, society, race and gender. 

The conference will take place at the Hampton Roads Convention Center on Thursday, September 26, 2013 and at Norfolk State University’s New Student Center on Friday, September 27th.  Each day will feature different scholarly and community leaders speaking on a variety of issues that faced Native Americans, Europeans and Africans in Virginia and beyond.

On Friday, the 27th at 11AM, I will be in a panel with Robert Watson and Michael Cobb. I will speak about interpreting the experiences of enslaved and free and then freed blacks in mid-19th century America. I envision the session will feature a lively discussion about the successes, failures, and challenges on presenting the myriad of actions and feelings of people of African descent during this period.

Additionally, later that evening I will be doing a first-person presentation about Private Peter Churchwell of the 23rd United States Colored Troops. Churchwell’s life began with him as the property of the Gordon family of Orange County, Virginia but he escaped from slavery in 1862, enlisted in 1864, was captured in the Battle of the Crater in July 1864, survived a second round of enslavement and became a citizen in a turbulent late-19th century America.

The conference fees include $40 per day or $75 for 2 days. Evening sessions are FREE and OPEN TO THE PUBLIC. You can learn more about the conference at http://www.1619makingofamerica.com/.

I’ll hope to see old friends and meet new people at both of these events!

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150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation

I apologize for the lack of posts of late. However, quantity over quality has always been a motto of mine (except I’d prefer to have a quantity of trillions of dollars; but we can’t all have what we want).

Today, January 1, 2013, is a historic day. It has been 150 years since Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States of America, signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

Abraham Lincoln and his Emancipation Proclamation / The Strobridge Lith. Co., Cincinnati, 1888 lithograph. Original image at the Library of Congress.

The National Archives exhibited the original document Sunday, December 30, 2012-January 1, 2013. There were other programs there in December and some others coming later in January.

The Emancipation Proclamation perhaps was best summed up by former slave turned abolitionist-writer/orator, Frederick Douglass.

Frederick Douglass, circa 1850


“THE first of January, 1863, was a memorable day in the progress of American liberty and civilization. It was the turning-point in the conflict between freedom and slavery. A death-blow was given to the slaveholding rebellion. Until then the federal arm had been more than tolerant to that relic of barbarism. It had defended it inside the slave States; it had countermanded the emancipation policy of John C. Fremont in Missouri; it had returned slaves to their so-called owners; it had threatened that any attempt on the part of the slaves to gain their freedom by insurrection, or otherwise, should be put down with an iron hand; it had even refused to allow the Hutchinson family to sing their anti-slavery songs in the camps of the Army of the Potomac; it had surrounded the houses of slaveholders with bayonets for their protection….”

 

Much has been made about Lincoln’s motivations. Be not confused, Lincoln was opposed to slavery. Being opposed to slavery did not make him a racial equality person throughout his whole life. However, by the release of this Emancipation Proclamation, much about Lincoln’s feelings regarding enslaved people and their immediate future (at least) had been altered.

Lincoln’s final draft of the Emancipation Proclamation was something different in American political discourse and in Lincoln’s own thought process for this document (points I summarize from Eric Foner’s book, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (W.W. Norton & Co., 2010):

  • The proclamation did not seek slave owners’ cooperation in emancipation.
  • There was no mention of loyal versus disloyal owners.
  • It was immediate and offered no financial compensation for the slaveholders.
  • There was no mention of colonization or action from the specific states.
  • For the first time really in American history, the Federal government would actively seek, train, uniform, train, and arm black soldiers. This is an often ignored portion of the document but by the end of the Civil War, of the approximately, 179,000 black men who served in United States Colored Troop regiments or in the few state regiments of black men, some 150,000 were former slaves (the remainder being free-born persons from North and South).

So with this in mind, I encourage all my readers to take a re-read of the Emancipation Proclamation (which you can find here along with the preliminary draft, a former slave’s interview, and a thoughtful commentary from the respected and revered historian John Hope Franklin.)

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Twelve Years a Slave, One Year to Wait

I generally do NOT get excited about movies regarding historical subject matter; however, the subject of slavery, the true nitty-gritty aspects such as slave catchers stealing free blacks, whippings, sexual assault, rage of slaveholders and their wives, black women becoming what I like to call “common practice wife” (whereas it was illegal for whites and blacks to marry and yet it was not uncommon for white men to have an enslaved woman or women to have children with). The agricultural labors and in this case, the rarity of emancipation before the end of the American Civil War means that I am excited that a friend and coworker informed me today through her interest in  Benedict Cumberbatch (the new Sherlock Holmes TV series) that Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years A Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853 will be turned into a full length film.

Northup was born free though his father had been enslaved in Rhode Island. He was looking for work when unfortunately he made a trip to Washington, D.C. in 1841 with two men who said they could find him work. Instead those men sold him to a slave trader and Northup ended up with a variety of slaveholders. Finally through a rare and unique way, he was able to communicate back to his family in the North and regain his non-slave status in 1853.

This image facing page 256 in Northup’s narrative illustrates what happened to an enslaved young woman named, Patsey.

Not much about the film yet but some details of who is playing who is here. The cast is composed of a mixture of veteran and well-known actors and actresses such as Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti, and Alfre Woodard; and relatively new but good actors and actresses such as Benedict Cumberbatch and Chewetal Ejiofor (who will portray Solomon Northup). New to the scene in an American film is Lupita Nyong’o, who is a native of Kenya who has been involved with exploring the lives of young Kenyans through documentaries.

I am hoping  that Lupita’s portrayal of Patsey (read Northup’s memoir, it is a gripping account) will be as powerful as Denzel Washington’s portrayal of Trip in Glory (1989).

In the midst of the 150th anniversary of the end of legal slavery and the American Civil War, I truly hope that Hollywood will get this story right. They have the source and so do you if you didn’t know about this account before.

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