Category Archives: slavery

Her Too

Not so very long ago, the phrase “marital rape” was an oxymoron. Rape meant non-consensual sex, but since a husband was entitled to have sex with his wife whether she consented or not, rape could not happen in marriage.

Nineteenth-century U.S. white feminists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucy Stone argued that a married woman’s right to say no to sexual intercourse was a key to women’s equality, but it was not until the 1960s and ’70s that, thanks in large part to the feminist movement, the laws began to change, and along with them popular attitudes. Now “marital rape” is widely considered a form of domestic violence.

As legions of women come forward today to say that they/we too have been subjected to sexual harassment and assault, I think of the enslaved women who endured forced sex with no recourse whatsoever. Their masters, masters’ sons, neighbors, guests, overseers — any white man with the owner’s permission — had the right to sex whenever they wanted. Not infrequently the sex led to pregnancy and the pregnancy to the birth of the rapist’s child, who would then become the rapist’s property.

I take it for granted that enslaved men and boys were also subjected to rape and other sexual abuse. Small consolation that they could not become pregnant.

The names of most of the enslaved women subjected to rape and other sexual abuse are unknown to history, but one of the few whose name survives is Celia, thanks to a 1855 court case, State of Missouri v. Celia, a Slave.

According to an eloquent Washington Post story about the case, Celia

warned the white slave owner that the rapes had to stop. Celia, 19, had endured five years of assaults by Robert Newsom, the Missouri widower in his 70s who’d purchased her when she was 14. She’d borne two of her predator’s children.

She warned him again and again. He came to her cabin anyway. She killed him with a blow to the head, cremated him in a roaring fire, and took his bones out with the ashes in the morning.

In Missouri in 1855,  it was a crime “to take any woman unlawfully against her will and by force, menace or duress, compel her to be defiled,” allowing women to argue self-defense in resisting such assaults.

Celia’s court-appointed defense attorney argued that this applied to enslaved women. Not surprisingly, the jury of 12 white men, most of them pro-slavery and/or slave owners, did not agree. Celia was convicted of first-degree murder and was hanged.

This young woman’s courage takes my breath away. Against odds far longer than what most of us face today, she asserted her right to autonomy and self-respect. When you fear the repercussions of speaking up, remember Celia.

Remember her name.

Her too.

 

 

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Singing the History

Most of the singers in the Spirituals Choir are white. I’m one of them. People sometimes remark on this, and I’d bet good money that many more notice but are too nervous to say anything out loud.

When asked, and sometimes even when not asked, why I sing in the choir, I say that the songs are beautiful and moving and that by singing them I can begin to feel my way into the lives of those who created them. No, I will never understand what it’s like to be totally at the mercy of another person, to be sold away from family and friends, to take the huge risk of boarding the Underground Railroad and beginning the long trek north.

But the spirituals make those experiences real to me in a new way. It goes deeper than history books, deeper even than the first-person accounts by enslaved people who managed not only to escape but to get their stories into print, People like Frederick Douglass; Linda Brent (Harriet Ann Jacobs), author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl; Solomon Northrup, whose Twelve Years a Slave was adapted into a movie some 160 years after its publication; and all the men and women whose narratives were collected by the Federal Writers Project during the New Deal.

It’s a little like being in a play. In rehearsals you work your way into the character, then in performance you are that character for an hour or two. When you go back to being yourself, traces of the character often remain in your memory and maybe even in your heart.

So at the beginning of the very long Fourth of July weekend Margaret Jordan’s Washington Post op-ed caught my eye: “Too Many Americans Still Don’t See Black History as Their Own.” Jordan, a D.C. native, writes about the long-vanished family history she sees as she walks around the city. A member of the Montpelier Foundation, she writes about a new exhibition at Montpelier, James Madison’s home, “which tells the story of what life was like as a slave on the plantation of our fourth president.” And she writes this:

In the retelling of U.S. history, there is an incomplete and frequently inaccurate story of African American history. At best, it has been the auxiliary exhibit, with slavery a disconnected footnote in the larger tome of our nation’s story. Descendants such as me, who were lucky to grow up knowing the names of their ancestors, know these stories. But most Americans have not been taught to see and embrace African American history as part of their history as Americans. Indeed, in the telling of American history, we have failed to fully grapple with the reality of slavery and its lasting hold on society. This has consequences.

That’s it. That’s why I sing the spirituals and why I believe Americans of all colors and ethnicities can and should embrace them as part of our history, difficult as it can be. In self-defense the mind recoils from thinking too hard about slavery, like the finger recoils from a hot burner. But the spirituals offer a way into the history, and a way of integrating slavery into the history of the nation.

* * * * *

The Spirituals Choir’s annual full-length presentation at Union Chapel, Oak Bluffs, will take place on Saturday, July 22, at 7:30. Most of our performances, at libraries, schools, and houses of worship, are free. The tickets for the Union Chapel presentation are $15 and support the work of the U.S. Slave Song Project, of which the choir is a part. (Children under 12 get in free.) Lavert Stuart will once again be our guest organist.

 

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Two Sides of July Fourth

On July 5, 1852, abolitionist, activist, and former slave Frederick Douglass gave a speech in Rochester, New York: “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” Douglass died in 1895, but his speech lives on. On Martha’s Vineyard there are usually two community readings of the speech each year. One takes place at the Federated Church in Edgartown on July 3, the other at the Inkwell beach in Oak Bluffs on the 4th.

This was my second year reading at the Inkwell. That’s us, this year’s readers, in the photo. I’m kneeling in front with the purple hat mostly covering my face. Gail, also part of the Spirituals Choir, is second from right in the front row.

I can’t speak or listen to Douglass’s words without hearing in my mind the slave songs we sing in the Spirituals Choir. This year what I heard most vividly was Douglass’s evocation of the “human flesh jobbers, armed with pistol, whip, and bowie-knife, driving a company of a hundred men, women, and children, from the Potomac to the slave market at New Orleans. These wretched people are to be sold singly, or in lots, to suit purchasers. They are food for the cotton-field and the deadly sugar-mill. Mark the sad procession, as it moves wearily along, and the inhuman wretch who drives them. Hear his savage yells and his blood-curdling oaths, as he hurries on his affrighted captives! There, see the old man with locks thinned and gray. Cast one glance, if you please, upon that young mother, whose shoulders are bare to the scorching sun, her briny tears falling on the brow of the babe in her arms. See, too, that girl of thirteen, weeping, yes! weeping, as she thinks of the mother from whom she has been torn!”

I can’t stop thinking of “that girl of thirteen, weeping, yes! weeping, as she thinks of the mother from whom she has been torn.” One of the songs in our repertoire this summer is “Mother, Is Massa Gwine to Sell Us?” In it a girl — I’m sure it’s a girl — sings that line, and the choir answers: “Yes, yes, yes . . . O watch and pray!” Then the girl sings “Gwine to sell us down in Georgia?” And again the answer is “Yes, yes, yes . . .”

The way Dr. Thelma Johnson, member of the Spirituals Choir, sings those lines will break your heart.

So do Frederick Douglass’s passionate words, evoking the slave who can’t celebrate liberty on the Fourth of July because he is not free.

The slave songs keep the slaves’ experiences alive. That’s why I sing them. Frederick Douglass’s words do likewise. That’s why we read them every year on the Fourth of July.

 

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A Surprise Guest in Edgartown

Our presentation at the Edgartown library this past Saturday went very well. Both the library and its sunny, spacious program room were new when we sang there last year. The acoustics were as wonderful as we remembered, and so was the hospitality. After the presentation choir and audience chatted over lemonade and coffee, strawberries, chocolate cake, and cookies.

At some point I noticed a mature gentleman moving about the room taking pictures.The zoom-equipped camera around his neck identified him as a photographer — not for him the smartphones or point-and-shoots of most of us. During the Q&A, he identified himself as Daniel Williams. For 30 years he has been documenting Emancipation celebrations, not only in the United States but abroad as well. A book is in the works.

Everyone knows about the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, which freed the slaves in the rebelling Southern states — but not those in slaveholding states that had never left the Union, and not those in the parts of the Confederacy that were by then under Union control.

Emancipation came gradually: the Wikipedia article on the subject notes that “Slaves in the District of Columbia were freed on April 16, 1862,” and on June 19 Congress passed legislation abolishing slavery in current and future U.S. territories. For various reasons, news of the Emancipation Proclamation did not reach Texas until mid-June of 1865, an occasion that is now widely celebrated as Juneteenth. Legal slavery did not officially end in the U.S. until the 13th Amendment was ratified on December 6, 1865.

So there are several emancipation milestones to celebrate. Two songs in the Spirituals Choir’s 2017 celebrate Emancipation: “Rise! Shine! For the Light Is a-Coming” and “Great Day.”

It was a thrill to meet Mr. Williams and learn of his work, and needless to say, we look forward to hearing more.

Accompanist Phil Dietterich on the left, director Jim Thomas in blue

Some of the choir

 

 

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At the Anchors

20160614 jim

Jim explains how the slave songs carried two meanings, one for the slaves who sang them, another for the masters who heard them.

The Spirituals Choir officially opened its 2016 season — and its 12th year — with a June 14 presentation at The Anchors, home of the Edgartown Council on Aging. The presentation followed the regularly scheduled lunch, in which the choir was invited to partake. Most of us took advantage of the offer. Along with the food, choir members got a chance with visit with each other. At rehearsals, we sing. Director Jim Thomas raises both eyebrows at us if we chatter too much.

Jim opened the presentation by explaining how the slave songs were, among other things, a form of communication. The earliest slaves brought to the colonies early in the 17th century were young. Their median age was just over 17 years old. They were ordered not to talk while working in the fields, so they sang instead. In their African homes, people communicated by singing and drumming as well as by talking, so the transition was a natural one.

Several of the songs we sang draw on stories and imagery from the Bible, especially the Old Testament. House slaves regularly accompanied the master’s family to church on Sundays, and as Jim points out, “church” in those days was an all-day affair. Slaves marveled at the stories and brought them home to the plantation, where they grew into songs that didn’t mean quite what the masters thought they meant.

If Joshua made the walls of Jericho come tumbling down, if God locked the lion’s jaws so it couldn’t eat Daniel and put out the fire before it burned the Hebrew children, then deliverance and freedom were possible for the slaves as well.

The last song on the program was ‘Great Day,” one of the last of the slave songs: it celebrates Emancipation. After slavery ended, there were no new slave songs, but we sing them to keep them alive. Slavery may have ended, in the U.S. at least, but hopes for freedom and justice have not.

Our next presentation will also be in Edgartown, on Saturday, July 2, 2 p.m., in the lovely new program room of the new Edgartown library. Join us!

The choir gets ready to sing.

The choir gets ready to sing.

 

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Black and Unknown Bards

At rehearsal tonight, Jim spoke of James Weldon Johnson’s poem “O Black and Unknown Bards,” a song of praise and wonder for the creators of the songs we sing.

O black and unknown bards of long ago,
How came your lips to touch the sacred fire?

. . .

Heart of what slave poured out such melody
As “Steal away to Jesus”? On its strains
His spirit must have nightly floated free,
Though still about his hands he felt his chains.

. . .

Not that great German master in his dream
Of harmonies that thundered amongst the stars
At the creation, ever heard a theme
Nobler than “Go down, Moses.” Mark its bars
How like a mighty trumpet-call they stir
The blood. Such are the notes that men have sung
Going to valorous deeds; such tones there were
That helped make history when Time was young.

. . .

There’s more, but especially this:

You sang far better than you knew; the songs
That for your listeners’ hungry hearts sufficed
Still live . . .

They live, and as we sing them, we remember.

James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938) was a poet, writer, and national organizer for the NAACP. With his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, he wrote the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which became known as the “Negro National Anthem,” on the occasion of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday in 1900.

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American Slavery, 1852

From Frederick Douglass’s “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” a speech given at Corinthian Hall, Rochester, New York, on July 5, 1852:

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

Behold the practical operation of this internal slave-trade, the American slave-trade, sustained by American politics and American religion. Here you will see men and women reared like swine for the market. You know what is a swine-drover? I will show you a man-drover. They inhabit all our Southern States. They perambulate the country, and crowd the highways of the nation, with droves of human stock. You will see one of these human flesh jobbers, armed with pistol, whip, and bowie-knife, driving a company of a hundred men, women, and children, from the Potomac to the slave market at New Orleans. These wretched people are to be sold singly, or in lots, to suit purchasers. They are food for the cotton-field and the deadly sugar-mill. Mark the sad procession, as it moves wearily along, and the inhuman wretch who drives them. Hear his savage yells and his blood-curdling oaths, as he hurries on his affrighted captives! There, see the old man with locks thinned and gray. Cast one glance, if you please, upon that young mother, whose shoulders are bare to the scorching sun, her briny tears falling on the brow of the babe in her arms. See, too, that girl of thirteen, weeping, yes! weeping, as she thinks of the mother from whom she has been torn! The drove moves tardily. Heat and sorrow have nearly consumed their strength; suddenly you hear a quick snap, like the discharge of a rifle; the fetters clank, and the chain rattles simultaneously; your ears are saluted with a scream, that seems to have torn its way to the centre of your soul. The crack you heard was the sound of the slave-whip; the scream you heard was from the woman you saw with the babe. Her speed had faltered under the weight of her child and her chains! that gash on her shoulder tells her to move on. Follow this drove to New Orleans. Attend the auction; see men examined like horses; see the forms of women rudely and brutally exposed to the shock ing gaze of American slave-buyers. See this drove sold and separated forever; and never forget the deep, sad sobs that arose from that scattered multitude. Tell me, citizens, where, under the sun, you can witness a spectacle more fiendish and shocking. Yet this is but a glance at the American slave-trade, as it exists, at this moment, in the ruling part of the United States.

I was born amid such sights and scenes. To me the American slave-trade is a terrible reality. When a child, my soul was often pierced with a sense of its horrors. I lived on Philpot Street, Fell’s Point, Baltimore, and have watched from the wharves the slave ships in the Basin, anchored from the shore, with their cargoes of human flesh, waiting for favorable winds to waft them down the Chesapeake. There was, at that time, a grand slave mart kept at the head of Pratt Street, by Austin Woldfolk. His agents were sent into every town and county in Maryland, announcing their arrival, through the papers, and on flaming “hand-bills,” headed cash for Negroes. These men were generally well dressed men, and very captivating in their manners; ever ready to drink, to treat, and to gamble. The fate of many a slave has depended upon the turn of a single card; and many a child has been snatched from the arms of its mother by bargains arranged in a state of brutal drunkenness.

The flesh-mongers gather up their victims by dozens, and drive them, chained, to the general depot at Baltimore. When a sufficient number has been collected here, a ship is chartered for the purpose of conveying the forlorn crew to Mobile, or to New Orleans. From the slave prison to the ship, they are usually driven in the darkness of night; for since the antislavery agitation, a certain caution is observed.

In the deep, still darkness of midnight, I have been often aroused by the dead, heavy footsteps, and the piteous cries of the chained gangs that passed our door. The anguish of my boyish heart was intense; and I was often consoled, when speaking to my mistress in the morning, to hear her say that the custom was very wicked; that she hated to hear the rattle of the chains and the heart-rending cries. I was glad to find one who sympathized with me in my horror.

 

Fare you well

Fare you well

Fare well, everybody

Fare you well

Fare you well

If ever I do get home

— Sung by slaves taking leave of each other when one or more have been sold away

 

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