Tag Archives: Frederick Douglass

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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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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Our Rousing Weekend

The Spirituals Choir at Union Chapel. Artist: Barney Zeitz.

The Spirituals Choir at Union Chapel. Artist: Barney Zeitz.

The Spirituals Choir’s annual performance at Union Chapel was a rousing success. The chapel’s acoustics are wonderful. Our songs rose to the rafters, not least on our finale, the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which literally brought the audience to its feet.

Sculptor Barney Zeitz sketched us while we sang. (Barney does astonishing work in glass and metal. Check out his website for details and photos.)

Organist Lavert Stuart joined us from Cleveland, playing both a prelude and an intermezzo on Union Chapel’s impressive organ. Chris Seidel accompanied us on snare drum for the “Battle Hymn.”

2014 UU coverBoth Lavert and Chris joined us again on Sunday morning, when Jim Thomas and the choir were featured at the Unitarian Universalist Society‘s weekly service. The theme was “Cries for Freedom and Social Justice.” Frederick Douglass’s image graced the cover of the order of service.

Words from Douglass’s autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, prefaced the order itself:

“The silver trump of freedom had roused my soul to eternal wakefulness. Freedom now appeared, to disappear no more forever. It was heard in every sound, and seen in every thing. It was ever present to torment me with a sense of my wretched condition. I saw nothing without seeing it. I heard nothing without hearing it, and felt nothing without feeling it. It looked from every star. It smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind and moved in every storm.”

In one of the readings Douglass told of how he learned the alphabet and started learning to read as a young boy, at a time when it was illegal in most southern states to teach slaves to read and write. His mistress stopped the lessons when ordered to do so by her husband. Teach a slave to read and write, so the masters’ thinking went, and he or she becomes useless as a slave.

Douglass recounts how his mistress, at first gentle and compassionate, hardened herself to the demands of her station and became as cruel to the slaves as any other slaveholder.

The slaveowners were right: literacy was dangerous to the old order. Douglass became a voracious reader, and what he read inspired him to seek freedom. After escaping to the North, he wrote his Narrative of the Life, which demonstrated to many pre–Civil War white people both the inhumanity of slavery and the humanity of the African slaves. Douglass went on to become an eminent abolitionist orator.

His words proved an ideal setting for the spirituals, and for the concluding “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which once again brought everyone to their feet.

The next adventure for the U.S. Slave Song Project Spirituals Choir is a trip to Boston on Sunday, August 3. We’ll be singing at Old North Church in the morning, and at the Royall House and Slave Quarters museum in Medford in the afternoon.

Before that, however, we’ll be making our annual appearance at the East Chop Light for free a sunset performance on Sunday, July 27. Starting time TBA, but should be after 5:30 p.m. This is part of the Della Hardman Day celebration in Oak Bluffs, honoring the late Della Hardman, artist and educator. “Savor the moment” was her watchword, and the theme of the day. The view from the lighthouse is always beautiful, but when sun and clouds cooperate it’s spectacular.

We’ve also been invited to sing at a tribute to Congressman John Lewis, a noted veteran of the civil rights movement, at Union Chapel on August 12, More about that later.

 

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