Tag Archives: racism

The Fourth (and Fifth) of July

Do you know why Frederick Douglass gave his famous “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” speech on the fifth of July, in 1852, to be exact?

Because in the years before the Civil War, the Fourth was celebrated mostly by whites. In his speech Douglass eloquently explains why African Americans had little reason to celebrate the Fourth. When they did observe the date, it was generally on July 5.

But, as Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts note in their important article in The Atlantic, “When the Fourth of July Was a Black Holiday,” when the Civil War ended and the enslaved became free, all that changed. Then, at least in the South, it was African Americans who “embraced the Fourth like never before. From Washington, D.C., to Mobile, Alabama, they gathered together to watch fireworks and listen to orators recite the Emancipation Proclamation, the Declaration of Independence, and the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery when it was ratified in late 1865.” White people were reportedly rarely seen in public on that day.

Kytle and Roberts add:

Throughout the South, freedwomen were conspicuous participants in Fourth of July celebrations, pushing back against the gender and, in many cases, class barriers that relegated them to the sidelines of Reconstruction politics. The domestic workers and washerwomen of the Daughters of Zion and the Sisters of Zion, two benevolent societies in Memphis, Tennessee, marched in parades each year. The 1875 parade featured a carriage carrying “a queen for the day”—a striking claim to the respectability whites routinely denied black women.

But as white supremacy reasserted itself and Jim Crow took hold, as statues to Confederate generals and leaders were erected across the South, white people reclaimed the Fourth of July.

Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts are the authors of the new book Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy, which the New York Times and quite a few others have called a must-read.

On July 4, 2018, at 4 p.m. there will be a public reading of Frederick Douglass’s great speech at the Inkwell in Oak Bluffs. Come read or come listen! Either way you’ll be inspired.

Participants in last year’s reading of Frederick Douglass’s speech at the Inkwell.




Filed under history, slavery

Singing After Charleston

The First Parish, Unitarian Universalist, in Canton, Mass.

The First Parish, Unitarian Universalist, in Canton, Mass.

When plans were made for the Spirituals Choir to sing at the Unitarian Universalist church in Canton, Massachusetts, on Sunday, June 21 — today — no one knew that we would be singing four days after a white supremacist gunman opened fire at a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and killed nine African Americans in cold, cold blood.

Where to start, where to start?

If the gunman is “mentally ill,” his mental illness is shared, to some degree, by millions of Americans. They believe that African Americans are somehow less than other Americans — white Americans. That Africans were enslaved because they were not fit to be free.

The songs we sing say otherwise. As we sang today, I thought of something that Jim Thomas, founder of the U.S. Slave Song Project and director of the choir, likes to point out: that none of the slave songs speak of hatred or vengeance. Resistance and escape, yes, but not vengeance.

After crossing Vineyard Sound on the 7 a.m. ferry from Vineyard Haven, we boarded our chartered bus in Woods Hole.

We arrive in Canton.

We arrive in Canton.

By 9:15 we were in Canton.

We were welcomed by Martha Mezger, long a member of the choir, now a member of the Canton UU congregation.

The service focused on the slave songs, and the experience of those who sang them. The opening hymn was “We’re Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table,” which is in this year’s repertoire.

Singing these songs, it’s impossible not to think about what the original singers were thinking when they sang them.

The Rev. Beverly “Buffy” Boke read Maya Angelou’s “Caged Bird”:

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

Please, click the link above and read the whole thing.

Getting ready to sing. Jim's at the lower right.

Getting ready to sing. Jim’s at the lower right.

We sang.

“Wasn’t That a Wide River” — about the crossing of the Atlantic.

“We Shall Walk Through the Valley” — possibly the first peace song sung on this continent.

“I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray” — about being so far behind on the long cotton rows that one couldn’t hear one’s fellows, or maybe about despair in general.

“As I Went Down in the Valley to Pray” — the slaves practiced their own religion, often with imagery from the Christian Bible, but they went out of the white folk’s sight to do it.

“Fare You Well” — in which slaves sold away from the plantation take leave of their fellows.

choir 2“Done Made My Vow to the Lord” — the vow of slaves preparing to leave on the Underground Railroad, that they will never turn back or betray their fellows.

“Rise, Shine, for the Light Is a-Coming” — in which the slaves prepare for emancipation.

“There’s a Great Camp Meeting in the Promised Land” — the Promised Land in the slave songs is freedom.

“Great Day” — one of the last spirituals, about emancipation.

After the service we joined the congregation for a truly impressive potluck lunch in the parish hall. We had to leave all too early to catch our ferry home.

Jim Thomas and the Spirituals Choir will give a free presentation at the Chilmark library on Wednesday, June 24, at 5 p.m. Or come to our full-length performance next Saturday, June 27, at 7 p.m., Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven. Tickets are $15 at the door and benefit the U.S. Slave Song Project. Children under 12 get in free.

A window at the church

A window at the church



Filed under MV Spirituals Choir, slavery, spirituals

Twelve Years a Slave

Jim Thomas’s Spirituals Choir is in winter hibernation mode, so there’s been nothing musical to report. Last night, though, I went to see Twelve Years a Slave, a film based on the memoir of Solomon Northrup, a free black man from upstate New York who was abducted and sold into slavery in 1841.

This is the world the slave songs came from. Call-and-response work songs help the slaves maintain momentum as they pick cotton or cut cane. “Roll, Jordan, Roll” is heard after a dead slave is laid to rest.

Others have raved about all aspects of the film: the superb performances, the deft direction, the story itself, and more. Twelve Years a Slave is in the running for the Oscars and other major movie awards, as well it should be. What struck me hardest as I watched, and now as I recollect, was the visceral feeling that there’s no escape. Not for Solomon, not for the viewer. Certainly not for the other slaves, but not for the white plantation owners and their hirelings either. This is a closed system. It magnifies the human failings of the slave owners — jealousy, anger, hypocrisy, pride — and turns them lethal. It turns the smallest act of empathy or trust into something heroic.

No escape. Solomon Northrup’s old world might as well be on another planet. He might as well have died and gone to hell. Only the title of the film tells you that years are passing — that, and the fact that when Solomon does manage to return from the dead, he finds his daughter married and himself a grandfather. The film doesn’t touch on the drama that must have been playing up north, as Solomon’s family realized he’d disappeared, presumably tried to find him, and gradually became reconciled to their loss. Only in myth can the living attempt to bring their loved ones out of hell. The results are rarely happy.

I could go on, and on and on. Suffice it to say that Twelve Years a Slave will be on my mind next spring when the Spirituals Choir reunites for its 10th season.

If you’re on the Vineyard, Twelve Years a Slave will be screened at the M.V. Film Center three times this coming weekend: Friday, Nov. 15, at 4 p.m.; Saturday, Nov. 16, at 7:30; and Sunday, Nov. 17, at 4. Elsewhere, the film is being released more widely and shouldn’t be hard to find, at least in urban areas. Solomon Northrup’s memoir is in print and available from the usual online outlets. And for an insightful take on slave narratives in general and this one in particular, see Eric Herschthal’s blog on the New York Times website.

— Susanna J. Sturgis



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Filed under slavery

Trayvon Martin, Race & Anthropology

Many eloquent writers are trying to come to terms with the not guilty verdicts in State of Florida v. George Zimmerman. Leith Mullings’s essay is one of the best I’ve seen. She’s the president of the American Anthropological Association. “Anthropology,” she writes, “is the discipline that fostered and nurtured ‘scientific racism,’ a world view that transforms certain perceived differences into genetically determined inequality and provides a rationale for slavery, colonialism, segregation, eugenics, and terror.”

She notes as well that “our discipline also has a significant tradition of anti-racism that emerged from the tumult leading to World War II,” and, a little later: “In the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, cultural anthropologists in particular have understood race to be a social construction—not a biological given (indeed, this is almost a mantra). Race is constructed in the sense that racial hierarchies are created at specific historical moments, frequently linked to labor exploitation, conquest, nation-building, and racialized definitions of citizenship.”

The essay contains a link to Charles Blow’s excellent New York Times op-ed, “The Whole System Failed Trayvon Martin.”

Leith Mullings is also the widow of the late Manning Marable, author of the stunning, Pulitzer Prize–winning Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.

 — SJS


Filed under Uncategorized


This season the Martha’s Vineyard Spirituals Choir is singing several spirituals about Emancipation, like “Oh Freedom” and “Free at Last,” and others about the Underground Railroad, like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Hear the Angels Singing.”

Yearning for freedom and a better life comes through so clearly in many spirituals. Did you know that in the antebellum U.S. South the slaves’ yearning for freedom was considered a disease?

At rehearsal tonight, director Jim Thomas told us about “drapetomania.”

Drapetomania, as described by Dr. Samuel Cartwright in “Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race” (1851), was the “mental illness” that supposedly caused black slaves to try to escape. The word comes from the Greek drapetes (a runaway slave) and mania (madness). Drapetomania, wrote Dr. Cartwright, was “much more curable” than other forms of “mental alienation.” Slaves, he advised, should be treated like children and forced to submit to adult (white) authority. Treating them as equals only encouraged the disease. Slaves should be treated kindly, but if symptoms of drapetomania surfaced nevertheless “whipping the devil out of them” was advised.

Free at last, free at last
Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last



Filed under Jim Thomas, MV Spirituals Choir, spirituals