Black History Reading Blog (4)

My Bondage and My Freedom Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass“Those Who Were Free” is the title of the jaw biting book, Creating Black Americans (Oxford).

This chapter discussed the state of many black Americans living in the American lands from 1770 to 1859. What I found interesting was Painter’s note about the French Caribbean colony of Saint Domingue, where slaves gained their own independence. The only reason I did, however, was because I know next to nothing about neighboring colonies to those which became the United States.

Many northern states and revolutionary ideas ended slavery. It was disappointing, although not surprising, to discover that, despite revolutionary ideas, most northerners did not have racial egalitarian views. Instead, African Americans would face many injustices, and their treatments were not like those of their non-black counterparts.

The American Haitian Revolutions gradually freed two sets of laborers, unfree indentured servants, and eventually black slaves in northern states. In the book, Painter mentions Quaker abolitionist Anthony Benezet who created the worlds first anti-slavery society in Pennsylvania (70). I found the mention of Quakerism most interesting, mainly because I started reading Thomas D. Hamm’s The Quakers In America (Columbia). Below, I took a small portion of his book to illustrate Quaker attitudes towards slavery written in Blue:

“Probably more important in the long run was the emergence of a Quaker stand against slavery. Slavery had existed in North America since 1619, and some early Friends [Quakers] there joined their European neighbors in holding both Indians and Africans as Slaves. Some Quaker merchants in Newport, New York, and Philadelphia were actively involved in the slave trade. . . . After 1750, however, Quaker opinion turned decisively against slavery. The Quaker reformers united in condemning it. They saw in slavery harm to both the slave and the slaveholder. Slavery meant denying people the liberty to be obedient to the leadings of the Inwards Light. As for the slaver owners, they found themselves constantly beset by temptations to laziness, violence, and exploitation, all of which were antithetical to the achievement of the holiness that brought salvation.” (Hamm 33-34)

As far as I can tell, Hamm does not mention that Anthony Benezet, or even the Quakers themselves, were responsible for the first anti-slave society. But it goes to show that the more we study history, the more connections we can make between works of history, whether the works were written in the past, or in the present.

Black soldiers had fought and died in battles fought against Great Britain in America. The wars listed by Painter go as follows: “King Williams War  of 1690-1897, Queen Anne’s War of 1702-1713, King George’s War of 1744-1748, and the French and Indian War of 1755-1763” (70). Many African American’s were attracted to the idea of freedom and liberty, although fighting these wars did not grant an egalitarian society for Africans. All sorts of Africans helped fight, including black slaves, and they fought on both sides of the Revolutionary War.

The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, June 17, 1775. If you look closely, you can see the African freeman in the back, who is though to be Peter Salem. (Wikimedia Commons)

By 1800 all northern states had abolished slavery. There were debates, however, which festered. The Constitution recognized a slave-owners rights to have their “property” protected. Rather than accepting African slaves and other slaves, the state chose to call them property. In politics, or in any subject for that matter, definitions and words are important. This is a classic example of ways people change words or phrases to soften the sound. The classic story of Humpty Dumpty demonstrates the importance of the dictionary written in Red which appeared in Lewis Carrols Through The Looking Glass:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

Clearly, as George Orwell knew, control over the dictionary is no small issue.

“Africans,” writes Painter, “doubtless wondered if the success of the American Revolution served their best interest. After all, slavery remained legal in the independent republic of the United States a generation longer than in the British colonies.” (74)

Toussaint L’Ouverture, as depicted in an 1802 French engraving. (Wikimedia Commons

America’s second republic came from the French sugar colony of Saint Domingue, which spurred from the first slave led revolution which lasted from 1791 to 1804 known as the Haitian Revolution. Toussaint L’Ouverture, an educated Catholic, lead this revolution of slaves. January 1, 1801, Haiti became and independent nation. African Americans saw this as a pillar light which inspired many American revolutions.

Painter calls abolitionism “the backbone of the anti-slavery movement” (81). I found this interesting. Would fighting be the backbone? Or, perhaps, the will for freedom? I whole heartedly agree with Painter on this one. Why? Because abolitionist fueled anti-slavery ideas. Without the circulation of ideas and thoughts, people would blindly follow their masters, laws, without any consideration of other ideas.

There were many black abolitionists. The most well known an appreciated is Frederick Douglass, who wrote three important autobiographies (one of which I read) discussing his life: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881-1882).

When I read through Frederick Douglass’s Narrative, I thought it was interesting how he learned to read. He tricked white children, who did not see racism like older people, to teach him to read and write and learn the alphabet. There were other ways too that he learned to read. But I found this one most interesting.

What Connections Did I Make With The Material

I did make some connections with this chapter. but the connections I made with this particular chapter are so similar to the previous chapters, that I will discuss something else in order to keep myself from sounding redundant. Instead of focusing on my feelings and inspirations that I gained, I will focus on text to text sources of other works of history that I’ve read in the past.

My favorite work has had to be Frederick Douglass’ Narrative. I wish I had the book in print to that I could derive inspirational quotes from it. So, and I mean this as an issue of warning, my thoughts regarding this information could be incorrect, for it’s been a long time since I’ve had the pleasure of reading Douglass’ Narrative. Anyways, Douglass did a great deal for the abolitionist cause. He had a great pair of friends who would help him purchase his freedom while he hid away somewhere in Europe. I’m glad for these kind of historical figures.

The Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith, of course, had his prejudices, living in the world and time that he lived. But him and some other Mormon leaders took the time to write a series of essays in which they testified of their anti-slavery beliefs. Historian Richard Bushman writes in the prologue of his biography Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling that “A plank in Smith’s political platform caught Quincy’s attention: “Smith recognized the curse and iniquity of slavery although he disagreed with abolitionist methods”” (4). These essays, however, brought many charges against the LDS Church from their proslavery counterparts. “The Church had tried to neutralize the charge in a letter to the editor in the April 1836 Messenger and Advocate,” writes Bushman, “that responded to an abolitionist lecture in Kirtland, which Church leaders feared would be interpreted as a sign of friendship to the abolitionist cause. Writing in Joseph Smith’s name, the author denied that there was any local sympathy for the speaker.” (327) Although Smith recognized the evils of slavery, he disagreed with abolitionism and instead called for congress to “pay every man a reasonable price for his slaves out of the surplus revenue arising from the sale of public lands, and from the deduction of pay from members of Congress.” (Arnold Garr).

Had Joseph not been killed in 1844, the historical legacy of the Saints regarding African Americans would be much different than it is today.

Three Notable Quotations From the Text

“To African Americans, the Haitian Revolution was a beacon of hope, and Toussaint a hero” (76).

“As the backbone of the antislavery movement, which was mostly white, free blacks in the North and West worked on the local and national levels” (81).

“. . . being free did not make African Americans citizens, gain them entry into public institutions, or exempt them from ill use” (87).

Normally, I search for quotes that match a certain theme (that isn’t broad, of course, like saying “black history”). In this instance, I was not looking for a certain theme. Instead, I wanted to grasp quotes that had a lot of historical meaning.

For instance, the Haitian Revolution brought to many Africans a sense of hope. This hope likely pushed them to continue onwards rather than giving up on life and resorting to some sort of hopelessness. I am not certain, but I would not doubt that this story was pushed many abolitionist who were looking for inspiration to push them onward.

The second and third quote was strictly historical. I just found these quotes to be interesting enough to point out.

(1,541 words)


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