Posts Tagged ‘Abolitionism’

Book note: The Good Lord Bird

November 20, 2021

Mural of John Brown by J.C. Curry in Kansas State Capitol

THE GOOD LORD BIRD by James McBride (2013)

The Good Lord Bird is the story of the abolitionist John Brown as it might have been written by Mark Twain, if Mark Twain had been black.  I happened to pick it up at a neighborhood free book exchange.

One of Brown’s beliefs is that the ivory-billed woodpecker, the “Good Lord bird,” is sent by God with the mission to destroy dead and rotten trees so the good trees can grow. This is a symbol of his own mission. 

The narrator is Henry Shackleford,  a young black boy growing up in the Kansas territory during the guerrilla war of the late 1850s to determine whether Kansas will enter the union as a free or a slave state.

He is a more-or-less contented slave until he is “liberated” after a shoot-out by John Brown and his sons, who adopt him as a kind of mascot and good luck charm.  Brown has the idea that Henry is a girl, because he was clothed in a gunny-sack that looks like a dress, and he plays along. 

Henry is like Huck Finn.  He is naive and ignorant of politics and religion, not to mention grammar, but a shrewd judge of human nature and human pretensions.  

The language and way of speaking McBride gives him is highly entertaining and full of what you might call black humor.

 Henry shares the hardships of Brown’s band and learns about all their eccentricities.  All his efforts to save his own skin are interpreted by Brown as heroism.

At one point he is separated from the band, is enslaved again and winds up as a servant in a Missouri whorehouse, where he is more or less content, until he is liberated again by Brown’s men.

The last half of the book is devoted to the planning and execution of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, an apparent failure, but the spark that set off the Civil War.  We see Brown as erratic, often foolish, but with an indomitable will and energy that prevails over setbacks, hardship and danger, and a charisma that binds his followers to him in spire of everything. 

We get Henry’s view of historic figures such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.  

Tubman is depicted as a majestic figure, but Douglass as a speechifier who is unwilling to give up his good life in Rochester, N.Y., with his black wife and white mistress.

That’s harsh. I wouldn’t condemn Douglass for holding back from joining what is obviously a suicide mission.

The Harper’s Ferry raid is shown as a true tragedy. We see how bad decisions of Brown and his lieutenants lead to mistake after mistake, depriving them of what little chance they had of accomplishing their plan to ignite a slave rebellion.  There is a final, fatal mistake that is Henry’s fault.

But ultimately Brown was successful. The raid precipitated the American Civil War, which brought about the end of slavery and, in the course of time, full political rights for African-Americans.

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What’s so remarkable about Harriet Tubman?

June 5, 2016

This is not how Harriet Tubman will appear on the $20 bill

This is NOT how Harriet Tubman will appear on the $20 bill

I knew hardly anything Harriet Tubman before the current announcement that her face will appear on the $20 bill.  During the past couple of weeks, I’ve read books that help me appreciate her for what she was.

What’s remarkable about Harriet Tubman is how she risked her life, not once but many times, in order to achieve her own freedom and the freedom of others—as a gun-toting conductor for the Underground Railroad and then as a scout and spy for the Union Army.

She did all of this at her own initiative and much at her own expense.  She financed her first slave rescue expeditions with money she earned as a cook and cleaner, and her work for the Union Army by making and selling pies and root beer.  A poor illiterate black woman who suffered blackouts probably due to a childhood head injury, she earned the respect of intellectuals and generals.

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She was born a slave in Dorchester County, Maryland, sometime from 1820 to 1825 under the name of Amarinta Ross.  At the age of five or six, she was hired out as a nursemaid to keep watch on a baby; whenever the baby woke up and cried, she was whipped.  Once she was whipped five times before breakfast.

Later jobs included muskrat trapping, field and forest work, driving oxen, plowing and hauling logs.

Once an irate slave owner threw a heavy metal weight at another slave and hit her instead.  She said the blow “broke my skull.”  She suffered dizziness, pain and blackouts throughout the rest of her life.  A devout Christian, she also experienced strange visions, vivid dreams and premonitions that she thought were the voice of God.

Harriet_Tubman_Locations_MapIn 1849, she escaped to Philadelphia, and adopted the name of Harriet Tubman.  Many escaped slaves changed their names in order to make recapture difficult.   She was married to John Tubman, a free black man about 10 years older than her, but he refused to go with her.

Her position was as precarious as that of an illegal immigrant today.  Under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 as well as previous law, she could have been arrested and returned to slavery at any time.

Rather than playing it safe, she returned to Maryland to rescue members of her family, not just once, but at least 13 times.  Slowly, one group at a time, with the help of the Underground Railroad, she brought an estimated 60 or 70 slaves to freedom, and helped possibly 60 or 70 more by showing them the route.

Among them were brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces and her aged parents who by that time were free, but were under suspicion of aiding the others to flee.   She sought out her husband, but he had meanwhile found a new partner.

She may have been the only fugitive slave who regularly ventured back into slave territory to bring other enslaved people out.  This is especially remarkable because she went back to a place where she was known by sight to white people in the community.

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The passing scene – August 20, 2015

August 20, 2015

Struggle and Progress: Eric Foner on the abolitionists, Reconstruction and winning “freedom” from the Right, a conversation with Jacobin magazine writers.

Eric Foner

Eric Foner

Historian Eric Foner pointed out that the abolition of slavery was truly a second American Revolution.  It involved the confiscation without compensation of the most valuable form of property at the time—enslaved African people.

The Civil War is sometimes interpreted as a triumph of industrial capitalism over a backward agrarian economy.  Foner said that, although this is true in a way, the pre-Civil War capitalists got along very well with the slaveowners.

The abolitionists included moderates, radicals, wealthy philanthropists, lawbreakers, politicians, former black slaves and racists who opposed slavery because it was harmful to white people.  Although sometimes working at cross-purposes, Foner said their diverse approaches created a synergy that made the movement stronger.   This has lessons for our own time.

The Last Refuge of the Incompetent by John Michael Greer for The Archdruid Report.

John Michael Greer wrote that a successful revolutionary movement will (1) discredit the existing order through relentless propaganda, (2) seek alliances with all those with grievances against the existing order, (3) create alternative institutions of its own and (4) offer a vision of hope, not despair.

In the USA, this program is being carried out not by what Greer called the “green Left,” but the “populist Right”.

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