Benjamin Lay: Abolition’s Prophet

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When I hear people try to excuse historical acts of racism by saying, “That’s how people were then,” I get apoplectic. I think of people who throughout history have clearly demonstrated they knew right from wrong, no matter what the prevailing society was like.

Now I have another weapon in my arsenal: Benjamin Lay (1682-1759) of Abington Township, PA.

Thanks to Marcus Rediker, the general public can know more about this fierce warrior for emancipation through his book, The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became First Revolutionary Abolitionist.

In 1738, Benjamin Lay walked 20 miles to attend the annual Quaker’s Philadelphia meeting, according to Mr. Rediker. Keep in mind that it wasn’t until 1758 that the Quakers outlawed slave-holding among the brethren. Lay carried with him a hollowed-out book containing an animal bladder filled with red pokeberry juice. When it came his turn to speak,

“Throwing the overcoat aside, he spoke his prophecy: ‘Thus shall God shed the blood of those persons who enslave their fellow creatures.’ He raised the book above his head and plunged the sword through it. . . .He then splattered (the red juice) on the heads and bodies of the slave keepers.”

He was expelled from the meeting.

Lay was not a single-issue prophet, though. It wasn’t just his views on emancipation that caused people to disparage him. He truly believed and tried to bring forth a Utopia where everyone was equal and would live simply by growing their own food and making their own clothes and respecting nature. He himself lived in a cave, subsisting only on fruits and vegetables because of his belief in animal rights, and he refused to use anything that existed because of slave labor.

Mr. Rediker posits that Lay isn’t well known today because was not a “gentleman saint” like William Wilberforce, who led the British abolition movement. Lay was “wild and confrontational, militant and uncompromising.” Sounds like a great many prophets.

Being a little person as well as having a hunched back made people think he was “deformed in both body and mind.” It could be that his own “otherness” contributed to his strong feelings about slavery, but it is obvious that his main inspiration is from his understanding of Scripture and what was revealed to him.

According to Joe Lockard of the Antislavery Literature Project at Arizona State University, Lay also was known to perform what might be considered “guerilla” street theater to try to get people to confront the evil of slavery. He even kidnapped a fellow Quaker’s son to show the pain that enslaved families endured when slave-holders broke those families up.

The one book that Lay wrote, which was published by Benjamin Franklin, is available online at:  https://antislavery.eserver.org/religious/allslavekeepersfinal/allslavekeepersfinal The book is titled All Slave-Keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates. It looks as if it will take some effort to read, but may be well worth the fortitude to understand Benjamin Lay’s devotion to the cause.

Lay must have felt well vindicated when the Society of Friends in Philadelphia did decide to discipline and/or turn slave-holders out of the community. He died a year later.

Mr. Rediker’s book is available in audible form as well as hard-cover and paperback. He is Distinguished Professor of Atlantic History at the University of Pittsburgh and Senior Research Fellow at the Collège d’études mondiales in Paris. He is the author of numerous prize-winning books, including The Many-Headed Hydra (with Peter Linebaugh), The Slave Ship, and The Amistad Rebellion. He produced the award-winning documentary film “Ghosts of Amistad” (Tony Buba, director), about the popular memory of the Amistad rebellion of 1839 in contemporary Sierra Leone.

An essay from his book appeared in The New York Times last year and the last paragraph is relevant to our times:

“In his time Lay may have been the most radical person on the planet. He helps us to understand what was politically and morally possible in the first half of the 18th century – and what may be possible now. It is more than we think.”

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Crimes Against Humanity

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Do you believe the regime when it says that it has reunited all “eligible” children with their parents?

I don’t, but when I saw that volunteer civilians were involved in the work of reuniting families, I felt much better about it. Knowing that neither the ACLU, nor the judge overseeing the lawsuit against the regime, is letting go until every last child is with its parent(s) helps as well.

What bothers me more is the term “eligible.” What a useful term for the government to use. “Eligible,” as if each child had ticked off the right boxes or come up with the right number or fulfilled some other benign requirement.

What “eligible” really means is that the government can’t return hundreds of “ineligible” children because it deported the parents and doesn’t have the will or the care to find them.

Then there’s the children who’ve been sexually abused while in detention and the ICE agents who have told them things such as, “Your mother doesn’t want you anymore.” That’s because they deported Mom and made her sign a complicated form that says she would give up her child without telling her that she had a right to legal counsel to determine whether she would leave her child with relatives in the US and go back to face the horrors of her own country alone.

Of all the scenes of hell that our national nightmare has introduced us to in the past year and a half, surely this one is the most “eligible” to be called a crime against humanity. Since it involves more than one country, I say this crime should be prosecuted in the Hague. Stephen Miller, from whose Satanic mind it was birthed, and Kiersjten Nielsen, who oversaw the program, should be the first defendants.

The attorney general belongs in the dock for avowing that this was a “law” that needs to be upheld. No, it wasn’t a law; it was a policy change that never saw the light of day in Congress and never saw any repudiation by the GOP. So perhaps international lawyers should be questioning Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell as well.

And when they all cry “I was just following orders!”, time for the head of the regime to take his turn in the dock.

 

Published At Last – Barracoon

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Can you imagine being known as the last living African kidnapped by slavers and brought to the US 50 years after the outlawing of the slave trade?

Zora Neale Hurston, novelist, playwright, essayist, and anthropologist, did try to imagine, and her curiosity drove her to patiently tease out of Oluale Kossola (slave name Cudjo Lewis), the story of his ordeal.  When she first met Kossola and told him what she was hoping to learn, he said, “Thankee Jesus! Somebody come ast about Cudjo! I want tellee somebody who I is, so maybe dey go in de Afficky soil some day and somebody say and callee my name and somebody sayn ‘Yeah, I know Kossola’,”

Part of the sadness of Hurston’s book, Barracoon, is that it was never published until this year, when it is so unlikely that anyone in West Africa would remember Kossola’s name. Several publishers refused it when she finished her last draft in the 1930s.

Kossola was a member of a sub-group of the West African Yoruba tribe. The US banned the slave trade in 1808, but people found a way to continue to smuggle enslaved people through the Middle Passage. A major supplier of slaves was the king of Dahomey, who acquired wealth and political dominance through the trade. Kidnapped Africans were held in bondage in barracoons (Spanish for barracks) along the coast, and Ouida (or Whydah) in Dahomey was a major shipping point.

It was there that, in 1860, Timothy Meaher and William Foster sailed the Clotilda to bring 110 lost souls to the “New World.” The 19-year-old Kossola had been captured in a raid on Bante; his family and most of the citizens were slaughtered outright. The young men were yoked and brought to the barracoons of Ouida.

Though Kossola at first expressed joy that Hurston wanted to know his story, in 1927 when she traveled to Plateau, Alabama, to meet him, he was often reluctant to talk to her. He was 86 years old, but his grief at never having been able to go home was still upon him. Some days she would bring peaches and watermelon as bait to get him to sit down with her; other days he would just ignore her presence and continue to garden or pursue other hobbies while she waited patiently.

Her persistence paid off. Reading Barracoon, one feels as if one knows this elderly man who has undergone so much pain, outliving his beloved wife and his sons and daughter. His voice is rendered perfectly, and you can hear him saying “you unnerstand me,” his oft-used interjection.

After emancipation, the Clotilda slaves had no way to earn the money to go home. And home didn’t exist anymore, though they couldn’t have known that. When they were kidnapped, their rest of their entire tribe was killed, and there was no Bante anymore.

So they re-created their home where they were, calling it Africatown (now Plateau). It was meant to be a place for only those born in Africa, but because of intermarriage among slaves there were many black people who were born in the United States as well. Renting land from their former owner until they could buy it, 11 families “created a community that embodied the ethos and traditions of their homeland,” writes editor Deborah G. Plant in her afterword.

Thank goodness this book has finally been published! Most memoirs of formerly enslaved people were born into the “peculiar institution.” To hear firsthand from someone who was actually born in Africa 200 years after the first enslaved people were brought here is to learn more about the horrible mechanics of slavery and how one little band of people created their own homeland in Alabama.

It also teaches about the persistence of memory and the longing for that place called home. This should be an important part of our national conversation about dismantling racism. I have recently seen people who consider themselves “progressive” basically say that African-Americans today have no right to say they are victims of slavery.

Yet, knowing one is descended from people who knew no other home than a slaveowner’s plantation does cause soul damage. Knowing that one’s ancestors were considered sub-human does cause psychic damage. Knowing that the whole history of white supremacy gives white people today a feeling that they the right to trample on the freedoms of African-Americans – whether they’re having a barbecue or mowing someone’s lawn or waiting for someone outside a store – yes, that is victimization. We can’t stop it until we own it

The 21st Century Pieta

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On Good Friday, Christians around the world assume an attitude of mourning as they commemorate the steps to the cross that Jesus took.

When I say “assume,” I don’t mean they’re pretending. For millions of people, this day reminds them of the suffering of an innocent man who took on the world’s darkness and allowed himself to be sacrificed. The Roman-ruled world could not understand his message of a new compact between God and human beings.

As I follow the cross through my own little village in the rain later today, I shall be mourning other sacrifices as well: the sacrifices of the souls of Margery Stoneman Douglas High School, of Stephon Clark, of Danny Ray Thomas, of Anthony Stephan House, of Draylen Mason.

Sacrificial lambs of a country that refuses to deal with racism, the NRA, white supremacy, police who refuse to consider less than lethal force when dealing with black men.

Sacrificial lambs of a society that espouses “right to life” but doesn’t blink when children’s lives and black lives are taken.

stephon clarkStephon Clark was standing in his grandmother’s backyard holding a cell phone when he was shot 20 times. At a Sacramento Council meeting, a protestor said that a grandmother’s backyard was “a sacred space.”

 

Danny Ray Thomas was for unknown reasons walking with his pants down and his hands in view when he was murdered by police. Two years ago, while he was in jail on a drug charge, his girlfriend drowned their two young children. His was already a life of unendurable pain.

anthony houseAnthony Stephan House was getting ready to go to work when he picked up a package on his porch that exploded and killed him. His young daughter was in the house.

 

draylen masonDraylen Mason was a high school senior and classical musician who had not yet heard that he was to receive a scholarship to Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio to continue his studies when he too picked up a package on his porch.

The 17 children and staff of MSD were just going about their daily routine at school.

I was only 8 years old when I saw Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Pieta” at the World’s Fair. It made me cry.

From now on when I think “Pieta,” I will see the mothers of all the children killed in massacres and the black men, women, and children killed by police who act as judge, jury, and executioner.

How long will we let our society continue to condemn them to death?

Ruby Bridges Through Her Eyes

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Having grown up in the area where Norman Rockwell painted some of his most famous works, I remember not only the actual photographs of the little girl, but also the iconic painting of the girl in the white dress flanked by four federal marshals.

The white dress, white socks and shoes emphasize the darkness of her skin. On the wall behind her is a racial epithet. Smashed tomatoes lie at the foot of the wall. You don’t see the marshals’ heads, but their fists are clenched as if ready for battle.

Friday I had the privilege of hearing the woman who grew out of that little girl speak. Ruby Bridges’ name is writ large in the history of civil rights. As she came onto the stage at Smith College, the crowd jumped to its feet with thunderous applause.

ruby nowMs. Bridges is a reluctant speaker. She never meant to spend the last 20 years of her life giving public addresses, she said. But this is what she has felt called to do. She uses no notes, just says what she believes God wants her to say. Her soft voice is mesmerizing as she speaks, reaches back into the memories of her six-year-old self in 1960, as she tells us what it was like through her eyes (the title of her memoir) in segregated New Orleans.

Though Brown vs. the Board of Education mandated the integration of public schools in 1954, it took years for segregated school systems to comply. When the NAACP knocked on doors in the New Orleans projects seeking children who were in the first grade, Ruby’s mother was enthusiastic about letting her daughter be used to integrate the schools. Mrs. Bridges had grown up in a sharecropping family in Louisiana and going to school was a rare occurrence; she regretted not having a chance to be educated.

Ruby’s father had a different point of view. He had served in the segregated Army of the Korean War. He might be on the front lines with white soldiers at one moment, but when they returned to base, he had to go to the “colored” barracks and the white soldiers to the white barracks. He did not want his daughter to experience the shame he had known.

Ruby’s mother overrode his wishes. Ruby was taken for all-day testing and passed. Since she hadn’t been told anything about what was happening, she got it into her head that she was going to skip from first grade directly to college.

Then came the first day of her new school. Creating a new ritual, neighbors came to her house to help get her dressed in her beautiful new clothes (though she hated the coat her mother made her wear). Four white men came to the door, put her and her mother into a car, and her journey began.

Seeing all the people lining the route to the school, hearing them shout, seeing them throwing things, seeing police on horses and motorcycles, Ruby thought she was in a Mardi Gras parade, even though it was November. The white men told her mother that when they got out of the car, the men would surround her and Ruby and they should not look around them. They entered the school and went to the principal’s office. And there they sat all day long as white parents entered the school, angrily pointed at Ruby, and then took their children home.

“College is easy!” Ms. Bridges said she thought when she went home that day. She ended up having school alone with a teacher, Mrs. Henry, all day every day for the rest of that school year. She loved Mrs. Henry and she learned a lot, but she was so lonely for the company of other children. She slowly came to understand what was happening and that she was alone in her class because of the color of her skin. She could hear the voices of other children when she hung up her coat in the cloakroom. She could smell food from the cafeteria but had to bring her own lunch because of threats made to poison her food.

Eventually, because she kept asking about the children’s voices, Mrs. Henry took her to the cloakroom, moved a cabinet that revealed a door, and took her to a room where white children were playing. She sat down next to a little boy who told her, “My mother said I can’t play with you because you’re a nigger.”

His words gave birth to what she now emphasizes when she speaks in public. “Racism is a grown-up disease and we must stop using our children to spread it.” It is adults who have failed, she said, and brought us to where we are now, by “robbing children of their innocence.” Children aren’t born racists; they are taught to be racists. We must raise them a different way, encourage their dreams, and truly follow Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dictum to judge others not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

There really is an “us” and a “them,” she said. “We all have a common enemy and it is evil.” Sometimes the evil looks just like us and is hard to recognize, she said as she talked about the murder of her oldest son, who was killed for trying to find out who had shot into his younger brother’s car.

Ms. Bridges noted at the beginning of her talk that she gets many letters from children telling her how brave she was when she took those historic steps into a white school. “I have to set the record straight,” she laughed, “I wasn’t brave at all because I didn’t really know what was going on.”

But it is bravery, and it is courage, to follow her faith and tell her story over and over again all these years later. Her insistence on inclusion at all points is sometimes not popular – as when a student seemed to seek her approve for the effort to get all-black housing at Smith and Ms. Bridges said she did not approve of black separatism – and her refusal to hate the little boy who said he couldn’t play with her show courage indeed.

I have cried over the picture of the beautiful smiling little girl who was in effect offered up to be the face of integration. Having seen her in person, and heard her words, I will just smile and celebrate her from now on.

 

Who We Are, Who We Want to Be

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In the aftermath of the Charlottesville tragedy, amid the outrage and grief and disbelief, I had to re-learn a painful lesson for a white American.

Most of the people I follow on Twitter are African-American journalists, politicians and activitists: Charles Blow, Bree Newsome, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Vann R. Newkirk II, Jamelle Bouie.

Ms. Newsome, the woman who climbed the flagpole in front of the South Carolina statehouse and took down the flag, put what the others were saying in one form or another most succinctly.

As white Americans cried, “This is not who we are!”, in fact, this is exactly who you are and have been and all black people know it, she said.

I know it too; I’ve been writing about it for some time now, but it hasn’t stayed at the forefront of my attention. White America is a racist society and has been since the first white European stepped foot on this continent and had the arrogance to claim it as a white man’s (and I do mean man’s, not human’s) paradise.

To make that paradise, however, meant neutralizing one way or another the indigenous peoples. Usually by slaughter, often by treaties that were never meant to be kept and to this day are not honored.

Then came the importation of Africans to actually do the work of building an economy. Next came the battles to seize land from the indigenous Mexicans, Polynesians and Inuits and Aleuts.

In every era, white “Americans” have taken something away from someone else, right up to the present time. Now, it’s not only enough to take something away, but white American society wants to bar others from coming in, based solely on religion. And even the liberal arguments in favor of immigrants more often than not points out their economic worth rather than their worth as human beings.

What happened in Charlottesville is not new to its black citizenry; Mr. Newkirk’s most recent article in The Atlantic spells it out briefly and powerfully.

We cannot say, “This is not who we are!” We can, and must, say, “This is not who we want to be,” but only if we’re willing to follow up words with action. Mr. Newkirk quotes Charlottesville-Albemarle NAACP President Emeritus M. Rick Turner: “People want to have a conversation . . . But see we’ve had conservations, ever since the Civil War, every time something happens. That’s why nothing ever gets done beyond that, because the courage stops right there.”

I could say that the counter-protestors in Boston and other cities this weekend prove this thesis wrong. But we have not heard the last from the white supremacists. Do we, who consider ourselves non-racist, have the courage to go beyond the conversations?

Heather Heyer did.

“By Their Fruits Ye Shall Know Them”

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I am just plain sick and tired of being discriminated against because I’m white and I’m not going to take it anymore!

Oh wait, I’m not discriminated against because I’m white.

Never mind.

I’m really getting very good at levitating when news breaks while I’m watching MSNBC.

And of course I turned to Twitter and #affirmativeaction to see how other people were expressing their horror and revulsion at the thought of Jeff Sessions using the Civil Rights Division to investigate the non-discrimination of white people at universities.

Heart-sickeningly, what I found were mostly accolades for Sessions and his decision, which I personally think is his way of trying to get back into Donald Trump’s good graces.

I responded to only a couple of the tweets, pointing out that Affirmative Action is a really tiny step that the US has made toward reparations and should be kept strong.

Here are the tweets, starting with the one I initially replied to:

#AffirmativeAction is a racist cancer. Paternalistic whites who think blacks can only get ahead if they’re given a head start. Toxic.

 

(Me: Not paternalism, just a tiny step toward reparations.)

Same tweeter:

So many socks.https://twitter.com/Radicalgrrrrl/status/892736574059884544 

Not sure what that means, but he posted my twitter profile.

A different tweeter:

Take your tablets and go back to bed now, Cynthia.

 

Yet another:

Does welfare count?

 

The next few are from the same person:

  • For dead people by people that didn’t have crap to do with it? Lol. Nope.
  • People who blame others for their failures are destined to stay failures.
  • It’s a discriminatory law.
  • The government shouldn’t be involved AT ALL with hiring decisions.

 

From the tweeter who told me to take my tablets and go to bed:

Yes. Go on now, dear.

 

The most recent:

Only 3% of the white people living today had ancestors who owned slaves! WHY SHOULD WE ALL PAY FOR THE EVIL OF THE FEW?! YOU ARE SICK!!!!!

 

It was interesting to note that all four of the respondents use made-up names and pictures of well-known people or cartoons in their profiles.

The Scripture “By their fruits ye shall know them” becomes more meaningful to me day by day. I am blessed to know the compassionate, loving, peace-filled, generous fruits of many, many people on Twitter and in person. Sadly, this can make them the target of people who hide behind fake images and names. At least we have the courage of our convictions.

PS: It’s time to rename the Department of Justice.