Friday, July 8, 2011


When Richard Wright wrote his autobiography ‘Black Boy’ in 1945 there was already a long tradition of black writers using their words to expose the truth about racism in America. It stretched at least as far back as Frederick Douglass and his ‘Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass’, which came out one hundred years earlier. Douglass wrote that he did not know his age and could not remember a slave who did know his birthday, and that was a source of some unhappiness for him. He worked on a farm where the principal crops were tobacco, wheat and corn. An adult slave received a monthly allowance of food – eight pounds of pork or fish, and one bushel of corn meal. Yearly they received two coarse linen shirts, one pair of linen trousers, one jacket, one pair of winter trousers, one pair of stockings, and one pair of shoes. Children did not receive an allotment.

“I have been utterly astonished,” Douglass continued, “since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears.” He wrote of the savage brutality of the various overseers. Of his suffering from hunger and cold. He had no shoes, no stockings, no jacket, and no trousers. He wore nothing but a linen shirt that hung down to his knees. On cold nights he crawled into a corn sack. The food he ate was coarse corn meal boiled – called mush. He was taught to read by the wife of one of his owners, or he would never have learned. It was against state law to teach a slave to read.

“I often found myself regretting my own existence,” he wrote, “and wishing myself dead; and but for the hope of being free, I have no doubt but that I should have killed myself, or done something for which I should have been killed.”

The first African American novel (that is, a novel written by an African American) – ‘Clotel’ – was written by William Wells Brown and it is his own story that opens the work. (This following a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier):

“Shall tongues be mute when deeds are wrought
Which well might shame extremest Hell?
Shall freemen lack th’ indignant thought?
Shall Mercy’s bosom cease to swell?
Shall Honour bleed? – shall Truth succumb?
Shall pen, and press, and soul be dumb?”

President Thomas Jefferson fathered children with his slave Sally Heming. This while penning words of freedom and equality. (Proving that the truth can transcend even the actions of those who bring that truth). In ‘Clotel’ Brown attempted to portray the reality of slaves in America, though it cannot be said to be an accurate account of Jefferson and his mistress. Currier, “a bright mulatto, and the mistress of Thomas Jefferson”, according to the novel, was about to be auctioned off with her two daughters, Clotel and Althesa. In a ruthless act of unconcern, the President’s own family was about to be sold to others. Slavery, these writers insisted, could only undermine the values of a great nation.

Their voices were only the beginning of this insistence. Throughout the next hundred years black writers wrote against slavery and then the white supremacy attitudes and ‘Jim Crow’ laws that sprang up throughout the south after the Civil War. Streetcars were segregated, to cite an example, and blacks boycotted lines in some twenty five different cities. (This long before the Montgomery Bus Boycott more than seventy years later). One black woman journalist in particular, Ida B. Wells, resisted with everything she had. In Memphis in 1884, Ida Wells was told to give up her seat to a white man on the Chesapeake, Ohio & South Western Railroad. She was ordered into the ‘smoking car’, a car set aside for ‘Jim Crow’ passengers. Wells protested and was physically thrown off the train by the conductor and two other white men. The crowd of whites that had gathered applauded the action. Her inquiries into lynching in the south led her to publish the ‘Red Record’ itemizing many of these abuses of justice. Of the 728 lynchings she investigated, only a third were accused of any crime. Most had never received a trial in a court of law. Hers was a strident voice for change until the end of her life.

Other voices along the way that might bear reading again are Paul Laurence Dunbar; Charles W. Chesnutt; Booker T. Washington; and W.E.B. Du Bois. One wonders where our country would be today if it had not been for the writers who dreamed of freedom.
This essay has been adapted from chapters of 'American Masters', a forthcoming book by James D. Sanderson. Copyright 2011 by James D. Sanderson. All Rights Reserved.
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