Showing posts with label slavery. Show all posts
Showing posts with label slavery. Show all posts

06 August 2015

History: a Study in Coincidences

by Brian Thornton

"We are continually shaped by the forces of coincidence."

                                                                                                   – Paul Auster

Have you ever heard the one about how two men, born one year and and a hundred miles apart, went in different directions while still children, and grew up to be antagonists in this country's greatest internal struggle, the American Civil War?

Yes, that's right, Jefferson Davis, born in 1808, just outside what is now Fairview, Kentucky, spent his earliest days just about a hundred miles due west of Hodgenville, Kentucky, the closest metropolitan center to the hardscrabble farm that became the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln in 1809.


Davis' family moved south into the newly-settled lands along the lower Mississippi, where his father quickly established a successful plantation. Lincoln's father–an illiterate carpenter who resented both the slaves his elder brother had inherited along with the family farm upon their father's death and how slave labor undercut the fees free tradesmen could charge–uprooted his family and moved north, across the Ohio River into Indiana, and eventually into southern Illinois.

Davis' Birthplace in Kentucky – There is no accurate depiction of Lincoln's birthplace

This is just one example of the coincidences which pop up in history from time to time. I mean, think about it: through a coincidence of birth, the first openly abolitionist president and one of the antebellum South's wealthiest slave-owning politicians were born within a year of each other, in the same state, nearly next-door to each other, and yet look how differently they turned out!

Here's one you may not have heard about though.

 Two men, born on adjacent Caribbean islands, within five miles of each other, their birth places separated only by a shallow, two mile-wide stretch of ocean known as "The Narrows." Both of these men were born out of wedlock to members of their respective island's planter class. Both of their fathers were British-born and raised, coming out to the "Sugar Islands" seeking their fortunes.

The view from one of the Caribbean Islands mentioned above to the other Caribbean island mentioned above
Both of these men early demonstrated so much native intelligence that they were sent abroad (One to England, the other to New York City) to receive an education superior to the one they could have received at home.

Both of these men became very successful in both business and politics. They were both products of slave-holding societies during the 18th century, and it was on the subject of slavery that these two men could not have been further apart. One of them, impressed by the writings of Enlightenment philosophers on the subject, became a confirmed abolitionist at a time when it was rare for a gentleman, even those who found slavery distasteful, to express an interest in completely destroying the practice.

The other inherited his father's sugar plantation back home, and owned slaves until the very day the practice was abolished.

Oh, and there was one other area in which the two men vastly differed. Ethnically. One was Scottish and English, and the other was the half-Welsh son of a plantation owner and one of his black slaves, and thus born into slavery himself.

Care to guess which one was the abolitionist, and which one was the slave-owner?

Tune in right here in two weeks to find out.

Feel free to express an opinion or hazard a guess in the comments section.

See you in two weeks!


27 April 2014

A Novel and A Literary Detective Story

by Louis Willis

The book I discuss in this post is not a crime novel, but the history of its discovery and attempts to identify the author is a detective story.

In 2001, Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.,  chair of the Afro-American Studies Department at Harvard University, discovered a holograph in the Swann Galleries catalogue that would change African American literature, especially our ideas about fictional slave narratives.

The Bondwoman’s Narrative was published in 2002 by Warner Books and edited with introduction by Professor Gates. The manuscript had never been edited by a professional editor or ghostwritten by a white person as many of the fictional and nonfictional slave narratives were. If the manuscript could be authenticated and the author’s identity confirmed, the novel would prove to be the first written by a former female slave in the United States.

The novel itself and the efforts of several scholars to establish the author’s identity make discussion of this fascinating book difficult.  A detailed discussion of the novel is necessary to examine the strengths and weaknesses of plot and characterization and the historical context. So, I discuss it only briefly. The effort of scholars to verify the author’s identity is a literary detective story deserving its own critical analysis. In his brilliant and illuminating essay “The True Story of American’s First Black Female Slave Novelist” on the New Republic website, Paul Berman discusses in-depth the novel and the efforts to prove the author’s identity.

The Bondwoman’s Narrative by Hannah Crafts: A Fugitive Slave Recently Escaped from North Carolina is the full handwritten title on the first page of this important black sentimental novel. Hannah, the literate narrator / protagonist, tells the story of her escape from a plantation in Virginia, her capture and resale to the Wheelers in North Carolina, and finally her escape to New Jersey. Aunt Hetty, an old white woman who lived near the plantation where Hannah grew up, defied the law and taught her to read. Like many slaves who learned to read and write, Hannah knows the Bible and begins each chapter with a biblical epigraph. Her tendency to philosophize shows she has read widely.

In the philosophical tone she displays throughout the novel, Hannah seemingly accepts her condition: “’I am a slave’ thus my thoughts would run. ‘I can never be great; I cannot hold an elevated position, but I can do my duty, and be kind in the sure and certain hope of eternal reward.[']”.  She is also a perceptive observer of people:  “Instead of books,” she “studied faces and characters, and arrived at conclusions by a sort of sagacity that closely approximated to the unerring certainty of animal instinct.” This talent for wearing the masks to conceal her feelings and thoughts from the masters, which many slaves learned to do, allows her to adjust to the different circumstances in which she finds herself.

The former slave clearly mastered the techniques of novel writing that made her an exceptional storyteller. She reveals the effect of slavery on master and slave, especially how supposedly kind masters supported the peculiar institution. In the preface she asks, “Have I succeeded in showing how it blights the happiness of the white as well as the black race?” My reply is a resounding yes.

The efforts of several scholars to identify the author is a detective story as exciting as the novel. As Timothy Davis writes in Salon, ink and paper experts helped Professor Gates establish that the novel was written in the 1850s. His analysis of the prose revealed the author was familiar with and borrowed from Jane Eyre and Bleak House. Unfortunately, he was unable to establish her identity. Once the novel was authenticated, the detective scholars went to work to solve the mystery: Who was Hannah Crafts?

An article in the New York Times dated September 18, 2013, claimed that Professor Gregg Hecimovich, chairman of the English Department at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina, had found additional evidence that revealed the author was named Hannah Bond, a slave on the plantation of John Hill Wheeler in North Carolina. Professor Hecimovich planned to publish his discovery in a book titled The Life and Times of Hannah Crafts.

The novel is important because, as Professor Gates writes, “Holograph, or handwritten, manuscripts by blacks in the nineteenth century are exceedingly rare…” Rarer still are ones that haven’t been ghostwritten or edited by a white writer or editor.

26 September 2012

Five Red Herrings III

by Robert Lopresti

1. What Not To Wear To A Murder Trial
File under too-weird-for-fiction.  You probably heard that former policeman  Drew Peterson was convicted of killing his wife, but did you hear about the odd thing about the jury?  They dressed  alike.  One day all business suits.  Another day sports Jerseys.  Sometimes red, white, and blue.  Apparently they were having a lot of fun, but does this show the proper attitude when judging a man  who is accused of murdering his wife?

Apparently the feeling during the trial was that no one could ask them about it.  "If they came in wearing T-shirts saying 'Drew's Guilty,' it'd be different," said one attorney.

2. Encounter with Number 6.
I recently met a writer named Stephan Michaels.  Naturally I took a peek at his website and found a terrific piece about his friendship with one of my favorite actors, Patrick McGoohan.  For any fans of Secret Agent or The Prisoner, I highly recommend it.

As we walked back to our cars, Patrick asked if I thought I’d ever have any real money, and - as I had already confessed to being a bachelor - if I thought I’d ever get married. I answered optimistically to the first and shrugged off the latter. The valet pulled up in his silver BMW and Patrick offered that he and his wife had been married for forty years. “And do you know why it works? Because we don’t agree on a thing!”

3.  Satire by the Illiterate

This has nothing to do with mystery fiction, but if you love great writing, oh my, invest a few minutes.    After the Civil War ex-slave Jordon Anderson apparently received a letter from his old master inviting him to come back to the plantation and work for wages.  For those who still maintain that slavery was Not So Bad (such people do exist) his response is a cold dose of reality.  Anderson was illiterate; he dictated lis letter to an abolitionist friend.  Be sure to read the last sentence.

4.  Ghost writing

Courtesy of Sandra Seaman's invaluable blog My Little Corner, here is the web's premium dating service for dead people...  Ooh, spooky.


5.  The Rules

Pixar is one of the most successful animation studios in history.  Their rules for successful  storytelling are a lesson for us all.