Great Speeches by African-Americans – edited by James Daley (2006)

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It’s African-American History Month here in the U.S., and although the month is almost half over now and I’ve been tardy, I have been making an effort to read some work by POC (specifically people of African descent). As part of that, I happened to drop by one of the library branches (I know, shocking, right?), and they had a display of interesting looking titles that were themed with this. As I am a sucker for library displays, I picked a couple of titles, one of which happened to be a slim Dover Thrift edition of a collection of speeches by African-Americans over the years.

Obviously, being an edited collection means that someone will choose and miss pieces, but I thought that this book had such a good selection – at least to a neophyte such as me. There were a variety of speeches, long and short, from both male and female speechmakers (more men since historically men were more likely to be in such a position), and this was so interesting for me.

I have a smattering of African-American history having immersed myself in it on and off over the past few years, and it was so interesting to read some of the words that reflected (and in some cases changed) the course of history in the U.S. for people of color.

As historical background, here are the large markers that illustrate the hideous history of slavery in the U.S. and the U.K.:

Brief run-down on the early history of U.S. history:

  • 1542 – Spain enacts first European law abolishing slavery
  • 1807 – UK Slave Trade Act makes slave trade illegal throughout the British Empire/colonies. (You could still own slaves – just not sell them.)
  • 1833 – UK Slavery Abolition Act – abolition of all slavery within the British Empire/colonies
  • 1863 – US Emancipation Proclamation (which meant slaves were now free in the Southern/Confederate States)
  • 1865 – US 13th Amendment ended slavery in all the states of the US

There was quite a list of speeches in this title, and so thought I’d spotlight a few of my favorites for you:

  • Ain’t I a Woman? by Sojourner Truth (1851).  A short but powerful speech delivered at the 1851 Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio, its brevity adds to its power and this is a fire-cracker speech not to be missed. Seriously.
  • What, to the Slave, is the Fourth of July? – Frederick Douglass (1852)  Given on July 05, 1852, this is an inspiring speech given by freedman Frederick Douglass to show the hypocrisy evident when Americans were celebrating Independence Day from England, and yet a large percentage of their population were still not free. It’s powerful, it’s long, and I would have loved to have heard this speech in real life. I’m not sure how many people would have stuck it out to the end – brevity is not in this work – but it’s a powerful indictment of the hypocrisy of the time. Frederick Douglass has an amazing story and I reviewed his diary earlier a few years back. See here for the link.
  • Black Woman in Contemporary America – Shirley Chisholm (1974). Chisholm was the first AfAm woman elected to the U.S. Congress and in 1972, she was the first black woman to seek a major party nomination for the U.S. Presidency. (How brave is that??) She served in Congress until 1982, and gave this speech in 1974 at the University of Missouri in Kansas City.
  • The Ballot or the Bullet – Malcolm X (1964). Like Malcolm X or not, he was a pivotal influencer on the civil rights movement in the U.S., and in this speech, he argues that if America can send black men overseas to fight in the Korean War, surely that gives AfAm people the right to stand up for themselves and each other. It’s a fiery speech, no doubt about it, and his passion shines through. Interestingly (and frustratingly), many of the same issues that Malcolm raises are still social justice issues of today. Have a looksee.

This was not an easy read – quite a few of the speeches are really dense and last for more than a few pages – but they are worth reading to see their speech-writing skills and the passion that each presenter demonstrates. A really good read about an important battle that continues, I’m sad to say, to this day in some parts of the country.

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Shirley Chisholm in 1972.

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Beloved – Toni Morrison (1987)

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Chosen off the TBR for being a classic, Beloved was a good read although quite challenging in some ways. The beginning of a trilogy* set by Toni Morrison, the book is based on the history of an African American slave, Margaret Garner, who escaped slavery in Kentucky in 1856, although I’m not sure how much creative license has been taken by anyone. I haven’t read any of Morrison’s work before, so had little idea of what to expect but loved it in the end. It’s not the easiest work to read and you have to concentrate on the plot and the characters (or at least I did), but the effort is so worth it at the end of the day. Just be prepared for quite a ride, reading-wise.

So – to the story. It revolves around Sethe, an African-American woman born into slavery and who has now escaped that life. However, eighteen years later, she is still not free from the ramifications of her prior slavery life at a plantation called Sweet Home, an idyllic name for a ghastly place and one that still maintains a tenuous hold on Sethe, despite her best efforts at unshackling herself and her family. The book plot delves into her life so readers can better understand the choice that she makes, and how that choice impacts her days for the remainder of her life. (I can’t really tell you any more about the plot without giving spoilers, and it’s the plot that makes this book such a good read. Well, the writing too, but the plot definitely plays a role.)

There is a dreamy gauzy quality to this narrative, and it’s not a logical or chronological retelling, mainly because the events that occur are of the most terrible kind and hurt where it hurts the most – the heart. There is a lot of poetry in this novel in terms of how it’s been written and how it flows, but once I gave up trying to impose order on it, it was a much better read. You will need to let go of the typical structural expectations, but if you do, what was once surreal and puzzling becomes more understandable and predictable. (Well, I’m not sure about predictable, but at least one can see some rationale for why the characters behave as they do.)

It’s a good read, and all the more powerful for not being written or structured in a straight-forward narrative style as that fits the story being told: unreliable narrators, this dream-like quality, the nightmarish events, the resilience of the human spirit…

It’s a super book (obvs since it’s won loads of accolades including the Pulitzer Prize in 1988), but it plays with reality and with dreams, it plays with time and space, and it can all get a tad confusing if you’re not paying close attention. (This was my situation. I was picking up and putting down this book all over the place, and in retrospect, I think the book is best read in huge long chunks of time for immersion into the narrative and characters. I bonded with the story much better when I could dedicate some time to it.)

This is one of those books where the reader may need to work a bit at the story, but in this case, it’s so worth it. If I was going to compare it, I would pair it with “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston. I loved this on its own rights though, and I think you will as well.

  • I had no idea that Beloved was part of a trilogy. In case you’re wondering, # 2 is Jazz (1992) and #3 is Paradise (1997).

Homecoming – Yaa Gyazi (2016)

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“Homecoming” is a debut novel that has set the interwebs and reviewers into a bit of spin about how fantastic it is, and so when I spotted it on the shelf, it leaped (leapt?) into my little grubby hands. It’s been hailed as one of the newest darlings of the literary world and as a new tour de force in African-American (or African?) literature.

However one chooses to describe it, it’s a good read. The narrative arc follows the fortunes (or not) of a family in Ghana tracing how slavery impacts its path over the centuries starting back in the 18

Ghana_africa-map Told from an omniscient point of view and traveling through time and across continents, the story starts with two half-sisters who follow very different paths through life unknowingly, one living a life of relative wealth after marrying a white man and one who ends up on the opposite side of the coin, but both affected by the slave trade. The location common to both is that of Cape Coast Castle, one sister living on the upper floors in safety and comfort whilst her sister suffers on the dungeon floor in terrible cramped conditions with the others waiting for their travel on the ships to America or other colony elsewhere.

So it’s not that new a narrative structure or in how it’s presented, but it is well written. I am wondering if many of the other reviewers out on the web are inexperienced with slavery stories and perhaps that is how it’s had this great reception. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a great book but not completely unlike others out there. (Am I being mean? I’m trying not to be. I just wasn’t so wowed to quite the same extent as others.)

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(So, I’ve only just now realized that the patriotic English song, “Rule Britannia!”, contains a reference to the slave trade. Partway through, the line goes “And Britons never…shall be slaves”, and growing up hearing this song, I had always thought this to be a call of maintaining national independence etc., when, as I think about it now, it’s more likely a reference to the slave trade. (D’oh.) The song was written in the 1740’s which was slap bang in the middle of slave industrial years for England so it makes sense. Hard to believe that I’ve only just put this together…)

In researching that song, it turns out to have a strong link with the Royal Navy who played a vital role in maintaining the independence of England, the island nation, and over time, the lyrics were edited from being an exhortation (“Britannia! Rule the waves!”) to more of a statement (“Britannia rules the waves!”) and which reflected the historical changes over time as England became more of a nautical powerhouse. This links with the Victorian phrase, “The sun never sets on the British Empire” which refs the fact that a lot of the world was pink on the world map (signifying British territories or colonies) and the colonies were spread out in such a way that regardless of whatever the time was, it was daylight somewhere in a colony at the time.

Huh. So now I know… Cool.

Back to the book: So, this is a multi-thread narrative from both the perspectives of the enslaved (or soon to be enslaved) and those who run the slave industry, so there are interesting power/powerless dichotomies to look at. It also covers some of the early Ghanaian tribal warfare which also adds another complex layer as humans (especially women/brides) also had a price, but in a different way. How is this way more acceptable than another way…?

So lots to think about. This was a quick read and a good one. Not quite sure why it’s getting all the hoopla vs. other authors out there, but if you’re looking for an interesting read, here you go.

12 Years a Slave – Solomon Northup (1853)

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“No man who has never been in such a situation can comprehend the thousand obstacles in the way of the flying slave…”

(as told to David Wilson, American lawyer, writer, politician 1818-1870)

Published eight years before the U.S. Civil War and soon after the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s bestselling novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), this memoir was also a best seller and was invaluable in adding fact to the Beecher Stowe novel. Frederick Douglass’ memoir was published in 1845, and so this, along with some other anti-slavery writing, all combined to bring the slow death of this industry. (For an abbreviated timeline of slavery in the U.S. and in the U.K., see here.)

And, similar to the critical reception of Douglass’ memoir, some [mostly white] readers did not believe the cruelty of the slave owners or their employees. What Northup’s memoir makes clear was how the slave industry promoted inhumane treatment of the slaves by not only the white overseers but also other slaves (who were placed into untenable positions of either whipping the other slaves or facing a whipping themselves).

solomon in his plantation suitNorthup’s memoir is strikingly different from some other anti-slavery memoirs and narratives as Northup did originally have his freedom. He had grown up in the North (where there was no official slavery) and he had a home and family. Being a musician, he was always on the lookout for a gig, and one day two white circus promoters approached him with offer of a well-paid job in nearby NYC. Northup took them up on their suggestion and instead found himself drugged, bound and kidnapped waking up a day or so later in a slave pen. So Northup had gone from being a free man to being in slavery (a narrative arc that differs from other earlier slave narratives which usually have the subject starting off as a slave, and then escaping and being free).

Northup_book_pageAnd his remarkable story goes on from there, traveling across the south from northern Florida to Louisiana where he is sold to a plantation owner who seems to have had a heart in some ways. He treated them like slaves, indeed, but with a softer touch than others (although “softer” is definitely all relative when it comes to this world). Northup learns that he has woodworking skills as well as playing the violin, and so that keeps him out of the fields for some of his time in captivity. But goodness – how poorly the slaves were treated and demoted to just “product” instead of people.

Northup had some writing skills, but as a slave, he had no access to pen, ink, or paper, let alone a safe way to get this letter to a post office to reach his wife and family up in upstate New York. They may as well as have been on the moon in regards to him being able to communicate with them. During his twelve years of being a slave, it took NINE years for Northup to gather together a piece of paper, a make-shift feather pen, and some bark to make ink, and then, once written, it was really dangerous for either him (as a slave) to make an unapproved trip to the post office or to find a white person who would be trustworthy. Being found out would mean certain death for him in terms of the number of lashes he would end up receiving, and enormous problems for the delivery man, whoever he might be, so it was a complicated and risky endeavor. The letter remained written, but unposted for weeks due to this.

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In fact, after the first beating and lashing, Northup learned to keep quiet and not claim to be a freeman as it was going to lead to more and more problems for him if he continued to say that (even though it was absolutely correct). In fact, he kept quiet about his literacy and his freeman status for the entire twelve years that he was captive, telling no one not even his trusted slave friends. (One accidental utterance from them would have led to terrible lashings for both them and for Northup, so it was safer for all to just stay silent.)

And that was the situation for Northup. The majority of slaves were not taught to read or write (the general thought being that “they don’t need to know that and it would only bring trouble”), and so should anyone else have the thought of doing a similar plan, the obstacles would have been unsurmountable. Northup’s case was terrible, but it was better than some other slaves had it, incredible as that sounds.

Slave quarters in Louisiana (recreations).

Slave quarters in Louisiana (recreations).

This was a hard book to read, not because the writing was difficult but because the content was abhorrent in the descriptions of how the slave owners and the overseers treated these very innocent people – thousands and thousands of them. Nothing can justify or rationalize this shameful part of the world’s history. (America gets a bad rap for this – as it should – but other countries participated in the slave trade as well. I happened to pick up a World Atlas of World History from the library the other day, and learned that Brazil in the nineteenth century actually had the highest slave trade import numbers for its Portuguese-owned silver mines and sugar plantations.)

Another eye-opening book and should be required reading for those concerned with the history of civil rights and race relations in the U.S. today. I don’t think this history is an excuse for unrest, but it sure can’t be ignored as part of the package. It’s almost too bad to be true except it is true (which makes it even worse in some ways). It’s very hard for me to understand how someone can devalue another human’s life in such a way (and for such a long time).

This account fell into obscurity for 100 years until it was re-discovered on two separate occasions by two different Louisiana scholars in the 1960’s. (Their research also included a retracing of Northup’s journey which was published as an academic book in the late ‘60’s by Louisiana State University Press.)  Wouldn’t that be an interesting title to find?

The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself – Frederick Douglass (1845)

A shortish but fascinating true autobiography of an American slave who escaped the system and, with the help of people of the abolition system, managed to stay free and travel to help bring awareness of slavery to other people. This narrative is so well written, in fact, that when it was first published, the general public did not believe that a former slave could have written it. How would he learn to write like that?…

The narrative is thought to be the most famous memoir of a former slave and fueled the abolitionist movement on both sides of the Atlantic. He was a living model of how slaves could be educated and function as independent American citizens.

As the story of Douglass’ early life is told (through his eyes), we learn that he has spent his whole childhood and some adulthood in slavery to various slaveholders on the East Coast. It’s a hard life (obviously), but he really brings the life to life (!) in the many descriptions he adds. (This is also what bolstered his claim to have the narrative – he included so many real names, dates and places that it all gave him credibility. Plus his story explains how he procured his education.)

The abolitionist movement was overjoyed to have Douglass as a speaker, but still, they would only let him give a canned repetitive speech following a script of sorts. However, once his printed book became more popular and more widespread, Douglass was given a lot more latitude. A lot of his early free work was in Ireland and England as he believed his former slaveholder was after him. Apparently, it was quite common for former slaves to escape to Ireland, where he said that he was treated “not as a color, but as a man…” (Interestingly, the Great Potato Famine was around this time as well. Absolutely nothing to do with Douglass, but interesting how great events collide.)

Douglass was not only anti-slavery, but also supported women’s suffrage and even was nominated (unknowingly) for the office of Vice-President for the US (via a very minor political party). However, he did not acknowledge this at any time. He also met with several US Presidents. His attitude was thus:  “I would unite with anybody to do right, and with nobody to do wrong.” (1855)

His description of slave life was fascinatingly awful – slaves were only given minimal clothing allowances for each year, and not enough to wear when they did laundry (and working in the South in the cotton fields must have meant a lot of sweaty days)… The kids were given one shirt a year – no pants, no nothing else, so they just wore this long shirt that got shorter as they grew taller. On laundry day, presumably, there were a lot of naked kids running around.

One of the really interesting points that Douglass raised was that when he was a slave in the South, he (and others) believed that because the Northern states did not have slaves, they must be really poor. He could not imagine a place without wealthy people having slaves so it was a big surprise to him when he escaped to come across wealthy people who made do without slaves. It had never crossed his mind before.

Brief run-down:

1542 – Spain enacts first European law abolishing slavery

1807 – UK Slave Trade Act makes slave trade illegal throughout the British Empire/colonies. (You could still own slaves – just not sell them.)

1833 – UK Slavery Abolition Act – abolition of all slavery within the British Empire/colonies

1863 – US Emancipation Proclamation (which meant slaves were now free in the Southern/Confederate States)

1865 – US 13th Amendment ended slavery in all the states of the US

A fascinating story. For more slavery-related reading, check out this post about a book on the history of the British slavery trade.

Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves – Adam Hochschild

Despite the clunky title, this is a relatively fast read about a fascinating subject that has been neglected in my world of knowledge so far: the abolition of slavery from the British Empire during the last eighteenth century and onwards.

In 1787, a group of twelve men met one evening in a printer’s shop in London wanting to end slavery in the British Empire. As the author notes, the size of this goal would be comparable (for us) as wanting to get rid of cars across the world. It was a huge endeavor, and one that would not come that easy or without a big fight. This small group of committed activists would take on Parliament, the upper class, the military, the church – in fact almost every organized group at that time was most likely involved in slavery projects (and yes, even the Church of England had some dealings in the trade).

So – how did this proceed? It took years of dedicated effort, miles of horse-riding to do effective outreach to cities and towns across the nation at a time when transportation was slow and expensive, and a public relations campaign that influenced almost every other social justice campaign since then.

Reading the non-fiction portrayal of the events that occurred, I found it to be really exciting and involving in the whole process: the secret meetings of the Quakers (and others) who supported the neophyte cause, the writing of the anti-slavery pamphlets, the development of political supporters, and even the Sugar protest whereby more then 300,000 Britons refused to eat (or buy) sugar as it was a slave-supportive product. I just can’t imagine people nowadays doing something similar. (I’d like to think I was wrong, but after years with public health, I am not entirely convinced. Perhaps the early HIV/AIDS activists were closest in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Yes, I know HIV/AIDS was around earlier than that.)

This small group of men (and later on, women) were the people who first effectively used the tools of community relations today: wall posters and pamphlets to mass mailings, boycotts and antislavery badges (designed by Josiah Wedgewood and perhaps the equivalent of lapel ribbons for today.) Hochschild  is passionate about
this subject and it is easy to catch that enthusiasm when you read this and learn (or get reminded) of the horrors of traveling in a slave ship in the Middle Passage of the slavery triangle between England, the West Indies, and Southern US, and I learned a lot about it.

The drawing of the layout of the slave ship was one of the first ever diagrams used to mold public opinion, and did much to help the cause. The activists learned that “show, not tell” was the most effective teaching tool, and so speakers carried around some of the trappings of slavery: the leg irons, the leg traps, the whips… It’s hard to deny slavery when you saw those, I would think.

One thing I was amazed at was the very low number of people in the British Isles who could vote at that time. I was familiar with the fact that women had not been allowed to vote for a significant period of time, but at this time in the eighteenth century, only about 5% of all the population of England, Scotland and Wales could vote with the majority of those voters being upper class and peers of the realm. The petitions that the anti-slavery team put together going house-to-house in all kinds of neighborhoods and asking people who perhaps had never been asked for their opinions before – this was a
huge catalyst to involving the underclasses in the political process. No one had ever asked for their opinions before, and so this was a game-changer that led to ripples for the next century and beyond.

Really, this abolition movement changed the world in many ways: it led to the US abolitionists learning how to work an effective campaign, the independence of several Caribbean islands from European countries, new and different links with African countries… After some time, it also helped to bring public opinion to sway on the awfully dangerous working conditions for child (and adult) laborers in the mines close to home on British soil and other changes. It also clearly shows that emancipation wasn’t just a “gift” from the “White Guys”, but also the result of uprisings by the slaves themselves at the cost of many lost lives.

Really, I found this to be a fascinating book on many levels. The author is a co-founder of Mother Jones magazine, and is a well published writer and journalist. He definitely did his homework on this one. This was a finalist for the 2005 National Book Award in Non-Fiction.

Borrowed on ILL from Lubbock Library. Hooray for Texas libraries.