Sunday, February 21, 2010

Reflections on the Peculiar Institution

From my 2006 essay, "Reflections on the Peculiar Institution":

I'm currently reading "Jubilee," by Margaret Walker. It's a novel of slavery. I'm really fascinated by it so far, and I've only read 50-plus pages ....
I was really moved by a passage I read, whereby one of the main characters, Vyry, along with her Aunt Sally, went to attend a Baptist Church meeting while on leave from the plantation. The meeting turned out to be no ordinary Sunday prayer session, as a number of abolitionists were there. They were agitating for a black uprising against slavery across the South. It was an envigorating speech! But Uncle Joe, one of the older black slaves from Vyry's plantation, was scared, and denounced talk of abolition as foolhardy:

That's foolish talk you talking boy, foolish and dangerous, too. Here you is ain't dry behind your ears and here you come talking bout how us gwine be free. Does you know how many hundreds and hundreds of years we's been slaves? Does you know how long since the white man brung us here from Afficky to this here America? You know how come? Well, you know what God told Ham, don't you? You know what we is, don't you. Just hewers of wood and drawers of water, that's what we is. That's our punishment for being black. Yall can swell up, swell on up if you want to, like a dead dog, until you bust. I knows what you think I is, but I'm telling you now bout getting free. You might be willing to die cause you ain't gotta die, and you might be willing to get whipped, but I ain't fixing to say die, and I ain't fixing to get whipped. Sho, us is uprising, niggers uprising all the time and look what happening. Ain't none of them uprising yet went free. Tell me one time they come free, I'm asking you? Just tell me one time. You know when us gwine free? I can tell you cause I knows. Us gwine free when the Good Lord say so and not before, when He come riding in His chariot bringing a Moses with Him. If He means for me to go free, I'm gwine go free one of these days...Lord knows I'd like to be ables to go wheresomever I wants to go, do what I wants to do, have my own farm, raise my own taters and cotton and corn, and be my own marster, man, and boss like you is, but I knows the Lord's will gwine be, and I'm waiting on the Lord...."
This was an extremely moving passage for me. My dad grew up in Jim Crow-era Missouri. Stories he told me, and stories told to me by his close friends, ring close to Uncle Joe's lament in "Jubilee." Blacks in the antibellum South grew strength from their faith in deliverance to the promised land -- the "old negro spiritual" that Martin Luther King spoke of in his "I Have a Dream Speech." I'll write some follow-ups to this post as I move through the book. It's quite good thus far.


Rusty Walker said...

Excellent post, Donald. My recommendations, all Awarded Pulitzers: Slavery by Another Name, Blackmon; The Problem if Slavery in Western Culture, Davis, and Been in the Storm Too Long: The Aftermath of Slavery, Litwack. I just finished: Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World, David Davis;

Our friends on the left in their inquisition will probably find me racist for the following quote. Reading from one of the African-American books I collect, I find this altogether dear, funny and poignant. It makes me smile and choke up at the same time, even as I write this- from memory it is goes something like this:
The freed slaves were being questioned by the Northern troops; here was the exchange:
Interviewer: “Well, what price are you now?
Jeremiah: “Glory! I’se free, now! I ain’t worf nofin’!”