How a Freed Slave’s Response to His Master Can Open History for Us
by David McGuire, guest contributor
As we begin Black History Month, here’s a letter from 1865 making the rounds. In it, Jourdan Anderson, a former slave, responds to his former master Colonel P.H. Anderson, who had written to invite him back to the plantation — this time, with pay.
“Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you.”
The calm and polite language is a brilliant juxtaposition to the raw anger and hurt we associate with such a shameful part of American history.
On Being’s show this week focuses on these types of personal entry points to difficult history with Tiya Miles. This letter is another great example of how one far-from-famous person’s words can open a whole world for us, nearly 150 years later:
Dayton, Ohio, August 7, 1865.
To my old Master, Colonel P. H. Anderson, Big Spring, Tennessee.
Sir: I got your letter, and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this, for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Colonel Martin’s to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again, and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville Hospital, but one of the neighbors told me that Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.
I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here. I get twenty-five dollars a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy,—the folks call her Mrs. Anderson,—and the children—Milly, Jane, and Grundy—go to school and are learning well. The teacher says Grundy has a head for a preacher. They go to Sunday school, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated. Sometimes we overhear others saying, “Them colored people were slaves” down in Tennessee. The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks; but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Colonel Anderson. Many darkeys would have been proud, as I used to be, to call you master. Now if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.
As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864 from the Provost-Marshal-General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor’s visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams’s Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq., Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.
In answering this letter, please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up, and both good-looking girls. You know how it was with poor Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve—and die, if it come to that—than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood. The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.
Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.
From your old servant,
Wondering whether Anderson took up the colonel’s offer? Check out Jason Kottke’s research for the answer, as near as he can tell.
(via Letters of Note)
Malcolm X on Human Rights, Not Civil Rights
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Malcolm X was assassinated on this day in 1965 in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom while speaking to a meeting of the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Weeks before his death, he appeared on the CBC’s “Front Page Challenge” and addresses questions ranging from the his departure from the Nation of Islam to his disagreements with “Uncle Martin” to his practice of Islam.
“We are black Americans. We have a problem that goes beyond religion. …
We feel that the problem, number one, of the black man in America is beyond America’s ability to solve. It’s a human problem, not an American problem or a Negro problem. And as a human problem or a world problem, we feel that it should be taken out of the jurisdiction of the United States government and the United States courts and taken into the United Nations in the same manner that the problems of the black man in South Africa, Angola, and other parts of the world — and even the way they’re trying to bring the problems of the Jews in Russia into the United Nations because of violations of human rights.
We believe that our problem is one not one of civil rights but a violation of human rights. Not only are we denied the right to be a citizen in the United States, we are denied the right to be a human being.”
[A big thanks to The Smithian for reminding us!]
“The Color of Ideas”
Krista Tippett, host
Artist Kara Walker installs her work “My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love” at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (photo: Cameron Wittig/Walker Art Center)
I’ve heard E. Ethelbert Miller’s essays and short interviews on Weekend Edition Sunday and always learned something new. He has been at Howard University, first as an undergraduate, since it was a crucible of Black Power in the late 1960s. I’ve heard him observe political and cultural events — like the election of Barack Obama as president — through a fascinating lens, from that vantage point, and also from his vantage point as a poet, a “literary activist.” And I wondered what would happen if I sat down with him for a whole hour to explore the nexus of the political, the artistic, and the spiritual in the dramatic trajectory of black history over the last half century — a trajectory he has both been shaped by and has shaped.
The result is an unpredictable, playful, and challenging program. For starters, he is not eager to engage in a head-on discussion of Obama and race — the discussion many in our culture have both longed for, and not found a way to have, throughout his candidacy and now his presidency. For E. Ethelbert Miller, Obama’s election says interesting things about how white people in the U.S. have changed. He does not buy the language of a “post-racial society.” Yet he sees that both Barack and Michele Obama have made a lasting impact on global cultural associations between blackness, elegance, excellence, and beauty. And in the long run, he seems to feel, that may be more than enough, for now.
We hear the trumpet of Miles Davis and the saxophone of John Coltrane as Miller guides us in an entertaining, if not linear, way through the evolution of what he calls “blackness” in the last half century. His words and the sounds of this music join the poetry of Lucille Clifton “won’t you celebrate with me”) and the prose of Buddhist novelist Charles Johnson and Muslim activist Malcolm X to evoke the eclectic range of influences that nourished the black consciousness that first emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. Our cultural memory has taken in some of these influences and forgotten much of the rest, though they have all continued to ferment in E. Ethelbert Miller’s being and in the diverse universe he inhabits.
He likes to imagine a healing role for African-American Muslims, for example, in the global encounter between Islam and the West in this century. He also suggests that, in this globalized world, the noun/adjective “African American” is too small. His own heritage is West Indian, and the term African American in fact obscures the far-flung immigrant story inside the story of race in the U.S. alone. But in using the word “blackness” — which culturally might seem a reversal — E. Ethelbert Miller is talking about much more than the color of one’s skin. He is talking about “the color of ideas.”
Listen for yourself, and enjoy.
Also, I recommend reading Miller’s “My Language, My Imagination.” It’s a beautiful essay based on a speech he delivered on the campus of Western Oregon University in 1998. It is a vivid, personal, concise, and energizing introduction to the turning points and inner dynamics of African-American life in our time. And it is terrific background for going on to read Miller’s memoirs — especially his first, Fathering Words — and his poetry.
Behind the Scenes: Picking Poems
Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer
This week’s show, “Black and Universal” with poet E. Ethelbert Miller, features a rich smattering of readings — from The Autobiography of Malcolm X to the poetry of Lucille Clifton, and some poems by Miller himself.
We spent a lot of time deliberating about these selections: which ones to include, how long they should be, who should voice them (Krista? Our managing producer Kate? An outside reader?).
Lucille Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with me” is one of the poems that made the final cut. The poem is short, easy for a listener to grasp, and flows nicely out of Miller’s musings about blackness, beauty, and Michelle Obama. Here’s the clincher that sealed the deal: audio of Clifton reading the poem in her own voice. The power of her delivery took those words on the page to a whole new level.
We also considered Elizabeth Alexander’s poem “John Col” for this same slot in the show. Alexander explores the wrought beauty of John Coltrane’s music — music that has influenced Miller personally and poetically. Kate was particularly enamored with this poem, and it’s one of my all-time favorites. I especially like these lines and how they read like Coltrane’s music sounds:
a terrible beau-
ty a terrible
beauty a terrible
beauty a horn
The “People’s Historian”
Andy Dayton, associate web producer
Last Wednesday was, of course, President Barack Obama’s first State of the Union address. And while coverage of the speech filled up the news cycle, there was another important story not to be forgotten: the passing of Howard Zinn.
Zinn was a renowned historian, activist, and author of A People’s History of the United States, which presented many of the unheard and undocumented stories of U.S. history. Zinn continued to pursue this course throughout the rest of his life, and in a 2008 interview said that he hoped to be remembered for “introducing a different way of thinking about the world.”
Last year a friend invited me to see Zinn’s Voices of a People’s History of the United States — one of a series of performances that brought the stories of A People’s History to life through public readings. Rather than bring a troupe of actors with him, Zinn collected an impressive array of local performers, with a variety of different skill levels and delivery styles. Included in the evening were reenactments of Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?,” Maria Stewart’s “Address Delivered at the African Masonic Hall in Boston” and Martin Luther King’s “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.”
But the part I found most stirring was a breathtaking delivery of Frederick Douglass’ 1852 speech, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro” (you can watch Brian Jones performing the same speech below). On a day that many Americans were celebrating, Douglass delivered a scathing indictment of slavery in America:
“The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”
For me, this memory takes the confluence of Zinn’s passing and Obama’s address from coincidence to something more meaningful. At first, there is an irony in the fact that a man whose life was devoted to telling the stories of the oppressed was, on his death, nearly eclipsed by the first black president of the United States. And, on the eve of Black History Month, Douglass’ words remind us how far we’ve progressed since his time. It also gives a biting reminder of the problems yet to be overcome and the inconsolable history we continue live with as a nation.
(photo: Andy Dayton/Flickr)
“Everything Will Be Alright”
» download the recording (mp3, 4:34)
Nancy Rosenbaum, Associate Producer
Last month, on a sub-zero Minnesota winter night, I drove to Minneapolis to record a live event in celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Junior’s birthday. My spirit was a bit depleted with the raw, dry cold and a feeling of looming uncertainty about the future. I convinced myself that getting out and being around people (not to mention making a little extra cash) would do me some good.
I wasn’t wrong. That evening, the Minneapolis-based musical troupe Sounds of Blackness was booked to perform. I hadn’t ever heard them before, and boy was I in for a treat. I sat at the back of The Basilica of Saint Mary with my headphones on and let their sweet gospel melodies pour into my ears. One song in particular shook me out of my worried, wired monkey brain. I think the song is called “Everything Will Be Alright.” What you’re listening to here is a really great recording of that live performance.
Recently Trent blogged about the music that helped him get through a hard time after being laid off from his dot com job when he was living in England. And Mitch conducted a lively phone interview with author Mary Doria Russell where we learn about the 1980s big hair bands that inspire her. What songs are inspiring or consoling you these days?