The Founders: It’s Lonely at the Top

That lonely feeling of being chosen and the individual nature of God and spirituality for black people are also on display in Douglass’ reminiscence about the Chesapeake Bay: “I have often, in the deep stillness of a summer’s Sabbath, stood all alone upon the lofty banks of that noble bay… With no audience but the Almighty, I would pour out my soul’s complaint, in my rude way…” (Douglass 82). In addition to sharing Stewart’s lonesome relationship with God, Douglass questions whether or not the Divine does intercede on his behalf, namely when he was sent to Sophia Auld in Baltimore when still a young boy. Both writers wrestle with enlightening their peers while still feeling alone in a Biblical sense. To be chosen by God to have a purpose among your people is not a light task to carry.

              Both Maria Stewart and Fredrick Douglass contend with religion in many different contexts. They both utilize it as a lens to see the world and a way to justify its realities.  Stewart’s gender and delivery were not well received in her hometown of Boston and she leaves the town and the methods but not the cause. She travels to New York, Baltimore, and D.C. setting up schools, teaching, and serving the black community. Unfortunately, her speeches and essays mark the height and end of her short-lived public life. The further south she traveled, the more her actions replaced her fiery speeches and essays. On the other hand, Douglass’ escape from slavery is just the beginning of his long and illustrious public life. As he travels North some of his ideologies cross paths with hers and merge, whether they are aware or not. He plainly answers Stewart’s call to black men by becoming known as one of the forefathers of the Civil Rights’ Movement. He agitates endlessly for the humanization, education, and acceptance of black people into American society. He goes on to promote abolition internationally as a brilliant orator. In the same spirit of Stewart, Douglass realizes that removing the physical bond of slavery will not remove the underlying racism, ignorance, and prejudice that justified it. To this end he writes voluminously and agitates widely for citizenship rights, self-help and racial pride, along with economic development. In the opening quote of this essay, Stewart asks if any of Africa’s sons have souls and ambitious desires; Douglass’ life is a resounding yes. The similarities between these two figures and their messages allows for an intriguing juxtaposition of the role religion played in their perception of the black community and its place in America and religion’s role in the way that they view themselves.

The Founders: The Cost of Freedom Continued

Douglass’ narrative appears to confirm this belief. He gives considerable time to discussing the harsh and violent realities of being human property. However, his happiest moments before he is free are on the plantation teaching his fellow to slaves to read. He describes with joy a group of slaves that risked thirty nine lashes because “they wished to learn. Their minds had been starved from their cruel masters. They had been shut up in the mental darkness. I taught them because it was the light of my soul to be doing something that looked like bettering the condition of my race” (93). This places an overwhelming amount of importance on literacy and its meaning to black people in free and slave America. It is fair to say that because both authors possessed the ability to read, it shaped the way they viewed their own personal relationships with God.

              Stewart’s fiery speeches, essays, and prayers are radical because they encourage black people to rely on the word of God quite literally. They are reflection of her own personal, radical and revolutionary experience with Him. Following the deaths of her husband and her mentor, Stewart appears to turn heavily to God for understanding. She comes to the conclusion that

“many will suffer for pleading the cause of oppressed Africa, and I shall glory in being one of her martyrs; for I am firmly persuaded, that the God in whom I trust is able to protect me from the rage and malice of mine enemies, and from them that will rise up against me; and if there is no other way for me to escape, He is able to take me Himself, as He did the most noble, fearless, and undaunted David Walker” (30).

Stewart believes that she has been chosen along with other women in history to bring reason to the insanity. She points out other women, like Joan of Arc and Mary, play significant roles in biblical stories. Her individual relationship with God appears uncompromising. In return, she is uncompromising about the role black people will have to play in black liberation. For some reason, maybe because of the deaths of so many of her loved ones, Stewart feels that she is specially connected to God. Although her explanations do not appease the black clergy in Boston and they eventually force her out of the city; they do provide insight into what motivated Stewart to stand up and stand out in such a radical way for the time period. The attention she gave to addressing black women stands in stark contrast to Douglass’ narrative. It adds to the progressiveness of her political theories. Douglass’ story focuses on his journey to freedom and the only black women mentioned are in relation to him, and not to their individual rights and freedoms.  Despite Stewart’s focus on inclusivity in her criticism, as she says in her farewell speech to the city

“I have neither kindred nor friends. I stand alone in your midst, exposed to the fiery darts of the devil, and to the assaults of wicked men. But though all the powers of the earth and hell were to combine against me, though all nature should sink into decay, still I would trust in the Lord, and joy in the God of my salvation” (41).

The Founders: The Cost of Freedom

The quasi-free status many northern black men and women faced meant that they could not enjoy the full privileges of being a citizen in America. These privileges include (but are not limited to) access to public spaces like parks and schools, judicial protections and property law, and the right to gather without white sponsorship. There was little distinction amongst northern and southern attitudes about race and black people. The distinction was in the methods utilized to control and disenfranchise black people. Laws called Black Codes passed northern state legislatures that restricted black access to larger society and perpetuated stereotypes of white supremacy. However, the north was not economically dependent on slavery. Additionally, ideas from the French Revolution and Christianity made it difficult to reconcile the need to own human property. Women like Stewart and men like Douglass challenged the notion that you could not have black people survive outside of the institution of slavery. All of these factors played into the growth of the abolitionist movement and gave both authors context in which to frame their arguments. Stewart highlights this in an essay she penned that was published in William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper The Liberator in 1831:

“Are not their wives, their sons, and their daughters, as dear to them as those of the white man’s? Certainly God has not deprived them of the divine influences of his Holy Spirit, which is the greatest of all blessings, if they ask him. Then why should man any longer deprive his fellow-man of equal rights and privileges? Oh, the cloud that hangs over thee. Thou art almost become drunken with the blood of her slain; thou hast enriched thyself through her toils and labors; and now thou refuseth to make even a small return. And thou hast caused the daughters of Africa to commit whoredoms and fornications; but upon thee be their curse… you may have publish, as far as the east is from the West, that you have two millions of negroes, who aspire no higher than to bow at your feet and to court your smiles. You may kill, tyrannize, and oppress as much as you choose, until our cry shall come up before the throne of God…”

Stewart makes it obvious that she has researched and studied the Bible and other texts to make her arguments. She speaks about America’s hypocrisy in foreign policy and the refusal to acknowledge Haiti as a free country. She is already beginning to draw the lines of African diaspora. Additionally, she points out that the black men and women that have grown indifferent to God have done so because of a lack of knowledge. She pushes even further encouraging black women “God will require strict account of you… You must create young minds thirsty for knowledge and purity” (35). Her insistence that black people participate actively in their salvation is balanced with her knowledge that black people are not at fault for their current circumstances. She acknowledges the need to free both the mind and the body of black people:

“Tell us no more of southern slavery; for with for with few exceptions, although I may be very erroneous in my opinion, yet I consider our condition but little better than that. Yet, after all, methinks there are no chains so galling as those that bind the soul, and exclude it from the vast field of useful and scientific knowledge” (45).

The Founders: On Literacy & Liberation

The most iconic scene in the Narrative is Douglass’ description of the boats off of the Chesapeake Bay: “O, why was I born a man, of whom to make a brute! The glad ship is gone; she hides in the dim distance. I am left in the hottest hell of ending slavery. O God, save me! God, deliver me! Let me be free! Is there any God?” (Douglass 82). The idea that God is an entity responsible for justice plagues both Douglass and Stewart partially because of American chattel slavery. If God is charged with justice, then why are black people in this wretched condition yet white people live peaceably and fruitfully? Although Douglass does not provide answers to these rhetorical questions, the fact that he is also alluding to them leads to the belief that many black people grappled with this contradictory concept. Do we deserve to be enslaved? And who should take the blame? It does not appear that either author has an answer to this but Stewart attempts to address the issue more than Douglass. According to her interpretations:

“Many powerful sons and daughters of Africa will shortly arise, who will put down vice and immorality among us, and declare by Him that sitteth upon the throne that they will have their rights; and if refused I am afraid they will spread horror and devastation around. I believe that the oppression of injured Africa has come up before the majesty of Heaven; and when our cries shall have reached the easier of the Most High, it will be a tremendous day for people of this land; for strong is the hand of the Lord God Almighty.” (Stewart 63)

The biggest key to this statement for Stewart is that black people must put down sin and vice so that they may adequately be heard by the Lord. In contrast, Douglass appears to find more reason for disbelief in God because of the cruelty he has seen expended in His name. Either way, both authors are able to make these personal assessments of God, religion, and freedom partially because of their intimate and holy connection with literacy and their exposure to abolition.

The Founders: Douglass is the Mofo Answer

Stewart’s birth as a free woman in the North shares some similarities with Douglass’ enslaved birth in rural Maryland. Mainly that both are orphaned at very young ages. Both authors are also literate. While Douglass is taught the basics or reading by an unaware Sophia Auld with the Book of Job; Stewart most likely learned in Sabbath School or from the clergyman’s family she works for throughout childhood. Her removal from the system of chattel slavery is apparent. Stewart appears to be shaped by her limited perceptions of the depth of cruelty facing black men:

I would ask, is it blindness of mind, or stupidity of soul, or the want of education that has caused our men who are 60 or 70 years of age, never to let their voices be heard, nor their hands be raised in behalf of their color? Or has it been for the fear of offending the whites? If it has, O ye fearful ones, throw off your fearfulness, and come forth in the name of the Lord, and in the strength of the God of justice, and make yourselves useful and active members in society; for they admire a noble and patriotic spirit in others; and should they not admire it in us? If you are men, convince them that you possess the spirit of men; and as your day, so shall your strength be. Have the sons of Africa no souls? Feel they no ambitious desires? Shall the chains of ignorance forever confine them? Shall the insipid appellation of ‘clever negroes’ or ‘good creatures,’ any longer content them? Where can we find among ourselves the man of science, or a philosopher, or able statesman, or a counsellor at law? Show me our fearless and brave, noble and gallant ones. (Stewart 57).

 

Although Stewart may be addressing the free populations of Boston, it is hard to reconcile a statement this vociferous with Douglass’ matter-of-fact telling of the cruelties that he met in Baltimore. Four white apprentices at the shipyard beat him up and shouted obscenities as he attempted to fulfill his master’s orders (Douglass 101-2). Conceivably, free black men faced the same competition and dangers on the labor market. Thus it would be wholly sensible that these men feared for their lives and safety. Stewart’s attempt to literally invoke the word of God on every black man appears to lack some perspective and concept of their individual struggles. She even goes so far as to suggest that if every black man in the United States had signed a petition to Congress to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia then the they would already be working towards receiving their rights and privileges. Given the brutal nature of race-based enslavement and its importance to America, this is highly unlikely. Yet, to Stewart it seems just based on her religious understanding. The most interesting portion of the long passage from the Masonic Temple is Stewart’s reference to a ‘God of justice’ that both authors write and speak about.

The Founders: Stewart’s Call to Manhood

Douglass’ story of self-determination and courage reads like an answer to Stewart’s fiery call to black men:

“O ye fearful ones, throw off your fearfulness, and come forth in the name of the Lord… If you are men, convince them that you possess the spirit of men… Have the sons of Africa no souls? Feel they no ambitious desires?” (Stewart 57).

In an African Masonic Hall in Boston in 1833, Stewart invokes an image of strong black masculinity at roughly the same time that Douglass is being hired out by his owner Captain Auld to Edward Covey, the slave breaker. At the end of Chapter VIII in his Narrative, Douglass described Covey as “a member and a class-leader in the Methodist church. [Which] added weight to his reputation as ‘nigger breaker’” (Douglass 78). This description paralleled Douglass’ recollections of Captain Auld’s Methodist conversion. He insisted that Captain Auld “found religious sanction and support for his slaveholding cruelty” after attending the large Methodist camp meeting. He goes onto describe the irony of this master’s Christian home and his bloody practices: “I have seen him tie up a lame young woman, and whip her with a heavy cowskin upon her naked shoulders… Keep his lacerated woman tied up in this horrid situation for four to five hours at a time” (Douglass 76). It is likely that Maria Stewart was able to avoid witnessing similar atrocities in person.

Blood in the Water: Attica & America

Before you read the post, go ahead and scroll to the end of the page and start the Nas video. I hope that the truth behind Attica makes him and a lot of other rap artists more relatable, relevant, and impactful.

If I Ruled the World

Trickin’ six digits on kicks and still holdin’
Trips to Paris, I civilized every savage
Gimme one shot I turn trife life to lavish
Political prisoner set free, stress free
No work release purple M3’s and jet skis
Feel the wind breeze in West Indies
I’d make Coretta Scott-King mayor o’the cities and reverse themes to Willies
It sounds foul but every girl I meet would go downtown
I’d open every cell in Attica send em to Africa

If I ruled the world, imagine that
I’d free all my sons, I love ’em love ’em baby
Black diamonds and pearls
Could it be, if you could be mine we’d both shine
If I ruled the world
Still livin’ for today, in these last days and times

–NAS– (June 1996)

(right to left: Rockefeller; Nixon; Hoover; and Mancusi, the prison warden)

I remixed an image from the Attica prison uprising which is featured in the book, Blood in the Water, by Heather Ann Thompson out of the University of Michigan. In the book she uncovers a large state department cover-up of a massacre that killed 39 men. Over 1,000 prisoners had taken part in a protest of opportunity to improve their basic living conditions and humanity. Most of the prisoners were from heavily policed inner cities like Harlem, or Brooklyn. Others were transfers from other overcrowded and unkempt prisons. After the prisoners issued a list of demands including steady parole board reviews, edible food, reliable healthcare, and more frequent showers; President Nixon communicated with then Governor of New York, Rockefeller, that he wanted the ‘black problem’ taken care of.

Rockefeller allowed state troopers, policemen, and prison guards from all surrounding counties enter a yard of 1300 unarmed multiracial prisoners and hostages with guns blazing. After the initial massacre, the state continued to participate in the routine intimidation and retaliation against prisoners. State and prison officials even go so far as to inform the public falsely that the prisoners are removing the genitals of white men and eating them. In reality, the prisoners are being subjected to the worst torture imaginable. My ReMix puts the people responsible for the continuance of that brutality in the place that history will cast them, as the real monsters.

Mass incarceration is the largest human rights problem in the 21st century. As a teenager, jamming to my Walkman, I never understood why Nas would free the people in Attica other than the fact that they had skin like me. I never fully appreciated his reference to french/white savages and the context he was gathering his knowledge. I just knew that he was cool and I wanted to fit in and be cool too.

As an adult I fully understand his masterful play on words and why he is one of the best rappers and social commentators of all-time. Nas puts words to the horror that is the daily life of incarcerated men and women while still giving them love and hope. He is continuing some of the oldest traditions of African oration.

Digital Media gives me an avenue to bring together these intersections of pop culture & history; books & rap. It is hard to truly appreciate the artistry behind black culture without fully appreciating black history and the black experience. Maybe digital media can serve as a bridge between academia and the people buying the music. Or maybe it will just serve as a bridge for me. All of the images come with the express consent of the author. I met her and she assured me that all images that she and her publicist have released are fully intended for re-use by the public because they are pictures taken by the State during the retaking of the prison and the negotiation.

Dedicated to: LD Barkley, 21, dead; in prison at Attica for driving without a license. And for being black and poor. I hope that you are living in a place where “you can smoke in the street without police harassment.” To the many more that I cannot name here and now, I pray for you always… “If I ruled the world….”

A Letter to Black Folks

Dear Black Americans, African-Americans, Haitian Americans, Jamaican Americans, Cape Verdean Americans, Black Puerto Rican Americans, Black Brazilian Americans, insert nationality + Black

Black folks are a people of immigration. A story that goes untold.

We are all vaguely familiar with the transatlantic slave trade. (If not then check it out in 2 minutes here.)

As Europeans ‘discovered’ more brown and black countries, people began pouring out of the blackest place on earth, Africa. (Learn more about forced migration here). Black people landed on different continents and created new phenotypes all connected to Mother Africa.

                     Jamaicans

                   Nigerians

               Dominicans

                        Haitians

                        Mexicans

Brazilians

Looking at these pictures should point out a very big commonality… Descendants of Africa universally have darker skin and different features than the descendants of European nations, Asian nations, and most Middle Eastern and Latin nations. Even as  we seek to separate ourselves, our skin, hair, eyes, noses, and mouths all hold varying evidence that we are all Africa’s children.

After discovering these ‘new’ countries, white Europeans set out to exploit and capitalize off of their discoveries. As a result the story of the black diaspora is EXTREMELY COMPLEX and experienced all over the world.

Enter my home: ‘Murica.

The white folks in America decided they wanted to leave the other white folks in Europe and do their own thing. (Learn about the American Revolution in 5 minutes here.) They are not alone. Native-born South African white people had the same idea.

But back to America: The Revolution created a unique White American identity that minimized their perspective heritages- Irish, Polish, Italian, etc. (This has come with historical challenges and discrimination that was overcome by identifying with a larger white social and political identity. See Irish Immigration and Italian Whiteness as examples.)

(Please note that we are not aware whether this man is Irish American, Spanish American, Italian, or whatever. He is just American.)

Black people were enslaved in this country during that time. The collective American identity for blacks was property. When you choose to enslave people primarily on the color of their skin, you have to find justification.

Black people became criminals, lazy, dumb, and any thing else to justify the need for slavery and oppression. Cheap labor is hard to come by. Black & brown people (more specifically poor people) fill this necessity in America today, as they always have.

The consequences of this thinking haunt White America creating interesting conversation around white rage, a topic for another time.

And black folks are collectively asked to believe that it is black people’s fault that natural disasters hit us harder (Hurricane Katrina and the Demographics of Death), recessions unemploy us first (Black Unemployment Rate History), prisons filled with us to the brim (Bureau of Prisons). (Note that the US does not discriminate by nationality).

The idea of race is SOCIALLY CONSTRUCTED. (Read more about the Social Construction of Race here or here.)

What does this mean?

It matters less in America what you consider yourself and more what people around you consider your race to be (this is not true all over the world). This means that your beautiful Jamaican son, in America is a black man for whom the American world reserves little beauty. The cops do not give a damn where you were born. And no matter how much you seek to protect your child he will become exposed to what race means in America, especially if he is born and raised here entirely.

What can we do?

Within the black community we have to work harder to include black immigrants and cultures into our lives. I am going to write more about the contributions of black immigrants to black culture and America in this blog so stay tuned.

UPDATE: We need to work harder to recognize the contributions all Black experiences have made to the American experience. And acknowledge that while American Black Culture is the most widely viewed image of Blackness, Black Americans are the minority in the total Black Experience. Let’s talk about this more on my post next week about Blackness.  

Black immigrants that land on the shores of America should be included in our efforts at learning American Black history and culture. This understanding can create conversations that will lead to a clear agreement about issues that affect ALL OF US. And how to improve systems that claim to serve ALL OF US. (For example: crimmigration, police brutality, housing discrimination, disparities in education, and black unemployment to name a few.)

We are all connected so much more than we realize. Let’s all stop looking down at each other and start holding on to each other. THEY can’t tell us apart. So WE shouldn’t tear ourselves apart.

Let’s use social media to climb over the age old bullshit that has kept us separate. Do not fear what you don’t know and don’t understand. Let’s learn about each other.

What I am proposing is a radical love for each other. A love that will excuse our shortcomings and look past our miscommunications into something we could all deeply benefit from in this day and age: UNITY.

Do it for Mother.

We all we got.

Let’s build.

Love,

Mari

Update: Done with the input of the creative mind behind The Black Love Project and the stationery company Watersidemrkt —-
Monique Ameyo consulting from New Orleans. She heavily influenced next week’s post about Blackness and I hope that her voice continues to be a part of the future! Please click and support! (She has some of the CUTEST Africa-inspired love notes ❤️).


The Founders: Their Texts

The Narrative of Fredrick Douglass and the collection of speeches and essays from Maria Stewart, America’s First Black Woman Political Writer offer an intriguing juxtaposition of free and enslaved, feminine and masculine, exclusion and acceptance. God and religion are reoccurring themes throughout both texts and the authors deal with them in differing and similar ways. The interplay between these two scholars highlights the numerous contradictions black people in antebellum America were faced with on issues including religiously-sanctioned slavery and violence, freedom and literacy, and their own personal reconciliations and connections with God. On the photo of Fredrick Douglass staring out from the front cover of Narrative of the Life of Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself (Bedford Edition), he appears to be smirking at Maria Stewart’s call to arms for black men, even though they most likely never met.

Maria Stewart was born a free woman in 1803. By the age of five, she was without her parents and bond out to the family of a clergyman. In 1829, she married a veteran and businessman, James W. Stewart. The newlyweds reside in Boston where she meets the activist David Walker. Walker might be the standard that Stewart used when chiding black men for their lack of courage. Inopportunely, both men are dead with a few years of her wedding. It was after these deaths that she felt the call to a ministry of political and religious witness. Therefore she embarks on a brief public life between 1830 and 1833; she gives lectures and writes articles for the abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, started by William Lloyd Garrison. Garrison is a distant dream to Douglass during these years, they do not cross paths until 1841, after Stewart has left Boston for New York. The cover of Stewart’s book has a figure praying to God for something that might be on its way north and away from slavery in the form of Douglass.

Douglass is born in Talbot County, Maryland to a slave named Harriet Bailey. Although he only described her briefly, her devotion is apparent. In 1826, he was sent to live with Sophia Auld and her husband, Hugh in Baltimore. Both impact his life incredibly by inadvertently encouraging his desire for literacy.

Sophia Auld teaching Freddy D his letters.

Throughout the Narrative, Douglass’ participates in several estate divides that involve splitting the slaves up and reassigning them to different family heirs. However, he spends the majority of his life in Baltimore. The most notable exception is between 1832 and 1836; he is sent back to rural Maryland, near his birthplace, to live with Hugh’s brother, Thomas (Captain) Auld. He is an urban young man, full of unsettling knowledge and Captain Auld quickly moves to correct him.

 

The Founders: Fredrick Douglass & Maria Stewart

We celebrate the founding fathers of American culture throughout the year and all over the country in different ways.

As time shifts we realize as historians that it is important to widen our scope and lens to include all extraordinary Americans in their rightful places as ‘founders’ of American tradition.

Maria Stewart, the gangsta

Maria W. Stewart is the founding woman of political discourse and critique in this country. Born a free black woman but bound out in service at an early age, Stewart was denied a formal education but that did not stop her from being an academic, an intellectual, and a voice critical of politics and the American government. Her rebellious spirit reverberates in a tradition of outspoken, heroic black women that includes but is not limited to Sojourner Truth, Anna Julia Cooper, Nina Simone, and Angela Davis.

For the next few blog posts in the founding series I will be referencing a book that is full of her speeches, articles, and writings:

This woman is truly gangsta. She is spitting the truth at a time when the majority of her people are still in chains. This series will compare her to my choice for the Founding Father of black culture:

Freddy Doug is what I like to call him and his face says it all. He EXPLODED on to the abolition scene with his honest, humane, and vicious attacks on his former masters. He was a brilliant orator and left numerous texts to be studied. He lived his life as an American rebel and is the birth father of WEB DuBois, Martin Luther King Jr, Bayard Rustin, David A Walker, and many, many more.

These two founders never crossed paths but they shared mutual acquaintances and very interestingly aligned point of views that I hope to shed some light on in the series on these two amazing historical figures.

Lets pass on our history of rebellion.

Together. You know why.

Mari-X.