If free people of color in New England had anticipated enacting their freedom as an entitlement, under the same terms as whites enacted theirs, they soon learned that whites’ understanding of antislavery and Revolutionary rhetoric was quite different from their own. As whites’ eighteenth-century observation that servitude made slaves servile hardened into their nineteenth-century conviction that all people of color were inherently servile ¾ freed slaves perhaps, but free people, never ¾ people of color struggled to adapt their expectations of citizenship to the grim truth of mounting hostility, ridicule, and escalating efforts to control and even eliminate their presence.
Joanne Pope Melish, Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and Race in New England, 1780-1860
It would be a disservice to this exciting book to pretend that the above quote is a summary of the well-documented analysis of its stated subject, but it does provide me with a basis from which to reflect on ways in which Melish illumines some of the dynamics of racism in the world which I daily face. In particular I want to invite an exploration of presumed white entitlements and the converse subordination of members of the black race.
Freed slaves perhaps … but free people, never. So slightly different, those
two words, freed and free, hold a key to an understanding of magnitudinal difference which white New Englanders assigned to themselves and to Africans among them during the post-Revolution and early American national years. Those differences became a basis for assigning to the two races qualities and deficiencies which were assumed to be innate. Those attributions cling today to assumed racial distinctions which dominant with prejudices, in too many personal relationships, media reports, government and corporate policies, practices, and procedures. The Melish analysis brings the history on which she focuses into our streets and the places where major decisions give form to our still infant century. Look at the vastly different meanings history gives to those two words, free and freed.
The word free becomes freeborn, indicating a status which defines a part of what it is to be a living human being. One need do nothing to affirm that status; it comes with birth, and with it comes entitlement to certain inalienable rights. A free person is one who was born free. Such a person comes into the world free, one who does not have to earn or prove a right to those entitlements.
The word freed clearly indicates a status which did not come simply by birth. That one letter d added to free, carried for many colonial people a heavy burden of meaning. The weight of that word, freed, implied an understood status which was gained, given, earned; the freed person is one who has a new status added to that unfreeborn beginning. Such a one can become suspect by the freeborn, from whose status of privilege, it is necessary to insist that the freed one must prove worthiness of a new status. The very suspicion that the freed person may not be worthy opens a floodgate of dammed-up, sometimes obvious, sometimes covert prejudices. Those prejudices find an easy home in a catalog of pathologies, which describe what is believed to be an inferior and sometimes innate condition. Conversely, the attribution of innate entitlement grants automatic privilege to those assumed to be superior. In colonial New England those distinctions defined race, with whites obviously assigned the superior, entitled piece of privilege.
Those historical distinctions drawn by Melish are much alive today. Let’s look at some of the past/present manifestations of that history.
- The freed person was once not free. In that not free, enslaved condition there was control over the person. The newly freed, no longer controlled by slavery, needed a new form of control. So, the former slave codes became Black codes, carefully defining the behavior which was, or mostly was not acceptable, circumscribing the place for the former slaves. Add the KKK, born out of Confederate destroyed dreams, and the South had a violent medium for enforcing the new place for the now freed black people. A more formal and government-structured means of control was developed in a prison system.
- The freed person has a propensity to crime. Assumptions about blackness and criminality were clear in the very early contacts of 16th century fair-skinned Englishmen and dark Africans, and those assumptions were brought into the hearts, minds, and the structures of Colonial America, a self-conscious Anglo creation. Came Emancipation, and with post-Reconstruction the development of a prison system. Violations of any of the Black Codes, or alleged violations could lead quickly to imprisonment. From prison, the newly freed person could then be hired out for labor. The prison system was financed, and a new kind of enslavement prospered. Now almost four centuries later, prison has become the primary means of control and the place for a generation of black youth. Prisons have become a business, a major growth industry, with some states building prisons to house at fee prisoners from other states, and engaging contract labor to corporations seeking workers without wages.
- The freed person was once fully dependent upon the owner. Defenders of the peculiar institution were quick to point out that slavery was a form of welfare state which provided for blacks who obviously could not survive without the beneficence of the owners. When Emancipation came many of the freeborn who were sure that the newly freed were a breed of creature which would eventually wither into extinction without the wise governance of the former owners. History taught us that dependence is part of the engrained character of the former enslaved. They cannot live apart from the benevolent oversight of the owner. The legacy of that lie is found today in sometimes disguised, well-intentioned paternalism of whites who want so badly to help the urban black dweller. While it is important to encourage the use of energy, time, and skill in attention to the problems of the time, it is equally important to caution against a much-too-easy paternalism.
- The freed person is not disciplined, cannot be expected to discipline himself or herself. There is a need to discipline from the outside. That idea was a key debate when it came to decisions about recruiting black men into the armies of the Revolution and the Civil War. Testimonies of the history of those military encounters prove the opposite of that lie, but lies have a way of resurrecting themselves in new ways. Look carefully into enough corporate settings where there is an effort to diversify employees and you will find too many instances of supervisors who still cling to this false notion applied as a stereotype to any person of color.
- The freed person is servile, both by nature and custom, a servant. That assumption became the basis for the idea that black folk were created to do the mudsill work necessary to maintain the work structures of society. Thus, the institution of slavery. Measure the distance from that idea used in the defense of slavery to your nearest university or corporate headquarters janitorial staff, or mail room, check out the people who collect the trash in your community, if it gets collected. While there is no intent to disparage the importance of that work, it is notable that too frequently people of color are trapped there with little opportunity for other choices. The distance in time from the mudsill work of slavery is centuries; the difference in the work is much the same as the difference between freeborn and freed.
- The freed person is not one from whom we can expect good academic performance. In the history of African enslavement in this hemisphere that notion was born in several constituencies of thoughtless prejudice, sometimes strangely called Enlightenment. That prejudice was fed also by a fear that learning would lead to a demand for freedom. Today in Massachusetts, our Commissioner of Education will feel quite at home with the assumption of inherent intellectual inferiority. He has declared that there is a gap between student performances on the MCAS tests between students in Wellesley (or presumably any other white suburb) and Boston. That gap he has indicated, is partly due to what happens outside of the school day. We won’t see Boston become like the Wellesley schools, he moans, and that becomes an expectation which any good educator knows too frequently predicts and affects actual performance. Any such assumption creates a stereotype threat which ought to be a disqualification for anyone in the position of Commissioner of Education.
The policy crises of our society are many. The moral crisis is one.
David Walker, a free black in Boston, one hundred and seventy two years ago awakened the coloured people of the world. To his brothers and sisters he said, we are not brutes. It was an awakening call; we are men, he said. Clearly seeing and naming the evil of enslavement.
L. Maria Child, a white abolitionist in Boston, six years after Walker, warned a reluctant audience of the inevitable consequence of placing power in the hands of avarice. She spoke specifically of Queen Elizabeth’s obfuscation of her complicity with the slave trade and then made clear the moral necessity of ending enslavement.
No obfuscation there! No circumlocution! Why can we not appeal with the same moral clarity known to Walker and Child, to many who joined in the movement to abolish enslavement of human beings from Africa? This Appeal is for Moral Clarity!
Denial will be an almost universal response to my assertion that the policy crises cited are examples of a moral crisis. Look again, and see clearly the immorality that threads the whole. It is a demeaning of human value. The confusion which comes from a view of the complex relation of power and systems and institutions and policies and procedures and practices become too often the circumlocution and obfuscation of our day! See what weaves its ugly way through the mess. People are not brutes! People are not things! Not commodities to be bought and sold! Not psyches to be manipulated and controlled! Not blips on a screen! People are not markets! Not mistakes to be deleted, or pasted, or copied, or inserted here and there at will! People are not stereotypes of the worst characteristics we can identify or invent! People are not pawns on the chessboard of kings and queens and knights and bishops of power .
It is so easy to say: People are People! It is so hard to treat each person as a person. Acknowledged, the difficulty does not call for further complication. Discussion and analysis of the complexities too easily become obfuscations blinding the eye, mesmerizing the brain, numbing the heart. The analysis become paralysis! We do not see, we do not hear, we do not speak. Child was right: the world seems like an Office of Circumlocution, designed to keep us from feeling or doing anything real.
We are not in places or positions of prominence, but we are PEOPLE, and therein lies the real POWER. Some may not acknowledge it; we can assert it. Some may fear it; we will cheer it. Some will not see it; we will remove the blinders. Some may not hear it; we will sound the truth which refuses deafness. Some may not speak it; we will say it in many tongues.
People are People! When they tell us that we are complicit in our own dehumanization, we can refuse to let that add to our inertia. We can move. The energy is for us to claim. The ideas that give us license are available around the world. We can be strong in unity. Against the places and positions we can show united power. The power we know is rooted in our humanity. We are people, not to be used, but respected. That is our right as human beings, women, children, men.
We will be seen! The vision is moral !
We will be heard! The word is truth!
We will act! The deed is right!
We will claim our places as people of worth!
We will take our positions as people who make history!
We will be people of moral power!