*Please note that the "citations" heading each section are purely fictional and an attempt to place the work in historcal context. All writing is my own original work*
From Life of a Literate Slave by James Sorensen, 1871. Excerpt from his personal account of slavery in Virginia.
I walked carefully down the hall, aware of every step and where to next place my feet. When any sound arose I pressed myself flush against the wall and stood deathly still to avoid my detection. Slowly I made my way to the third door on the right where I had hoped all day to find Tom. I reached the door and looked in through the keyhole to see the thick fur rug, half a brown couch, and not a living soul. As carefully as I’d made my way through the house I opened the door and slipped inside, closing it as I entered. I knew the room well; a fireplace, dead in the heat of July, was embedded in the wall to my right. Two couches faced each other in front of it with a thick bearskin rug between them. The whole room was lined with paintings of the plantation’s current and former owners in ornate gold frames, always watching. I slowly made my way to the nearest of the couches to find Tom where he always was, laying on the rug buried in a book.
“Hiya tom,” I said with a hush, I’d been caught twice already with Tom and didn’t want to find out what was in store for a third. Tom was the grandson of the plantation owner, he always insisted on his half birthdays and was therefore seven and a half. I was around eight at the time and had known Tom all my life as I’d been born to a house slave owned by Mr. Ward.
“Oh hey James,” Tom said in a cheerful, unafraid tone. I still remember how uninhibitedly he spoke to me; he had been too young to understand why I was a slave or why his parents, grandparents, and the rest of the whites inhabiting the plantation treated me so.
“The newspaper.” He was holding a copy of the Daily Richmond Examiner. The day’s headline was something about a democrat winning reelection, the importance of which was lost on me.
Mr. Ward operated a large plantation, around 80 slaves in all on a large tract of land just south of Richmond. I was born on the plantation and was allowed to work in the house until this day. I remember this particular afternoon in July very clearly for the events that followed.
“What’s the big letters up top say,” I asked, referring to the day’s headline.
“Henry M. Mason Wins Reelection.” Tom had always been a natural reader, from as long as I can remember I’d try to learn from him. I’d learned my letters about a year prior during these illicit sessions. He never understood why he wasn’t allowed to teach or even interact with me. Mr. Ward had found us in that very room as he was instructing me and beat me for the crime once before, his mother on a separate occasion though I don’t remember her name.
“Now what’s that letter there do?”
“That’s an E”
“Yea but why’s there two of em?”
“That’s just how it is, words are tricky like that.”
It went on like this for some time, I’d ask a question and Tom would respond with nothing but patience. He was the only one in my life that showed me such kindness. It was always slow going but my determination never wavered. Sometimes Tom would have a handwriting book and I’d practice in the margins, sometimes a novel he’d read aloud to me. On rare occasions he’d even have a northern paper that spoke of abolition. Over the years I developed an intellect much greater than that of the other slaves, sometimes it seemed greater than the drivers as well. Even at a young age I saw the injustice of my condition and of those around me, my eyes opened by literacy.
This was the day I both truly realized the injustice I lived by and determined to escape it. These convictions came shortly after Mr. Ward opened the door.
He walked in and said authoritatively, “Tom, your mother wants to speak to you in the sun room, quickly now.” He took perhaps three steps into the room before he stopped and observed the scene. I imagine he was horrified to see me with his grandson for the second time, let alone with a newspaper in my hands. He was holding some glass of expensive brandy which he slowly placed down on a small table by one of the couches.
“Tom, leave us.”
From The Rise and Fall of Richmond’s Slaveholders, 1874. Excerpt by Samuel H. Ward.
I’ve never been a proud man without reason. I always had a reason to be proud, whether it be my estate, my work for Richmond’s higher class establishments, or any number of accomplishments in my life. My eldest son died when he was barely five, but my second became my right-hand man, taking over the estate’s operations at a young age and showing impressive proficiency. His son, however, is a different matter. He lost any chance of inheritance or praise from me one afternoon in July of 1857. I remember his mother needed to speak with him so I walked to the sitting room he usually inhabited, third door on the right. I walked in and before me was Tom, that was his name, with a negro child who’s name I never bothered to learn. I’d caught the two not six months prior with Tom teaching the child his letters. I need not explain the seriousness of this act, as any man who has ever possessed a slave will attest that their education leads only to their insurrection.
“Tom, leave us,” I remember saying as I put down a glass of brandy.
“Grandpa we’re not doing anything wrong!” Tom protested.
“You are young and foolish boy, I will deal with you later.”
I’ve never been quick to anger either. I pride myself on my level head, my calculating mind, but when I saw them for the second time it took all of my reserve not to strike both of them. Instead, I let Tom scurry by me as I stared at the negro boy. The first time he had been much smaller, I can only assume he’d hit some growth spurt in the intervening months. The first time I’d only beat him enough to put instill fear, out of concern for investment. This time, however, was different.
“Get up,” I said, not raising my voice. He did so slowly, maintaining eye contact. I stood at least two feet above him as I looked down at the boy, still maintaining my outward tranquility.
“I remember you.” He was holding a newspaper with the headline “Henry M. Mason Wins Reelection”. “Give me that paper.” He held it out and I snatched it away, then rolled it up and hit him hard across the cheek. “Do you know what happens to a literate slave?” I began to pace around him. “You see, I’ve owned at least three hundred for some duration, of them only two besides you managed it. They grew insubordinate and progressively less useful to me after that. I assure you, you do not want to be useless to me. Learning of the world and its workings seems to give you fight, some will to rebel.” I stopped directly in front of him and leaned in. “It was supremely enjoyable to break that will.” I saw in his eyes he understood me perfectly.
“You won’t be receiving any more instruction from your friend Tom. In fact, you won’t see the inside of this house again as long as you live.” The implication, of course, was that he’d be sent out to the fields despite his young age. At this point I saw fear in his eyes.
I won’t describe the details of his beating, suffice it to say I drew my belt and hit him as I had countless others in the fields when slaves would fall to their knees sick or exhausted. I ruined the bear skin rug I'd bought from a man who’d seen the Rockies with the boy’s blood. I don’t imagine he was fully conscious by the time I had a maid take him out to the fields.
I saw him from time to time after that when I’d patrol the work groups. He never failed to meet my eyes, and I saw in him a determination and will none of the others possessed. I sold him in the spring of 1862 and know not what became of him, though his story is the only one I've ever in hindsight wanted to know.
Boston Tribune editorial, written by Markus L. Parson, 1878
It has now been 15 years since Abraham Lincoln declared his Emancipation Proclamation, and 13 since the ratification of the 13th Amendment. In a strictly formal sense all former slaves are free and equal in the eyes of the law. In practice, however, it should be clear to all observers this is not true. In the wake of what some have called “radical” reconstruction in the former confederacy, whites now again control their reinstated state legislatures and have swiftly set to work undoing any gains blacks have made in the intervening years. What, then, is the solution to this backslide sold as redemption?
The excerpts accompanying this work should, I believe, illustrate my conviction. In the late Mr, Ward’s words, “Any man who has ever possessed a slave will attest that their education leads only to their insurrection”. In Mr. Sorenson’s words, “Even at a young age I saw the injustice of my condition and of those around me, my eyes opened by literacy”. The defining moment in Mr. Sorenson’s life was when he succeeded, against his master’s wishes, to gain the abilities to read and write. Common throughout the stories of slaves is that those who learned to read learned to rebel. Mr. Ward knew this well and as such beat the young Mr. Sorenson and separated him from his teacher. He tried to extinguish the fire that had been ignited with the injustice of servitude and ultimately sold him on account of his insubordination.
No man who was once a slave, or born to those who were, will ever truly be free without the fire of intellect Mr. Sorenson found. The systematic denial of education has done as much to keep slaves down as the chains of the institution itself. We established the Freedmen’s Bureau in an attempt to remedy this situation with financial and legal aid, but as public opinion and determination has shifted away from the issue in the north, the south has again been allowed to undo.
The belief that a sad many still hold is that the black man is naturally less intelligent than his fair skinned counterpart. This profoundly false and outdated idea has done inexorable harm to the african population. In believing this falsehood we made it true through our treatment and previously mentioned systematic deprival of education. Then we turn around and claim this to be the natural order of the world, that the black man is naturally inferior when our entire society is dedicated to repressing him. Truly, let the white man who without access to education, forced to work against his will, whose soul is bought and sold, yet maintains his semblance of civility cast the first stone.
The thinking of those fortunate enough to born into the privileged race of our society, whites everywhere, must change. We must dispel the lies I have described and see them for what they are. If a man claims his steed the fastest, he will all too often injure his competitors to make it true. In this way, we must recognize blacks not as slower, but as a twin whose leg has been broken. It will not be easy, or fast, or painless to convince the nation of these convictions, but if we look back at our history no great triumph has ever come without a long list of grievances and difficulties preceding it. In this time, with a the hope of progress dimming in the face of a disinterested and self interested public, we must not fall into the same moral trap that has brought us here to begin with. Men like Sorenson and Douglass are only wild deviations because they were lucky enough to have been given a book and pen and told to think, not because their race is inferior. If I can leave the people of Boston with one idea, it is to think deeply about the societal stigmas we live by. Great progress has never risen from ignorance or assumption, but always from understanding and the courage to leave behind what we have been taught.
My objective, I assume, in writing this piece has been to gain empathy for those who were forced into slavery and a deeper understanding of african american history. I do not believe that a clinical, empirical understanding of slavery imparts its impact. I do not believe we can truly understand the effect it had on the minds of slaves or slave owners by reading about it. Sure, we can regurgitate facts and explain the history, but we will never truly understand. The institution was built from fear and ignorance and endeavored to use any means necessary to repress and hold back those it affected. The entire society of the south and the entire nation’s economy was built around the subjugation of african americans. It changed how people viewed others, themselves, religion, the whole world around them. I will never understand what it is like to be a slave, or a person of color in a world that still, 152 years later, discriminates against them. I have never endured such treatment and doubt I ever will. I can write a story, I can use fancy words, but I will never understand.
If it is not clear to the reader, I intended the first two sections to be a continuous scene that flipped perspective halfway through. The third section was a newspaper editorial, written years latter, that used accounts from the two characters to support its argument. James was intended to be very similar to Frederick Douglass, whose writing we read in preparation for this assignment. I wanted to make it clear that education was prohibited for slaves, and that it was also their best means of rebellion. Any man who is not taught to think will never truly see his surroundings, but give him a book and pen and his eyes will open. The architects of slavery, South Africa’s Apartheid, the British occupation of India, they all knew this. Education has always been taken from a people to allow for their subjugation, for it is the most powerful weapon of all.
As I wrote this I amazed myself by how much of it could be applied to the modern day. We’d all like to think that racism and prejudice died with the civil rights movement, or Barack Obama’s election, or his reelection, but the truth is staring back at us shaking its head.
For the last year I’ve been struggling to articulate this change, or perhaps I’m just starting to see it around me. It’s this thinly veiled fear that seems to permeate everything. It manifests in the toxicity of internet culture, in the blatant racism of our president, in the mindset of people who voted for him. Fear of your world view being challenged, because as soon as it is, most of us have to realize our sacred beliefs have no foundation. Very few of us think about why we believe what we do, and this lack of self awareness breeds fear, contempt, and ignorance that all needs a target. Historically, this cycle has spurred the greatest atrocities in our history, from slavery, the genocide of Native Americans, the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, and many others. I do not use the words atrocity or genocide lightly, nor do I bring up such events without purpose. The direction the world seems to be headed, where good people turn a blind eye and fear rules over truth has historically been the precursor to such events. If I can never truly understand what it’s like for people of color to be discriminated against, perhaps I can still apply the lessons it teaches us all. Fear of questioning your world view only shrinks it, ignorance of others only vilifies them, and hate for our fellow man only destroys us.