social construct

Dawn of Freedom 1 of 2

I’m taking the Open Course at Yale called, “AFAM 162: African American History: From Emancipation to the Present,” and I intend to write my thoughts, observations, and questions along with the lectures one-by-one.

Dawn of Freedom is the first lecture in the series. It starts out with a famous excerpt to the speech given by Frederick Douglass in 1852, “What Does Fourth of July Mean to the Negro?” Spoiler alert: it’s feisty.

What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is a constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes that would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation of the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States at this very hour. 6/28/20, 10:45pm

I had heard this excerpt before. Basically Douglass addresses Congress’ invite to speak at a Fourth of July celebration wherein he is not truly welcomed. He knows it. They know it. Everybody knows it. But Douglass takes the opportunity to give a right tongue-lashing, and you know what? That not only took courage, but a mastery of the language that likely confused those he was serving; “bless their hearts.”

What I didn’t know was that this speech was over three hours long.

The lecture was more in-depth than simply Douglass’s professional rant; Professor Hollowell talked at length about citizenship, who had it, who wanted it, who got it.

He told this amazing story about John Jack.

This story truly sets the tone of this course, I think, as I’m writing this after listening to lecture five already. I’ve listened to this first lecture four or five times already, and revisiting it for this elucidation.

The most depressing part of the John Jack story is how Jack was able to literally cobble away enough money to buy his own freedom (a term with which I have been meditating on for the last several years), only to drink himself to death by 60.

It’s not like the guy didn’t give it the college try, either. He was both male and a landowner, two of the requirements to becoming a citizen, and then was continually denied citizenship after he worked so hard. He only wanted a voice. He only wanted what we all want: a fair stab at it.

All in all, this first lecture didn’t bring anything terribly new to the table, but added some details with which I was not totally familiar.

Further along this, he talks about the sociopolitical struggle that works between groups all rallied against a common enemy, and how imagery continues to support the status quo of power, specifically the imagery on Southern money. I love how he went into the images on the Southern scrip: happy servants (slaves) and the White woman: both owned in different ways. This series talks about the slaves, but it’s easy to forget in this context how women were also property. He glazes over that fact, but in light of the course, it’s understandable.

This especially resonates for me, as my own thesis in college was centered around how imagery underlines a power struggle that places monetary value on people as objects. In other words: I getchu Mr. Holloway.

In current events, it rings in the Aunt Jemima & Uncle Ben issue, Blackface gifs, discussions of a losing “heritage” and state flags (and of course America’s absurd obsession with flags in general), social status and our version of the Caste system, our unbelievably ridiculous current administration who magically churn swamp creatures like sharks’ teeth.

Moreover, this was recorded during the early years of the Obama administration, and can’t even foresee the madness that is to come a mere ten years later. I feel the foreshadowing of very critical examination of Obama’s blackness, which is so layered it might take me ten listens when we get there.

One thing about Hollowell’s storytelling practice is the way he really packs a punch for the end of a lecture. In this case, the last maybe 10 minutes of the lecture he calls out to the students that though they are at Yale, they can never forget they’re also in New Haven, and Yale and New Haven are worlds apart. I thought it was a really good reminder to the student body (myself included in this case) to remember the perspectives of people who are fighting against a system that is one-hundred percent stacked in the favors of people not at all like them, and that these stories are not just stories of the past, they are the same stories of the current, but with different details.

Here is the transcript of the first lecture for anyone who wants to read it.

Reading assignments:

Hunter, Tara, To ‘Joy My Freedom, pp 1-44

Though I couldn’t read everything in this excerpt, I really appreciated the stories about slaves understanding of the Civil War tensions, and using these tensions as fuel for quiet dissent. Their search for autonomy within these quiet acts of civil disobedience is maybe the means of “worth it” when they might face a beating if they know the beatings can’t legally last much longer.

The format for reading the passage is a little wonky, as every five-or-so pages, two are missing, but the stories are centered around a theme: Black dissent. The point is driven that the post-war freedoms had both advantages and disadvantages. To protest unfair labor, they might argue, or quit a job; occasionally, the threat of quitting would lead to violence that was reinforced by a system of unchanged antebellum minds.

It was good to read about the many, many ways that Blacks defined their autonomy, despite the horrific outcomes (both potential and actualized), the unintended consequence of a power structure afraid of losing its strength – the result of which is a show of extra, brut strength. We see this today; we know it in our recent history, too.

Force is the weapon of the weak.

– Ammon Hennacy

It was interesting to read about a perspective on the White response to the war. The slaves, still unfreed, didn’t always heed the commands of White women because, well, they were women; women weren’t citizens, and they didn’t make the rules: so no dice. Epigenetic, big bang: Karen.

But the best part was to read about the Southern soldiers fighting the war and whining about the cooking and washing and how much work it was, and how they just wished they had help, and how at home, “his food [is] cooked for him by mother, sister, or slave,” or the violin-crusted lament, “I spend the afternoon in washing, mending and baking. I was very tired at night and wondered how women gets through with as much work as they do. [This is] the hardest work I have to do.” (Hunter, p 17) I like to think that this might have given some of those men pause, but we’ll never really know.

Marable, Manning, Let Nobody Turn Us Around, pp. 70-113

Upon a brief glancing of the requested reading, it appears to be an anthology of primary documents, the first of which is Martin Delany’s A Black Nationalist Manifesto, 1854.

Immediately, I am struck by the similarities in the rhetoric of this older position and the one we hear today: Generational wealth within whiteness gives an unfair advantage to which literal “Grandfather clause” has not offered to blackness.

I think the lecture goes deeper into this idea later; I can’t remember now because I’ve gone way far ahead and have now retreated back to do the readings, so I’m a little chronologically confused. This manifesto is a little bit White Privilege and a little bit Ghandi theory: first, whites (notice not capitalized) have an advantage simply from generational mobilizers. White landowners were citizens; citizens could vote; voting gave a voice in the condition and direction of livelihood. This is no secret; this should be obvious.

I compare this manifesto to part Ghandi theory because Delany calls out consumer culture and recognizes the slavery within is rooted in consumerism. He equates blind consumerism as the sole contribution to slavery, and in this manifesto, I hear antiquated echos of Malcolm X. I would be surprised if Malcolm X hadn’t studied this in depth.

This one is really lively, and I’d really, really, like to get my hands on a copy of the text in its entirety.

The reading passes through the Dred Scott decision including Taney’s dissent, as well as several pages of Frederick Douglass’s rip-roarin’ good time acknowledgement of his mockery.

The Google Book version of this book is a little more difficult to read because of the font leading; it feels closer than ever. Plus, the same situation of every few pages we’re missing a page, and who knows what’s on that page, so I’m going to seek this in my local library’s e-book section.

That was way more time than I had intended to spend on this lecture, but I’m really glad I did.

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