“Ask a Slave” Asks, Can Slavery be Funny?

This is Episode 2 of the Web-based comedy series “Ask a Slave.” Azie Mira Dungey plays show host Lizzie Mae, who fields questions about her experience as slave to Martha Washington (George Washington’s wife).

Actress and slave enslaved-person reenactor Azie Mira Dungey is trying her hand at comedy which tackles a very difficult subject: American slavery. The website Ask A Slave: A Comedy Web Series features videos based on her experiences portraying slaves at Mount Vernon, a historical site in northern Virginia that preserves the estate of George Washington. Episode 2 of the show is shown above.

On the “Ask a Slave” website, Dungey discusses the genesis for her project:

I must have played every black woman of note that ever lived. From Harriet Tubman to Diane Nash to Claudette Colvin to Caroline Branham– Martha Washington’s enslaved Lady’s maid… Studying American history and the lives of these women, while virtually living in their heads and experiences each day, made me feel like I was in some sort of twisted time warp. This was also the time of Barack Obama’s first term in White House and his subsequent run for a second term.

I ask you to remember the racial tension that was all around. We had people saying that the President would be planting watermelons on the White House lawn. Emails were forwarded proclaiming that this was the beginning of a race war and the end of the country as we know it. People bought guns. (A lot of guns.) A scientist reported the evolutionary explanation as to why black women were the least attractive of all the races. The Oprah Show ended. It was mass chaos.

And in the midst of all this, I was playing a slave. Everyday, I was literally playing a slave. I mean, I was getting paid well for it, don’t get me wrong, and we all need a day job. But all the same, I was having all these experiences, and emotions. Talking to 100s of people a day about what it was like to be black in 18th Century America. And then returning to the 21st Century and reflecting on what had and had not changed.

So, I wanted a way to present all of the most interesting, and somewhat infuriating encounters that I had, the feelings that they brought up, and the questions that they left unanswered. I do not think that Ask A Slave is a perfect way to do so, but I think that it is a fun, and a hopefully somewhat enriching start.

While all of that does seem like fertile ground for further exploration, making a comedy about slavery seems like a tough sell. Even today, slavery is an extremely sensitive subject that raises feelings of anger, guilt, and shame. It is perhaps the ultimate taboo topic in American history. I wonder how far the series can go before the treatment of the subject becomes, as one 19th century girl said about Civil War-related entrainment, “too perfect for enjoyment.”

But I did enjoy the first two episodes of the show, and I look forward to more. I am very interested in seeing how the creative team is going to approach the character and the content for the show. In the first episode, show host Lizzie Mae becomes somewhat flustered at the not-too-smart questions she’s getting, and comes off seeming like – dare I say it – an Angry Black Woman. I think the anger is righteous, and I like the satire in it, but some members of the audience might be turned off. The second episode makes more use of deadpan and irony, and I thought that it was funny and more palatable for a wide audience. Time will tell what kind of groove the creators will get into. I’ll certainly be watching to see how it goes.

For those who are interested:  Azie Mira Dungey is scheduled for an interview about her series on National Public Radio’s national midday show Here and Now. The show is expected to air on Friday, Sept 6th. Check your local NPR station for scheduling.

PS: I do disagree with a critique that blogger Kevin Levin has about the show. He did not find the show to be funny, and that’s OK; comedy, as with many things, is a matter of taste. But he also said this:

There is no exploration as to why some of these questions are problematic. She merely pokes fun at the visitors’ questions. I suspect that there are any number of factors beyond mere intelligence that shapes the kinds of questions posed to reenactors at historic sites. I wonder what the staff at Mount Vernon thinks of this.

I think that’s the wrong way to look at this series. I don’t see this show as having a pedagogic intent, that is, it’s not about providing teaching moments or insights into the thought processes of visitors to historic sites and their notions of slavery. It’s just a comedy show. I don’t hold this show accountable for addressing the issues that Mr. Levin suggests. In the same way, I don’t hold Saturday Night Live’s news segment accountable for thoughtful and nuanced information about current events. I just hope they’ll be funny.

Having said that: the creative team does have a challenge to face. Their job is to get the history right – they can’t make fun of the kinds of questions they’re getting, if they get the history wrong in the answers they give. I hope they understand that they have this responsibility, and I hope they deal with it in a righteous manner.

Lincoln’s Letter to Conkling: Let’s Make a Deal with the Negro; or, the Emancipation Proclamation as a Grand Bargain

In late August of 1863, Abraham Lincoln wrote a letter to fellow Illinois Republican James Conkling which contained his thoughts on various subjects, most prominently, the emancipation Proclamation. The letter has drawn much interest from historians. Louis Masur provides comments at the New York Time’s Disunion blog, and Brooks Simpson has comments here and here. At the second link from Simpson, he opines as to the most powerful part of the letter.

To me, the most salient passage of the Conkling letter is this:

But negroes, like other people, act upon motives. Why should they do any thing for us, if we will do nothing for them? If they stake their lives for us, they must be prompted by the strongest motive–even the promise of freedom. And the promise being made, must be kept.

There are three things that make this text so notable. First, it explicitly acknowledges the agency of African Americans. Negroes will not do something for nothing; Lincoln recognizes that they must be given good reason to act in favor of the Union. And he feels that if they are given good reason, they will act.

Second, Lincoln is under no illusion that African Americans are fighting for the same thing as white northerners. For African Americans, 90% of whom are enslaved southerners, the idea of preserving the Union – the so-called Union Cause – had limited resonance. A Union preserved with slavery intact was not going to garner the support of the black population. Lincoln understood that the price of black support was the promise of freedom; nothing else would do.

And finally, Lincoln characterizes the Proclamation as, essentially, a transaction. The Union is making a deal with African Americans: it promises freedom to the Negro, in exchange for the Negro’s support in destroying the Confederate regime. And Lincoln says emphatically: we will keep this promise.

And of course, all Lincoln could do is promise freedom. He was the president of the United States, not the Confederate States. The Proclamation infuriated Confederate slaveholders, but it had no legal power over them. It could not compel enslavers to free the enslaved; only a military victory by the Union could provide such compulsion.

As we know, both parties to the deal kept up their side of the bargain. Over 200,000 African Americans served in the Union military. And thousands of black civilians acted as spies, scouts, laborers, servants, and otherwise helped the Union military. African Americans were an integral part of the Union war effort that defeated the Confederate States.

And the United States abided by the deal with the passage of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery everywhere in the United States. On a de jure basis at least, the enslaved were forever free.

Sadly, when I talk to people about the Emancipation Proclamation, they have the notion that the Proclamation, in and of itself, ended slavery. It’s as if Lincoln was god-like; he gave the word, the word was made flesh, and freedom rang throughout the land. But as Lincoln himself suggests, it was nowhere near that simple.

“Battle of Manassas,” by Tom “Blind Tom” Wiggins

This is Battle of Manassas by Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins, circa 1861. It might take two or three listens to “get” this piece, but once you get it, you might find it moving.

Tom Wiggins was black, blind, brilliant, autistic, artistic, and enslaved. His life defies our imagination, yet, there he was, and one of his gifts to us is his piano mashup “Battle of Manassas.”

As told at the website BlindTom.org, Tom was precocious child who defied the term “handicapped”:

Blind Tom was one of the nineteenth century’s most extraordinary performers. An autistic savant with an encyclopedic memory, all-consuming passion for the piano and mind-boggling capacity to replicate – musically and vocally – any sound he heard, his name was a byword for eccentricity and oddball genius.

Blind Tom was born into slavery in Columbus, Georgia in 1848. His master, Wiley Jones, unwilling to clothe and feed a disabled ‘runt’, wanted him dead and, if not for vigilance of his mother, Charity, Tom would not have survived his infancy. But when Tom was nine months old, Wiley Jones put the baby, his two older sisters and parents up for auction, intending to sell the family off individually and not as a unit. The chances of anyone buying blind infant were remote – his death was as good as certain.

Tom’s life was again spared, thanks to the tenacity of his mother. A few weeks before the auction, Charity approached a neighbor, General James Bethune, and begged him to save them from the auction block. At first he refused her, but on the day of the sale, the lawyer and newspaperman turned up at the slave mart and purchased the family.

Apart from his blindness, Tom was ‘just like any other baby’ at first, but a few months after arriving at the Bethune Farm, things began to change and the toddler began to echo the sounds around him. If a rooster crowed, he made the same noise. If a bird sang, he would pursue it or attack his younger siblings just to hear them scream. If left alone in the cabin, he would drag chairs across the floor or bang pans and pots together – anything to make a noise.

By the age of four, Tom could repeat conversations ten minutes in length, but expressed his own needs in whines and tugs. Unless constantly watched, he would escape: to the chicken coop, woods and finally to the piano in his master’s house, the sound of each note causing his young body to tremble in ecstasy. After a string of unwelcome visits, General Bethune finally recognized the stirrings of a musical prodigy in the raggedy slave child and installed him in the Big House where he underwent extensive tuition.

Music saved – and changed – Tom Wiggins’ life. He went on to become a great performer, something akin to the Fats Waller or Liberace of his era. His unlikely combination of blackness, autism, virtuosity, and creativity made for an irresistible combination on the stage. According to one source, he was the first African AMerican to perform at the White House, when he performed for president Patrick Buchanan (who preceded Abraham Lincoln in office).

One of Wiggins’ most memorable performances was “Battle of Manassas.” Dedicated to the July 1861 Confederate victory in Northern Virginia that made Stonewall Jackson famous (it was also known as the Battle of Bull Run), it combined music from several songs and his own unique arrangement and vocalizations to produce a stunning work. As described at Blind Tom.org,

Tom’s impressionistic musical description of the battle pits the harmony of the right hand against the discord of the left. An insistent bass conjures the trudge of marching columns, tonal clusters evoke the roar of cannon and musketry. A brooding soundscape then ducks, weaves and punches its way into a medley of popular and patriotic songs – Yankee Doodle, Dixie, The Star Spangled Banner and Le Marseillaise – discord tugging at the heels of the melody until it finally implodes into the chaos of a harem-scarem finale. “In an age before recorded sound, Blind Tom’s Battle of Manassas was perhaps the only reference point whereby soldiers, citizens and slaves could make sense of the aural assault”, said biographer Deirdre O’Connell, author of The Ballad of Blind Tom.

The song is a fine piece, but it might take several hearings to fully understand the depth and imagination of the piece. What Jimi Hedrix’s Star Spangled Banner was to the young generation of the 1960s and 1970s, Wiggins’ Battle of Manassas was to the Civil War generation. Its stunning, bombastic end properly recalls the boom of war, and then some.

The website BlindTom.org is an excellent way to learn more about Wiggins. This web video gives a quick recap of his life:

A different view of secession


Front of a Civil War era envelope, titled “Secession.” Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number LC-DIG-ppmsca-11328

Ah, you can’t beat that old time humor. This is a Civil War era envelope that I saw in the Library of Congress (LOC) online archives. This is from the LOC description of the item:

Date Created/Published:[between 1861 and 1865]
Medium: 1 print : wood engraving on envelope ; image and text 5 x 4.5 cm, on envelope 8 x 14 cm.
Summary: Picture shows an African American boy and mother with a bundle running.
Notes: Title from item.
Gladstone’s inventory code and notes: Envelope 20; illustration of black mother and child; mother has animal-like head.

The characters in the image are, to say the least, unflatteringly depicted as stereotypical caricatures. Of course we of today find this outrageously offensive. But this is how they rolled back in the day. Note that, the face of the child in this picture is not shown; maybe it’s just as well.

But I suggest that observers not get too hung-up about the picture’s visual vulgarity. This image wasn’t so much about mocking African Americans. It was about satire and irony at the expense of slaveholders and the Confederacy, and secondarily, a statement concerning the desire of the enslaved to be free. Either way, it sends the message that the goal of southern independence had a whole ‘nother meaning for bondsmen and bondswomen. That it is a gendered and family depiction of the contrabands (a term used in the North to describe runaway slaves) adds to its poignancy.

There were tens of thousands of enslaved people who liberated themselves during the war, and their story is not well known or understood in American memory. But as this tiny bit of humor indicates, it was on the minds of wartime Americans. As we commemorate and consider this 150th Anniversary of the Civil War and Emancipation, it’s something that should be on our minds as well. But I’m not sure if people have focused on this much as we reach the halfway point of the Sesquicentennial.

Perhaps it’s because the process of emancipation was not always a pretty sight. But we can’t look away at truth and insight, simply because it’s ugly.

Like Father, Like Sons: An African American Civil War Sailor and His Heirs

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Photograph of Union Navy veteran William B. Gould with his six sons.
This photograph of the Gould veterans originally appeared in the NAACP’s magazine, Crisis, in December 1917. All of the sons were veterans of World War I except William B. Gould, Jr., a Spanish-American War veteran. William B. Gould, already in his 80s, is seated wearing his GAR uniform. Standing behind elder Gould are, from left to right: Lawrence Wheeler Gould, James Edward Gould, William Benjamin Gould, Jr., Ernest Moore Gould, Herbert Richardson Gould, and Frederick Crawford Gould. (GAR = Grand Army of the Republic, an organization for Union veterans)

William B. Gould was born a slave, but that would not define him or confine him. By the end of his life, he would leave a legacy of service for which any American would be proud. And it seems his sons learned from his example.

Gould grew up in the North Carolina port city of Wilmington, NC (which is now famous for its movie industry and for being the hometown of NCAA/NBA great Michael Jordan). On September 21, 1862, Gould and seven other men liberated themselves from captivity by navigating a boat down the Cape Fear River. Gould and the others were picked up by the USS Cambridge, and he became a member of the ship’s crew.

Gould was literate, and kept a diary of his days as a Union sailor. One of his descendants, William B. Gould, IV, used that diary to form the basis of Diary of a Contraband: The Civil War Passage of a Black Sailor. This is from the press release for the book:

The heart of this book is the remarkable Civil War diary of the author’s great-grandfather, William Benjamin Gould, an escaped slave who served in the United States Navy from 1862 until the end of the war. The diary vividly records Gould’s activity as part of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron off the coast of North Carolina and Virginia; his visits to New York and Boston; the pursuit to Nova Scotia of a hijacked Confederate cruiser; and service in European waters pursuing Confederate ships constructed in Great Britain and France.

Gould’s diary is one of only three known diaries of African American sailors in the Civil War. It is distinguished not only by its details and eloquent tone, but also by its reflections on war, on race, on race relations in the Navy, and on what African Americans might expect after the war.

The book includes introductory chapters that establish the context of the diary narrative, an annotated version of the diary, and a brief account of Gould’s life in Massachusetts after the war.

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The elder Gould was clearly an inspiration to his sons. They enlisted in the US Army, and became part of the next generation of African American soldiers who served in the Spanish-American War and World War I.

As an accompaniment to the book, Stanford University hosts the website Diary of a Contraband: The Civil War Passage of a Black Sailor. The site features primary sources and photographs that tell the story of Gould in an interesting and compelling fashion. I very much enjoyed the site, and I look forward to reading the book. Highly recommended.

Shotgun Wedding, Civil War Style? (“A Subject of Morality”… and More)

Slavery and wartime, too, can make for strange bedfellows. Or just plain strangeness.

Consider the following Civil War “incident” that is at once bizarre, amusing, disturbing, outrageous and wonderful, but also, uniquely American. It raises all kinds of questions about race, slavery, and family; and about the authority of an occupying power to control, and even force certain behaviors on, an occupied population.

The story comes from Army Chaplain Henry McNeal Turner. As I mentioned in my previous post, Turner was a leader in the black church of Washington, DC, and part of the First Regiment of the United States Colored Infantry. He was also a wartime correspondent for the Christian Recorder, a newspaper of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, in which this story was published.

First, some backstory. It’s June/July of 1865. Several months earlier, Confederate General Joseph Johnston surrendered to Union General William Sherman in Durham, North Carolina, one of the steps in the end of the Civil War and the demise of the Confederacy. But going as far back as early 1862, the Union Army has captured and occupied various parts of the North Carolina coast. This includes Roanoke Island, the site of a large contraband camp/freedmen’s village.

During this occupation, the Union is “the law.” A Colonel named Holman is acting as judge, jury, and… executioner… while he addresses “legal” and other interactions among the inhabitants in the east NC area under his control. Holman has asked Chaplain Turner to help mediate a case involving “morality”… Turner tells the story:

Roanoke Island is still the theatre of many interesting incidents. Every imaginable phase of characters, every question having… virtue, however hatched with uncertainties through the phantasm scope of suspicion, or open in the vulgar revelry of the unconscionable audacious, are ever and anon before the bar of adjustment… It is nothing uncommon to have reports of the dogs barking, and such trivial affairs, handed in at Head Quarters… Colonel Holman, however, listens to them all, passes judgment upon them, and the parties respectfully retire.

But here is a circumstance to which I most respectfully invite your attention. The narrative runs as follows: Near Edenton, (a place about one hundred mile from the island,) lives an old rich slave-holder, who in the days of southern rights wielded an immense power in that community, or, in other words, he was one of the lords of the land.

He visited Wilmington about twelve years ago, and there saw a very handsome mulatto girl, or rather lady, and conveyed to his country mansion, and admitted to the lofty honors of sacred concubinage. In that very wholesome situation she has remained ever since, giving birth to six children, all illegitimate production of purchased connection. Providentially, both of these individuals had business before the Colonel, and during the investigation the Colonel’s attention was called to their mode of living.

The matter was referred to the Chaplain for counsel and advice, as it was a subject of morality, who decided with the Colonel that he should marry her at once. But he (the slaveholder) could not see the point; he showed many reasons why it would not do to marry a colored woman, in that part of the country. He argued skillfully in the false logic generally produced by slave-owners; finally, he was dismissed, and left with an exultant sense of his victory over Yankee morality.

Colonel Holman, after weighing the matter again, sent for me and finding the parties already there, rose upon his feet, and commenced as follows: “Sir, (looking at the slave-owner,) I have talked to you as a brother and friend: you have had this woman twelve years acting as your wife; she, in the sacred honesty of a lady, has in return given to you, your country and your God, six children: you brought her away from her home, her relations and friends, as a man would convey his wife; you have also devoured the flower of her youth, and torn from her cheeks the flush beauties of maiden-hood; you have reaped and consumed these charms, which God gave her to find a happy partner in life, and make her existence pleasant to the grave, ay! and to an eternal future. You have desecrated the sanctity of the matrimonial institution by force and unjust authority.

“But your day is gone: this is my day, and this great nation’s day-and as an officer of the United States, invested with power to execute justice, and carry out the proclamations of the President,–I tell you and your comrades, I tell all in my military district, such conduct shall not be tolerated. You can take your choice, either marry the woman or endow her and her children with property sufficient to support them for life, or I will demolish everything you have, hang, shoot, or bury you alive, before you shall turn that helpless woman and your ill begotten children away to die, or to be fed by my country, and your property given to hellish rebels. You starved our prisoners to death, and murdered in cold blood the best men God ever made, to sustain your infamous rotten oligarchy, and now, to add insult and injury, you propose to turn out your children. By the eternal God, I will sweep you all with one blast.”

At this point he (slave-owner) raised his voice, and in a trembling voice said: “Colonel, you need not say anymore. I can’t marry Susie and stay here; but if you will allow me time to dispose of my personal property, I will take her and go to the North, or to Canada and there marry her; I will sell my lower plantation, but my upper one I will hold on to.”

“Well, “ said the Colonel, “do you promise in the presence of myself and the chaplain to marry Miss Susan?”

“Yes, sir, I will: for I know it is wrong to throw her and the children away, for Suse has been a mighty good gal.”

At this point we all shook hands over the prospects, and the court adjourned, to meet again when he gets ready to marry Susan and go North.

The floor is open – what are your thoughts on this?

Note: The text from Turner is in An African American Pastor Before and During the American Civil War: The Literary Archive of Henry McNeal Turner by Andre E. Johnson.

Social Revolution, Writ Small: Wartime Emancipation, a Mother, and a Mistress in Smithfield, North Carolina

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Colored Troops, under General Wild, liberating slaves in North Carolina.
Source: Harper’s Weekly, January 23, 1864; from www.sonofthesouth.net

The American Civil War was the start of a social revolution. The Union government policy of emancipating African Americans and enlisting them in the military led to a wartime transformation in the relations between white and black, master and slave, and the powerful and the powerless. In ways large and small, subtle and dramatic, encounters between black and white Union soldiers and black and white southerners led to a new navigation through the rushing and uncharted waters of social change.

Consider this reporting, dated May 15, 1865, from Army Chaplain Henry McNeal Turner. Turner, a leader in the black church of Washington, DC, was part of the First Regiment of the United States Colored Infantry that was recruited and mustered from the District of Columbia. He was also a wartime correspondent for the Christian Recorder, a newspaper of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In his correspondence to the Recorder, Turner spoke of an incident involving a black woman and her mistress:

Shortly after our arrival in Smithfield (NC), one of our sergeants called my attention to a colored lady, whose child a rebel woman had hid. I immediately started for her sacred premises, and having entered her piazza, in company with the sergeant, colored woman, and a few others, the following conversation ensued: “Have you got this woman’s child?” “No! Her master carried it off.” “Where is her master as you call him?” “He is gone to the country.” “What did he carry the child away for?” “Because he wanted to.” “Did he not know the child belonged to this woman?” “Yes. But if it is her child, it is his negro. You Yankees have a heap of impudence. What are you meddling with our negroes for? You may think the south is conquered, but she has surrendered to superior numbers. But, sir, you are sadly mistaken.” “Stop, stop!” I replied, “I don’t want anymore of your rebel parlance. You are not too good to be hung, and you had better dry up, or you might get a rope around your neck in short order.”

At this stage in our dialogue, one of the General’s Staff rode up, and she began to tell a long story about me, weaving in a lie here, and a lie there.” But he soon silenced her by saying, “Oh, well! He has a right to say what he thinks proper! Madame, I want to know why this child is not given up!”

So she proceeded to chit chat the subject with him, and having heard as much as my stomach could digest at once, said I to the officer, “It is reported that the child is hid in town, but she says her husband has taken it into the country. I now propose, as he has five children standing here, that we take one, to be held as a hostage, until the colored child is returned to its mother.” The words had barely left my mouth, before such running, crying, and squealing took place among the children, that my indignation melted down into laughter. The very utterance of these words frightened the children nearly to death, and made the mother tremble.

At this juncture, learning that the General had taken the matter in hand, I left. But look at the inconsistency. To have taken one of their children, would have been pronounced, by the slave oligarchs, an act of fiendish cruelty, but for them to perpetuate the same crime on a poor slave woman, was only an inconsiderable circumstance. If a few of our Northern slave advocates had the tables thus turned on them, it would materially change the tone of some of their brutal sophistry, as well as morally improve that remonstrating gibberish, too often used to stay the designs of the administration, whose ultimate purpose seems to be the upbuilding of an depressed people.

Notes:
1. The January 23, 1864 issue of Harper’s Weekly provides the backstory for the above illustration. The person being referenced above is Brigadier General Edward A. Wild. According to the book Freedom by the Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops, 1862-1867, which was written by William A. Dobak, “In December 1863, Brig. Gen. Edward A. Wild led more than seventeen hundred men from five black regiments through northeastern North Carolina, freeing slaves, hunting Confederate guerrillas, and enlisting black soldiers.”
2. Some details about the 1st Regiment of the United States Colored Infantry are here.
3. The full version of Turner’s May 15, 1865 letter to the Christian Recorded is in the books Freedom’s Witness: The Civil War Correspondence of Henry McNeal Turner, edited by Jean Cole; and An African American Pastor Before and During the American Civil War: The Literary Archive of Henry McNeal Turner by Andre E. Johnson. Turner’s correspondence is discussed in other works, such as Black Soldiers in Blue: African American Troops in the Civil War Era, edited by John David Smith.
4. Turner was a notable African American figure in the war and post-war eras. I hope to write more about him in future posts.