Give ME Liberty!

Look into America… see that Negro, fainting under the load, bleeding under the lash! He is a slave. And is there ‘no difference’ between him and his master? Yes; the one is screaming ‘Murder! Slavery!’ the other silently bleeds and dies! ‘But wherein then consists the difference between liberty and slavery?’ Herein: You and I, and the English in general, go where we will, and enjoy the fruits of our labours: This is liberty. The Negro does not: This is slavery. Is not then all this outcry about liberty and slavery mere rant, and playing upon words?  – John Wesley, on the American Revolution

Rev. Kara Slade shared that quote on Facebook this morning, and I read it here in my hotel room in Williamsburg, Virginia, where I am vacationing with my family.  This past April, Andrew O’Hehir wrote a wonderful piece for Salon on the changing face of Colonial Williamsburg.  I grew up in Virginia, making the circuit of the historic sites, and I can attest that slavery, while mentioned, was not prominent, much less examined here (nor at Mount Vernon, nor Monticello, nor or any of a dozen or more similar places for that matter) twenty to thirty years ago.  My critical engagement with the institution of slavery was encouraged nowhere until my high school AP history class.  Two years later (in 1991!), it was still possible for me to hear a sociology professor (in a freshman seminar on “the immigrant experience” at a northeastern university) compare African-Americans unfavorably to “other immigrants” who had overcome “similar” barriers to social and economic advancement in less time.  This professor dated the emigration of African-Americans to the end of the Civil War – ignoring the incomparable backstory of generations of chattel slavery. It seemed too clear to me: “We have talked about how other immigrants came to America with a dream of this being the ‘land of opportunity,'” I argued, “but for those released from slavery, they had already experienced America as a land of zero opportunities.” (This is not even to address the greater staying power of discrimination against African-Americans as compared to the Irish, for example.)

I am glad that the narrative tide is turning in Williamsburg. For instance, when we were getting a backstage tour of the stables (for my little animal lover) – the guide said to us, “The carriages can give you the impression that everyone here was well to do, but at the time of the Revolution, half of the people who lived in this city were enslaved.” They used to end similar sentences with “most people walked.” Instead, “half of the people… were enslaved.”  The guide at the Governor’s mansion echoed this line in another context; later, when discussing the flight of the governor with his family and most of his white servants, she wondered aloud what would happen to the people who had been his slaves – would they take the opportunity to escape? Or would they immediately be seized and sold – perhaps separated from their families? When I asked her later what had actually happened, she said it had largely been the latter – families were split up as individuals were sold.

As a native Virginian who grew up going to these historical sites, let me tell you – it is a lot different to hear about “people who were enslaved,” than it is to hear about “slaves.” It is all too easy for “slaves” to become abstract.  Just as Simone de Beauvoir famously said that there are two kinds of people – people and women, in historical homes in the South there are too often two kinds of people – people and slaves. By saying, “enslaved people” instead of “slaves,” the interpreters at Williamsburg are disrupting the old white narrative (and modern white temptation) to make “slaves” exceptional – to exclude slaves from the category “person.”

At Powell house, when we were waiting for a tour to begin and I inquired about who had lived in that house, the guide answered Mr. and Mrs. Powell and their two daughters, as well as a number of slaves.  The number varied, she said, because he owned a few slaves, and rented the rest from the jail. “Rented them from the jail?!” “Oh, yes!” she replied – and told us about how the jail was mostly populated with runaway slaves, as well as a few runaway indentured servants and runaway apprentices. “They don’t just sit there idle!” she said, adding that it was one of Mr. Powell’s responsibilities to assess new prisoners at the jail – so that a fair rental price could be set based on their skills and industry, and so as to determine how likely they were to run again.  When outside of the jail, prisoners who had run away from their owners could be identified by their large metal collars – sometimes with metal posts sticking out from them to make them even more unwieldy.  “They cannot get much work done while wearing those collars!” she said. “They are so heavy and uncomfortable.”

I had never heard that before – prisons were for runaway slaves? But upon reflection, it made sense. How many horse thieves could there have been, really? And it was not long before I was making the connection with our modern prison system, and with the “stop and frisk” abuses in NYC, and with how (in general) whites’ impressions of who looks suspicious has not changed much over the centuries (hint: if their skin color is darker than mine, they are probably up to no good.)

Patrick Henry’s speech is stirring, but it behooves us to remember that when he said, “Give me liberty or give me death!” he was speaking for himself – and other white male landowners who agreed with him that the King of England was seeking to “enslave” them.  Everyone else – white male landowners who had no problem with the King’s policies, women, African-Americans (both slaves and “freedmen”), children, apprentices and indentured servants, and other whites of the servant classes – all of these either lost or were at least unhelped by the events of the Revolutionary War.

Yes, I will be going to see fireworks tonight, but not as a celebration of the fruits of a long ago war. Instead, I am going because my six-year old daughter celebrates any opportunity for sanctioned rule-breaking – for her, the Fourth of July means “I get to stay up late tonight!!!” On this day of national conformity, I am doing my part to facilitate a little anarchy, a little transgression, a little reversal of traditional power dynamics. Or maybe I just enjoy seeing gunpowder used not for killing, but to decorate the night sky.

Either way, this day means something different for me than “liberty and justice for all.” Our state and federal governments still haven’t shown any interest in delivering on that idea. I’m not holding my breath – anyone with earthly power does no differently than King George – anxiously grasping at their fragile sovereignty.