Monday, April 16, 2012

KGNU interview Tuesday 3 pm on Black Patriots and Loyalists

For those in the Denver areas, Soul Watson will interview me about Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence on KGNU - FM 88.5, AM 1390 from 3-3:30 on Tuesday, April 17, on Soul Mic Metro. As a related matter, I will give a reading/signing of the book at Tattered Cover on Colfax, Friday, September 27th at 7:30. For those who are interested in more information on the book itself, the University of Chicago Press has set up a facebook page here.

Here is the response I gave to Richard Marshall at 3:AM magazine in London on the significance of the book (see here):

3:AM: Your new book Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence just came out. Can you say what the thesis of the book is and if there are political lessons to be learnt from this history?

AG: Sixteen years ago, I started working on blacks escaping and soldiering in exchange for emancipation during the North American Revolution. After many downs - nothing like entering a new field, the writing of history, and in America, its most sacred area, the Revolution, and telling a tale in which blacks from below liberate themselves, but, nonetheless, most escaped to and were taken to freedom by the Crown. As a lifelong anti-racist, this story is threaded from the introduction – a dedication to my grade school classmate and friend Andy Goodman, murdered during Freedom Summer, along with James Cheney and Michael Schwerner – and concludes with the defiant speech of Gabriel, a black artisan who almost led the burning down of the wooden city of Richmond in 1800. Gabriel likened himself and his cause to George Washington (Washington would be a greater leader if one could liken him to Gabriel or Toussint L’Ouverture). The story is of how courageous individuals, with insight into the wrong of slavery, travelled lonely paths to move the mountain. For instance, John Woolman in the 1750s among Quakers began with a refusal to write wills which bequeathed slaves and then walked throughout the South talking with Quakers about the evil of holding men in bondage. John Laurens was the scion of an influential slave-owning family in South Carolina, whose father was a Christian opponent of slavery in the abstract but also, when blacks rose up, stuck at them viciously. John studied Rousseau in Geneva in the early 1770s, and came back the leading elite abolitionist in the Revolution. An aide to Washington, his name is on the Laurens proposal, passed by the Continental Congress in 1779, freeing 3,000-5,000 blacks in South Carolina and Georgia in exchange for fighting. Thomas Peters was a prince in Africa, kidnapped and sold into bondage in South Carolina and branded twice for trying to escape. Peters then succeeded, fought as a sergeant in the Black Pioneers, went to Canada with the defeated British and led a movement among those not given land for redress. He travelled to London, and became the leader of a democratic expedition to and experiment in Sierra Leone. The book explores how through many such stories, then and afterwards, individuals contributed to forging the movement which finally outlawed bondage in the Empire in 1834 and rose to a crescendo in the American Civil War. Often small or not initially determined efforts which achieve, over time, deeper purposefulness can have a great effect.

Today, I believe that such efforts, for instance Michelle Alexander’s (author of The New Jim Crow) can make such a difference about the system of mass incarceration in America, focused on imprisoning black and latin teenagers for being caught with marijuana. The US has 8 times as many prisoners as in the 1970s, 2.3 million, 25% of the world’s prisoners, and another 5.1 million on probation, lives ruined, barred from getting a job or living in public housing or voting. 50% of the increase in prisoners is for marijuana, 80% of these for possession… In talking about the book in the US, I will connect these issues, and precisely the point that it is only individuals taking up the struggle in the darkest conditions which ultimately moves the mountain. In Britain, the police murders of Afro-Caribbean young people strike me in a similar way (I hope to be in London in early June).

Secondly, the book also breaks down statistically every list of black troops or muster roll of black settlements I could obtain from the Revolutionary period, revealing, among other matters, that many more blacks escaped to Canada with the Crown than has previously been thought. A third theme of Black Patriots and Loyalists is the importance of democratic contractarian reasoning, roughly what is theorized in Rawls’s notion of an original position, in condemnations of slavery at that time and in the growing movement against it.

A fourth theme is how real moral and historical advance is often possible during a period for which historians too easily deny it. As a result of military competition for recruits between the Crown and the revolutionaries, the dynamic of freedom (if all men are free, why not black men and women, too?) and widespread sentiment that bondage was an abomination, particularly in churches (Samuel Hopkins named it “a sin of crimson dye”), gradual emancipation occurred in the North during the Revolution and over the next quarter century. The revolution for Independence in the North, in this respect, resembled Venezuela’s. In the South, many of the same forces were at play as the Laurens proposal showed. Further, in every other independence movement in the hemisphere, at least gradual emancipation occurred (in Saint Domingue, the uprising of the slaves in 1791, defeating the French including Napoleon, as well as English and Spanish colonialism, made Haiti in 1804). Only in North America does independence not lead to gradual emancipation. I offer this account of historical possibilities to oppose a more economic determinist Marxian vision that only by the time of the Civil War, and not during the Revolution itself, was abolition possible.

A fifth theme is the centrality of blacks – and the issue of emancipation – to both sides in the Revolution. The best fighting unit on the Patriot side was the black and Narragansett indian First Rhode Island Regiment. Whereas mainly white militias served for 10 months, members of this regiment mostly fought for five years. At the concluding battle at Yorktown, walking around the field, Georg Daniel Flohr, a German private fighting with a French unit allied with the Americans, recorded in his diary that most of the corpses on both sides were “Mohren” (Moors). No one taught me (or anyone I have met) that startling fact about Yorktown. This story of two revolutions, one for independence, one for emancipation, working often at odds, but on the American side at Yorktown together (the First Rhode Island and other black regiments led by John Laurens and Alexander Hamilton conquered the two strategic British redoubts, deciding the battle) is a different way of seeing the War, one based on unexpected, powerful evidence.

I started this project while working on the Federalist Papers in the context of Shays Rebellion (of poor farmers who had served in the Revolution and returned to find their plots indebted and threatened) and the Alien and Sedition Acts. As an anti-racist, I thought I should look into what the slaves had done, even though I surmised that there would be a few uprisings, but basically it was the slave-traders – the Crown – against the slave-owners (the Patriots). I then read Gary Nash’s Race and Revolution who says, however, that “a gigantic number of slaves escaped to the British and were freed in exchange for fighting.” He gives five reasons why gradual emancipation might have occurred throughout the country (the military competition, what I discovered to be the central causal mechanism, not among them), but then after a page and a half, turns away. Where he and others had not probed (British emancipation of the most oppressed is the Revolution’s “dirty secret,” as Nash later put it), I stopped.

If anything like this is true, I realized, the way we think about the American Revolution is false. Barrington Moore had long ago taught me that only the Civil War was a revolution, but plainly, the American Revolution was a much more interesting and complex social revolution, often clashing with the political revolution, than had been thought. Because I lived with this question for several years, I found marvelous documents in thirteen research libraries in the US, England, Canada, France and Spain. Seeing the right question within the material opened things up. Once again, a certain kind of Marxism, for instance even so sophisticated an account as Robin Blackburn’s – in the Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, he writes dazzlingly on the interplay of the French and Saint Domingue/Haitian revolutions – debunks the vast escape and recruitment of blacks during the American Revolution and argues in a foolish, economic determinist vein that slaveholding was “quickly restored” after the War. He ignores even the gradual emancipation that occurred in the North (analogous to the Venezuelan independence movement). Having the right questions and seeing the political dynamics afresh enables a very different radical account, I think one much more sophisticated and open to experience, one that highlights the real and intense class conflict over bondage.

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