Saturday, August 4, 2012

Tim Barry’s “Prosser’s Gabriel”

Last year, I visited Richmond, a mainly black city but the former center of the Confederacy and still “decorated” with loathsome memorials to Jefferson Davis and others, to attend ASALH, the annual conference on black history.

I end Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War of Independence celebrating the defiant words of Gabriel, the great leader of an unsuccessful slave revolt which almost burned the wooden precursor of Richmond to the ground in 1800.

He had only to say, Gabriel said, what George Washington would have said, if had he been captured by the British and put on trial for his life: I have but one life to give for my countrymen and I am a willing sacrifice in their cause.

Democratic contractarianism is a leading feature of modern political theory. In John Rawls’ idiom, it mandates placing oneself in the situation of the least advantaged. What Gabriel offers is an ironic version of that thought. His judges are not Americans as revolutionaries but some whites as slaveowners. George Washington would have been a figure of more integrity had he been a Gabriel.

An asphalt parking lot long hid Gabriel’s grave along with those of other blacks. As Jefferson Davis was elevated in a still pro-slavery South, so Gabriel was denied.

But Jennifer Williams, my student, told a class this past Thursday about Tim Barry, a powerful singer, who comes from Richmond. Barry had read Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States and learned of Gabriel. Barry's testifies to the striking influence of writing the truth. In an era when Texas bars all mention of Thomas Jefferson in its history texts and Barnes and Noble and other pimps compete to produce texts without the author of the Declaration of Independence (if this is not American decline, what would be?), Barry reports being victimized by a standard education and outraged to discover that Gabriel’s grave was not marked.

In 2010, he decided to do something about it and composed: “Prosser’s Gabriel.” As Barry says in the chorus:

“Does anyone know the name Gabriel Prosser?
My conscience says he’s the one that history missed”

He has sung this song to small numbers in bars and to thousands of concert-goers; he was invited by Gabriel’s family to sing it for them (and they have added it to the family history); he joined a movement to honor Gabriel; and he has been a driving force in getting the now voting black city of Richmond to honor this man, its genuine hero, as opposed to warriors for bondage.

As Barry notes below, Gabriel's revolt echoed the great slave rebellion beginning in 1791 that created Haiti in 1804; Gabriel and others learned from it; among the French emigres, most of whom fled Saint Domingue, at that time were two radicals who worked with Gabriel.

Sometimes the truth and anger do not carry one far. We still live in a United States where the distinguishing recommendation of the candidate of one major party is that he is white (he offers literally no program or proposal that would benefit any of the 99%...). But Tim Barry composed this song to honor Gabriel and the city of Richmond is now digging out the asphalt and honoring him. This is a fine accomplishment for an artist and a movement.

I should also underline Doug Egerton’s fine 1993 book, Gabriel's Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 and 1802 which performed a Nietzschean inversion of value on the standard slave-holders’ and many later historians’ degrading insistence on “Gabriel’s Conspiracy.” Historians had long kept the silence of the asphalt, daring to offer doubts about Gabriel’s sanity (those who said such things highlighted their own foolishness…).

No one, outside of England, would name the American Revolution “Washington’s Conspiracy,” nor does any one doubt the General’s sanity...

Here is the song.

Here is a note Jennifer wrote to me Thursday night.

"Just read this on Tim Barry’s website:

‘Barry's song helped to galvanize the efforts of activists aiming to
create a monument to this freedom fighter [Gabriel] and the others
buried at the location, which had served as a cemetery for both slaves
and free African Americans. After writing "Gabriel," Barry hit the
road with The Gaslight Anthem and told the story to thousands of
concert-goers, urging them to right this historic wrong. Gabriel's
descendants reached out to Barry and asked him to play the song at a
family reunion.

The movement Barry helped to fuel eventually achieved a remarkable
success: In May 2011, city officials finally began pulling up the
pavement, and a park-like memorial will soon replace of the parking

Thought it was a nice ending to the story.”

Here are some of Tim Barry’s remarks on it and the words of the song. He gave the interview 10 days after Howard Zinn died:

"LB: I want to ask you about, in my opinion, the most powerful song on the album: Prosser’s Gabriel. Tell me a little more about the man who inspired the song for those who haven’t heard.

TB: The song is written about slave Gabriel. I prefer to call him just Gabriel. In 1800 in Ricoh County, which is a county that surrounds the city of Richmond. Well basically there was a huge slave uprising in Haiti and the Dominican Republic area. There were all these French folks who fled the area and came to Virginia. This was at a time when slave labor was moving out of fields and into trades. The French really influenced the enslaved blacks and well the blacks got the notion to well kill fucking white people to free themselves from slavery. It’s a phenomenal story, which has been totally forgotten. Most people don’t even know about it. I credit my knowledge of secret aspects or alternative aspects of history to writer Howard Zinn who just passed away a week and a half ago. If it wasn’t for his writing I don’t think I would have ever fully understood history from a working people’s perspective. I think I just would have known the mainstream culture fed bullshit that everybody else was in a regurgitated public school. But long story short it was a failed insurrection for various reasons and Gabriel Prosser was hung with dozens of other slaves who took part in the attempted revolt. I guess the premise of the song is here we are in 2010 and Gabriel Prosser is buried below a parking lot owned by the city of Richmond’s biggest University. The song is meant to bring light to the absurdity that there is a neglected class of people in Richmond area. There are fucking well-manicured gravesites for white people and nothing for poor black people forced into slavery.

LB: But they will park their $40,000 cars over top of them?

TB: It’s fucking embarrassing. There are stereotypes that go along with this. When I’m standing here in Canada and say I’m from Virginia people think I’m racist. The other night in St. Catherine’s some dude just rolled up on me and blatantly called me a racist for no fucking reason maybe other than the fact geographically where I am from. I don’t need to defend myself because nobody knows a fucking thing about myself except what I give them. But the point is that I live in a city that’s 54% black and it’s embarrassing and I feel the priorities are going in the wrong direction. I’m not saying that tax based money needs to go into perpetuating the reminder that whites enslaved blacks but there should be significant monuments that equal out the ridiculousness of Confederate monuments that are all over the fucking city. To me it would mean a lot. Almost like a public apology.

LB: I know the album has just been released but what, if any, feedback have you received from the black community in your hometown?

TB: Oh ya. The descendents of Gabriel Prosser contacted me and their family historian archived the lyrics and any video footage they could find. The family invited me to their family reunion. The lyrics were printed in the family reunion program and I sang the song for everyone at the reunion. People in the black community have latched on to the concept of the song. A lot of anarchists and activists are working towards a goal of some sort of middle ground of having something done in the area. There is a lot of activity revolving around all of this. I’m blessed. I’m lucky I can play music and that some people enjoy it and understand the message I’m pushing although I will not say that all my music is message based and generally for me it’s just therapy and that song Prosser’s Gabriel is therapy for me because I’m a thinker and an analyzer and that story made me kind of insane.

LB: So was that the ultimate feedback/praise then for a song? Being invited to this man’s family reunion and creating a stir of energy around this man’s legacy?

TB: That to me has been more important than anything. It’s the same sense I got when my mom called me and said she was proud of me for doing this record. She listens to this song Downtown VCU [Virginia Commonwealth University] and tells me it’s her favorite. That’s about as rewarding as it gets in terms of music for me. And then to take it to the next level where the music crosses the racial and economic barriers. There is not a day that I don’t feel lucky for doing what I'm doing. On Monday I will be 39 years old and if someone said to me when I was 23 - well 25 is usually retirement age for musicians so I would have never believed that I would still be here doing this today. But at the same time I fully understand that it’s just music and some people like it and some don’t. No hard feelings no harm, no foul."

Here are the words to "Prosser's Gabriel":

"Does anyone know the name Gabriel Prosser?
My conscience says he’s the one that history missed
A blacksmith by trade up at Brookfield Plantation
A Henrico County slave born to owner Thomas

If you listen closely you’ll hear the words perfect
The Caribbean uprising caught fire in this land
Up and down the James River Pamunkey and Appomattox
Tobacco soil gone bad afforded movement for the blacks
Nine years before down in Santo Domingo
Slaves refused to submit and took the right of all man
Virginia whites got nervous and armed more militias
As blacks inspired plotted and passed on their plans
Mr. Prosser’s Gabriel was smart as he was strong
A head of keloid scars and a mind of knowing right and wrong
Voted general at 24 in the year of 1800
Haunted by the hymns and wailing of his fellow slaves

Now does anyone know the name Gabriel Prosser?
My conscience says he’s the one that history missed
A blacksmith by trade up at Brookfield Plantation
A Henrico County slave born to owner Thomas

It was on an August night just north of Richmond, Virginia
Gabriel’s men gathered as their owners they slept
Some would burn city streets to attract residents and masters
While others took the capital and freed convicts
Well the whites they knew nothing never seen what could hit them
Nothing like this could happen with their carefree black men
But think about freedom, now think about slavery
Blacks armed themselves with muskets and homemade bayonets
With a white flag on the capital all blacks they would rise
Whites spared would all lose an arm
You’re a coward if you own men for profit and greed
You’re the coward of all and for all you must bleed

Now does anyone know the name Gabriel Prosser?
My conscience says he’s the one that history missed
A blacksmith by trade up at Brookfield Plantation
A Henrico County slave born to owner Thomas

Pharaoh and Tom ratted out Gabriel Prosser
Their owner was Mosby a neighbor of him
They say the sky’s seen seas of rain and lightning
On the night of August 30th one could see nor stand
The militias let loose to hunt Gabriel Prosser
Who took to the swamps as they imprisoned his men
Flagged a boat whose captain was a Methodist preacher
But a traitor slave turned him in in the end
They hung Gabriel down at Broad and 15th street
Lord he would not give a word up on his men
But he took that noose and he took it with honor
He’s buried beneath a lot of parked cars now and pavement
There’s no monument there’s no stone here to see him
Just black asphalt flanked by high rise hospital chains

If I had it my way we’d see memorials climbing
To a true and honest hero Prosser’s Gabriel

Now does anyone know the name Gabriel Prosser?
My conscience says he's the one that history missed
A blacksmith by trade up at Brookfield Plantation
A Henrico County slave born to owner Thomas"

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