Tuesday, March 11, 2014
Douglas Egerton on Denmark Vesey
Having recently put up two posts on Paul Robeson, here and here, this post, about Douglas Egerton's recent New York Times op-ed on Denmark Vesey, is really the third in a series about the demonization of African-Americans who stand up.
Douglas Egerton is the author, among other books, of Gabriel's Rebellion here, renaming the mislabeled "Gabriel's Conspiracy." For who would name the revolt of George Washington, outside of London during the uprising, a "conspiracy"? Similarly, a planned insurrection of slaves, aided by some white Frenchmen (Jacobins), nearly burned the wooden city of Richmond to the ground in 1800 and helped put an end to "the peculiar institution" in the South as well as (what was gradually happening) in the North. Gabriel's Revolt was no mere conspiracy.
My Black Patriots and Loyalists (Chicago, 2012, paperback) - see here - makes the point that the greatest fight for freedom before and during the American Revolution was of black and white sailor, artisan and soldier abolitionists. It resulted in gradual emancipation throughout the North. Gabriel's Rebellion could have frightened Virginia into joining them. Egerton reviewed my book here.
Some years ago, Egerton spoke about Denmark Vesey, an enterprising rebel who planned an insurrection in Charles Town (the spelling of the time, shortened today). As he reports in a recent New York Times' op-ed piece, he ran into the following response:
"...while I was giving a talk on Vesey in Charleston, a member of the audience challenged my view that what Vesey wished to accomplish — the freedom for his friends and family — could be a good thing, on the grounds that he went about it the wrong way. 'Why not work within the system for liberation,' the man asked, or even 'stage a protest march?'
Although well intentioned, such questions reveal how far American society still has to travel before we reach a sophisticated understanding of the past. There was no 'system' for Vesey to work within; his state had flatly banned private manumissions, or the freeing of slaves, in 1820. The only path to freedom was to sharpen a sword. Americans today can admire the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his 1963 nonviolent March on Washington, but his world was not Vesey’s, and we must understand that."
Now, one should even be cautious about envisioning the movement against segregation as not being met by extreme elite violence. Martin Luther King faced at least yearly assassination attempts from the bombing of his apartment in Birmingham at twenty-six through his murder at thirty-nine in Memphis. He fought for a mass nonviolent movement, one which permits, but only when the oppressors are stopped, a beloved community in which all can participate. Nonviolence looks, on the world stage today, to be a much more practical as well as inclusive and decent form of protest, one whose sudden mass uprisings could benefit from an accompanying and diverse tactical approach (see Chenoweth and Stepan's 2012, Why Civil Resistance Works).
But when King led the protests in Birmingham, "lawyer Vann" was the one elite white man who would talk with him. In King's "Letter from the Birmingham City Jail," he answered supposedly moderate white ministers who wanted no action for integration from below and denounced King as an "outside agitator" (something that certainly contributed to elite violence rather than challenging it...). What King says in response applies even more strongly, with less alternative at the time, as Egerton underlines, to Denmark Vesey:
"We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was 'well timed' in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word 'Wait!' It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This 'Wait' has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that 'justice too long delayed is justice denied.'
We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, 'Wait.' But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: 'Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?'; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading 'white' and 'colored'; when your first name becomes 'nigger,' your middle name becomes 'boy' (however old you are) and your last name becomes 'John,' and your wife and mother are never given the respected title 'Mrs.'; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of 'nobodiness'--then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait." See here.
Andy Goodman, my childhood friend, along with Michael Schwerner and James Chaney, was murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi for wanting to register people to vote - along with others during the civil rights movement. The nonviolence of that movement was a courageous decision, but not something mandated, despite a division of Federal against state governments, by what the powerful did, as Malcolm X often and eloquently pointed out.
Egerton also invokes Caesar Varick, leader of a slave insurrection in New York in 1741. The Manhattan burial ground for slaves, rediscovered in 1991, included 40% who had died under the age of 15. Cesar, too, deserves a statue.
Doug thus underlines the bizarreness of "historic" Charleston with its celebration of warrior monsters, slaveowners fighting for the Confederacy, in the context of this resistance to celebrating, even in addition, a genuine freedom fighter.
This "objection" to Vesey is also the Royal objection to the "upstart" slaveowner George Washington who, nonetheless, led a violent revolution for freedom for many Americans. As in the case of the all black and Narragansett Indian First Rhode Island Regiment, Washington even recruited and freed black troops...
In Minnesota in 1862, the Federal government hung thirty-eight Santee Sioux leaders of an uprising against denial of promised rations and starvation. This was the largest "military" hanging in American history. In contrast, no leaders of the defeated Confederacy were hung.
But South Carolina did hang Denmark Vesey and thirty-four others in 1822, rivaling American genocide toward indigenous people...
Denmark Vesey was born on St. Thomas in the Caribbean. As Black Patriots and Loyalists emphasizes, the Caribbean had been swept by slave insurrections, some twenty over a decade and a half, starting with Tacky's revolt in Jamaica in 1760. This revolution against slavery was an international phenomenon which fundamentally shaped the American Revolution for independence - a feature of the American Revolution which is neglected in standard accounts - and of which Denmark Vesey's looking to Saint Domingue/Haiti, the one successful slave insurrection in all of history, was an important part.
As Doug puts it,
"They [questioners such as this audience member] often ignore, for example, the fact that of the roughly 400,000 Africans sold into what is now the United States, approximately 40 percent landed on Sullivan’s Island, a hellish Ellis Island of sorts just outside of Charleston Harbor. Today nothing commemorates that ugly fact but a simple bench, established by the author Toni Morrison using private funds.
Critics of the Vesey statue may not care for his methods (even though their city bristles with monuments and statues of men who picked up a gun to fight for slavery in 1861). But they need to acknowledge that his views were shaped by the whip. Upon being told that he was going to hang, Vesey allegedly whispered that 'the work of insurrection would go on.' When it comes to facing up to unhappy truths about our history, he was more right than he knew."
What Doug's article points up is continuing American ignorance of the horrors of slavery and segregation and despite occasional invocations of King, a pretty abject racism. It is a blow on behalf of education that the Times published this essay. For it is time in America to clarify this and make, more deeply, a new start...
"Abolitionist or Terrorist?
By DOUGLAS R. EGERTON
New York Times,
FEB. 25, 2014
FAYETTEVILLE, N.Y. — ON Feb. 14, a group of activists in Charleston, S.C., unveiled a life-size statue of Denmark Vesey, a black abolitionist who was executed in 1822 for leading a failed slave rebellion in the city.
For many people, Vesey was a freedom fighter and a proto-civil rights leader. But the statue, the work of nearly two decades, brought out furious counterattacks; one recent critic called him a “terrorist,” and a historian denounced him as “a man determined to create mayhem.”
Radio hosts, academics and newspaper bloggers condemned the project as “Charleston’s parallel to the 1990s O. J. Simpson verdict,” and suggested other African-Americans they believed more appropriate subjects of memorialization, like the rock pioneer Chubby Checker or the astronaut Ronald E. McNair.
There’s no doubt that Vesey was a violent man, who planned to attack and kill Charleston whites. But those who condemn him as a terrorist merely demonstrate how little we, as a culture, understand about slavery, and what it forced the men and women it ensnared to do.
Vesey was as complicated a figure as the world that produced him. He was born around 1767, probably on the island of St. Thomas. As a child he was purchased as a cabin boy by Joseph Vesey, a Charleston-based slaver, who settled in the city just after the Revolution.
In 1799, the huge, bright, domestic slave won $1,500 in a city lottery and used $600 of that money to purchase his freedom. But his wife’s master evidently refused to sell her to him, and Charleston whites continued to own her and many of his children.
By early 1822, Vesey had begun to develop a plan for city slaves to rise up. On July 14, they would slay their masters as they slept, fight their way toward the docks and hoist sail for the black republic of Haiti, where slaves had successfully overthrown the French colonists two decades earlier.
Vesey had not lived through the horrors of slavery in the Caribbean and South Carolina by turning the other cheek. With a tough-minded brutality that shocks modern critics of the statue, he worried little about the civilians who might fall as the rebelling slaves worked their way to the docks. While discussing the men who owned his wife and family with his fellow plotters, Vesey picked up a large snake in his path and crushed it with one hand. “That’s the way we would do them,” he said calmly.
When the plot was foiled and Vesey and his co-conspirators captured, white Charleston erupted in anger. During his trial in June 1822, the justices charged him with “a diabolical plot” designed to instigate “blood, outrage, rapine, and conflagration.” Outside the castle-like structure, black women sang and prayed as city authorities sentenced Vesey and 34 of his followers to hang.
The complexity of Vesey’s story is hard to grasp, and wrestling with slavery and violence is hardly unique to South Carolina; white Southerners may rightly wonder when Manhattan will erect a statue to the slave Caesar Varick, who was burned alive in 1741 for plotting a revolt similar to Vesey’s.
More than a decade ago, while I was giving a talk on Vesey in Charleston, a member of the audience challenged my view that what Vesey wished to accomplish — the freedom for his friends and family — could be a good thing, on the grounds that he went about it the wrong way. “Why not work within the system for liberation,” the man asked, or even “stage a protest march?”
Although well intentioned, such questions reveal how far American society still has to travel before we reach a sophisticated understanding of the past. There was no “system” for Vesey to work within; his state had flatly banned private manumissions, or the freeing of slaves, in 1820. The only path to freedom was to sharpen a sword. Americans today can admire the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his 1963 nonviolent March on Washington, but his world was not Vesey’s, and we must understand that.
It is ironic that such historical myopia should be found in Charleston, which today bills itself as one of the nation’s most historic cities. Each afternoon horse-drawn carriages transport tourists about its narrow streets. But as the fight over the Vesey statue suggests, tour guides tell at best an incomplete story.
They often ignore, for example, the fact that of the roughly 400,000 Africans sold into what is now the United States, approximately 40 percent landed on Sullivan’s Island, a hellish Ellis Island of sorts just outside of Charleston Harbor. Today nothing commemorates that ugly fact but a simple bench, established by the author Toni Morrison using private funds.
Critics of the Vesey statue may not care for his methods (even though their city bristles with monuments and statues of men who picked up a gun to fight for slavery in 1861). But they need to acknowledge that his views were shaped by the whip. Upon being told that he was going to hang, Vesey allegedly whispered that “the work of insurrection would go on.” When it comes to facing up to unhappy truths about our history, he was more right than he knew.
Douglas R. Egerton, a professor of history at Le Moyne College, is the author of “He Shall Go Out Free: The Lives of Denmark Vesey” and, most recently, “The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era.”