Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Reflections on the Peculiar Institution

I left a comment while surfing the other day at Mentally Unstable. Alison, the blog's author, said she had been reading as many novels as possible, and I asked which ones? On her next blog post, she said she was reading "Atlas Shrugged," by Ann Rand. I'm thinking -- Wow! That's awesome. I read Rand's "The Fountainhead" almost twenty years ago, and I'm meaning to begin "Atlas Shrugged" myself (it's a thick one, so it's been hard to commit).

I'm currently reading "Jubilee," by Margaret Walker. It's a novel of slavery. I'm really fascinated by it so far, and I've only read 50-plus pages. I have a lot of expertise on black politics in America, and I taught a course on the subject as a graduate lecturer in 1999 (UCSB's Political Science 176), but I haven't actually read a whole lot of books on slavery, fiction or non-fiction. I started, but never finished, Ira Berlin's "Many Thousands Gone." However, Leon Litwack's "Trouble in Mind" and Earl and Merle Black's, "Politics and Society in the South" are two of my favorite books, and both have left a deep imprint on my thinking about race in the United States.

As for "Jubilee," I was really moved by a passage I read, whereby one of the main characters, Vyry, along with her Aunt Sally, went to attend a Baptist Church meeting while on leave from the plantation. The meeting turned out to be no ordinary Sunday prayer session, as a number of abolitionists were there. They were agitating for a black uprising against slavery across the South. It was an envigorating speech! But Uncle Joe, one of the older black slaves from Vyry's plantation, was scared, and denounced talk of abolition as foolhardy:

That's foolish talk you talking boy, foolish and dangerous, too. Here you is ain't dry behind your ears and here you come talking bout how us gwine be free. Does you know how many hundreds and hundreds of years we's been slaves? Does you know how long since the white man brung us here from Afficky to this here America? You know how come? Well, you know what God told Ham, don't you? You know what we is, don't you. Just hewers of wood and drawers of water, that's what we is. That's our punishment for being black. Yall can swell up, swell on up if you want to, like a dead dog, until you bust. I knows what you think I is, but I'm telling you now bout getting free. You might be willing to die cause you ain't gotta die, and you might be willing to get whipped, but I ain't fixing to say die, and I ain't fixing to get whipped. Sho, us is uprising, niggers uprising all the time and look what happening. Ain't none of them uprising yet went free. Tell me one time they come free, I'm asking you? Just tell me one time. You know when us gwine free? I can tell you cause I knows. Us gwine free when the Good Lord say so and not before, when He come riding in His chariot bringing a Moses with Him. If He means for me to go free, I'm gwine go free one of these days...Lord knows I'd like to be ables to go wheresomever I wants to go, do what I wants to do, have my own farm, raise my own taters and cotton and corn, and be my own marster, man, and boss like you is, but I knows the Lord's will gwine be, and I'm waiting on the Lord...."
This was an extremely moving passage for me. My dad grew up in Jim Crow-era Missouri. Stories he told me, and stories told to me by his close friends, ring close to Uncle Joe's lament in "Jubilee." Blacks in the antibellum South grew strength from their faith in deliverance to the promised land -- the "old negro spiritual" that Martin Luther King spoke of in his "I Have a Dream Speech." I'll write some follow-ups to this post as I move through the book. It's quite good thus far.

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