Tuesday, December 3, 2013
Before Columbus Foundation award for Black Patriots and Loyalists
On November 23rd at the Miami Book Fair, Black Patriots and Loyalists was given an American Book Award by the Before Columbus Foundation. Since I was leaving for India on the following Monday, I could not come. Justin Desmangles read the following remarks for me.
I wish to thank the Before Columbus Foundation and especially Justin Desmangles and Ishmael Reed for giving Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War of Independence an American Book Award. 17 years ago, I began the research on Black Patriots and Loyalists. It tells the startling story of the centrality of the fight for emancipation in the American Revolution itself. In the past 25 years, there has been important work on black soldiers, particularly for the Crown. They have not, however, been recognized as central fighters for both the Crown and the Patriots; similarly, the international origins and subsequent impact of demands for abolition among the fighters in the American Revolution has been ignored. In contrast, Black Patriots and Loyalists sees that the recruitment and freeing of blacks was the motor of the fighting in the Revolution, its driving force. That recruitment helped generate freedom – gradual emancipation – throughout the Northern states during and immediately following the Revolution. And in an international setting, the fight for emancipation in the Caribbean exploded into London and Boston, swept into the United States, and extended afterwards to Haiti, to Nova Scotia, to Sierra Leone and to Venezuela. This is not “identity politics.” This is a new picture of what the American Revolution, as a movement for universal freedom, came from and was.
The story of why I came to and persisted with this theme may be helpful. I had been active in the civil rights movement and against racism at the Universities where I studied and taught. At Harvard in my first year, there was a Freedom Ride, organized through Phillips Brooks House, to Chestertown, Maryland. On the bus on the way down, one of the organizers told us that a young woman picketing Woolworth’s segregated lunch counter the week before, had been thrown through the big glass window by a mob, led by the sheriff. She was still in the hospital.
We were speeding down to Chestertown; no one asked to get off the bus (it was a very bad way for the organizers to proceed, morally and political speaking). But perhaps because of the previous week, we arrived in Chestertown, picketed, were not attacked, and went home with an almost giddy sense of joy in doing the right thing and relief.
But Chestertown, I knew, was not the deep South. I thought very seriously about going to Mississippi in 1964 with Freedom Summer to register voters. But the people I knew were not centrally involved and no one asked me. I finally decided not to go.
But Andy Goodman, my childhood friend – we attended Walden School in Manhattan together from 1st to 4th grad and had kept in touch some afterwards – did go. He believed deeply in equality. On his first day, he drove with James Cheney and Michael Schwerner to visit a burned out church where the Pastor had urged black congregants to register to vote in Philadelphia, Mississippi. On the way back, their car broke down. The police arrested them. At midnight, the sheriff “released” them to a mob organized by the Reverend Edgar Ray Killens. 6 weeks later, after a nationally publicized search, their mutilated bodies were found buried in a dam on the property of a Klansman, 44 years later, Edgar Ray Killens, in his 80s, was finally tried and convicted of murder in the Neshoba County Courts. He is so far the only one…
As a political philosopher and social theorist, I have written a lot about racism. But being taught by Barrington Moore at Harvard, I believed that the real revolution in America was the Civil War, the revolution that cleaned up the Constitution, previously a slave-owner’s document, with the 13th Amendment. So when I learned in 1996, reading Gary Nash’s Race and Revolution, that a “gigantic number of blacks escaped” and fought for the British in the Revolution in exchange for freedom and that there were five reasons why bondage had been gradually abolished in the North – creating the North as, for the first time, a base against slavery – and possibly in the South, I was amazed. He left the subject after two pages; I stopped.
I pursued this theme through many research libraries here and abroad. I wrote a draft of the book in four years, and gave the University Lecture at the University of Denver on it in 1999. But the American Revolution told primarily as a story of white folks – Crispus Attucks and a few others excepted – is a leading national myth. And that so many African-Americans fought for the British was the Revolution’s “dirty secret” Nash said. So it took 16 years, and many twists and turns, until Black Patriots and Loyalists was finally published as a trade book by the University of Chicago Press. I would like to thank John Tryneski for marvelous editing, and Carrie Adams, Bud Bynack and many others who helped shape this book into a now vibrant paperback. The tale is steadily getting out…
In the course of this research, I discovered a great abolitionist movement from below on the Patriot side led by sailors, black and white a century before the Civil War. They had been seized off the streets by British press-gangs. Riots against these gangs were leading features, along with the Boston Tea-party and those against the Stamp Act, of mass protest before the Revolution. Sailors kidnapped from their daily lives – like Solomon Northrup later – and forced aboard ship journeyed to the Caribbean where they witnessed some 15 slave revolts from 1750 on. Naturally, they identified with the slaves (they had been forced into “service” themselves…). They carried the word to London where J. Philmore wrote the incendiary Two Dialogues on the Man-Trade (1760) and Boston where James Otis wrote The Rights of the British Colonists Asserted and Proved (1764), defending the natural rights of every man, “black as well as white.” The pamphlets were fuel for the new revolutionary movement the next 11 years in the making. This created among poor people as well as previously overlooked figures in the elite like John Laurens a principled movement for abolition.
In addition, military rivalry between the Americans and the British which made the Patriot black and Narragansett Indian First Rhode Island Regiment, the most experienced and best fighters on the American side. At the Battle of Yorktown, Georg Daniel Flohr, a German private wrote in his diary, most of the dead strewn around the field on both sides were “Mohren” (Moors, blacks)…This instrumental competition added practical force to the demand for emancipation from below.
So my book sets the American Revolution in the international democratic movement against bondage. The story about slavery was not incidental to that Revolution; on the contrary, the international demand for emancipation shaped it. In the past year, the New York Times reviewed, often apologetically, books on Presidents who were slave-owners. Such Presidents actually held office 52 of the first 72 years of the Republic. To remove an historical amnesia, I might note, these were our Founding Slave-drivers as much as they were Founding “Fathers” of Freedom for some.
The Times has now included an op-ed by Paul Finkelman that Thomas Jefferson was “the Monster of Monticello.” But it will not yet mention that black Patriots were central fighters in the Revolution. For the Daughters of the American Revolution have it exactly backwards. Blacks soldiers were decisive for the Patriots and after the Emancipation Proclamation, for the North in the Civil War. They should be the first, not the last, honored for the patriotism. So Black Patriots and Loyalists causes a great upheaval in how we might understand the significance of the American Revolution.
I am especially honored to be given this award by the Before Columbus Foundation. Even the name is rightly skeptical of the Founding Amnesia embodied in the holiday for Christopher Columbus who murdered the indigenous people of Hispaniola, enslaving a few and sending them back to Spain. I am a John Evans Professor at the University of Denver, working on a University committee to examine Evans’ role in the Sand Creek Massacre of determinedly peaceful Cheyennes and Arapahoes, November 29, 1864. That was the same year that the University of Denver was founded and Governor John Evans and Colonel John Chivington were on its original board of trustees. The 150th anniversary of both of these events which were also integral to the bloody founding of Denver itself begins next January. I am now writing a manuscript about this and connecting it up with the foundation of many universities.
For mercilessly destroying indigenous communities, down to the women and children and driving the remnant onto barren reservations often in distant territories, was a process across the Continent. It was linked before and during the Revolution to “American” national unity, even though indigenous people often provided shelter – freedom - for escaped slaves. As Lerone Bennett and Gary Nash have told us, a big effort, for instance, through anti-miscegenation laws, was made by the British and then American elite to divide black from red from poor white.
This ethnic cleansing was basic to the founding and purpose of educational institutions, as Craig Steven Wilder’s Ebony and Ivy and Peter Silver’s Our Savage Neighbors reveal. Neither of these fine books this past year, however, touch upon the central role of blacks, poor whites and Narragansett Indians in Rhode Island fighting for emancipation which was enacted there in 1784. That is the story which Black Patriots and Loyalists tells and it thus seems particularly fitting that the Before Columbus Foundation has chosen to honor it. Though the story of the United States has been, in part, the story of freedom, it has also been the long suppressed story of twin genocides against indigenous people and African-Americans. The road to freedom is long and harsh. We are just, even in 2013, taking timid steps at acknowledging these crimes, and at last to create a society in which each person can be recognized as free and equal.