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Thursday, December 8, 2011

December 8, 2011: So What 3

Over a year ago, in one of my earliest posts here, I wrote about African American slaves who, in the first years after the Declaration of Independence, brought petitions before the newly formed state legislatures to argue for their freedom, using the language and ideas of the Declaration and of the American Revolution more broadly in support of their cause. As I wrote in that post, those petitions explicitly blur, and thus complicate, two of our most prominent and usually contrasted narratives of the Revolution: those that focus on the Founding Fathers and their inspiring arguments for liberty and democracy and a new form of government and nation; and those that note, as did Edmund Wilson in his magisterial American Slavery, American Freedom, the abiding irony of American slavery alongside—and in fact for many of the Founders as a financial and social base for—these central arguments for liberty and equality.
Similarly blurring those two narratives are many of the Revolutionary-era poems of Phyllis Wheatley. As I noted in the later paragraphs of this post on Wheatley, there were few if any American literary works—creative works, that is, rather than more overtly political ones like Tom Paine’s pamphlets—that made the case for the Revolution with more power than her “To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth”; and while in a subsequent pro-Revolution poem like her ode to General Washington Wheatley mostly mutes her own identity as an African American slave, in “Dartmouth” she makes that experience of slavery the explicit grounding for her embrace of liberty and support of the Revolutionary cause. So is it possible to read the whole of the Revolution as, in a partly symbolic but also partly literal sense, descending from a figure like Crispus Attucks, the mixed-race, Wampanoag and African American dockworker whose death at the hands of British soldiers helped define the “Boston Massacre” and hasten the Revolution? Can we read this event, which would come to be so prominently led by and connected to a group of landed and relatively privileged white men, as instead profoundly connected to some of America’s most overtly and crucially cross-cultural individuals and communities? And what would that shift mean for our images of the Revolution and the nation it created?
There are of course many different possible answers to those questions, but there are also prominent and significant recent works of AmericanStudies scholarship that have begun fleshing out such images of the Revolution. At the top of that list would have to be Douglas Egerton’s Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America, a book that analyzes at length key figures such as Quok Walker (one of the first and most famous of the slave petitioners) and Thomas Jefferson’s servant Richard (with whom Jefferson explicitly argued over slavery and its meanings and effects) in order to understand the Revolution through the lens of this American community. Egerton’s conclusions mostly focus on how the Revolution’s promise did not ultimately play out for African Americans, but such failures should not mask the significantly different images of the Revolution that he creates through this new viewpoint and framework. And adding another, even more centrally cross-cultural and transnational layer to such ideas is Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, one of the most seminal works of cultural studies and a text that seeks (very compellingly) to illustrate core elements of modern, post-Enlightenment identity through the experiences of the African, Caribbean, American, and British Atlantic, not as distinct worlds but as one continuous, interconnected, cross-culturally transformative and transforming space. Through Gilroy’s lens, the Revolution no more simply oppressed African Americans than it ultimately separated America from England—each might have been a political outcome, but the cross-cultural connections between these communities would only deepen as a result of the Revolutionary era’s events and changes.
More tomorrow, one more period and exemplary work,
PS. Any events, images, figures, or texts from the Revolutionary era that you’d add to our understanding and histories of it?

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