Lecture 1. Dawn of Freedom


“Fellow citizens, pardon me, and allow me to ask, why am
I called upon to speak here today? What have I or those
I represent to do with your national independence?
Are the great principles of political freedom and
of natural justice, embodied in that
Declaration of Independence, extended to us?
And am I, therefore, called upon to bring our
humble offering to the national altar, and to
confess the benefits, and express devout gratitude
for the blessings resulting from your independence
to us? Would to God, both for your
sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer
could be truthfully returned to these questions. But
such is not the state of the case. I say it with a
sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not
included within the pale of this glorious anniversary!
Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable
distance between us. The blessings in which you this
day rejoice are not enjoyed in common. The rich
inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and
independence bequeathed by your fathers is
shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that
brought life and healing to you has brought stripes and
death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not
mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man
in fetters into the grand illuminated
temple of liberty, and call upon him to
join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and
sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me,
by asking me to speak today? What to the American slave
is your Fourth of July? I answer, a day that reveals
to him more than all other days of the year, the gross
injustice and cruelty to which he is the
constant victim. To him your celebration is a sham; your
boasted liberty an unholy license; your
national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds
of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your
denunciations of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence;
your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery;
your prayers and hymns, your sermons and
thanksgivings, with all your religious
parade and solemnity, are to him mere
bombast, fraud, deception,
impiety, and hypocrisy, a thin veil to cover up
crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There
is not a nation of the earth guilty of practices more
shocking and bloody than are the people of these United
States at this very hour. Go where you may,
search where you will, roam through all the
monarchies and despotisms of the Old World, travel
through South America, search out every abuse
and when you have found the last, lay your facts by
the side of the everyday practices of this nation,
and you will say with me that, for revolting
barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns
without a rival.” Welcome to class. Many of you will
have recognized Frederick Douglass’s speech,
delivered in Rochester, New York to abolitionist
friends on July 5th, 1852. Douglass is invited
by his friends to come to Rochester on July 4th to
talk about the meaning of freedom, the
meaning of liberty, the meaning of this great
country. These were his friends. He refused to come
on July 4th for the reasons that you certainly heard in
this excerpt–and this is a three hour long speech, I
spared you two hours and fifty-eight minutes of.
It’s a brilliant speech. But he refused to
come on July 4th, because to talk about
independence and liberty to a person who emancipated
himself was unkind at best, certainly blind. But he did
come. He came on July 5th, the next day, and offered
and presented one of the great speeches in American
letters. Now this course is about the African
American experience after emancipation, from
emancipation to the present. Today, however,
I’m going to lay the foundation for the course by
discussing events prior to the emancipatory moment. This class is about the post-emancipation African
American experience. It is about American history. And
I hope that point is frankly very obvious, but one never
quite understands or can anticipate all of these
things. It is about American history fundamentally.
At its course, at its core excuse me, the
course is about citizenship, the most important keyword
for the entire class. The course is about citizenship,
how one becomes a citizen, what one does to preserve
that citizenship. At its core then, the class asks
the question: what does it mean to be American? Now
I will ask this question explicitly a few
times in the class, but it implicitly is woven
through so much of what I’m going to be talking about.
What does it mean to be American? Now we started
today talking about or listening to an excerpt of
Douglass’s famous oration from 1852. Now I want to
move backward even further, another eighty years or
so, going from a rather well-known document and a
quite famous individual to a rather unknown document
and to someone who is essentially lost to
history. I want to talk about events in the 1770s.
One quick tangent though: when I was about
four or five years old, living near
Concord, Massachusetts, my mother would take me on
field trips. She’d try them out on me before taking her
first and second graders. And one day she took me to
Minuteman Park. Has anybody been to Minuteman
Park? It’s beautiful, right? It’s
gorgeous. Anyway, the site of the start of the
Revolutionary War. So I’m with my four and five year
old attention span listening to the tour guides walking
through these beautiful fields and
meadows. Afterwards, we were driving
around a country road, and I point to these
stone walls and said, “Mom, those are like the
walls the Minutemen hid behind from those
stories.” She said, “Jonathan, those are the
walls.” Four or five years old, I mean, I was not
really thinking in grand, historical terms. Life did
not exist beyond my four or five years as far as I
understood it. But at that moment, I sort of was
astonished that these stories, these fun
little stories that I’d been hearing for the
past hour or so, whatever it
was, in the tour, were actually true, that
something existed beyond my own existence on the
planet. Looking backwards, I like to think that that’s
when I became a historian, although I would try to be
an orthopedic surgeon and then a lawyer. That stopped after a couple
of weeks of college. But I can look back and
think that I learned something that day, that
there was something about–something larger than
myself around me. Near the Minuteman Park, there’s
also a cemetery. At that cemetery, there’s a
headstone. My mother didn’t take me on this field trip;
went with other people, and did charcoal rubbings
of headstones in Concord cemeteries. The story
behind this headstone is where I want to
start this course, really. It’s a story about
a man named John Jack. It’s a story about an individual
who certainly understood very well about a sense,
the existence of forces much larger than himself
determining his life. The epitaph reads, excuse me:
“God wills us free. Man wills us slave. I will
as God wills God’s will be done.” That’s the opening
lines. I know it’s a little bit tough to make out.
It’s on the course website, by the way, the first week.
“God wills us free. Man wills us slave. I will
as God wills God’s will be done. Here lies the
body of John Jack, native of Africa,
who died March 1773, aged about 60 years. Though
born in the land of slavery, he was born free. Though he
lived in a land of liberty, he lived a slave, till by
his honest though stolen labors, he acquired the
source of slavery which gave him his freedom. Though
not long before Death, the grand tyrant, gave him
his final emancipation and set him on a footing with
kings. Though a slave to vice, he practiced those
virtues without which kings are but slaves.” It’s a
remarkable document. My mother did this head
rubbing–this stone rubbing–a charcoal
rubbing of the headstone, had it framed. It hung in
my family’s house. I walked past this image for
about fifteen years before I actually read it. I’m not
saying the guy was bright. I look at the opening lines,
about nineteen or twenty years old, and I’m floored.
“God wills us free. Man wills us slave. I will as
God wills God’s will be done.” It’s astonishing.
Couple of years later, I’m heading to grad school,
and I look at the headstone again, and I’m thinking
grand thoughts about going to study American history.
And I start reading the epitaph all over again,
and I start seeing all these connections, these
dualisms, God and man, freedom and slavery. And
so I decided to acquire the headstone. I took it from
my parents’ house. I told them about it once I had it
on my wall in my apartment at grad school. And through
my mother’s good graces, I still have it. It hangs
above my computer. It’s always, it’s always with
me. It is something of a totem. Now the story about
John Jack I think is even more interesting than the
headstone. So we know that John Jack, certainly
not his birth name, a black African, born in
the continent somewhere in Africa, a continent with
thousands of years history of slavery, still
present today of course. He survives the Middle
Passage. He comes to–and he’s born free in Africa
but is enslaved somehow–he comes over to what will
become the United States. It’s not quite the United
States. John Jack would never see the United
States. He comes to colonial New England. Now
this point’s just important on its surface. We’re going
to hear a lot about the South in this class. If you
think geographically about so many of the
freedom struggles, the post-emancipation
African American experience, they are southern stories.
But don’t let yourself be fooled. Slavery was alive
and well in New England, and a lot of the freedom
struggles that have happened since emancipation certainly
happened up in New England as well. Anyway, John
Jack winds up in Concord, Massachusetts. He has, as
the saying would have been at the time, “a kind master”
who teaches him a trade. He’s a cobbler,
works on shoes, and allows him to keep a
little bit of every shoe he cobbles. The amount of
money’s immaterial. It wouldn’t have been
much. Over time, through his stolen labors,
his “honest though stolen labors” as the epitaph says,
he acquired the source of slavery. He raised enough
money to buy himself. He secured his own emancipation
through his hard work. He acquires some land
on the edge of town, a subsistence farm, nothing
much more than that. And then we discover that he
drinks himself to death. Between the time of
his emancipation–his self-emancipation and his
death–he tries to become a citizen of Concord. He
couldn’t do it. He was male, an important
criteria. Check that one off. He owned property.
Those were usually the two most important criteria.
But because he had been enslaved, he couldn’t become
a citizen. Let’s think of the moment. We are on the
cusp of the Revolutionary War, in Concord,
Massachusetts, the start of the
Revolutionary War. You have the citizens of
Concord, the white, male property
owners in Concord, complaining to the British
crown about being treated as slaves. This is
literally their language, that they were being
treated as slaves, and this wasn’t
right. Somehow these people questing for freedom ignored
those people they owned. The black African
slaves in their midst, they were blind to
their existence, apparently.
John Jack, though, understood the situation.
He saw what was happening all around him. He
couldn’t help but, and who knows why he
became an alcoholic, but that might be a
good reason. Anyway, he’s drinking himself
to death and knows it, and he hires an attorney to
put his affairs in order. It’s his attorney who crafts
the epitaph here. Here’s where the story gets
even more interesting, I think. The person
John Jack hires to put his affairs in order is a
British sympathizer, a Tory. John Jack got
it. He was going to hire–almost like
he’s thumbing his nose postmortem. He wasn’t
going to be allowed to be a citizen,
despite his freedom, in an area that’s
fighting for freedom, claiming that they
weren’t citizens, they were slaves in fact,
and they certainly didn’t know slavery like he knew
it. John Jack understood something fundamental about
what would become the United States of America,
pretty soon in fact. And the fundamental thing he
understood is that you cannot understand freedom,
that thing that is at the bedrock of what
this country is about, you cannot understand
it without understanding slavery. Freedom and
slavery were intertwined, intertwined for the
citizens on the ground, intertwined for
people like John Jack, Frederick
Douglass, of course, and others after. You could
not separate the denial of freedom from the quest of
freedom. That’s why the citizens of Concord knew it
was so important. They may not have wanted to have
John Jack be a citizen, but they didn’t want to be
like him. Two hundred years later, after John Jack’s
attorney produces this epitaph–not quite
two hundred years, let’s say one hundred and
eighty or so–Ralph Ellison, one of the great writers
of the American past, identifies much of the same
phenomenon that John Jack must have identified and
that John Jack’s attorney certainly understood.
And he wrote this brilliant passage. I’ll probably
use it again later on in the course. Ellison wrote,
“Southern whites cannot talk, walk, sing,
conceive of laws or justice, think of sex,
love, the family, or freedom, without
responding to the presence of Negroes.” They
are intertwined, linked fate, as it were.
Now this course is going to spend a fair amount of time
examining this phenomenon, the linkage between
freedom–not so much freedom and slavery, but citizenship
and the denial of citizenship. And
we’re going to spend time investigating how
this challenge, this problem, this tension,
can be located in unexpected places. We’ll turn to
primary sources of all types in order to examine this
story. One place is a great example is just in currency,
stuff you’re carrying–well, we don’t carry much in terms
of dollars and change any more, it’s on
credit cards, I suppose, debit cards. But
back in the day, a few years ago, when we all
carried cash–the story of a nation’s myth is embodied on
its currencies. These are two examples of Confederate
scrip. I wish I could make them bigger. They’re
actually JPEG screen captures. They really
aren’t–they pixilate pretty quickly. But you can see on
these dollar bills stories that were important to
the Confederate States of America. A one-dollar bill
and a ten-dollar bill. And the stories that are
important are here, going back one image.
Use my mouse here. Here, then down here. What
you see is labor and white womanhood, and the laborer
you see is a slave. And I know it doesn’t show it
very clearly in this JPEG, but the laborer is happy.
The slave carrying the cotton is smiling.
On the other bill, you have white womanhood.
You’re going to see this is quite a fascinating
trope in American history, southern American history:
the exalted white woman, especially as it
pertains to black men, with tropes of
violence, and danger, and sexual predation woven
throughout that dynamic. So on the money that
Confederates were handing to one another to
exchange goods, you have happy labor,
you have exalted white womanhood.
Notions of who belongs, the myths that form
our nation states, are all around us. They’re
on the money that we carry. We’re going to look for
stories like this in all manner of places, and
through looking at these stories, we’re going to see
that the post-emancipation African American experience
is several different types of histories. It’s a
history of political struggle, no doubt. An
image here of black woman voting, the 1950s I believe,
from the same night–and the history behind an image
like that is filled with all kinds of political struggle
that you certainly have at least a slim awareness of,
a glimmer of awareness of. But on the same night,
in the same district, that struggle is embodied by
this. The risk she took in voting were risks that
involved her life. It’s a history of political
struggle in this country. Certainly a history of
social protest as well. You have here an image of women
from a group called the National Association
of Colored Women, the “upstanding
women of the race, and I use that in quotation
marks for reasons we’ll understand in a few weeks.
Not that they weren’t upstanding, but it’s a very
loaded phrase on purpose. Marching at the White House
in this case to protest the lack of an anti lynching
law. “Protect life and liberty!” they’re
exclaiming. It’s a history of social
struggle. It’s a history, certainly, of social
control. There are some images that don’t need much
in the way of narration. I will point out though–I
mean actually I don’t know the history of the image,
but if you look closely, you’ll see Spanish language
up here in the archways. I think this actually
happens in Laredo, Texas, this Klan rally.
It is also a history of cultural celebration. We’ll
spend a few lectures doing occasional close
readings of important icons, images, sound clips,
movie clips in fact, from the post-emancipation
African American experience. This is
one image of a series of paintings by the artist
Aaron Douglas. I’m not going to go into it now,
because I will go into it in about a month and a half, I
think. But I will tell you that in this history of
cultural celebration, the images that we’ll be
seeing are complicated, deeply loaded with many
different stories in the same spirit of John Jack’s
epitaph. The stories are in this image here, and I’ll
explain it in more detail as we get to it. It’s
also a history of powerful relevance today. We
are being trained, people are
trying to train us, to talk about this moment as
being a post-racial moment. I actually think it couldn’t
be anything further from the truth. The election of
Barack Obama–now excuse me, I got ahead of my notes one
section here. History of powerful relevance today for
many of its political and cultural symbols. Prior
to the election of Barack Obama, you have
battles over flags, state flags. This is
the state flag of Georgia, had been the state
flag of Georgia, flying above the
Capitol, on license plates, you name it. The
Confederate battle flag, as many of you know,
is a powerful symbol of–depending on
your perspective, tradition and heritage or
violence and degradation. There’s not much gray area
when it comes to the battle flag. As NAACP organized
protests about flying something with the
Confederate flag on state property, and southern
legislatures refused to back down–Interestingly
enough, the NFL, National Football League,
has done incredible work in getting rid of the symbols
and markers of a segregated past, for fear of
threatening boycotts, removing the Super
Bowl from say Atlanta, because of the Confederate
battle flag. And, in fact, doing something
like this in Arizona over the fact that Arizona did
not recognize Martin Luther King Day as a state holiday.
The battle ensues over these flags in Georgia, and one
option is going to be this flag that incorporates all
the different flags from Georgia’s past, and this is
the final cleaning up as it were of southern history.
Now it’s a history of powerful relevance today.
This is a handful of years ago. Moving to more
local events in history, we can think now about the
election of Barack Obama. Two years ago when I
was teaching this class, Obama and Clinton were
heading into the Democratic primaries, and I’ll confess,
I thought Hillary Clinton had this thing locked up.
And then this young senator from Illinois goes on a
historic tear. And as I’m giving the lecture
course, I’m like, “Wow, I’ve got to rewrite
the end of my class.” And then during that
election campaign, there was the
Reverend Wright scandal, and Barack Obama’s famous
speech in Philadelphia during spring break, which
is when I really had to rewrite the end of my
class. After the class is over, he goes and gets
elected. Some of you were here from that moment. This
is a screen capture from the Yale Daily the next
day, after Obama wins the election. There’s a moment
here of the student carrying one of the iconic images
in the Obama campaign about hope, and a suggestion of
a new day. Then again, the suggestion of a
post-racial day. Now I don’t want to deny the fact
that this is an historical election for all
manner of reasons, whether it was Hillary
Clinton who won or Barack Obama who won, if a
Democrat was to win, it was going to be
historic. I don’t want to minimize that. But I also
don’t want to buy into the fact that simply because
the nation has elected a President who is
ostensibly black, and I say that very
purposefully–if you think about racial coding, as we
get later on in this course, you’ll understand better why
I say “ostensibly black.” I don’t put any political
meaning in that phrase, by the way. I’m not trying
to either prop up or push down Barack Obama’s racial
affiliations. But electing a President who’s
ostensibly black, the nation healed itself.
It found a way to get past its ugly histories and
its scars. It was a better place. It was a more
perfect union. It was post-racial. But really,
was it? Let’s think more locally. Let’s go back to
Confederate scrip. As it happens, I’ve been showing
the other Confederate scrip for years. And
about a year ago, I discovered that, somewhere
in the last couple of years, Yale bought a huge
collection of Confederate scrip. It now has the
largest collection in the world of Confederate scrip.
Just one of these things. [Professor
laughs.] Actually, they are
beautiful documents, I mean, beautifully
constructed. So I went up to the
numismatic–numsistatic–it’ s one of the words
you don’t want to flub, but I just did–collection
at Sterling Library and looked at the Confederate
scrip. And I was floored when I saw this
image. I’m like, “Can you scan this
for my purposes, please?” You have
happy labor. You have Lady Liberty. This is happy
labor. And you have this man. Those of you who
know the residential college system at Yale,
which is all of you, will know that one of them
is named Calhoun College. You will know I’m the
Master of Calhoun College, which I think is humorous
in just its nomenclature, certainly. This
is John C. Calhoun, one of the great men of
Eli, as the Yale Corporation thought through the naming
of the residential colleges, the first seven back in 1931
and ’32. They wanted to name the colleges after
the great–the great sons of Eli, excuse me.
And they wanted, you know, the greatest Yale
alum in the world of arts, in the world of letters,
in the world of politics, and so on. And they decided
that John C. Calhoun, an important person,
there’s no doubt about it: vice-president of
the United States, powerful senator from South
Carolina–Still revered in that state as one of its
great heroes. They decided that John C. Calhoun was
their greatest alum. There is no financial connection
from the name or the family to the college, but this
was the logic of 1932, ’33, Yale Corporation.
John C. Calhoun was the architect–although he did
not live to see the Civil War–he was the intellectual
architect for secession. He believed in states’ rights,
an important theme of this course that we’ll be talking
much more in detail about later on. And he certainly
did not believe that slaves were fully equipped to
handle the rigors of civilization. It may
sound like kind of a strange sentence construction. They
weren’t ready to handle the rigors of being civilized,
but this is the language of the day. I wonder, as I
look up in the Master’s house living room,
or in my office, or in the courtyard–and
there’s images of Calhoun all over the dang
place in the college, I have to wonder what he
thinks. History’s rather humorous sometimes, and
the ironies can be rather beautiful. But the
phenomenon of thinking about race, or not
thinking about race, not talking about race, is
with us today. It is all around us. Now thinking
about Confederate scrip from quite some time ago, you
know we aren’t carrying that around in our pockets after
all. How’s that a reminder of today, thinking about a
decision that some people made in 1933? That’s not
today’s thinking. You know, how is this with us today?
Thinking about race is with us today in the astonishing
ways that people make their decisions and maintain their
blindnesses. Two years ago, the freshman class at
Yale–some of you might be in this room who were in
that decision process. I’m not going to call you
out–decided to have for their freshman ball the
theme called Gone with the Wind. Student: That
was last year. Professor Jonathan Holloway: Was that
last year? Student: Last year. Professor Jonathan
Holloway: Last year. Well, let’s just say when I
heard word of this decision, I thought it was a
very curious decision. I discovered the more
sort of immature, sexually prurient reasons
for calling it “Gone with the Wind.” I won’t get into
those now. But I also know that people thought it would
be nice. They’re aware that the movie Gone with the
Wind is complicated. They thought it would be nice to
get dressed up in ball gowns and the cotillion style
and go to Commons and have a wonderful time. The
blindness though astonished me. Getting dressed up
for a cotillion might sound lovely. People can–Yalies
can make amazing costumes, but was that really Southern
history? Was that really what happened? Was that what
it was all about? You need to understand, as I was
telling the students when I was raising my
concerns about this, that in many places where
you had this plantation society, people
dressed up for cotillions, occupying
buildings built by slaves, in many of these places,
most of the people were black. Gone with the Wind
kind of erases this history, doesn’t talk about it. And
the notion that some of the most educated people in
the world would fail to understand the connection,
or the lack of connection, with Gone with the Wind
to our lived experience, is rather breathtaking and
rather depressing. So I decided, in my next lecture,
that as a teaching moment, I’d read a poem called
“Southern History” by the great poet
Natasha Trethewey, who was here last semester
actually. Professor Trethewey says
this: “Before the war, they were happy,” he
said. quoting our textbook. (This was senior-year
history class.) “The slaves
were clothed, fed, and better off under a
master’s care.” I watched the words blur on the
page. No one raised a hand, disagreed. Not even
me.nIt was late. we still had
Reconstruction to cover before the test, and –
luckily – three hours of watching Gone with the
Wind. “History, the teacher said, “of the old
South – a true account of how things were back
then.” On screen a slave stood big as
life: big mouth, bucked eyes, our textbook’s
grinning proof – a lie my teacher guarded. Silent, so
did I.” Now the purpose of my class is not
to stand silent, and I hope you will
take with you that same determination. This
is a local history, after all. You live in it,
whether you live in Calhoun, or whether you happen to
live in Davenport or Pierson Colleges who, or
where, two years ago, this was spray painted on
the walls outside the dining hall: “nigger school.” Now
I don’t think anybody from Yale spray painted this, or
“drama fags” across the way at the school of drama. I
don’t think for a second anybody at Yale spray
painted this. But even though we are at Yale does
not mean that we are not in New Haven. Even though we
are at Yale does not mean that we are being fed by a
population that comes from a dramatically different set
of resources than we do, in a highly segregated,
de facto to be sure, desegregated,
workforce. It is around us, we are subsumed in it,
and it is our obligation to learn this history, lest we
repeat it. Thank you very much, and I’ll see
you on Wednesday.

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