At the ceremony on Sunday, Sept 13, 2009, unveiling the plaque to commemorate Brookline's enslaved people, State Representative Byron Rushing gave the following talk. Mr Rushing is an elected representative from Boston to the Massachusetts House. In the 1960's he was active in the civil right movement, while in the 70's and 80's he served as president of the Museum of African American History in Boston.
THE DANGER OF HISTORICAL AMNESIA
(Byron Rushing at the ceremony unveiling the plaque honoring the enslaved Brookline residents buried in the Old Burying Ground September 13, 2009)
NOTE: Mr. Rushing did not give his talk a title. The title given here is simply to indicate the scope of his talk.
Buried within the walls of the cemetery lie the remains of Adam, who marched to fight as a Minuteman on April 19, 1775, as well as of Kate, Hagar, Venus, Seco, Felix, Boston, Dinah, Charles, and Ben Boston and of other slaves of African descent who lived in Brookline and whose names are not known to us. In their memory and in their honor this memorial is dedicated.
I am so glad to be with you all - and so many! what a turnout! - this afternoon at this important commemoration "In their memory…" Let me take a few moments to speak about just that: Memory.
When we lose our memory, we lose the ability to know both where and when we are. Our orientation is made possible, defined by memory. When we have no memory we become disoriented. When I try to explain the importance of history to young people, I ask them to engage in an exercise, a role play, of losing their memory. They quickly understand that they are not able to answer questions like what day is this or what room or building are they in? I then tell them that I have not lost my memory; they begin to ask me those questions. I answer with inaccuracies, with lies. They realize that theirs is not only a disorientation of time and place. It is also a disorientation of recognizing truth and falsehood. This is the dangerousness of amnesia.
Theologians have a fancy word for the opposite of amnesia. It is a word for recalling, recollecting, remembering what is most important: Anamnesis.
History is our corporate memory. It is the memory of our individual existence incorporated into the memories of others existence. If it is not known, forgotten, "lost, stolen, or strayed," we suffer from corporate amnesia. Today when we consider the enslaved buried in this place, we have the opportunity to recall not only Adam and Kate and the others, but also recollect why we know so little about them and why we know so little about slavery and the slave trade. We have an opportunity to cure our amnesia and consider the opportunities of a corporate anamnesis.
This "recalling" will not be an easy exploration. Slavery and the slave trade in the Americas existed longer than emancipation and civil rights has yet existed. If you use 1619 as the approximate date of the introduction of slavery in the North American British colonies which would become the United States of America, slavery lasted for 246 years. It will not be until 2111 that people of African descent will have been free as long as they have been enslaved in the United States. (Even in Haiti/the Dominican Republic - on Hispaniola, as the Spaniards called that island - where the first successful revolt against slavery occurred---slavery lasted about 285 years; it will be 2085 before Haitians and Dominicans of African descent will have been free as long as they have been enslaved.)
To move from the myth of slavery as an incidental occurrence in the early days of the European occupation of the Americas, to the truth of slavery as part of the truth of the origins of the nations of the Americas and specifically of the origins and economic success of the United States will require the production of an accurate history, a new memory of our founding. The stories which we combine into the set of experiences, beliefs and values that affect the way we as "Americans" perceive who we are is sometimes call a paradigm: "the values, or system of thought, in a society that are most standard and widely held at a given time. Dominant paradigms are shaped both by the community's cultural background and by the context of the historical moment." A more accurate history will lead us to a new paradigm. What is called a paradigm shift. If we accurately consider all the remains buried within the walls of this cemetery, be prepared for a paradigm shift.
Consider this paradigm:
The first record of a group of African people arriving in Massachusetts is from John Winthrop's Journal, ["History of New England"]. In his July 1637 notation, John Winthrop wrote, "We had now slain and taken, in all, about seven hundred (Indians). We sent fifteen of the boys and two women to Bermuda, by Mr. Pierce; but he, missing it, carried them to Providence Isle."
William Pierce was the captain of the Desire which was built in Marblehead and sailed out of Salem. Providence Isle was a Puritan settlement off the coast of Central America.
In an Entry dated February 26, 1638, Winthrop wrote in his Journal:
"Mr. Pierce, in the Salem ship, the Desire, returned from the West Indies after seven months. He had been, at Providence, and brought some cotton, and tobacco, and negroes, etc., from thence, and salt from Tertugos. Dry fish and strong liquors are the only commodities for those parts. He met there two men-of-war, set forth by the lords, etc., of Providence with letters of mart, who had taken divers prizes from the Spaniard, and many negroes."
Lorenzo Greene, author of The Negro in Colonial New England, calls this statement, "the earliest recorded account of Negro slavery in New England... Negroes may have been enslaved before that time but earlier allusions to slavery are inferential."
The founders of whom we are today as a nation are all in this story: The aboriginal, the "native people; the English, the Europeans; and the Africans - what in our language would be come to called the Red, the White and the Black. And they all must be in this new paradigm if it is to approach the truth.
In this revised paradigm of our founding, our civic scripture does maintain its importance: "When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
"We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."
However this new paradigm will always have space to ask, who is this "our"? , this "we"?
Adam Hochschild, in Bury the Chains: Prophets and rebels in the fight to free an empire's slaves points out, that at the end of the 18th century, well over three-quarters of all people alive were in bondage of one kind or another. So no one can doubt the revolutionary nature of these propositions.
In March of last year - 2008 - the then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave a remarkable interview. When asked about race, she reflected:
"Well, you know, … America doesn't have an easy time dealing with race. I sit in my office and the portrait immediately over my shoulder is Thomas Jefferson, because he was my first predecessor. He was the first Secretary of State. And sometimes I think to myself, what would he think …a black woman Secretary of State as his predecessor 65 times removed…? What would he think that the last two successors have been black Americans? And so, obviously, when this country was founded, the words that were enshrined in all of our great documents and that have been such an inspiration to people around the world…. They didn't have meaning for an overwhelming element of our founding population. And black Americans were a founding population. Africans and Europeans came here and founded this country together; Europeans by choice, and Africans in chains.And that's not a very pretty reality of our founding, and I think that particular birth defect makes it hard for us to confront it, hard for us to talk about it, and hard for us to realize that it has continuing relevance for who we are today … And so we deal daily with this contradiction, this paradox about America, that on the one hand, the birth defect continues to have effects on our country, and indeed, on the discourse and effects on perhaps the deepest thoughts that people hold; and on the other hand, the enormous progress that has been made by the efforts of blacks and whites together, to finally fulfill those principles. When we acknowledge all and everyone who made America possible we …acknowledge good and bad, sin and grace, a complex yet rich history."
This new paradigm will acknowledge all who owned these words by their hearing, heeding, and incorporation of them into their lives over the protests in word and deed of the authors of those words; over the protests of those who continue to believe these words as narrowly as Jefferson and Washington did.
This new paradigm will raise up the words of Fredrick Douglass:
"This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. In the light of these ideas, Negroes will be hunted at the North, and held and flogged at the South so long as they submit to those devilish outrages, and make no resistance, either moral or physical. Men may not get all they pay for in this world; but they must certainly pay for all they get. If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others."
This new paradigm is necessary to abolish the artificial concept of race - a construct invented in the 15th and 16th centuries and refined in the 17th, 18th, and 19th in order to make slavery more efficient by confining/reserving it to Africans and people of African descent. And preserved to the present in order to preserve their descendants in profitable states of discrimination and what we call "racism."
This new paradigm will not fear the bad news nor deny it as our heritage whenever we or our parents arrive on these shores. Maya Angelou is correct:
History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.
To do this recalling, this facing with courage, we must confront
in the paradigm of our founding, native, aboriginal, first people were killed to secure the land. Africans were worked to death in order to exploit the land. (Before the suppression of the slave trade the birth rate among most enslaved women was always lower than it had been in Africa. This only changed when it became illegal and thus too expensive to import Africans. Slavery and the trade is a history of trauma.
And we must confront
In 1860, more wealth existed in the accumulated value of slaves in the United States than in any other sector of the economy except land - only the total value of land exceeded the total value of enslaved men, women, boys and girls. And this does not include the secondary economies to maintain slavery, such as the food - cod fish - to feed them and the "Negro Cloth" to clothe them and the chains and shackles forged to bind them. And this does not include the value of the products they produced - manufactured into rum and cigars and snuff and-most valuable-- into cotton textiles.
And this does not include the value of the philanthropy:
Thomas Handasyd Perkins (December 15, 1764 - January 11, 1854) before the rebellion there he was a slave trader in Haiti, In 1785, when China opened the port of Canton to foreign businesses, Perkins became one of the first Boston merchants to engage in the "China trade", smuggling Turkish opium into China; in later years Perkins became a philanthropist. In 1826, he and his brother, James Perkins, contributed half the sum of $30,000 that was needed for an addition to the Boston Athenaeum; he was also a major benefactor to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, McLean Hospital, and helped found the Massachusetts General Hospital.; he donated his Boston mansion to the financially troubled "Massachusetts Asylum for the Blind" in 1832 and it was renamed the Perkins School for the Blind.
Buried within this old burying ground are the remains of Adam, Ben Boston. Kate, Hagar, Venus, Seco, Felix, Boston, Dinah and Charles, and of other slaves of African descent who lived in Brookline and whose names are not known to us. The memory of them can be honored by becoming incorporated into our memory. The memory of them can be honored by us recalling the truth of slavery –"that particular birth defect"-- as part of the truth of the origins of the nations of the Americas and specifically of the origins and economic success of the United States; by us producing and using a new paradigm of truth.
In the 19th century Theodore Parker (August 24, 1810 - May 10, 1860) taught Bostonians to: Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice. Things refuse to be mismanaged long.
Or as Martin Luther King liked to rephrase it,
"The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."
Sunday, September 13, 2009
Old Burying Ground,