Student Writings as Supplemental History Texts
Douglass High School was full of activity on MLK Day. Volunteers from across the city and nation organized by Hands On New Orleans, InterFaith Works, and the Frederick Douglass Community Coalition helped with projects such as painting, landscape, and courtyard renovation.
Students at the Center provided a workshop on the history of social justice struggles in New Orleans from maroon colonies to the present. Over the last five years, SAC has been working with Crescent City Peace Alliance, an organization based in the neighborhood surrounding Douglass, to share this history through a park at the site where Homer Plessy was arrested in 1892 as part of the Citizens’ Committee’s challenge to Louisiana’s Separate Car Act.
SAC recently completed a book manuscript for this park. The book is entitled The Long Ride. All workshop MLK Day workshop participants received a copy of the manuscript courtesy of Hands On New Orleans.
Our students have decided that for the next few posts on this blog, we should share some of the writings from this book.
We start with a writing inspired by the 1811 Slave Revolt. We study this event each January in our classes, allowing our students to develop new writings and to read writings by earlier SAC students.
The selection below was written in 1997 by one of our first SAC students, Adrinda Kelly. Students still read and learn from these essays. Part of the SAC methodology is to use collections of student writings as texts in classrooms. The Long Ride is a book we use especially in our Junior English classes, because those students are also studying U. S. History. It’s an approach we think many schools and districts should consider.
I am a child of contemporary America. I nod pleasantly, almost attentively, when militant instructors speak so passionately of the great tragedy of too many millions of dark people. It is a foreign idea to me, this African Eden where the Adams and Eves of my race slashed the sultry air with ivory smiles whiter than the Europeans who would become their oppressors. Yet the story of Africa is no caricature of pagan playfulness. I would like to recount the ten thousand tales of African royalty and bloodline I know exist, but I must relent to a shameful ignorance of my African ancestry. I cannot quote specific examples of African grandeur, yet I can tell you easily of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. I rejoice that George Washington, upstanding father of baby America, maneuvered this nation to adolescence and independence. My heart burns with pain for the Jewish millions subjected to Hitler’s maniacal vision.
It is convenient for me to learn these histories, and by knowing no examples of African intellect and accomplishment, it becomes easier to negate my identity and marvel at the lightskinned, light-eyed blacks who are closer to whiteness than I’ll ever be. It becomes easy for me to listen to the messengers of African enslavement and disregard the oral histories that survived Emancipation. I am sympathetic to the tales of plantation politics: the castration of millions of black males, submerging them in the phallic fluids of white domination even as black women suffered the seed of their masters, bearing beige babies who were cursed at conception for not being classifiable. I disassociate myself from this genre of black experience in America, fashioning, instead, a definition of blackness that remains sympathetic to slavery, but only in the context of a compassionate observer. I am ashamed of how easily and efficiently a race of people was carried across ocean depths to a “land of liberty” that would hate them. And these people who rejoice in their heritage in an America that has taught me to disgust my blackness want me to be proud of a “cattle race?”
That great white philanthropist and owner of slaves, whom my school honors with its name, must be laughing heartily in his cold closet inching to hell. In an American social system based on the ideal of whiteness—the CEO, the blonde bombshell, the infant’s innocent blue eyes—educators are employed to reinforce the isolation of black identity by teaching European histories to black students searching for a cultural identity. In this way black solidarity is disrupted as black people chase tangent ancestries in French and Spanish cultures. These black people don’t know the history of Africa and, therefore, have no desire to claim African ancestry. No great benefactor of black people, John McDonogh knew, even then, that miseducation is the greatest divider . . . and oppressor.
Understand this, slavery is America’s bastard and was never homogenous with the black American disposition. It is not in our nature to pay homage to the “great white master” who liberated us from pagan heathenism and enslaved us in the Christian doctrine that called every man brother. Africans were never content to be slaves, and even as our bloodline diluted, Africa’s children and grandchildren refused to be domesticated by a religion that preached humility and gratitude in the face of blatant oppression. In this way, religion was used to placate discontented blacks who chafed under the raspy caress of oppression, while satisfying their desire to be part of God’s plan for humanity. Yet, the idea of black subservience to whites as a religious doctrine rooted in the Bible, contradicts the fundamental principle of a Christian God. God, according to Christian beliefs, demands exaltation and service from all His creations, and any system, such as slavery, that glorifies man as Lord and master over man incites the rage of a jealous God unwilling to share his omnipotence. Furthermore, assuming that Christianity is rooted in compassion, biblical verses like “created in His own image” and “love thy neighbor” imply that the entire human race is embraced by God and loved by Him equally. Therefore, Christians who seek to serve God through imitation of his Divine love could not justify slavery as a sympathetic institution.
Understand that here, in New Orleans, enslaved people sought refuge in swamps before they would endure another day of dependence and say thank you for the sustenance their bloody hands had provided. Imagine the same hands that cherished a black woman’s hips made bloody in the sugar cane fields of master’s enterprise. Imagine having to mend those hands, to cradle the broken fingers that made your children, restoring them with your tears and your care. A cycle of brokenness begins that is bitter to the spirit, and it becomes easy to consider death and murder in the connotations of freedom. “Resistance! Resistance!” The chant begins on the lips of Charles Deslondes and then carries to the church and the cabins of the discontented until one after the other begin to steal away, slaves who are stealing themselves from slavery and returning to the camaraderie of black men with a cause.
And when the day came to pillage and plunder like some great avenger, black men again slashed the sultry air with blinding smiles as beautiful as they were deadly. They fitted themselves with firearms and swords and fists and marched in unison to the demand: “Freedom or Death!” They stopped at plantation after plantation, returning a mortal death to the white men who had killed their ancestry and independence daily. Their numbers swelled to five hundred as both men and women joined the battle cry, enlisting each other to be like the Haitian revolutionaries who had won a country in the name of African independence. To be a woman then and have bloody hands sear your hips in a painless lovemaking! To know that this child of insurrection would be your own, no longer having to share your breasts with the greedy pink babies your womb did not remember. This was the reward, and it steeled your soul from remorse. Enough to kill and be judged and know that your babies would own themselves.
“On to New Orleans!” they promised as the sound of a thousand legs marched on. But New Orleans had been mobilized, and the revolutionaries could not penetrate that final barrier to freedom. They were gunned down by a government militia force given orders to slaughter any black it saw. Black men fought bravely and desperately, determined to die resisting. Black women saw their blood spilled and their wombs ached painfully. They cried remorselessly for this last loss and rejoiced in their tears for the return of enslaved souls to the African shore.
And in the end there was death for all who had resisted. White men claimed a victory for slavery, and slaves again encased themselves in the costume of bondage. But underneath their rags something pulsated and trembled in memory of their brethren. Slaves did not forget Charles Deslonde and his attempt to liberate them. Uprisings sprang up across the nation and whites grew worried because they knew that the “change” sung about in Negro spirituals was imminent. They cowered beneath the prospect of revolution, and in a conspiracy calculated to undermine African-American resistance, the government staged the Civil War and turned to subtler forms of oppression. The education of black students was structured to negate African history, instilling a psychological void that manifests itself in total assimilation into white culture, surrendering blacks to white domination . . . again.
Almost two centuries later, it is easy for me to distance myself from slavery and the people who endured it. However, slaves did not merely endure oppression. They resisted bondage in uprisings like the 1811 Revolt, culminating with the Civil War and the active abolition of slavery.
I don’t know African American History beyond the textbook pantomime of the “kind white master,” but I do know this: Charles Deslonde, Nat Turner and others like them mobilized these words into action:
No chains to bear, no scourge we fear;
We conquer, or we perish here.
We conquer or we perish here.
There is no need for me to be ashamed. Slavery was not a passive institution, and mine is not a race of domesticated animals.