I’m Jack Johnson, heavyweight champion of the world. I’m black. They never let me forget it. I’m black all right. I’ll never let them forget it.
– Miles Davis, A Tribute to Jack Johnson (1971)
One of the more interesting sub-narratives of Edward Snowden’s recent memoir, Permanent Record, is his discussion of his All-American heritage. His mother descended from the first Pilgrim child born in the New World, not long after their arrival on the Mayflower in 1620. His father’s side featured seafarers, merchants and adventurers, and other defenders of the far-flung realm. Eventually, his more direct relatives settled in Maryland and with the 1900 acres given them by King Charles II and opened up the Patuxent Iron Works, whose manufacture of cannonballs was later crucial to the War of Independence, and Snowden Plantation, a farm and dairy operation manned by slaves.
As Snowden puts it, “After serving in the heroic Maryland Line of the
Continental Army, [my forebears] returned to the plantation and—most fully living the principles of independence—abolished their family’s practice of slavery, freeing their two hundred African slaves nearly a full century before the Civil War.”
The Snowden legacy would take on more irony later when Snowden Plantation was bought out (Ed thinks it may have been “expropriated”) by the government, and Fort Meade, home of the NSA, was built upon it. Permanent Record, in turn, describes the Deep State’s plans and doings to make data slaves of us all. (Snowden confirms that there is, indeed, a Deep State, and that he was once a happy surveillance slaver in it, until he realized the extent of state criminality involved and declared his own war of independence.)
In 1619, about a year before the Mayflower is said to have bashed up on Plymouth Rock, with Snowden’s unmarried forebear fending off male Pilgrim gazes, another ship, the White Lion, arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, carrying the first slaves into the New World. These first slaves, some 20 of them, were war-booty from the Congo and Angola. They were put to work farming tobacco and cotton, the New World’s most important products, until sugar spiked about a century later.
According to Timothy Winegard, author of The Mosquito, African slaves,
were relatively unafflicted by malaria and yellow fever, and simply did not die at the same rate as non-Africans. Their genetic immunities and prior seasoning made Africans an important ingredient of the Columbian Exchange and indispensable in the development of New World mercantilist economic markets.
Sickle cell anemia, Winegard and others point out, the bane of so many African-Americans, was an evolutionary adaptation to malaria that made their resistance valuable to labor-hungry farmers in the New World. The more tobacco, cotton and sugar into signature global products from America, the more African slaves were shipped in to help grow the industries with their free labor.
Around 1820, Harriet Tubman was born to such slaves on a plantation — not terribly far from the Snowden Plantation — near Bucktown in Dorchester County, Maryland. In fact, Maryland was regarded as the then-premiere slave state, prior to Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin, which revolutionized the cotton industry and exponentially increased the need for more labor in the Deep South. In Maryland, writes Catherine Clinton in Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, “Cotton was not a cash crop in Maryland, but its plantations produced one of the most invaluable crops for the southern antebellum market: slaves.” Maryland was where future “free” laborers were themselves grown and offered up later for sale to Deep South industrial farmers.
Harriet Tubman had started out her career of resistance to slavery by standing up to a Georgian’s attempts to take her child and flee south. Clinton cites fellow slave Emma Telford’s memoir in describing Tubman’s reaction to such events: “‘She had watched two of her sisters carried off weeping and lamenting.’ Tubman was permanently affected by this episode, as she witnessed the ‘agonized expression on their faces.’” As Clinton draws the picture, when Brodess, the Georgian, approached Tubman’s cabin, “[Tubman] threatened, ‘The first man that comes into my house, I will split his head open’… Such family lore … would have provided Tubman with a powerful example of the possibilities for resistance.”
In the recently released film version of Tubman’s life, Harriet, we are given the merest of glimpses into the horror of these child-parent separations for commercial purposes — the view of humans as chattel, a degradation so dark it represents a kind of core essence of fascism and objectification, later rationalized into a form of guiding principles by such hornéd luminaries as Ayn Rand, Minervan Owl to the neocons. The film would have benefitted from more literally wrenching scenes to establish how recklessly families were destroyed for slaver profit by these evil fools. It even has resonance for what’s happening along the Mexican border.
While the Tubman story is certainly well-intentioned, Harriet, the film production, seems to have been a mostly profit-driven exercise itself — given the inexplicable pre-production consideration of casting Julia Roberts as Tubman. Or it may have been an even more cynical exercise — creating a controversy to get eyeballs to the cinema so that they could later ‘weigh in’ (for the advertizers) on social media, and in the process drive the film toward a profit. But an essential starting point was missed: international slave trading ended in 1808, and afterward Southern landowners relied on domestic slave production; it became an American phenomenon. According to Clinton, after the law went into effect, the slave population went from 2 million to 3.5 million. Business was booming. There’s the story.
Maryland was the major supplier of homegrown slaves after 1808. Leading up the Civil War it was a growth industry. Harriet Tubman was running away from a farm that derived at least some of its revenue from ‘growing slaves’ and selling them. Tubman refused to live in a reality that destructive. Harriet provides a hint of her sheer determination and will to survive, without real shelter or food, for the 100 miles of her northward pursuit by her owners, all the way to Philadelphia, home of the Liberty bell. The film concentrates on depicting Harriet the character, rather than Harriet the action figure, although there’s plenty of chase scene action. A lot of reaction shots without any direct action. While this helps manage the film budget, it’s not especially effective story-telling.
The film does a rotten job setting up a picture of the Underground Railroad on which Harriet “Moses” Tubman was supposed to be a principal conductor. Many people-stops (safe houses) made up the railroad; people, black and white, willing to risk fines (up to $1000) and jail time (up to 6 months) to help slaves escape to the “free” North. But in the film, Tubman seems to go back and forth from north to south as if by magic: one minute she’s on a plantation pulling people out, the next she’s in Delaware with her charges (70 runaways, by the end). More scenes about the Railroad and its people would have been a good way to build tension toward the fast-approaching Civil War.
In fact, you could argue that the Civil War actually commenced with the congressional passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Essentially, the law allowed slave-owners to go after runaways and retrieve them, like stolen property, in northern, non-slave states — mostly in New England. It provided for harsh penalties for aiding and abetting runaways — again, making a stronger depiction of the Railroad essential. The insidious law was justified by the Constitution, in which Blacks were not regarded as citizens, and which stated that “no person held to service or labor” could escape their servitude by merely running to a free state. Such hostile ‘repos’ had implications for the separation of powers between the feds and states. Harriet barely explores this terrain.
(Indeed, some mention might have been made about Florida, the territory of choice for Deep South escapees until it was purchased from Spain in 1821 — a purchase motivated in large part to stop Florida from being a refuge. With a little sly dialogue, Florida’s present day disenfranchisement of Black voters might have been squeezed in.)
The film also falls short in the Big Picture department, with no explicit mention of the approaching formal declaration of Civil War that Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, ending slavery, would have seemed to Southerners. Towards the end of the film though, Harriet does make an emancipation proclamation of her own to her former owner, Gideon, who has been tracking her through some woods, arrogantly hoping to finally repo Harriet, but she surprises him and forces him to drop his rifle, dismount from his high horse, and fall to his knees.
It’s an interesting scene:
GIDEON: You bitch! You destroyed my family!
Harriet swings herself onto the horse’s back. She speaks in THE VOICE – it’s her own, maybe it always has been.
HARRIET: You tried to destroy my family, but you can’t. You tried to destroy my people, but you won’t. God has shown me the future, and my people are free. MY PEOPLE ARE FREE!
Gideon watches as Harriet rides off, into the glare of the setting sun.
We don’t know if Gideon repents, as he did in the Bible (something the religious Harriet would have been aware of), and goes back South to help destroy the Baal of the day — the wealth created by slavers off the backs of free labor.
And I guess it would have been asking too much, it may have over-stretched the budget, to at least allude to the complex moral ambivalence of Northerners in the fight to relieve white Southerners of their sinful slaver burden. Not everyone up there wanted to fight in a war to free slaves down under. Lincoln was forced to employ America’s first draft. New Yorkers, for one, rioted: rich people could, and did, purchase there way out of conscription, sending proxies in their place; and, the vast majority white New Yorkers depended on jobs manufacturing raw cotton, sugar and tobacco. Freed slaves were at the vanguard of volunteers to fight the South. Even then, Lincoln had to make them ‘people’ before they could wear uniforms and carry guns.
It was a Republican who freed the slaves. Some vocal Democrats were against a Civil War, even when they felt animosity toward the character of Southern landowners, whose attitude seemed to be: ‘Keep your hands off my cotton-pickin’ slaves.’
Congressman Clement Vallandigham, for instance, said of the Southern mentality:
And now, sir, is there any difference of race here so radical as to forbid reunion? I do not refer to the negro race, styled now, in unctuous official phrase, by the President, “Americans of African Descent.” Certainly, sir, there are two white races in the United States, both from the same common stock, and yet so distinct — one of them so peculiar — that they develop different forms of civilization, and might belong, almost, to different types of mankind [my emphasis]. But the boundary of these two races is not at all marked by the line which divides the slaveholding from the non-slaveholding States. If race is to be the geographical limit of disunion, then Mason Dixon’s can never be the line.
Meet the Crackers. (But even the way Vallandigham says, ‘unctuous’, is disturbing.)
Lincoln banned public speeches against such a war, and Vallandigham excelled at them. He encouraged draft dodging. He was tried for treason (speaking out), exiled to the South, where rebel soldiers, realizing that he wasn’t opposed to slavery in their states, sent him north, to Canada. He later became the inspiration for the short story, “The Man Without A Country,” by Edward Everett Hale, an evil little tale every American school child learns, without the details. No teacher I can recall ever asked aloud, to pre-pubescent befuddlement, how the fuck could they give the guy 56 years for freely expressing his dismay at his government’s actions? No chance to recant? No mercy? No shore leave? Go figure, she’d say, shaking her head. Kids’ hands over their flag-driven hearts, slowly slipping away.
Four hundred years after the first slave ship arrived at Jamestown, the legacy of slavery endures with all the racial complexities it brings, the endless, almost Sisyphean, fight for social and economic justice, and the ever so subtle battle (and sometimes not so subtle) between accomodation and assimilation — a kind of postmodern master-slave dialectic. Jordan Peele, arguably developing a new film genre — Black political horror — seems to have his hand on the current pulse of that dynamic in Get Out: Blacks still trying to fit in with Whites and their masks (spoiler: the liberals might even be more insidious), and Whites definitely, um, trying to fit into Blacks and their cool-cuz-they-suffered-so-muchness.
There is a darker side to it (as if Peele’s weren’t dark enough) that shows up in “Black Museum,” a recent episode of Black Mirror captured in all its horrific spectacle. It’s almost as if the Cracker that Vallandigham describes opened a museum-cum-arcade that features his sadistic fantasies of domination — an encased holographic Black man being electrocuted over and over forever (like that fascist face-booting Orwell describes in 1984). And white people come from miles around to drop a coin in the slot before the cage to watch him fry. Given the shambles that the health-education-welfare system is for Blacks in America today, as well as their record incarcerations in for-profit prisons, and the debt slavery so many labor under, Black Mirror can seem the truest reflection.
So, there’s no extended vision to Harriet, the movie. It’s a character study on a comic book level — Freedom Illustrated — and you may find yourself comically picturing Julia Roberts in blackface as the lead (Gere as Gideon?), or wondering how different Tarantino would have handled Tubman’s role. There would have been a lot of crumbled Crackers. Would he have featured The Delfonics in the soundtrack? In short, it’s not a riveting film; your mind might wander. But with any luck you’ll spend hours researching all the pertinent historical details left out of the film.
And getting out some Miles for a listen. Because you’re cool.