Am I not a man and a brother?

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My husband took one look at my ravaged face, and retreated to his study. I had just returned from seeing the film ‘The Butler.’ Instead of the gracious meander through history at the White House that I’d expected from the trailer, I had watched another episode of the American Civil War which I thought had ended in 1856.

Too appalled even for tears, at the end of the film was I shell – shocked to hear that many of the freedoms fought for in that bitter sixties campaign I’d just watched, had later been repealed, replaced or blocked by President Reagan. ( I’d like to think that information was wrong )

It’s hard to get my head round this long-running disaster for humanity. Having grown up in a country where people joyously belt out: “Britons never, never, never shall be slaves”, in their annual singing orgy at the Albert Hall on the Last Night of the Proms, slavery under its many names had been something I grew up thinking  had disappeared from the civilised world,

It ended in England before the founding of the US, when in 1772 the Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield, decreed that anyone who set foot in England was automatically a free man. By this act he initiated the beginning of the abolition movement, led by William Wilberforce, and his supporters who included Quakers and Evangelicals. (Quakers on both sides of the Atlantic had been agitating for emancipation in the ‘Citty upon a Hill’ since George Fox, founder of Quakerism, visited the States, and preached against it in 1672)

Though a sick man, who took opium for most of his life to alleviate his pain, the heroic and persistent Wilberforce brought his anti – slavery bills before Parliament for over twenty years, until finally, Parliament voted against the slave trade in 1807. In 1808 the US also voted to end it, but not slavery itself, and so slaves were still bought and sold in the States. As a result of the British vote, the British Navy created the West Africa Squadron to patrol the African shores to prevent slave trading. The navy patrolled for sixty years, and at times, one sixth of the navy’s ships were at sea on this mission. Freed slaves were taken to Freetown in British Sierra Leone where they were safe from being re-captured. Over 150,000 Africans were freed in this way.

By 1834, England- as personified by Parliament – had come round to the idea of emancipation, and slaves were freed in most of the British colonies, including Canada and South Africa, and slave owners compensated at huge expense to the government. It meant that 800,000 slaves were gradually freed, and it also meant that many imports into England now cost a lot more. In the sometimes unhappy history of the British Empire this is one brownie point.

When Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, it had bigger sales in England than America, and as one of her readers, as well as being an afficionado of the American Civil War, I had thought all had ended well for the slaves when the South was defeated. ‘Gone With The Wind’ did incalculable damage to the thinking of ignorant people like me.

The picture it painted of a noble, benevolent society with happy, contented slaves living in harmony with masters they loved, was a travesty of truth, I discovered –  no hint of anyone being bought and sold, families destroyed, and later, lynch mobs, Klu Klux Klan or Billie Holiday’s song ‘ Bitter Fruit’- which came out in the same year as the film. The rude way black people were spoken to and humiliated, even in benign films like ‘Driving Miss Daisy’, shocked me. As did the true story of Hadley Hemingway losing all Hemingway’s manuscripts, and when she was too shattered to tell him, he finally confronted her with the thing he dreaded most: “You’ve been sleeping with a Negro.”

Twenty years ago when  Ken Burns’ moving films introduced me to the Civil War, I also read a fascinating and horrifying series of reports which jobless students were commissioned to write during the Depression. They interviewed and recorded the memories of the slaves who were still alive in the thirties, and those memories were harrowing, whether before or after Emancipation. Singer and actress, Hattie McDaniels, who played Mammy in ‘Gone With The Wind’ was the daughter of slaves, and her lot was not much better.

She was asked not to attend the opening night of the film in Atlanta in 1939, and when she won Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars, had to sit alone in specially segregated seating. She was also not allowed to be buried in the Hollywood Cemetery which even practised segregation in death! When I learned this, I was still not aware of how the South had been gradually winning the Civil War with Jim Crow laws, and especially in the twenties and thirties, suppressing black civil rights, expanding segregation, and passing laws like the ‘one drop of negro blood’ in 1924, which condemned innocent people to a ‘shadow’ existence.

‘Shadow’ families were those like Thomas Jefferson’s children, born to a slave, Sally Hemings. She was herself more than half white, and thanks to the exploitation of slave women then, was also an aunt of Jefferson’s legitimate daughter through Jefferson’s wife.  Jefferson’s and Sally’s children were seven- eighths white. If they hadn’t already disappeared into white society back before the Civil War, they would have been trapped by these creeping race rulings.

A friend whose ancestor was General Pettigrew, the other general who led Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, gave me a biography of the general which had been published recently. As I read it I became increasingly puzzled, for the general was such a heroic paragon , who apparently embodied all the chivalric qualities of a noble cavalier, that even his predilection for quarrelling and the resultant duels were held to be virtues, and typical of his aristocratic society.

The barbarians of the North, inhospitable, dour, materialistic Protestants, had destroyed both this magnificent young man and the civilisation of the ‘old South’ that he represented, according to the writer. In the end, I Googled him, and light dawned. He was still fighting the Civil War! Not only was this writer a man of great reputation in the South, but he had founded a league of Southern gentlemen, which some people – like me – would feel that in the light of Southern men’s record, was an oxymoron.

There’s another film due to come out about slavery, the true story of a free black American living in the North who was kidnapped, and sold into slavery in the South. His horrendous ordeal lasted for twelve years, and when he escaped he wrote his story, which has gradually been forgotten.

Two black Englishmen have produced this film, and I won’t be watching it. I know enough. I already believe in the cause of freedom, and I’m too much of a coward to watch the cruelties and inhumanities that I saw in the trailer. The title to this blog comes from a medallion struck in 1787 by Josiah Wedgewood, the great potter, and  supporter of Wilberforce’s abolition campaign. The words go straight into my heart.

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

I had a big bunch of watercress, and decided to make soup with it. Mrs Beeton, who I consulted, had three recipes for it, and this was the one I fancied. The fiddliest bit was taking the leaves off the stalks, as I have a feeling the stalks taste bitter. Gently sauté the leaves in butter for a couple of minutes, then remove from heat. Mix about a dessertspoonful of cornflour with some milk, whisk it into chicken stock, and add the cress. I leave a few leaves aside, and then whisk everything with my stick whizzer. Quickly re-heat and add cream to taste, and a pinch of cayenne. The rest of the cress leaves float greenly on the top. The amount of stock depends on how much cress you have, and it’s easy to gauge.

Food for Thought

 “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference”                                                                                          Elie Wiesel- born1928.  Writer and survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. When he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, the Norwegian Nobel Committee called him a “messenger of peace”.

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46 Comments

Filed under cookery/recipes, gettysburg, great days, history, slavery, spiritual, The Sound of Water, the sxities, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized

46 responses to “Am I not a man and a brother?

  1. Film: Amazing Grace- Wilberforce-excellent and informative

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  2. I’d be curious to know what freedoms you’re referring to here: “…many of the freedoms fought for in that bitter sixties campaign I’d just watched, had later been repealed, replaced or blocked by President Reagan.” I find that hard to believe.

    janet

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  3. I don’t know how true this is either but the estimated number of slaves in the world today is nearly 30 million. The extent of our inhumanity can be overwhelming. I did watch (and like) Amazing Grace but I find many films these days too ‘hard’ to watch or too irrelevant.

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  4. “You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.” William Wilberforce

    Slavery is alive and well; it comes in different forms, but always there is the knowledge that one side is in the power position. What is most difficult to understand or accept is our seeming inability to respond to the injustice in a way that leads to positive steps forward. One this is certain – these discussions are invaluable. It keeps us ever vigilant.

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    • I love those words of William Wilberforce – he’s one of my heroes… Yes, I don’t know what the answer is until we all ‘get’ those words of Josiah Wedgewood’s. Different cultures have such a different take on it… and even Christianity didn’t seem to influence those who felt they needed slaves…though at least it was Christianity which tried to end it….

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      • Well said! It comes down to the value we place on an individual. I love George Orwell’s quote from Animal Farm.“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

        It seems that we get confused with position and rank, even titles. Are some lives of more value than others? For it is by our definition of value, that we divide up the resources – who will share the food? who will have access to clean water? who will be able to breathe clean air? Who will have access to knowledge? Ah….humanity is anything but simple.

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      • Yes, you’re so right., these are huge questions our children and grandchildren are going to have to face if we don’t….

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      • So very true…makes me even more determined than ever to stand firm!

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  5. I despair of any society that thinks itself above another enough to deny them the same rights they hold dear. Your title today says it all Valerie. We are all one despite colour differences.
    xxx Huge Hugs xxx

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  6. I was raised in the USA. My mother was a southern bell with all the trimmings. My father was a northern racist needing to feel superior to women and people of color. I remember segregation and the shame of it. Thank you Valerie for putting the light on.

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  7. Very well said Valerie. I grew up a few miles from part of the underground railroad that smuggled the slaves from the south to the north, and despite that positive attribute there was much prejudice there in the 50’s and 60’s and it is still there. I now live in Australia and we have our own problems here, but I can never reconcile that extremely ignorant prejudice with the people whom I love. It is based in fear but these are people who have enough, so why fear? Thank you for your articulation of an ongoing situation.

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    • Thank you so much for your comment…To hear the experience of people who were actually there and lived through those historic times is such a privilege .. Change takes a long time, but I think and hope new generations are growing up feeling differently

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  8. I have seen tremendous change,in the Southern U.S., within my lifetime and that does make my heart glad. It is proof that we can change. Yet, I sometimes despair of what we have learned when I see the encroaching hatred, most everywhere it seems, of those with Arab blood. Hatred is not dead and, as long, as we thing our way, our blood, our skin colour, our religion, our politics are of greater worth and value than one single soul, we will continue on this road of destruction.

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    • What you say is so true Joss, and it is heartening to know that so much has changed…and yes, now we have a new challenge that no-one could have imagined even thirty years ago… mankind is being pushed beyond its comfort zone with new concepts and learning – though most people seem to want to bury their heads in the sand instead !

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  9. Wow! You are a true encyclopedia of information! What a post and it all resulted from a film that must be quite a impressive one 🙂

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    • Thank you friend… it’s a subject I’ve been interested for years, so without realising I’ve collected all those facts… and then they all came tumbling out after seeing the film.!
      Yes, I found it a very powerful film… as you can see!!!

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  10. Valerie, this post can and probably will be a valid subject of discussion now and for too many years to come. That is because the values of bigots are effectively passed on to their children. Therefore another generation of like-minded people is created. The hatred reported in the papers every day makes me want to be an ignorant, peaceful soul involved in her little corner of peace and harmony.

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    • I know how you feel Ronnie, and in the end, the one thing to hang onto is that we are all brothers , bigots included, – and connected, and that by excluding them, we are doing what they want to do to others…
      Our tolerance is tested in so many ways, but in order to keep my peace of mind, I just don’t listen to the news, or read anything in the papers which isn’t positive. So I’ve become a skimmer !!!

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  11. Amy

    I wanted to watch the Butlers, but I definitely am “too much of a coward to watch the cruelties…” Such a long, sobbing history of slavery… Your title of the post said it all. Thank you, Valerie!

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  12. Have I put you off Amy? It is a very powerful film…but not what I’d expected.
    Good to hear from you Amy..

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  13. Dear Valerie,

    I, too, saw The Butler, and find the bit about Reagan highly questionable. I’m with Janet. I believe some of the facts have been slightly altered to serve an agenda. As for the butler himself, much of his biography was changed to suit the film.
    I agree, though, that slavery is a shameful blot in American history. Nor do I believe that the anti-black sentiments are gone from the South.
    A few years back I traveled with a group to Selma, Alabama where Dr. Martin Luther King marched with his followers. We ate at a restaurant that had been built on a site once used for slave auctions. After dinner, as we came out the front door, I saw a hole with bars over it. It had been a holding place for slaves. I’ve never forgotten that. I can see keeping these places as a reminder. But at the door of a restaurant? To me that’s like “Cafe Auschwitz.”
    As always, your knowledge of history is astounding and I appreciate your generosity in sharing it.

    Shalom,

    Rochelle

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    • Dear Rochelle,
      Thank you so much for taking the time to write so fully… Yes, I had realised that the butler’s story had been altered for the purposes of the film, but it certainly made it an effective story and a powerful indictment of discrimination, regardless of the butler…

      I think you’re right about Reagan, – as I said, I hoped it wasn’t true…as far as I can find out, it wasn’t . On the other hand, he did go on record as being fairly right wing, including his remark early on in his career, “if an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or others in selling or renting his house, it is his right to do so.” He rationalised this, by explaining his opposition to government intrusion into personal freedoms, as opposed to it being racism. And yet, as an essentially kind person, he had been kind to a couple of African Americans who needed a bed for the night when he was a boy.

      He was also decisive. saying after Bloody Thursday on Berkeley campus when a student died and someone else was blinded: “If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with. No more appeasement.” I’m sure he saw this and all his actions as patriotic and good for America. And of course many would agree with him. Everything depends on your point of view and few people are consistent in their actions or beliefs!

      Sad that you think there is still hostility in the South… some news stories certainly make me wonder… I take your point about the restaurant… amazing that anyone would think of building a cafe on such a site or expect people to want to eat there… Cafe Auschwitz indeed !!!
      best wishes, Valerie

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  14. That last quote you included sums up the world’s problems with such eloquence…

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  15. Alarna, you’re the first person to comment on that quote – I think it’s wonderful, and so true… I’m so glad it hit the spot with you too…

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  16. While racism is alive and well stateside that movie is more fiction than fact. Typical Hollywood. Reagan, though a not so good President (ketchup sandwiches for schools!) he didn’t do what the movie said he did. Neither was the butler’s mother raped. Such a shame they did the movie that way as I think his life was fascinating without embellishments.

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    • Thank you so much for your comment… I realise that the film was typical Hollywood, but I was writing about its effect on me in the light of the history of slavery and segregation… in a way i wish I hadn’t mentioned the film, because the bigger picture is a lot bigger than the film !!!

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  17. Don’t go to that other movie, Valerie! I read the book and his life is horrible…and I’m sure they will make it worse. The man’s life was bad enough…my heart bled and broke all the way through it….he does finally get to ‘just live plainly’ but it he horrors are many.

    As for the Butler I refused to watch it after I saw the trailer…I don’t think things are as horrible as they used to be…the times past are a long time ago…as far as I know I do not see any slavery here. If there is it is the hideous sex and child slave trade which I would would love to save every child who is trapped in that world. But that is for another time and place and not as a comment on your blog.

    Linda
    http://coloradofarmlife.wordpress.com

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  18. Thank you, Linda, no I certainly won’t be watching the next film, and all that you say re-inforces that….
    Yes, I realise that slavery is a dead letter in the Sates – thank goodness, but it does seem that discrimination or hostility are still something to be reckoned with in some places and situations……

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  19. Liz Ebbett

    Dear Valerie What a wonderful blog. Well done. It wasn’t for nothing that poor Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in the bus or the whole Civil Rights Movement with Martin Luther King got underway but it is good to be reminded.

    We are in Sydney this w/e but will be in touch the following w/e. Knee is improving but still has a long way to go

    Love Liz

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  20. Liz, what a lovely surprise to hear from you. So sorry the knee is still nagging away..
    Thank you for your enthusiasm, about this blog… it did take a bit of writing…
    Brad and Kelvin had a lovely feast of fresh broad bean pods last night… they loved them !!!!
    Love Valerie

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  21. Dearest Valerie,
    Thank-you, thank-you, thank-you. Please spread the word on your side of the world to everyone you can: please, please do not ever forget African-Americans. They are in many ways in more danger now than they have been in decades. More are in prison now than were in slavery at the beginning of our Civil War. Black boys grow up as virtual child soldiers and education and protection are essentially denied them.
    America needs the eyes of the world to be sharply upon us, now more than ever. Our people cannot reverse this still-profitable sickness without the world’s help. It is too deeply engrained.
    The worst thing that could happen to African-Americans would be a loss of the world’s pressing attention. The U.S. must NOT be allowed to act with impunity. We can be pressured into changing behavior before our attitudes do – good lord, if we’d been allowed to wait until it suited us, there would be no jazz, no modern dance, no blues, rock and roll, gospel -really there would be no American music – no huge body of great literature, visual art, extraordinary scholarship, NO JAZZ, no real basketball, no hip hop artists, no JAZZ. Black Americans have given most of America’s gifts to the world. I pray the world defends them.
    Your post made me cry, dear friend.

    God bless.

    Claire

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  22. It sure was a great movie and made me quite angry as to how we still continue to treat one another without respect… Isn’t it about time we learned to honour and love each other unconditionally, accepting each other for their own uniqueness… otherwise, as Krishnamurti says…we will for evermore live in conflict… Beautiful post Valerie, Barbara

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  23. Pingback: Unfinished Thoughts & Thanks « MisBehaved Woman

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