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– shocked to hear that many of the freedoms fought for in that bitter sixties campaign I’d just watched, had later been repealed, replaced or blocked by President Reagan.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”.