Posts Tagged ‘slavery’

The Inspiration of Harriet Tubman in 1937

April 21, 2016

In the novel, Smoke, which I published last year, a young American businessman, Philip Morrow, accompanies a refugee family through France in the year 1937. Across the border in Germany, the Nuremberg laws had established a set of dangerous restrictions promulgated by the Nazis to drive the Jews out of Germany, and to abscond their wealth.

In the story, the Eschen family has fled Munich in a hurry. Their hasty departure is provoked when their son/brother has been arrested and imprisoned at Dachau.

In this excerpt from chapter 14 of Smoke, we find the Eschens relieved to have crossed the French border into the province of Alsace. Gathered with some newfound French friends, they are sharing a meal and giving an account of their escape. Philip is inquiring about the conditions through which they fled from Munich to the border and then crossed into France. As Philip speaks, Hannah, the older sister makes mention of American woman whose daring enterprise is a benchmark of American history.

       “Harriet Tubman,” Hannah broke in.

       “Harriet who? What are you talking about?”

       “Tubman. Harriet Tubman,” the young woman repeated. “. . . an American Negro woman who escaped slavery about a hundred years ago. She went to the north, to the free states of America, where the practice of slavery had been outlawed. She started an organization for her people to escape the cotton plantations in the south, and go up to the free states in the north, where they could begin a new life.”

       “The Underground Railroad,” said Philip. “How did you know about that?” he asked, looking with surprised interest across and down the table at Hannah.

       “I’ve been reading the Encyclopedia Britannica,” she replied. “It just occurred to me that, in our predicament here, our family is like those slaves who had escaped before the American civil war. “The Negroes were, like us now, a stateless people. They had been sold into slavery in Africa, and shipped across the Atlantic in terrible ships, where they were forced to pick cotton for plantation owners for many generations, until Harriet Tubman escaped and set up secret itineraries for their escape.”

       “But you are not like Negro slaves. You are prosperous Jews,” objected Donald, gently.

       “Not any more, we’re not, Monsieur Satie,” Hannah answered. “This is the enormity of it—of the changes that the Third Reich has imposed. All that my father and mother have worked for—and our grandparents before them—has been robbed, a little bit at a time, from us!—including  my brother. And now the Nazis have built a slave camp, where they intend to concentrate us Jews—Heinrich is not the only one—and  force us into doing work to build up the wehrmacht, so Hitler can exact vengeance against us, and not only against us ‘prosperous’ Jews, but against you, too, you French people, and the British, who imposed the treaty of Versailles on Germany after the war.”

Such was a conversation might have taken place in Europe in 1937.

Looking forward forty-years, here’s a song I recorded in 1978 about yet newer manifestations of the Underground Railroad scenario:

Underground Railroad Rides Again

Smoke

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Sukkot, Hawaiian style

September 28, 2015

About 3000 years ago, Moses led his people, the Hebrews, out of Egypt. The people had been oppressed under Pharoah’s enslavement for a long time.

Their need to bust out of oppression had came to a certain fullness, and so Y_H the Lord appointed Moses to direct them out. By fleeing Egyptian oppression, they escaped slavery.

But their newfound freedom was no walk in the park; they soon found themselves in what seemed like a never-ending arid land of deserts and perilously adverse wilderness.

During that new phase of their development as a people, Y_H the Lord gave Moses instructions and laws that would enable them to live together as an independent people, and ultimately establish themselves among the nations.

Their God-given set of laws included the well-known–now infamous–Ten Commandments. But those commands were only the first of many, many more laws that numbered more than 600.

Among that long collection of principles for healthy, spiritual living, was an instructive celebration called Sukkot, also known as Succoth, the Feast of Tabernacles, or the Feast of Booths.

The Sukkot was a celebratory commemoration by which Y_H ensured that they would not forget the Egyptian oppressions from which they had recently escaped.

Instructions given in the 23rd chapter of Leviticus include an annual arrangement, during harvest time, of leaves and branches to form numerous huts as temporary dwelling places for each family. The Hebrews would, by living in these tabernacles (sometimes called “booths”), call to remembrance the poverty and oppression from which they had escaped through their Exodus from Egypt.

In subsequent history, the Hebrews came to be known as Jews, because, many centuries later, their last vestige as a landed nation (until 1948) had been established in the land called Judea, along the Jordan River.

Some Jews and Christians, even today, observe the Feast of Succoth ceremonially by constructing and camping in palm-thatched huts such as those Hebrews of old might have done in the wilderness of Sinai.

I have never seen such a hut or tabernacle, but I have read about it in the Old Testament. I have also, from time to time, heard or read of Jews and/or Christians who still celebrate the Feast of Sukkot in this way.

A few days ago, I was reminded of Succoth while visiting the big island called Hawaii.

On the upper slopes of the volcano Mauna Kea, I saw what appeared to be a kind of hut or tabernacle that resembles the Succoth structures of ancient days.

A group of zealous Hawaiians known as We Are Mauna Kea had constructed this structure:

Protst2

The Hawaiians with whom I spoke there called the hut a Hale (Ha-lay),  built by human hands to commemorate their heritage of regarding the Mauna Kea volcano as a sacred place. The sacred designation of the place is now imperiled by construction of massive buildings on the peak. The large structures–some already built and others proposed–are used for purposes of scientific observation and electromagnetic data-gathering.

As I pondered this Hawaiian Hale hut, I was reminded of the Succoth hut in the ancient Hebrew scriptures.

Methinks there is something fundamentally human going on here, between the ancient Hebrew Succoth tabernacle and the legacy of  Hawaiian Hale to revere Mauna Kea.

I’ll call it, in both cultures, “wanting to get back to our roots.”

I’d like to think that Alex Haley, author of “Roots”, would agree with me. “Roots” is about African huts and heritage.

The purpose of Sukkot is remembrance of past slavery, and deliverance from those oppressions. The Hebrews were delivered from slavery, and they should never forget it.

Everybody know the Jews are unique in the history of world cultures. Here is one reason why:

The Jews, with help from Y_H the Lord, were one of the first people-groups in the world that was able to effectively retain, preserve and extend their history and their worship of God through the ages. Part of that enduring oral/written/celebratory heritage is this Succoth practice, established for purposes of not forgetting the past–not forgetting the “oppression from which we were delivered.”

But the Jews are not the only people who should remember the sacred elements of their past.

Likewise, the Hawaiian Hale pictured above represents, it seems to me, a similar inclination to call forth the people’s identity with their ancient culture, to remember “who we are and where we came from.”

And maybe of little bit of “Don’t mess with us!”

WhitSton

Glass half-Full

Let them come and see U.S.

August 28, 2013

Let them come to U.S.

Let them come to Washington and see us.

Let the world come and see how a great democratic republic functions.

Let them come and see how those whose ancestors were formerly enslaved can now march in freedom, to present their grievances before a nation of listeners. More importantly, let the world come and see that, in spite of continuing tribulation and repression, the flame of hope still burns bright within them.

Within us.

Let the world come and see a nation whose men and women and children, the grandsons and granddaughters of former slaves, the grandsons and granddaughters of former slaveowners, can now join hands on a ground that is nationally hallowed as a sanctuary for freedom.

Let them come and see U.S.!

Ich bin ein Americano.

Let the world hear the message of a free people, a people set free from slavery.

Let the world notice how we handle our divisions, how we tolerate our differences, how we strive to establish justice among us.

Let the world take note of what happened on our national mall today while thousands were gathered at the Lincoln Memorial.

Let the world compare.

Let the world compare the free assembly of our people to other gatherings in other parts of our troubled world. . .

. . . gatherings in, say, Cairo, or Damascus, or Tehran, or for that matter Beijing.

Let the world compare.

Let the world hear the message spoke there at the Lincoln Memorial today, the message of a young woman, Bernice, a daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

She mentioned an ancient ally, our “brother” Nehemiah, whose people had, long ago, taken on the task of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, so that they might be defended against enemies,

after a benevolent Persian (Iranian) king had released them to do so.

And let us take note, as Bernice hath mentioned, that in the ancient writings it is recorded that:

when the people of Israel had spaced themselves along the wall to repair it, and found that the distances between them made the tasks of productivity and defense difficult, their leader Nehemiah instructed them, if they found themselves in difficulty or under attack, that they should gather at the sound of the trumpet to unite and to defend themselves and their work

Let the world know.

Je suis un Americano.

Glass half-Full

Professuh Alan dun struck out de niggers

January 6, 2011

Alan Gribben he dun wrote a nutter version uh ole Huck Finn where he struck the niggers and put slaves whar dey used to be. Fer ‘zample, dis meet’n tween Huck and Jim when dey meet by accident on a island in de Rivuh cuz dey bofs be hightailin’ it. Jim be tellin’ Huck ’bout how he got away:

” ‘Well, you see, it ‘uz dis way. Ole Missus–dat’s Miss Watson–she pecks on me all de time, en treats me pooty rough, but she awluz said she wouldn’ sell me down to Orleans. But I noticed day wuz a nigger (heah’s whea Massuh Alan dun stuck in de slave ‘stead uv de nigger, and he dun it, dey tells me, two hund’d times in Massuh Twain’s book) trader roun’ de place considable, lately, en I begin to git oneasy. Well, one night I creeps to de do’ pooty late, en de do ‘warn’t quite shet, en I hear ole missus tell de widder she gwyne to sell me down to Orleans, but she didn’ want to, but she could git eight hund’d dollars for me, en it ‘uz sich a big stack o’ money she couldn’resis’. De widder she try to git her to say she wouldn’ do it, but I never waited to hear de res’. I lit out mighty quick, I tell you…’ “

So you may wan’ git a copy o’ dis new version,  sanitized like, and p’liticly correct an’ awl, an’ reads it fo yo’self.

Den, you might could pick up from Amazon a nutter new novel ’bout life up and down de Missip– little bit updated but not too much. Like, where Robby, microbiologist grad student, he be drivin’, in chapter 2, ‘long de Rivuh road, near de place in Luzianna where Huck and Jim ended up. Fer ‘zample:

This bend on the river road always kindled Robby’s imagination. The lonely antebellum columns, man-formed as they were and so stakly incongruent in the overgrowing wildness, remained as silent, stubborn monoliths, superfluous sentries guarding the lost opulence of a plantation culture that had turned to ashes generations ago. Honeysuckle, ivy and scrubby saplings now ruled the spot from whence Colonel Theseus had commanded his legion of slaves and later sharecroppers.  Surrounding the old mansion’s skeletal array were hundreds of acres: dark, delta loam fermenting microbial memory of black feet whose calloused heels and toes traversed row upon thousandth row of King Cotton’s scurrilous servitude.

We sho’nuff be glad dem dark days is over!

Glass Chimera

Robby’s dream

November 28, 2010

From chapter 25 of Glass Chimera:

Robby had a dream.

It was the hammer and sickle thing.  Freedom verses Slavery:     Embryos crying out for personhood, but being herded instead into  chimeric concentration  camps under glass,  their chromatic hammers swinging with molecular  blacksmithery,  forging the  plasmidic implements of a bogus new world.

Eggs of Women crying out for fertility and progeny, but instead being scythed into  Auschwitzian  abyss.

And he heard their singing:

Hmphh .. . Ah .. .Hmphh .. . Ah .. .

That’s the sound of the men working on the chain

gang.

That’s the sound of the men working on the chain

gang.

And he knew the grunts of thousands of men a-groanin’;  he heard the songs of millions of  women a-moanin’,  giving birth. He heard the cries of their wounds,  the pangs of their wombs. Slaves, they were.  He heard them singing.  Don’t ya hear Jerusalem moan?  Don’t ya hear Jerusalem moan? No, it weren’t all voluntary.  No, Virginia, it weren’t all voluntary.  Hmphh .. . Ah .. . Hmphh .. . Ah .. . Pull that barge.  Tote that bale. He saw the burlap cotton sacks dragged upon the ground. Hmphh .. . Ah .. . Hmphh .. . Ah .. . He heard Moses demanding of the pharaoh, Let my people go. He heard Moses demanding of the pharaoh, Let my people go. He heard America singing,  follow the drinking gourd, follow the drinking gourd.

He saw the strong brown arm of Washington Jones pull his great grandfather from the  flood that swirled about a faltering riverboat. He felt the loss of  footing as the boat careened upon raging waters, felt the lurch as the boat hit the mama oak and came to a sloshing, creaking crashing halt.

He saw, beyond the torrential horizon,  the sod ripped from prairies by oxen teams, and he heard their bellowing, the cracking of the whips as Herculean animals strained and primordial prairie grasses became torn, the black earth turning up its wormy, smarmy loam to be kissed by the sun and drenched by the spring rains, the winter snows, the corn’s roots, the wheat’s shoots.  He heard America singing,  strains of music born of the resolve of freedmen, homesteaders, pioneers, farmers, Scandinavians, Scotch, Irish, African, indentured to the soil, and to their hopes for promised land.

Oklahoma! He heard Oklahoma, thousands of homesteaders spread in expectation across the dawning prairie horizon, buckboard wagons, horses, mules in anticipation of that great sounding signal from Uncle Sam, brought forth beneath the billowing skirts of fertile farming women, freckle-faced children in the shaded wagons, oxen in the sun, horses on the run.

Freedom? Yes, some were free, but ‘t’weren’t all that sweat dripping into from free brows, Virginia. Much of it had come slitherin’  in wet slavery drops of toil and blood and tears.

He heard low, slow, insidious  munching of the dreaded boll weevil, chomping into oblivion acres upon millions of acres of lily-white wads of forced servitude.

He heard, like God, innocent blood crying out from the ground.

He heard the clanking of chains, the clashing of  cultures and civilizations.  Can you hear the Cherokee moan?  Can you hear the Chickasaw moan?. He felt the tearing of their platted cords, the stomping of their ancestral hordes. It was a mournful cry heard round the world.

He heard the  low, slow  voice of Willie’s embryonic call, Freedom!

He heard the  high, spry  response of Bo’s ironic refrain,  Freedom! blasting forth in totipotent nuclear song.  The strains were there, ringing  in his dream, clear as a splitting bell, bringing forth the clarion knell.  He knew he heard the song; then it was gone.