Why We Will Not Go

How and why does a group in a society feel affection for the society they live in, despite the constant abuses faced by them? A great case study to help answer the question is through the anti-slavery movement. Boston abolitionist intellectual Maria Stewart, after the loss of both her husband, James Stewart and intellectual mentor, abolitionist David Walker in 1830, refocused her life on Jesus and fighting for her race. From that foundation, she met and collaborated with  upstart white abolitionist newspaper editor William Lloyd Garrison of The Liberator. Garrison was a major influence on Stewart’s public career because Garrison promoted Stewart as a voice of her people, and the Liberator offered her room to publicly debate the best policies for her race’s future. In one of Stewart’s published writings in the Liberator, she wrote about death to the body of the enslaved, that would also free the soul. “The blood of her murdered ones cries to heaven for vengeance against thee. Thou art almost drunken with the blood of her slain.[1]” The plunder of black bodies effectively built the United States, and based upon Stewart’s interpretation, America became drunk from its excess.

Daily forms of violence exhibited the perceived, and often actualized, disposability of black bodies. But vengeance, according to Stewart, was always in the shadows waiting to unveil itself on white America. Whether that was from God or from man, she believed that whites would reap the violence they sowed. Unfortunately for enslaved women, white rapists financially reaped what they sowed inside of their enslaved female property. Following the model of the 1662 Virginia Slave Code, which was later adopted by virtually all future American colonies and states, enslavers owned the “future increase” of their enslaved women in perpetuity. As “all children born in Virginia shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother.[2]”

Stewart saw this savage relationship as a rallying point on Black citizenship in her polemics because slavery engendered the rape of enslaved women. Stewart claimed this was the cause of “the daughters of Africa to commit whoredoms and fornications; but upon thee be their curse.[3]” That curse, was a curse upon the ultimate wielder of white supremacy: the United States. Stewart reminded whites that Black souls, “are fired with the same love of liberty and independence with which your souls are fired.” Black souls loved liberty and independence like their white counterparts, not only because black soldiers fought in the Revolution and the War of 1812, but because many black persons had “too much of your blood” that flowed “in our veins, too much of your color in our skins, for us not to possess your spirits.[4]’” With that spirit though, came the rationale for what pushed Philadelphia abolitionist poet Sarah Forten to say, when faced with the question of race relations in the city of Brotherly Love, “we [black community members] are not disturbed in our social relations—we never travel far from and seldom go to public places unless quite sure that admission [is] free to all.” Here Forten showed that Northern blacks faced limitations to roaming publicly unlike their white counterparts. She concluded that “therefore, we meet with none of these mortifications which might otherwise ensue. I would recommend to my Colored friends to follow our example and they would be spared some very painful realities.[5]” The most painful of those realities being the hypocrisy of a living in a white liberal society unvarnished by slavery’s influence on the social hierarchy. White supremacy’s reached also into the colonization movement influence too. Beginning in the late 1810s, the American Colonization Society sprouted out of Washington D.C. offering, or pushing, a new alternative to the problem of free Blacks in America.[6] While potentially perceived as philanthropic, Forten did not believe so, instead she viewed the colonization movement as built on the theme of “this is not your Country.” Forten interpreted America as a land for black persons too, despite white people not acknowledging them as privy to American economic prosperity.

Although nominally free in two of the most liberal cities in 1830s antebellum America, Maria Stewart Sarah Forten and still dealt with substantial unfreedom. Though they committed themselves to the abolitionist cause, they could not singularly focus on that front. Because daily they reckoned with the precarious nature of their existences in the United States. Precarious as their situations were, that did not prevent them from identifying themselves as inheritors of American identities. But not a mainstream American identity; their race’s history filtered that to lack contextual weight. Rather, what Sarah Forten and Maria Stewart both did was distinguish their race’s role as the main catalysts for American prosperity. Instead of leaving because of the nation’s brutality towards them, they advocated continual struggle for their race to remain in the country of their birth, and create feelings of home; despite not ever tangibly knowing that enslavement would end. And that is what their American identities were founded from.

[1] Maria W. Stewart, America’s First Black Woman Political Writer: Essays and Speeches. edited and introduced by Marilyn Richardson (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989), 39.

[2] William Waller Hening, Statues at Large; Being a Collection of All of the Laws of Virginia (Richmond, Va.: Samuel Pleasnats, 1809-23), Vol. II, pp. 170. https://archive.org/details/statutesatlargeb02virg

[3] Richardson, 39.

[4] Ibid. 40.

Examples of black military service and patriotic development is found in Boston activist-historian William Cooper Nell’s, The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution, With Sketches of Several Distinguished Colored Persons: To Which Is Added a Brief Survey of the Condition And Prospects of Colored Americans: (Boston: Robert F. Wallcut 1855). Electronic Edition. http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/nell/nell.html.

[5] Sarah L. Forten, “Sarah L. Forten to Angelina E. Grimké, 15 April 1837,” Black Abolitionist Papers Volume III: The United States, 1830-1846, ed. C. Peter Ripley (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 221.

[6] “National Archives,” The First Annual Report Of The American Colonization Society For Colonizing The Free People of Color Of The United States; And The Proceedings Of the Society At Their Annual Meeting In The City of Washington,On the First Day January, 1818. D. Rapine, Capital Hill, https://ia802500.us.archive.org/4/items/ASPC0001932500/ASPC0001932500.pdf.

[7] “Sarah L. Forten to Angelina E. Grimké, 15 April 1837.

 

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