Archive for ‘African Americans’


“No risk, I’ll whisk them up in no moonlight…”

When Harriet Tubman let an author of sentimental children’s books write her first real biography in 1869, she knew she’d be cast in some curious roles. Abolitionists had already dubbed her “Moses,” and John Brown, who sometimes referred to her with masculine pronouns, had loved to address her as “General.”

Even so, when I read Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman, I hadn’t expected to see Sarah Hopkins Bradford liken her subject to one of the most complex figures of the Middle Ages, a saint, a warlord, a visionary, and a child—but there she is, on the very first page:

It is proposed in this little book to give a plain and unvarnished account of some scenes and adventures in the life of a woman who, though one of earth’s lowly ones, and of dark-hued skin, has shown an amount of heroism in her character rarely possessed by those of any station in life. Her name (we say it advisedly and without exaggeration) deserves to be handed down to posterity side by side with the names of Joan of Arc, Grace Darling, and Florence Nightingale; for not one of these women has shown more courage and power of endurance in facing danger and death to relieve human suffering, than has this woman in her heroic and successful endeavors to reach and save all whom she might of her oppressed and suffering race, and to pilot them from the land of Bondage to the promised land of Liberty. Well has she been called “Moses,” for she has been a leader and deliverer unto hundreds of her people.

By 1869, well-read Americans had tried to make sense of the Maid of Orleans. Mark Twain published Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc that same year; two years before, abolitionist and women’s-suffrage crusader Sarah Grimké translated a French biography of Joan into English. Somebody, somewhere, may have dimly recalled Female Patriotism, or the Death of Joan of Arc, a 1798 play by Irish-born newspaperman John Daly Burk. If these works have anything in common, it’s a sense of Joan of Arc as enviably childlike. Perhaps from there it was an easy leap to the paternalism that even open-minded white Americans felt about their black countrymen.

But I think there’s more to the Tubman-Joan connection than that. In an engaging 2003 bio, Kate Clifford Larson provides a well-researched life of Tubman that offers glimpses of a Joan-like figure for anyone hoping to find them. Tubman was a nurse, a spy, and a scout during the Civil War, but she was also a warrior who led a daring and brutal raid on Confederate ships in South Carolina―and like Joan, and indeed like many memorable women and men of the Middle Ages, she was also a religious mystic.

When Tubman was in her teens, an overseer threw a two-pound weight at a fugitive slave; he missed him, but hit Tubman square in the head. This freak accident, the source of lifelong pain, helped turn her into a fearless leader who inspired (and sometimes terrified) the people around her:

Tubman broke out, often unexpectedly, into loud and excited religious praising. If this injury caused her great suffering, it also marked the beginning of a lifetime of potent dreams and visions that, she claimed, foretold the future. Some of her dreams eventually took on an important role in Tubman’s life, influenced not only her own course of action but also the way other people viewed her.

Larson offers temporal lobe epilepsy as a scientific explanation for Tubman’s visions, but she stresses the need to understand the influence of African culture and evangelical Protestantism on what, to my mind, are visions that also wouldn’t be out of place in the Middle Ages:

Sounds of music, rushing water, screaming, and loud noises would overcome her without notice. Her dreams, visions, and hallucinations often intruded amid daily work and activities. “We’d be carting manure all day,” Tubman once explained to an interviewer, “and t’other girl and I was gwine home on the sides of the cart, and another boy was driving, when suddenly I heard such music as filled all the air.” Soon she began to experience a profound religious vision, “which she described in language which sounded like the old prophets in its grand flow.” Persistent shaking by her fellow slaves brought her back to reality, though she protested that she hadn’t been asleep at all.

[…]

Such experiences reinforced her notions of an all-powerful being that guided her through her life, protecting her and providing divine instruction. Tubman “used to dream of flying over fields and towns, and rivers and mountains, looking down upon them ‘like a bird.’” She claimed she had inherited this ability from her father, who “could always predict the weather, and that he foretold the Mexican war.”

I dug into the Tubman-Joan comparison and was surprised by how much there was to find―but less surprised that the notion thrived and faded with trends in the culture at large.

Bradford likened Tubman to a white European warrior-saint in 1869. That makes sense: Before the Civil War, Joan of Arc turns up in one of the most important cultural magazines for budding Confederates, the Southern Literary Messenger. She’s the subject of a romantic poem that calls for national defense, and in a bitter, blustery review of Uncle Tom’s Cabin she’s the exemplar of everything Harriet Beecher Stowe is not, an “unsexed” knight whose chivalry gives her a rare exemption from having to act like a lady.

By the time Bradford wrote Tubman’s bio, though, chivalry was up for grabs. The Civil War was over. Black Southerners were heading to Congress, and the Freedmen’s Bureau sought to educate former slaves, some of whom helped draft new state constitutions. Abolitionists and African Americans and radical northern Republicans all must have marveled as racial taboos and prejudices looked ready to collapse. Casting Tubman as Joan of Arc didn’t just pay tribute to her complexity; it also acknowledged that she was comparable to white people and fully human, perhaps even superhuman―and it tweaked conquered Confederates as well.

The comparison caught on. An 1896 profile of Tubman in The Woman’s Era, an African-American newspaper, picks it up without apology:

So at the very beginning of this new day let us all meet in the benign presence of this great leader, in days and actions, that caused strong men to quail this almost unknown, almost unsung “Black Joan of Arc” . . . The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witness of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism.

But that’s the black press; white readers may have felt otherwise.

Suddenly it’s 1897. Reconstruction has failed. Racist white Democrats have prevailed in the South; Civil War veterans are already holding genial North-South reunions; all eyes are on railroads and the West; and a country obsessed with business and finance is starting to haul itself out of a four-year depression. Sarah Hopkins Bradford revises and reissues her Tubman biography as Harriet, the Moses of Her People. Deprived of the dignity of a surname in the new title, Tubman is now quoted in dialect, and her sharp edges have been bravely bent down and taped over. Such is the national spirit of compromise. Tubman is still Joan of Arc, but Bradford, flaunting her own refinement, now calls her “Jeanne D’Arc.” Since the comparison pleases her, she trots it out a second time:

Her color, and the servile condition in which she was born and reared, have doomed her to obscurity, but a more heroic soul did not breathe in the bosom of Judith or of Jeanne D’Arc.

There’s heroism and praise in Bradford’s revision, but she no longer makes the page-one Harriet-Joan connection “advisedly and without exaggeration.” A woman who once “deserves to be handed down to posterity” is now “doomed…to obscurity.” Within a few years, comparisons to a medieval European saint will start to bother white writers, even when Tubman impresses them―as in a 1907 article in the New York Herald that got picked up by newspapers nationwide:

There is not a trace in her countenance of intelligence or courage, but seldom has there been placed in any woman’s hide a soul moved by a higher impulse, a purer benevolence, a more dauntless resolution, a more passionate love of freedom. This poor, ignorant, common looking black woman was fully capable of acting the part of Joan d’Arc.

Look at what’s happened: In four decades, comparing Harriet Tubman to Joan of Arc has gone from natural and straightforward to unlikely and ironic. At best, Joan is a “part” she was able to act.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Americans formed their own secular cult of Joan. French nationalists rallied round the saint in 1870 after the humiliating loss of Alsace-Lorraine to the Prussians. Americans, looking to Europe for trends, were beguiled by her purity, her simple faith, her romantic communion with nature. In 1915, a statue of Joan got its own park in Manhattan. Determined to out-spectacle D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. De Mille released his movie Joan the Woman the following year. Joan was drafted during World War I, serving as a model soldier and the subject of poems and articles in Stars and Stripes. A illustrated biography for children hit the shelves in 1918, and her equestrian statue first looked across D.C. from Meridian Hill Park in 1922.

At last, Joan of Arc was whatever America wanted her to be―except black, except a battle-ready warrior, except an aged ex-conductor on the Underground Railroad. According to Kate Clifford Larson, by the time a well-intentioned radical started researching a new biography of Harriet Tubman in 1938, publishers shooed him away. Random House in particular “balked at her being compared to Joan of Arc.”

Joan of Arc was quite a few things Harriet Tubman was not, and vice-versa. Tubman wasn’t a child hero, a martyr, or a national symbol. In fact, Larson’s bio shows that she wasn’t like anyone else; she deserves to be remembered in all her complex and baffling humanity. Still, it’s remarkable that for a few promising years, comparing Tubman to a visionary child warrior saint felt right and just. That we’re now surprised by a colorblind metaphor doesn’t speak well of the century since.

“I can hear people singing, it must be Christmastime…”

Medievalism is intertwined with the history of the American South. In cities like Richmond and New Orleans, where magazines helped popularize Sir Walter Scott novels and promote chivalric virtues, Gothic revival architecture felt right—but Savannah, where I’m spending Christmas, went its own wonderful way. Here, in a city with countless monuments but surprisingly few statues, you’re more likely to find Georgian, Italian, Federal, and Colonial styles, intermingled but insistently American beneath layers of picturesque moss.

So when you’re the new guy in Savannah, exploring the city’s public squares on foot on Christmas Eve, the search for medievalism seems downright futile…

…but after all these years, I know when to heed the signs. They’re rarely as obvious as this one on Liberty Street.

And so we trudge from moss-bedecked square to moss-bedecked square, wondering as we wander…


Is a lamppost resembling a bishop’s crozier the most medievalism the streets of Savannah can offer?

“No,” says a monstrous sconce on Bay Street. “Look lower, fool!”

Any Jesuit will tell you this totally counts as a gargoyle…

…as does this Seussian goof on the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, though his architect spared him the spitting.

But what’s that in nearby Troup Square?

A neoclassical armillary sphere!? Isn’t there anyone in Savannah who knows what medievalism is all about?

“Sure, Charlie Brown,” says one of six bronze turtles in tiny Santa caps, “I can tell you what medievalism is all about.”

Yep, along this square is the Unitarian church where J.P. Morgan’s uncle served as minister when he published “Jingle Bells.” (Until today, it had never occurred to me that anyone had actually written “Jingle Bells,” or that controversy would attend upon its provenance.)

Amusingly, in the 1850s, Pierpont’s church wasn’t in this square, but a few blocks away. During a low point for Savannah Unitarians, the building was bought by African-American Episcopalians, who industriously rolled it away and set it down here.

So yes, it’s a cosmic treat to stumble around Savannah on Christmas Eve and find a neoclassical Christmas turtle that points you to the relocated church whose minister composed “Jingle Bells”—but what’s medieval-ish about an overplayed ode to the secular sleighing culture of 19th-century New England?

Aha! The composer’s church itself—castellated, Americanized neo-Gothic! Its discovery is hardly a miracle, but the sight of it is fitting end to a charming quest—and a fine way to wish “Quid Plura?” readers a merry (and hopeful, and gargoyle-rich) Christmas.

“Turn the clock to zero, honey…”

[This post originally ran two years ago, but repeating it feels like a fine way to welcome 2011.]

From time to time, I dig through the poetry of Theodulf, ninth-century bishop of Orleans, looking for nuggets to translate. Theodulf was a wit, so I’ve had fun making modern English versions of his Latin verses about pilgrimages, libations, wildlife, stolen horses, and children’s dreams. But what, I wondered, could Theodulf do for me on New Year’s Day?

I shouldn’t have worried; the old Goth didn’t let me down. In the middle of a dull poem about faith, hope, and charity (Dümmler, MGH Poetae I, 466-467), I found four lovely lines of Latin, and I plucked ’em:

Nam pia dona spei tereti signatur in ovo,
Tegmine obumbratum quod vehit intus habens:
Ut pullum ova tegunt, sic spem praesentia celant,
Hic patet exutus, illa futura parat.

With the reckless optimism of a Leyendecker baby, I give you this translation:

To see the blessed gift of hope, behold
The egg that keeps a secret in its shell:
The present, hiding hope, conceals it well;
The future cracks it: tiny wings unfold.

Those of you who read Latin are shaking your heads at this rather free rendering. So be it! It’s a new year! Old habits limp to their graves, ashamed! Besides, I did some research and found that these four lines have been translated repeatedly throughout the centuries, often by poets who took far greater liberties than I did.

For example, here’s a little-known translation by Langston Hughes:

THEODULF AT THE 125th ST. DINER

The sunny side
An egg supplied
Upon t’morrow gambled.
It hides in a shell
That poached it well
And never got it scrambled.
The present keeps our dreams deferred.
The future hatches: out pops a bird.

And here—dear reader, I was as astonished to discover it as you surely are—is a translation of Theodulf by none other than T.S. Eliot:

PERTELOTE SENESCENS

The sea-birds race inland from the storm
Above the subtile chicken seeking quiet in the barn
Where she dares not hope
“Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate“—
But for the egg:
The shell conceals our tatterdemalion past—
The shell incubates our necessitous future
—and hope becomes a farmer
With shards of egg in his desquamative palm
Forgetting the recrudescent monotony of the plow, straining
To hear the eager peeping in the straw.

My translation isn’t looking quite so loose now, is it?

On behalf of Theodulf, T.S. Eliot, Langston Hughes, and a room full of imaginary chickens, I wish you a happy and recklessly hopeful new year.

“Ran down, and the lady said it…”

When the U.S. Postal Service issues a stamp tomorrow to honor Anna Julia Cooper, she’ll be remembered, rightly, as a remarkable woman. Born into slavery around 1858 in North Carolina, Cooper earned a degree in mathematics but also taught Latin and Greek. As principal of the nation’s best public high school for black children, she fought for high educational standards and prepared her students for top universities. In essays and lectures, she addressed racism, the concerns of black women, and other issues of the day. When women’s rights groups turned out to be white women’s rights groups, she started her own.

But Anna Julia Cooper was also a Charlemagne buff—and an inspiration to exhausted grad students everywhere.

From 1911 to 1913, Cooper spent summers studying French literature and history in Paris. In 1914—at the tender age of 56—she enrolled in the Department of Romance Languages at Columbia University with plans to earn her doctorate. Scholars of medieval French literature were clamoring for an accessible version of the epic Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne to replace a hard-to-find German edition, and Cooper gave them one, but Columbia didn’t grant her a degree. As a widow raising her dead brother’s five children while holding down a full-time job as a teacher and principal in Washington, D.C., she couldn’t fulfill the one-year residency requirement.

In response, Cooper sought out a university with no such requirement. The Sorbonne accepted her credits but her work on the Pèlerinage didn’t meet their dissertation requirements, so Cooper wrote a second dissertation. In 1925, she earned a Ph.D. from the Sorbonne and found a Parisian publisher for her edition and facing-page translation of Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne. She was 66 years old.

Cooper’s Pèlerinage was never published in America. When she offered the book and all its proceeds to her alma mater, Oberlin, the school hemmed and hawed—and then nervously declined. Even so, the book was the standard edition and translation for decades, American libraries and language departments sought it out, and several pages were included in an anthology of medieval French literature reprinted as recently as the 1960s.

Beyond its manageable size, it’s not clear what drew Cooper to the Charlemagne project she cheekily called her “homework,” but few American teachers have so aptly encouraged students, then or now, through indefatigable example. Cooper, who lived to be 105, understood the pedigree of that tradition:

Being always eager to carry out your wishes faithfully, I have sent back to you this dear pupil of mine as you asked. Please look after him well until, if God so wills, I come to you myself. Do not let him wander about unoccupied or take to drink. Give him pupils, and give strict instructions that he is to teach properly. I know he has learned well. I hope he will do well, for the success of my pupils is my reward with God.

Alcuin wrote that. It’s a Carolingian sentiment, but one that Cooper, a proper medievalist, could easily endorse.

“Turn the clock to zero, honey…”

From time to time, I dig through the poetry of Theodulf, ninth-century bishop of Orleans, looking for nuggets to translate. Theodulf was a wit, so I’ve had fun making modern English versions of his Latin verses about pilgrimages, libations, wildlife, stolen horses, and children’s dreams. But what, I wondered, could Theodulf do for me on New Year’s Day?

I shouldn’t have worried; the old Goth didn’t let me down. In the middle of a dull poem about faith, hope, and charity (Dümmler, MGH Poetae I, 466-467), I found four lovely lines of Latin, and I plucked ’em:

Nam pia dona spei tereti signatur in ovo,
Tegmine obumbratum quod vehit intus habens:
Ut pullum ova tegunt, sic spem praesentia celant,
Hic patet exutus, illa futura parat.

With the reckless optimism of a Leyendecker baby, I give you this translation:

To see the blessed gift of hope, behold
The egg that keeps a secret in its shell:
The present, hiding hope, conceals it well;
The future cracks it: tiny wings unfold.

Those of you who read Latin are shaking your heads at this rather free rendering of the original. So be it! It’s a new year! Old habits limp to their graves, ashamed! Besides, I did some research and found that these four Latin lines have been translated repeatedly throughout the centuries, often by poets who took far greater liberties than I did.

For example, here’s a little-known translation by Langston Hughes:

THEODULF AT THE 125th ST. DINER

The sunny side
An egg supplied
Upon t’morrow gambled.
It hides in a shell
That poached it well
And never got it scrambled.
The present keeps our dreams deferred.
The future hatches: out pops a bird.

And here—dear reader, I was as astonished to discover it as you surely are—is a translation of Theodulf by none other than T.S. Eliot:

PERTELOTE SENESCENS

The sea-birds race inland from the storm
Above the subtile chicken seeking quiet in the barn
Where she dares not hope
“Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate“—
But for the egg:
The shell conceals our tatterdemalion past—
The shell incubates our necessitous future
—and hope becomes a farmer
With shards of egg in his desquamative palm
Forgetting the recrudescent monotony of the plow, straining
To hear the eager peeping in the straw.

My translation isn’t looking quite so loose now, is it?

On behalf of Theodulf, T.S. Eliot, Langston Hughes, and a room full of imaginary chickens, I wish you a happy and recklessly hopeful new year.

“In the house of the gods, where no mongrels preach…”

Are conditions in Thai shrimp factories “medieval”? Matt Gabriele considers the use of the m-word in a report quoted by CNN:

Maybe it’s just an adjective that means “other,” an uncritical, enlightenment perception of a darker past that we, generally, have moved beyond. And generally, I might like to agree. The problem, then, is that this kind of thinking asserts that such behavior—torture, kidnapping, etc.—are aberrant in our society, when in fact they’re really not. Certainly, all that stuff was there in the Middle Ages too. The thing is though, it never left.

Matt’s conclusion—that misery and human cruelty aren’t consigned to the past—is sensible, and worth reiterating; people do have a tough time getting beyond the pejorative implications of “medieval.” My Chaucer students, for example, know that Chaucer himself was well connected, and they understand that the Powers That Be had neither the resources nor the inclination—nor, for that matter, any real reason—to persecute him for his poetry. And yet my students wonder: Feisty women, farting, harshing on friars—how did Chaucer get away with so much?

The misperception that Chaucer “got away with” something isn’t surprising; his humanity, sensibility, and wit run counter to stereotypes about those oppressive Middle Ages. It takes gentle persuasion to convince students to see Chaucer as a poet who can illuminate his era for modern readers, allowing them to put aside preconceptions and behold his world anew—and then, if they’re lucky, rediscover their own.

But sometime it’s fruitful to try the reverse: to ponder a modern subject that puts the medieval world in context. That’s why I couldn’t help but consider Chaucer recently while reading a new biography of a decidedly un-medieval figure: pioneering black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux.

Born in 1884 to former slaves, Micheaux worked as a Pullman porter before becoming a homesteader in South Dakota. He self-published and promoted three autobiographical novels; then, between 1919 and 1948, he wrote, directed, and produced more than 40 movies for black audiences. Motivated by his near-worship of Booker T. Washington and inspired by stories of self-made men, Micheaux was an entrepreneur, an auteur, a fascinating American figure.

He was also a wonderfully Chaucerian guy. Attentive to the quirks of human nature, Micheaux made films that featured, but didn’t glamorize, the black underworld, where a motley pageant of lowlifes and gamblers spouted racial epithets; he even offered the occasional hint of nudity. Micheaux dabbled in multiple genres, sometimes recombining beloved story elements in bizarre and amusing ways: a musical comedy about a haunted house, for example, or a morality play about racial segregation that also featured Alaskan frontiersmen, wild dream visions, and an assortment of scoundrels and saints. Micheaux was something of a scoundrel himself, a raconteur who traveled the country and who would happily lie, cheat, and even plagiarize to promote the few prints of his films he was able to afford. Cheerful, beguiling, optimistic, and perceptive, Oscar Micheaux was was a grand character: Chaucer’s plowman, pardoner, squire, and alchemist all rolled into one.

So yes, Micheaux was interesting—but why strain to see a connection between him and Chaucer? Because Micheaux, a modern artist, suffered “medieval” repercussions that Chaucer never experienced. Beyond having to deal with blatant racism, Micheaux faced the wrath of both church and state when his films were literally snipped to shreds. Sometimes, censors banned his films outright, denying black audiences the opportunity to see his take on black people who “passed” as white, or depictions of lynching, or—Heaven forbid—black and white people dancing together. State and local censors were often clergy who objected, naturally, to one of Micheaux’s recurring character types: the corrupt, hypocritical preacher.

Treated as a fourth-class citizen, denied the ability by clergy and government officials to show his films as he envisioned them, Micheaux was often broke, even bankrupt, and was completely ignored by the mainstream white press. Although film historians recently rediscovered him and restored a few of his movies, his persecutors can’t be said to have failed. They succeeded at suppressing him; his obscurity was their victory. Today, we have a greater percentage of Chaucer’s 14th-century corpus than we have surviving films by Oscar Micheaux, who faced the sort of institutional censorship my students expect from the medieval world, even though Micheaux died only in 1951.

“Maybe,” Matt Gabriele writes in his post about “medieval” shrimp factories, “we all should acknowledge that good stuff and bad stuff happens to all people, at all times, in all places.” That’s one of many lessons to take from the life of Micheaux. Unlike Chaucer, who had little to fear, Micheaux “got away with” much, but he suffered much as well.

If the poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer reminds us not to judge all medieval people by the worst aspects of the Middle Ages, then the career of Oscar Micheaux warns us not to judge our own era only by its best. The life story of an ambitious black filmmaker reminds us that the modern world is hardly bereft of “medieval” indignities. We live in more comfortable, prosperous times, but we ought to think twice before assuming we’ve nothing in common, really, with medieval people.