Black History Month 2017 odds-and-ends

I’d planned individual posts about each of these topics but February 2017 was not going to be my month. Nonetheless, I hope that you might take inspiration from this post to check out one or more of the things I’ve been enjoying and/or studying this month. Black history is not my area of expertise or something that I’ve been unusually occupied with over the years, so I can’t really explain why the interest hit me so hard this month. I did put a little Richard Armitage connection in here, though.


You may or may not be aware that one of the “hot spots” of historical inquiry in the last decade has been the question of the role slavery played in the economic development of the United States (and the world generally, but I’ve only followed the U.S. debates).

Richard Armitage as Mr. Thornton and Daniel Denby-Ashe in episode 2 of NOrth & South. Those would be bales of ginned cotton in the background. Source:

Richard Armitage as Mr. Thornton and Daniel Denby-Ashe in episode 2 of North & South. Those would be bales of ginned cotton in the background. Source:

If you’re asking yourself, why should a Richard Armitage fan care about this topic? I’ll give you a one-word answer: cotton!

One ongoing matter of concern for the textile manufacturers of Manchester (i.e., Milton) was the source of the cotton they used to make their product — by the eve of the Civil War (about fifteen years after the series takes place), U.S. cotton supplied 77 percent of British cotton manufacturers’ raw material. That cotton was largely planted, tended, and harvested by enslaved laborers on large plantations in the South. At least forty minutes of every hour of productive labor in slave states was performed by slaves. When the Union blockade prevented the transport of cotton to England, manufacturers had to adjust. Their machinery was tuned to the length and form of American cotton fibers — the raw materials from Egypt or India with which they briefly replaced it had different lengths and thicknesses. I’d recommend a book, if you’re interested: Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton (2014). There’s another connection, as well — men of Mr. Thornton’s social class who had an interest in free labor (and the corresponding classical liberal political convictions) tended to oppose slavery and support abolitionist political movements, not so much out of altruism but because slavery created a restriction on the free movement of labor.

Anyway — why historians get interested in a particular question at a particular time is always complicated. In this case, I think the interest in the relationship of slavery and capitalism — although it got a big boost in 1954 with Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery, a book that even I read as a sheltered, European-focused undergraduate — has had three motors. First, a general revival in interest in the history of capitalism and economics in the wake of the Great Recession. Second, increasing awareness and publicity for the movement to grant reparations to the descendants of enslaved people in the U.S., which in turn has generated the charge from opponents that slaves made little significant economic contribution to our history. Third, there has been a revival, culturally, of the “slavery wasn’t so bad / masters took good care of their slaves” argument in the last ten years or so, to the extent that it’s beginning slip into public school textbooks, which in turn has caused historians to re-examine the power relations of slavery in light of economic factors as a way of searching for the truth.


So, in the midst of all this, a book I’ve been waiting for a while was finally published this January: Daina Ramey Berry’s The Price for their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation (2017). What’s groundbreaking about this book lies first in its specific examination of slaves as economic commodities, digging into various kinds of financial records to determine the economic value of an enslaved person at any given time in his or her life — and afterwards. I knew that slaves were insurable property, but I did not know, until meeting Prof. Berry, that there was a traffic in deceased slaves’ cadavers, which were sold to medical schools in order to get as much “value” as possible from them.

Secondly, the book is significant in that it excavates specific evidence about how enslaved people responded to measures intended to measure their value. How do you think you’d respond to being appraised? This book answers this question for African-Americans before 1865.

If you needed another reason to check out this book — Berry is one of the most quality people I ever met in academia. I really admire her work, her industry, and her character. And she writes well. This book is going to win awards.



Harriet Tubman, ca. 1865-68.

Interesting: a new photo of Harriet Tubman, one of the most well-known figures of the Underground Railroad, was recently discovered. After escaping slavery herself, Tubman made thirteen trips back into the U.S. South, guiding approximately seventy fellow slaves to freedom. The new picture is a big deal because only a few photos of her have ever been verified. In this photo, too, she’s quite a bit younger than in most of the pictures we associate with her — this is how she might have looked when she was conducting the activities for which she became famous.


moonlight_2016_filmThe Oscars are this weekend and Moonlight is among the Best Picture nominees, as is one of its actors, Mahershala Ali, for Best Supporting Actor.

Although it’s not going to win — although it’s the best of the three Best Picture nominees that I’ve seen — this is quite simply an exceptional film.

I’d wanted to write a review but had never found my way into a post about it. It’s very theatrical — like Love, Love, Love, it shows the characters at three separate stages in their lives — but unlike Love, Love, Love, there are different actors playing the roles in each “act” of the play. We follow Chiron from his childhood to his adolescence to his adulthood, as he deals with his increasingly drug-addicted mother and the unfolding of his own sexuality. (Ali plays Juan, a mentor or father-figure to the boy, Chiron.) The film is fantastically well cast, and visually, it’s really meditative and evocative — I think it’s as much a meditation on the nature of poverty in the U.S. as it is about black boys growing up (and growing up gay in an ethnic space that is incredibly hostile to homosexuality). I almost found myself missing Florida. The very structured nature of the piece, which must have been necessary for theater, creates a sort of dramatic simplicity for the viewer that allows one simply to be moved, by the pictures, by the characters, by their conflicts, by the solutions they find.

I know that’s a really vague description of the film, but this was one that I simply enjoyed without thinking about it. Which I think was the intent.

The film ends hopefully, but not in a cliché, which left me hugely grateful. I often find that films I am enjoying self-destruct in the last ten minutes. It’s hard to write an ending.

And I was annoyed, thinking when I left the theater, that there are obviously so many talented African-American actors whom I’ve never heard of.


This is a known story, but NPR talked about it again this week: how former slaves searched for family members they had lost.


Did you wrinkle your forehead over Beyoncé’s pregnancy announcement? I thought this interpretation of it was interesting. Since the release of Lemonade (2016), she’s the American artist I’ve been most interested in. I am not a huge fan of her musical style in general (although I did love “All the Single Ladies”) but what she says with it is impressive and provocative.


715438The book I’m reading as the month closes: Timothy Tyson’s Blood Done Sign My Name (2004). I picked it up because I’m still in the queue for his new book about the murder of Emmett Till, and the sensitivity of this book was said to be one reason that Carolyn Bryan chose him for her confession of perjury regarding what Till did that day in her family’s grocery store.

The first line of the book is riveting: “Daddy and Roger and ’em shot ’em a nigger.” The author is quoting a childhood friend of his.

In the book, Tyson tells the story of the murder of Henry Marrow — after an incident remarkably similar to the Till story — and the acquittal of his killers, another parallel. Only it was 1970, not 1955 (it kept shocking me that the later chapters of the book referred to times and events that I remember personally) — and Tyson was a little boy in Oxford, North Carolina, where the murder occurred. His father was pastor of the United Methodist Church. The community was still segregated. When the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, the town fathers closed all of the public facilities (parks, pools) rather than integrate them. Marrow’s murder led to brief riots and an organized boycott of all white businesses by the city’s black residents — and it was only after his death that the city schools were integrated.

There are a number of interesting aspects of this book (despite its origins as an M.A. thesis at Duke, which you will still notice from time to time in the narrative — Tyson will tell you the entire history in detail of every person involved in the story whether you want to know or not). One is the child’s perspective in comparison to the adult writing the story: what Tyson noticed as a child and how things seemed to him, vs. the events he was able to document in 1994. A second is the complexity of the situation — we tend to think of the Civil Rights Era as dominated by straight white/black conflict and clear hierarchies, but the way that the participants in this particular incident got to their stances in 1970 is truly interesting. For instance, an important character in the story was the descendant of free blacks, including an ancestor who’d served in George Washington’s army — a piece of the puzzle we don’t usually think about in the twentieth century).

But I think the most significant takeaway from this book is one that seems to be bubbling in the American subconscious at the moment about the role of nonviolent direct action vs. violent protest. We celebrate MLK Day in January and plenty of streets are named after him, but the price for that has been a rhetorical “disinfection” of anything potentially divisive about what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. actually said. The price for making him a figure of unity is that we’re gradually erasing anything he said about disunity. As a result, phrases from his most famous speech, like “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” [“I have a dream,” 1963] are used to argue that we should pretend he wanted us to ignore the effects of race on our society entirely — the exact opposite of what he wanted to say, and indeed said, in Why We Can’t Wait (1963), which advocates strongly for interventions to redress the historical effect of racial inequality.

What Tyson concludes: the integration of Oxford, NC, had both nonviolent and violent elements — but in the end it succeeded not because of nonviolent protest, but because the threat of violent protest (“Black Power,” as he terms it) was always simmering in the background and erupted at least once to show what it could do.

And really, nonviolent direction action is a misnomer. When is real protest, protest that changes something, ever caused by people asking politely for equality? Rather, the plaintiffs have to show that they’re so convinced of the rightness of their cause that they are willing to suffer for it. The civil rights protestors were always subject to violence that authorities and bystanders were only too prepared to inflict. John Lewis, the current poster figure for nonviolent protest? The police hit him so hard they fractured his skull.

Tyson reminds us, in short, not to forget — in our enthusiasm for praising nonviolent protest as part of social change — how the power structures are actually organized.


Mary McLeod Bethune, 1949.

Mary McLeod Bethune, 1949.

This is getting long, so if you’re still reading and will tolerate it, one more piece of data.

When I was a girl, I had a biography of Mary McLeod Bethune. I’m not sure how I got it (my mom might have bought it for a nickel in the library used book sale or something, or gotten it at a rummage sale, hoping to feed the small Servetus’ gigantic book maw). I really wanted to write about it but I can’t find it in the house and I can’t identify it precisely to order it.

You should read her biography, though — it’s here. She was born in 1875 in South Carolina.

What I remember from the book I read: Her parents were sharecroppers / former slaves; she had sixteen siblings; she had to walk ten miles a day to school and back, which she did because she wanted to read. She got her higher education on scholarship in the North. She wanted to be a missionary but the agencies didn’t want black missionaries so she became a teacher instead. She got married but her husband was kind of a dud. She devoted her life to women’s education and she was more interested in practical / vocational than scholarly education. (When I was in college, later, I learned that that was a contemporary debate between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois.) She financed her schools by baking and selling sweet potato pies to tourists in Florida until she gradually had enough money to open a school, room by room, and hire teachers. She was a very strict teacher. Even white people wanted to donate to support her school. She also used this technique to found a hospital since the local hospitals wouldn’t treat black folks. Eventually her school became a university and she was friends with Eleanor Roosevelt.

Everywhere that Mary went — well, she never had any money, she just rubbed her pennies together, cleaned up a nasty room, baked some pies to get some money together, and started educating left and right.

Inspiring story, and I still remember it forty years later.

Septima Poinsette Clark

Septima Poinsette Clark

Although Bethune was a leading African-American figure of her day, I think most people have not heard of her these days. However: the influence that biography and her story had on me definitely makes my ears perk up when I hear another story of an inspiring African-American woman. Here‘s one I hadn’t known until this year: Septima Poinsette Clark, called “the Queen Mother of the Movement,” who founded many of the citizenship schools. Their purpose was to try to teach black adults enough literacy to past the literacy tests that whites instituted to prevent them from registering to vote. Students in these schools developed the leadership that drove the Civil Rights Movement on a local level.


So, while I plan to keep reading, Black History Month is almost over for this year. Happy Black History Month 2017!

~ by Servetus on February 26, 2017.

12 Responses to “Black History Month 2017 odds-and-ends”

  1. Thank you! Now I have new things to read! I jus finished a book called The Girl With Seven Names, which is a memoir about a woman who escaped North Korea, and I need something new.

    I’ve often wondered why there hasn’t been a movie or series made about Harriet Tubman. When I read history, I often see it as a movie playing in my head. I can see everything: the clothes, the mannerisms, the sounds, the smells, the architecture, etc. The details of Tubman’s life is an absolute, real-life, adventure story. That woman had more courage in her little finger than I will ever have and she needs to be more than what is so often reduced to half a page in a school social studies book that gets trotted out once a year. I find her fascinating.


    • maybe you should write a script!

      I had a child’s biography of Tubman as well (“Moses”) but it didn’t stick with me as much. I see there’s a new novel about the UR by Colson Whitehead, but I haven’t put myself in the queue for that one yet.


  2. You wrote a very interesting post Servetus. It has always amazed me that anyone would say that slaves provided little value during that stain in history. The South was dependent on free slave labor in order to support their way of life. I didn’t know how valuable dead slaves were either. Humans are so contradictory. Africans were not considered human, yet their cadavers were useful in medical schools? Aren’t cadavers used to study the human body?

    I posted some vintage photos of African Americans on my Facebook page, and I asked people to identify Mary McLeod Bethune. The first person to answer was white and got it wrong. The person she chose didn’t even remotely resemble Dr. Bethune. Everyone else after that got it correct., and they were all white of different age groups. I would bet that many younger African Americans (probably 30 and under) do not know who Dr. Bethune is either, and would not have been able to pick her out of a bunch of photos. A lot of times, even if a person has heard of her, they really don’t know why she is a notable person.

    I am not really sure how I feel about the Beyonce photo, so I don’t say anything. I do like a lot of her music, but I have to admit I never purchased any of it. When I hear her songs playing on the radio I do enjoy it though. Oh, one correction. I did purchase one song of hers called “Listen”.

    Emmett Till’s story is still heavy in the air today. I visited the New African American museum in Washington DC with my family last month. There is an entire section focusing on this tragedy. It includes one of the coffins that Emmett;s body was in. The line for this exhibit was the longest. It was so long that the wait to get in was very slow going. We decided not to wait because my Mom cannot stand for too long anymore. The two men who were responsible for his murder died horrible deaths themselves years later, which I view as karma. Carol Bryant, the woman who accused Emmet of whistling at her is still alive as far as I know. I’m glad that she admitted to lying about what happened.

    “She told me that ‘Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him,'” said Tyson, a Duke University research scholar whose previous books include “Blood Done Sign My Name” and “Radio Free Dixie.”

    I wonder how happy she has been living knowing that lied and caused the untimely and horrific death of an innocent 14 year old boy.


    • re: slaves’ contribution — there have been various arguments over the years. Probably the one that has the most evidence in its favor is that slaves had a shorter work week than independent “yeoman” farmers (i.e., individual small farmsteaders) at the time, 15% to 25% shorter by some calculations. So some historians have argued that slaves made some contribution, but that the economy would have grown faster w/o slavery. I can see why they argue that, but it assumes that slaves could have been replaced one to one with free labor, which is doubtful. Picking cotton is really nasty, unpleasant work. In this sense the great “advantage” to slavery was its coercive aspect. It’s unclear that white plantation owners could or would have paid the necessary wages to move free labor to work on cotton plantations. Most cotton was not produced by individual farmers but on the plantations by enslaved people who worked under threat of violence.

      The thing about the cadavers also kind of floored me.

      Dr. Bethune — I’m not sure I’d have immediately recognized a picture, either. However, I think she was better known before the Civil Rights movement because of her activity because of her activity in the big organizations of that period.

      I had read that that coffin went to the museum but I hadn’t realized that it was on display yet (I wrote a long post about Emmett Till earlier this month). What did you think of the museum in generally?

      Carolyn Bryant’s memoirs will be unsealed by Duke in 2036 so I guess, if we’re still alive, we’ll find out then what she thought ….


    • I didn’t realize you had a new blog!


  3. LOL….yes, I have a new blog. It just went up about 2 weeks ago. My last post on my old blog explains why and what has happened to me over the past several months, such as getting laid off again and getting a new job working from home, and why my old blog was down for so long, etc.

    The new museum is huge and it really takes more than a day to go through it if you really want to take in all of it. I thought that by waiting several months after opening that the crowds would have died down by January on the weekends, but I was wrong. The best time to go would be a day during the week, or else you will face long lines to get in and to see some of the exhibits because bus loads of people come to DC from other areas to see tour the museum. I think that eventually the crowds will down down a bit, but it will take a while. You begin the tour in the basement and work your way up as each exhibit spans the centuries of time from just before slavery began up until the present time. Of course there are items such as ships manifests, clothes, and a couple of old slave shacks that were moved into the museum, and many, many other items. I most identified with the exhibits covering the decades of the 1960’s and 1970’s because those decades were my formative years. A theater in the building was showing a documentary about hurricane Katrina. The museum gift shop is very well stocked with books, posters, cards, games, outerwear, and many other items that you would find in any well stocked museum store. To me, the museum was well thought out and executed, not to mention long overdue.

    I would love to read Carol Bryant’s memoir. I actually feel sorry for her because knowing that you did something terribly wrong and having to live with that knowledge for decades must have robbed her of any true happiness in her life.


    • I was subscribed to the old blog but I don’t think I got an email about the change. Anyway, the new blog is very pretty!

      The Holocaust Museum was like that (mobbed) for about three years after it opened, as I remember — which is essentially good, I think. I haven’t been in DC in years but I would prioritize the new museum next time I get there. It sounds from your description and everything I’ve read that it is truly interesting.

      re: Bryant — you know. I dunno. I do feel sorry for her. However, she really showed an unwillingness to take responsibility, not just in 1955 but really for most of her life. As late as 2004 the US DOJ was trying to re-open the Till case. The federal statue of limiitations on perjury is five years. But she was questioned again in 2004 and reiterated the story she told in 1955.

      Some of the witnesses back in 1955 mentioned that that they thought they heard a female voice during part of the kidnapping, which would have been the basis for a manslaughter charge. She might have been the person who identified Till to her husband in the Wright’s house.The state of MS called a grand jury in 2006 to see if she could be indicated, but the grand jury failed to return an indictment, in part because she stuck with her story. There is no statute of limitations on manslaughter / murder.

      I get that even now, if she’d admitted publicly what she knew about what actually happened, she might be in danger or have to go to jail, and she’s an old lady. So I’m sympathetic on that front, I suppose, but she’s had a lot of chance to open up about this and it’s a bit disappointing that she hasn’t. On the other hand, I have no idea what I would do if I had been in her situation, so …


  4. I still haven’t been to the Holocaust museum. I’ve been meaning to go for a long time, and I must make it a priority in my travels to DC.

    Carol Bryant would absolutely be in danger if she admitted the truth while still alive. I’m sure it is one of the reasons why her memoir is sealed until 2036. The fact that it is sealed for so long is almost like an admission. She has a hellish karma to pay, and I am thrilled that I am not in her shoes.


    • But she’s admitted a big piece of it already, with the publication of Tyson’s book. She’s 82, I think. Perhaps she is very ill or something. Although I guess the interview in which she said it was conducted in 2007, so not so ill.

      I think the key is that what we know she’s admitted (that she lied about what Till did in the store that day) is something that has long been believed by the vast majority of observers and historians.


  5. Very interesting, both post and comments. Thank you!


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