People Will Always Defend Themselves

Transcribed from the 2 March 2019 episode of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the whole interview:

John Brown was not too far off to think that violence would work. He looked at the American revolution and the Haitian revolution, and observed that in bringing about change, violence has been a great accelerator. We need to have an honest discussion about violence, because if we don’t, it presents the idea that the civil war was a spontaneous, unfortunate outcome that is not precipitated by all these other movements and moments.

Chuck Mertz: Black antebellum abolitionists long campaigned against slavery, eventually turned to violence, and forced the United States to finally end slavery. Here to tell us what she has discovered that no other historian had before, historian Kellie Carter Jackson is author of Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and a Politics of Violence. Kellie is a nineteenth century historian in the department of Africana studies at Wellesley college.

Welcome to This is Hell!, Kellie.

Kellie Carter Jackson: Hi, thank you for having me.

CM: You quote nineteenth century African-American physician, apothecary, abolitionist, and author James McCune Smith writing, “Our white brethren cannot understand us unless we speak to them in their own language. They recognize only the philosophy of force.”

To what extent is that still the case today? In the Black Lives Matter movement—not that they employed force, but their strategy, like many activists’ today (even in the Extinction Rebellion activism that’s happening in the UK and now coming to the US), is one of confrontation, of being more confrontational to those they oppose. We’ve seen the success of this confrontation here in Chicago, as it led to mayor Rahm Emanuel no longer being able to make public appearances, and eventually bowing out and not running for re-election.

While confrontation and force are not the same, to what extent do white people only react to the philosophy of force?

KJ: That’s a really good question. I try to make clear the distinction between force and violence. While violence is always forceful, force is not necessarily violent. There are a lot of ways in which black abolitionists and contemporary activists make use of force, and really make a compelling case for using force to create reform and getting people to meet their demands.

In the Black Lives Matter movement, a lot of their activism has been centered around nonviolence. And that’s really great—we’ve seen the ways they’ve been able to push a lot of progress, and do so nonviolently. In the nineteenth century it was a little bit different. Black abolitionists were employing force and violence—really any means necessary—in order to bring about the abolition of slavery.

I find it a little trickier talking about force and freedom and violence today, because in the nineteenth century we can all readily concede that slavery was wrong, that slavery was awful. But when we look at systemic racism today and all its different reincarnations, it’s harder to tackle with the activism of the nineteenth century.

CM: You write, “What vexed McCune Smith the most was the notion that British emancipation had been a boon conferred rather than a right seized upon and held. Consequently, he mocked its celebrants by mimicking an 1848 blackface minstrel song, ‘Massah Give Me Holiday.’ Were black Americans to hope for abolition as a gift from slaveowners acting of their own free will? According to McCune Smith, true freedom could not be bestowed. It had to be won.”

Can freedom ever be bestowed, ever be given as a gift by those who are free to those who are not? Do we know if freedom has ever been voluntarily given by the free to those who are not?

KJ: I’m going to say no. I’d love to hear other people’s opinions on this, but I don’t think so. When I teach American history, and for that matter when any historian teaches any form of history, we benchmark history with violence. Violence provides all the little pinpoints on the timetable. The American revolution, the French revolution, the Haitian revolution, the civil war, World War One, World War Two, Vietnam, 9/11—all of these moments pinpoint progress (or the lack thereof, but for the most part, progress).

When we think about how change is procured, a lot of times it’s violence that allows these major changes to happen. When I talk about freedom given versus freedom won, what we respect more, what we celebrate more, is freedom won. If Americans are honest with ourselves, we do have a romance with violence and revolution and freedom, and we quote Patrick Henry: Give me liberty or give me death. These sentiments are really powerful in understanding how we see the abolition of slavery and how we see the procurement of people’s freedom. Oftentimes it’s coming with guns.

Even if we look at British emancipation, yes they freed their slaves nonviolently, but what precipitated their emancipation was the Baptist war, also known as the Christmas rebellion. It was Jamaica’s largest rebellion on record. When this happened, the British government knew they did not want it to be like in Haiti. They did not want a Haitian revolution. So they wound up freeing their slaves without having a revolution. But rebellion was definitely there, and a major impetus for emancipation.

CM: You write, “In the history of the movement to abolish slavery, the shift toward violence among African-Americans remains largely unaddressed.” Why does that remain largely unaddressed? Is stepping away from or not reporting on or not researching that violence—is that an attempt to enforce some other narrative that is nonviolent? Why has it gone unaddressed?

KJ: Violence can be an uncomfortable topic. It’s easier to package the Underground Railroad as stories of escape or flight, and not really talk about how often fleeing required fighting—that violence was necessary, in a lot of cases, for people to obtain their freedom. This requires a nuanced analysis of violence. What I try to do is make a careful critique of how violence becomes a tool of utility in the movement—and not to dismiss it.

A lot of the time when people are deploying violence, we dismiss them as fanatics or as crazy. Take someone like John Brown: we say this will never be successful. But John Brown was not too far off to think that violence would work. He looked at the American revolution and he looked at the Haitian revolution, and he observed that in bringing about change, violence has been a great accelerator.

We need to have an honest discussion about violence, because if we don’t, it presents the idea that the civil war was a spontaneous, unfortunate outcome that is not precipitated by all these other movements and moments.

Nothing in history is inevitable. The idea that slavery would of course be abolished eventually is just not so. It could have gone on easily for another hundred years if not for the abolitionists and their obstinacy.

CM: You ask, “Is violence a valid means of producing social change?” When ever there is violence at events demanding social change, the media argues that the violence delegitimizes the cause. Can violence undermine efforts for social change?

KJ: Absolutely. It all depends on the context. In the twenty-first century, we can’t handle violence as a tool of political protest—we can’t even handle nonviolence as a tool of political protest. I use the example of Colin Kaepernick’s nonviolent protest. He kneels with the flag. He doesn’t put middle fingers up to the flag, he doesn’t turn his back on the flag; he simply chooses to kneel. And in kneeling, which is typically a posture of servitude or subservience—we kneel in prayer, we kneel when we’re proposing to someone—the backlash that he received is something that we’re still grappling with. It makes me ask the question: if we can’t handle kneeling in the face of the flag, how can we handle people who are using force and violence to be heard?

There’s a great quote by Martin Luther King, Jr. where he says a riot is the language of the unheard. When oppressed people are pushed to their limits, if they don’t have access to the ballot, if nonviolent resistance is not being heard, then riots and violence become one of the ways to get people to respond quickly.

CM: How is violence a language? How do we view violence differently when we understand it as trying to deliver a message?

KJ: I talk about violence being a political language. It’s really important, because for black abolitionists in particular—free black people did not have the ability to vote. There were a few small percentages of black people who could vote, but the stipulations in order to do that were extremely high: it required land ownership or wealth. How do you bring about political change or social change or economic change when you don’t have possession of the traditional channels to bring about that change—when you don’t have the vote, when you don’t have the ballot? A lot of the ways black abolitionists were able to communicate their political desires was through force, and through violence.

To be honest, I was surprised by how much, throughout history, people responded to violence, and in a lot of ways quite positively. It allowed black abolitionists to make a lot of progress, especially when it came to the Fugitive Slave Law. Black abolitionists developed their own quasi-military groups. They protected their communities, and they put slavecatchers’ lives at risk. When slavecatchers and kidnappers realized that they have just as much to lose, that they have a life to lose in this game, that “retrieving” fugitive slaves was a deadly risk—it put a lot of people on edge. So force allowed fugitives to protect themselves, to prevent themselves from being returned to slavery.

CM: You write, “Historiography typically follows the chronological pattern of moral suasion (in the 1830s), political abolition (in the 1840s), and separatism and emigration (in the 1850s). Some historians see the shift from moral suasion to violence as one of declension, with African-Americans giving in to despair in the wake of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.”

Were things actually getting worse for slaves as we got closer to the civil war? And why? Was this a reaction to violence being perpetrated by black abolitionist activists? What was the reason for things getting worse for slaves as we approached the civil war? I think the assumption is that slowly and slowly, slaves earned their freedom. The way you describe it, that is not the case whatsoever.

KJ: It’s quite the opposite. Things get tremendously worse. When the abolitionist movement has its formal debut in the 1830s, their goal is to do everything nonviolently. They are experiencing the second great awakening—there’s this spiritual revival: people believe that Christ is coming back so you ought to repent, slavery is a sin. All of these ideas are associated with morality and spirituality.

But by the time we get to the 1850s, the abolitionists have been at this movement for twenty years, and in that twenty years they’ve seen slavery expand westward. By the time of the civil war, slaves number four million in their population. Every piece of legislation that debuted in the antebellum period favored slaveholders. There was no new law created that helped the enslaved, that benefited black abolitionists or free black Americans. They were not seeing any progress.

And with each new territory coming into the union, there was intense conflict over whether or not these states would be free states or slave states which would thereby give more political control either to the slaveholding South or the free-state North. It became incredibly violent, and also became incredibly clear that slavery was not going to go away any time soon.

I like to tell my students that nothing in history is inevitable. The idea that slavery would of course be abolished eventually is just not so. It could have gone on easily for another hundred years if not for the abolitionists and their obstinacy.

CM: Why wasn’t the end of slavery inevitable? You write how black abolitionists pointed toward the ‘founding fathers,’ arguing that they guaranteed these freedoms—we’re supposed to have all these freedoms, and we don’t. To what degree did the writing of the constitution and the declaration of independence make the end of slavery inevitable?

The institution of slavery itself is created in violence, and it is sustained in violence, and so the logical next step is that it would be overthrown in violence. Black abolitionist leaders gave their white counterparts an opportunity to do it their way, to do it nonviolently, because they were happy to have the allyship. But as the decades go on, they began to see how moral suasion was really ineffective in bringing about change.

KJ: Black abolitionists took it upon themselves to say that we need to have both emancipation and equality. Emancipation by itself is incomplete. If you do not give slaves—and all black people, for that matter—the ability to be seen as equal to their white counterparts, then everything that the American revolution fought for is a farce, is hypocrisy, is incomplete.

Black leaders referenced the American revolution a lot, but they really saw their model as the Haitian revolution. The Haitian revolution not only freed their slaves but also allowed equality for their enslaved people. They saw the Haitian revolution as their precedent, as their model for how they understood what revolution will entail, and also what freedom and equality will entail.

Joshua Easton, a famous black abolitionist, says we ought to attack the system of slavery—but if we don’t also attack the spirit of slavery, it won’t matter if the system of slavery is overturned. If the spirit of slavery, which makes color a mark of degradation, still exists, we will have eventually lost all of our efforts.

That spirit of slavery is something we’re still fighting today. The institution of slavery has clearly been abolished. But the spirit of slavery, the anti-black sentiment, is very much still with us. And the search for equality and equity is still very much with us. It’s something that I still see us grappling with.

But I still see black people (and in particular, black abolitionists) as responsible for creating a more perfect union. Their whole desire was to protect the union, to allow the union of the United States to lives up to its creed of life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

CM: How can we exorcise, then, that spirit of slavery?

KJ: In the nineteenth century, they employed all kinds of tactics. They were using the press, they were making speeches, they were going on tours, they were writing books, they were getting their narratives out there, they were developing grassroots activism on the ground, developing their own protection societies, developing their own refugee societies for fugitive slaves. The list goes on and on. They were even developing military groups before the civil war started. They were literally rehearsing for war, rehearsing to be in battle, before the war started.

That activism is so instructive when we fast-forward a hundred and fifty years into the twenty-first century. I’m excited when I see people take to social media, using print, or using speech as an avenue to talk about and raise awareness about these issues. I see what I do as a professor as my own form of activism. I’m constantly trying to get my students to understand how inequality works, how oppression works, and how to combat it. I want my students to be student activists. This doesn’t mean I want them to get arrested. It means I want them to act on what they know. I want them to take the knowledge that they have about how systems of oppression have persecuted people, and use that knowledge and information to combat that oppression.

CM: You mentioned how black abolitionist activists in antebellum America were less focused on 1776 than on 1804 in Haiti and the uprising and slave rebellion which led to the revolution in Haiti. But black abolitionist violence seemed to have taken place later on—decades later. Why?

KJ: There were small pockets of activism taking place all throughout the early nineteenth century. But it’s not a national conversation, really, until David Walker’s appeal. David Walker issued this appeal in four parts in 1829, and he used his pamphlet to spread it all throughout the North and South; he used black sailors in order to get the word out as much as he possibly could.

Having this pamphlet out, and having abolitionists printing their own newspapers, provoked a gag law: congress started creating laws about anti-slavery literature. So it was really difficult to get consensus and a movement going until the 1830s—until there was this group of abolitionists, people like William Lloyd Garrison, Gerrit Smith, and Frederick Douglass, who started to make the movement official and gave it a name, and a brand, and allowed it to speak to the current political and social context of the 1830s.

When the abolitionist movement starts out, they are the target of intense amounts of violence. There are anti-abolitionist riots, anti-abolitionist mob attacks. And the black community is bearing the brunt of that violence. Black churches are destroyed, their homes are burned down, their orphanages are burned down. This backlash to the formalization of the abolitionist movement causes a lot of black leadership to decide “turning the other cheek” is not really effective, it’s not going to work, and we need to be more forceful in our attempts to understand how slavery is going to come to an end.

The institution of slavery itself is created in violence, and it is sustained in violence, and so the logical next step is that it would be overthrown in violence. Black abolitionist leaders gave their white counterparts an opportunity to do it their way, to do it nonviolently, because they were happy to have the allyship. But as the decades go on, they began to see how moral suasion was really ineffective in bringing about change.

There are certain political windows that had to open in order for black abolitionists to have more of a platform. In the 1830s, 40s, and certainly the 50s is when they were able to do it.

I center black abolitionists because I want to overturn the myth that the movement was a white man’s struggle against slavery; that only white sympathetic allies were at the helm pushing for this idea—as though black people had to be told that slavery was wrong.

CM: I want to stress this point: not only was slavery getting worse as we got closer to the civil war—was anti-slavery activism increasingly criminalized as we got closer to the civil war?

KJ: Absolutely. When the 1793 Fugitive Slave Law gets revamped in the 1850s, they put teeth on it. They said if there’s a runaway, a US marshal can deputize anyone on the spot to catch them, and if you said no, you could be subject to a thousand-dollar fine and put in prison for a year. So northerners really get mobilized by the Fugitive Slave Law, because they feel that southerners are making them de facto employees of slaveholders, expected to retrieve and return their enslaved people.

It becomes especially toxic after that law is instituted additionally because the repercussions are so harsh if you get caught harboring fugitive slaves. Anti-slavery literature was banned throughout the South. You could be thrown in prison if you were caught with the North Star or an issue of the Liberator.

Your life was at risk when you engaged in abolitionism. It was not something that people just did, it was not common. Less than one percent of the population was abolitionist. While we think that they made up big parts of the northern population, they were really a small percentage of the North.

CM: Did the lack of response by the government to demands of black abolitionist activists in the 1830s, 40s, and 50s lead to violence? Or was violence always a part of abolitionism throughout this era?

KJ: The latter. Violence has always been a part of abolitionism—both in really small ways and in really big ways. Elijah Lovejoy was a famous abolitionist in Illinois who had his printing press destroyed and eventually wound up being killed by an anti-abolitionist mob. But black people were being targeted in that community outside of Alton, Illinois, as well. And they decided not to take it anymore, and started to collect arms in their communities to prevent themselves from being attacked, individually and collectively, by anti-abolitionist mobs. That was taking place in the 1830s.

In the 1840s there were people like Henry Highland Garnet who gave his famous speech telling slaves to rise up, to fight against their masters, to remember that they are in the millions and that they have the power to effect change with their violence.

And in the 1850s there was the Christiana resistance. In 1851, four slaves ran away to William Parker’s house (Parker was a famous black abolitionist and had a reputation for housing fugitive slaves). When Edward Gorsuch, the master of these four slaves, came to his door to retrieve his property, he was killed. And William Parker said something really powerful: he said as Edward Gorsuch lay dying on the ground, women—black women, I surmise—slit his throat and hastened his death.

Some of these instances are local, some become national—but all throughout this period black people are pushing back and trying to assert their humanity, and trying to defend themselves either individually or collectively.

CM: You write, “Others see the antebellum period as the moment in which the maturation of a black nationalist consciousness calcified. I align my work with the more recent scholarship of Manisha Sinha, Patrick Rael, Matthew Clavin, and W. Caleb McDaniel, who see this moment as part of the creation of an alternative revolutionary tradition in the Age of Revolution. I see black abolitionism as a movement that began almost at the inception of Atlantic world slavery and that understood the idea and experience of violence more than any other group.”

Why do we erase slavery’s history of having always facing resistance by the enslaved from the very beginning? And how are slavery and African-Americans in general viewed differently when we acknowledge their resistance against slavery from its inception?

KJ: I center black abolitionists because I want to overturn the myth that the movement was a white man’s struggle against slavery; that only white sympathetic allies were at the helm pushing for this idea—as though black people had to be told that slavery was wrong. From the moment Africans were brought to this country, they were pushing back, they were resisting in so many different ways to assert their humanity.

For me and a lot of my colleagues, it’s really important to put black people at the center of their own efforts, to give them agency in their own efforts to abolish their own slavery—for themselves, for their family members, for their communities, for their people at large. Black people were central to their own liberation, were central to their own emancipation.

Even when we look at the civil war, it was black troops that turned the tide of the war and allowed the North to have the victory that it did. There was the Emancipation Proclamation, but slaves had to leave on their own in order for the Emancipation Proclamation to work. Slavery died in the ground because of the efforts of enslaved people who were leaving their plantations in droves. It’s important to highlight the centrality of black people’s own efforts in their own freedom, and to say that it started when slavery started—black people weren’t waiting around for hundreds of years and all of the sudden had this epiphany that slavery is bad. That doesn’t even make sense.

People are always going to push back and defend themselves when they are oppressed.

CM: You use the phrase political violence, by which you mean “forceful or deadly acts that operate around a political agenda or motivation to produce change.” I want people to understand: in what ways, then, is political violence different from terrorism? I often hear the two conflated.

KJ: I distinguish them as much as I possibly can, because I don’t want people to think that random acts of violence or acts of violence against black people are the same thing as the violence that black people were employing. When I’m talking about political violence, what I’m really talking about is protective violence. Black people were not going into the slaveholding South and slitting masters’ throats and killing white people all over the place. What they were doing was using violence to protect themselves.

If someone was trying to capture and enslave them, they felt well within their rights to use deadly force to combat that. Frederick Douglass and Quakers like Abby Kelley pointed out that slavery itself is warfare. Human bondage is warfare. When you enslave another person, you in essence commit an act of war. Those people are entitled to defend themselves, and entitled to protect themselves.

Our tools don’t need to be about the overthrow of slavery, but rather the spirit of slavery—the spirit of slavery which makes color a mark of degradation. White supremacy is most afraid not of black criminality but of black humanity. What happens when black lives do matter?

While the Klan may be using terroristic violence to keep black people subservient, to keep black people inferior, to promote white supremacy, black people are using political violence to bring about their freedom, to ensure their equality. Those are two different motives. One is fighting for liberation, fighting for freedom, fighting for protection of themselves and their communities; another one is fighting to uphold a system of oppression, to uphold white supremacy.

CM: You write, “Many black leaders began to argue that violent political discourse was completely in line with American religious traditions and early liberal republican views.” In what way was violence in line with religious traditions? Doesn’t religion always preach nonviolence exclusively? Did religion end slavery?

KJ: A lot of black leaders have different thoughts about this. There’s a moment when Frederick Douglass says slavery will only be overthrown by violence—the famous abolitionist Sojourner Truth was at the speech, and she admonished Frederick Douglass, saying, “Frederick, is God dead? Do we not believe that God will do this for us?” But Douglass says that she too changed her mind at the turn of the civil war. She saw the civil war as god’s vengeance, as god enacting punishment on slaveholders.

People used the Bible or interpretations of various scriptures to justify their acts of self-defense. They thought and believed that self-defense was godly. They’re not sanctioning the wholesale killing of white people, but they are absolutely sanctioning self-defense against slavery and bringing about abolition for the enslaved. We need to tease things out a little bit for people to understand how spirituality is being used. It’s not just carte blanche violence. It’s about protection, and the preservation of humanity. People believed in the nineteenth century that we are all god’s creation—being able to protect yourself was seen as godly.

John Anderson was an escaped slave who ran away to Canada, and in the process was chased by a slavecatcher, perhaps his former master, and he tells the person, “If you keep pursuing me, I’m going to kill you.” And the man kept pursuing him, for hours. And he stopped, turned around, and killed the man. He told this story before an audience in Canada, and they cheer. “Bravo! You did right!” And he says, “I thought I was a Christian; I hope I can still be considered a godly man.” And the whole audience was saying it was a justifiable act. The chairman of the meeting says, “Does our friend look like a murderer?” And they affirm his decision to kill this person. Moreover, they affirm his identity as a Christian and a godly man. That’s a really important story to tell of how we understand spirituality and self-defense working hand in hand.

CM: Malcolm X said only by knowing where we’ve been can we know where we are and look to where we want to go. What can knowing about the role violence played in antebellum anti-slavery black activism reveal about where African-Americans are today? What impact can it have on where black activism wants to go, which is liberation?

KJ: We’ve made a lot of great strides in a relatively short amount of time. But I also think that we have a long way to go. It’s not a coincidence that we got a Barack Obama presidency and a Black Lives Matter movement at the same time. It’s also not a coincidence that we got a Barack Obama presidency followed by a Trump presidency. A lot of these things are still ideas, concepts, policies, and heart-changes that really need to be worked out in America.

What I hope black abolitionists can do is provide a model of how to think about and engage in activism not just to protect humanity but to promote humanity. How do we create a world in which black people are seen as human beings and respected as such? I’m not the perfect person to answer that question with the best answer in the whole wide world. It’s something that we each individually have to think about, and think about where our strengths lie, and how we can use our skills and talents to bring about a better world for everyone.

CM: Is violence the outcome of criminalizing activism? I couldn’t help but think of the BDS movement against Israel’s occupation of Palestine while reading your book, and how the Trump administration along with their supporters in congress (and people on the Democratic side as well) are trying to criminalize the BDS movement. What can we learn from the criminalization of abolitionism that might make us think that violence is the outcome of criminalizing activism?

KJ: At least in the case of my work, it’s not so much the criminalization of abolitionism or the criminalization of activism as it is the criminalization of blackness. There’s this myth that white people commit crimes but black people are criminals. That’s a real troubling premise. A white person can steal, but that doesn’t mean that they’re a thief—as opposed to black people not even having to commit crimes in order to be seen as threatening or dangerous. It’s the criminalization of blackness that really encapsulates how much this struggle requires all methods and tools for liberation in order to end this idea.

If then I go back to Joshua Easton: our tools don’t necessarily need to be about the overthrow of slavery, but rather the spirit of slavery—the spirit of slavery which makes color a mark of degradation. White supremacy is most afraid not of black criminality but of black humanity. What happens when black lives do matter? And will it come at the expense of their own power and identity?

CM: Kellie, this has truly been a pleasure. Thank you so much for being on our show this week.

KJ: Thanks for having me, have a good day.

Featured image: Christ’s Entry into Journalism by Kara Walker

 

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