Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Land of the Free

Ran away, a negro woman and two children. A few days before she went off, I burnt her with a hot iron, on the left side of her face. I tried to make the letter M.

When Charles Dickens made his first visit to the United States in 1842, he found much to admire as well as much to deplore. Foremost among the latter (in addition to the widespread practice of tobacco chewing and spitting, which disgusted him) was the institution of slavery, which he condemned vehemently and categorically, devoting an entire chapter of American Notes for General Circulation to the topic. Much of that chapter consists of a list of runaway slave advertisements like the one quoted above, notices that were made all the more harrowing by the fact that the ardent defenders of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness who placed them made careful note of the brandings, ear-clippings, and other mutilations that could serve to identify their escaped "property." Dickens invented nothing here; the advertisements were copied, almost verbatim (and without attribution), from a volume entitled American Slavery as It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses, compiled by Theodore Dwight Weld, Angelina Grimké, and Sarah Grimké, which scrupulously recorded the sources of the advertisements. Thanks to Weld and the Grimkés, and to The North Carolina Runaway Slave Advertisements project, we know that the epitome of Southern chivalry responsible for this particular notice was one Micajah Ricks of Nash County, North Carolina, and that the advertisement appeared in the North Carolina Standard on July 18, 1838.

In recent weeks the legislatures of at least two states (Oklahoma and Georgia) have passed measures opposing the curriculum of the Advanced Placement course in U. S. History, on the grounds that it offers, in the words of one critic of the course, "a consistently negative view of American history that highlights oppressors and exploiters." Perhaps those lawmakers need to dust off their Dickens?

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