This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,5xx) on Friday, July 17, 2020.
The world gets crazier and the pandemic, in America, gets worse. My heart is with those who have to make difficult decisions, from sending their kids to school to ordering businesses to shut down. I pray for their health and wisdom.
I have included in this newsletter the story of Theodore Weld, Angelina Grimké, and Sarah Grimké, and their fight to abolish slavery in the first half of the 19th century. Their names have almost been forgotten, but that should not be so. They stood up for a moral cause when very few people were willing to stand with them. Weld, particularly, deserves more attention and will probably get it in the next few weeks.
The garden continues to grow and produce, and — believe it or not — I am still picking blackberries. Despite the controversies and confusion, I still look for the many good things about our lives (including, especially, good books). I hope that your weekend is filled with good things.
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American Slavery As It Is: The book that showed slavery to be the ‘monstrous evil that it was
Theodore Weld, his wife Angelina Grimké, and her sister Sarah Grimké were tired of the spin — although they didn’t use that term in 1838.
They were tired of people saying that black was white, up was down, and night was day. And they were tired of people believing the spin because that’s what they wanted to believe.
Americans needed a good, strong dose of reality, and those three abolitionists were determined to give it to them.
But Weld and the Grimké had a steep wall of lies and hardened attitudes to scale. Slavery was not so bad, Americans had been told. Slaveowners took good care of their charges. Instances of abuse were rare. Most slaves were very happy and would not accept their freedom if it was offered. Advocates of slavery and their apologists had spoken these lies so often and so loudly that people believed them.
Americans believed these people because they wanted to believe them. Slavery was so woven into the economic fabric of the nation that changing it would cause climatic disruption.
The abolitionists were determined to attack these lies with the truth, but the truth had to be irrefutable. It could not be dismissed. So, Weld and the Grimkés came up with a clever plan. Rather than railing against slavery (as they had done), they would gather eyewitness testimony — some of it from the slaveholders themselves.
The eyewitnesses began with the Grimkés themselves. The sisters had grown up in Charleston, South Carolina, in a family that owned slaves. But they did not stop with their own accounts. Weld then solicited descriptions of slavery from people who had lived in the South and could tell with credibility what they had seen. These descriptions came from ministers, businessmen, professors, and former slaves who were living then as freedmen.
Then the abolitionists took things a step farther. Living in Fort Lee, New Jersey, they traveled to New York City and collected all of the Southern newspapers they could as they were being discarded from the library. For many months, they scanned these newspapers (20,000 by their own count) and copied any descriptions that slaveowners themselves had offered to fellow Southerners about how they handled their slaves. These people had imagined that they were talking only to like-minded individuals; they never imagined that their words would have a wider audience.
The authors consulted many other sources as well: Congressional debates, court records, statements by foreign ambassadors, and legal documents — anything that they could claim offered credible, irrefutable evidence. Then they presented their “evidence” as they would in a court proceeding, labeling them as “testimony” and “statements.” They certainly sprinkled their own interpretations around liberally throughout the book, but the facts were there.
American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses was published in 1839. The authors were not named but a line on the title page asked that “additional testimonies” be sent to “Theodore Weld, 143 Nassau Street, New York.” The book is not easy reading. It describes the horrific treatment and conditions that slaves had to endure, and it shows that these conditions were commonplace. It showed that, indeed, as Abraham Lincoln would later put it, that slavery was a “monstrous evil.”
The book sold 100,000 copies during its first year in print — an enormous figure for a nation with a population of 17 million. It continued to sell at a substantial rate throughout the 1840s. One of the people who had a copy was Frederick Douglass, who was to become the most famous and respected freedman orator of his time.
Another customer was Harriet Beecher Stowe, who was so affected by the book that she kept a copy “under her pillow.” Stowe used American Slavery As It Is as a sourcebook for her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which would strike an even heavier blow against slavery. When it was published in 1851, Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s sales soared past those of the Weld-Grinké book with 300,000 sold in America in its first year.
The efforts of Weld and the Gimké sisters, according to historian William Lee Miller in his excellent survey of the era Arguing About Slavery: The Great Battle in the United States Congress, was an extraordinary piece of investigative journalism.
Although this book is loaded with, and shaped by, a quite explicit more outlook and conclusion — no book was ever more so — its essence is something else: a careful assembling of attested facts, to make a point. (p. 325)
American Slavery As It Is is one of the most important books in American history. America has pretty much forgotten about Weld and the Grimkés, but the nation still owes them a debt of gratitude.
The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.https://theprolificreader.com/mystery”
The police reporter and the police: considering the case of Edna Buchanan
Edna Buchanan was a police reporter for the Miami Herald and turned that job into something close to literature for hundreds of thousands of fans of her novels, such as Nobody Lives Forever, Legally Dead, and Miami, It’s Murder, as well as non-fiction books such as The Corpse Had a Familiar Face: Covering Miami, America’s Hottest Beat.
But with the current push to reevaluate the role that police have played in our society, (@dianamoskovitz), herself a former police reporter for the Miami Herald, has written an interesting and thought-provoking article about Buchanan and her relationship with the police that she covered. Moskovitz centers her comments on Buchanan’s book The Corpse Had a Familiar Face, which was published in 1987 a few months before Buchanan won her Pulitzer.
The book, she says, “is in part a memoir of her life on the police beat for the Miami Herald, part victory lap, and part manifesto on what crime reporting should look like.”
Naturally, there’s a chapter called “Cops.” It’s here that the true tension of being a police reporter unfurls. Because to be a great police reporter—the kind editors champion, the kind that gets raises and promotions, the kind that wins a Pulitzer—you have to be friends with a lot of cops.
This sort of capture is true, to some extent, of almost every job in American journalism. To get promotions you need scoops, to get scoops you need sources, and to have sources you need to cultivate a certain camaraderie with people; they have to trust you, which might or might not translate to their belief that you are willing to tell the story their way, and not ask too many uncomfortable questions. But on the police beat, this tension is ratcheted way up. Here, police have already set the narrative.They are where the story starts, they have the official titles and the institutional authority, and also they have the guns. Source: Tie a Tourniquet on Your Heart – Popula
From my perspective as a former (briefly) police reporter and longtime journalism instructor, Moskovitz is certainly correct in her descriptions.
Reporters — not just police reporters — are taught to rely on “official” sources, people who have titles, authority, and responsibility. These people are also accessible in part because it is their job to be so. The reporter is dependent on these people, and the police reporter is especially so. It is hard to get the side of the story of the accused because lawyers advise them, rightly, not to talk about their crime.
In an even larger context, there needs to be some good guys in every story, and readers expect the police to fill that role. A reporter who does not follow that narrative plays with fire — and unemployment.
So the system is indeed tilted toward a positive portrayal of the police, but today we find that that portrayal is not always accurate.
Moskovitz has some thoughts about that, and they are worth considering.
From the archives: The writer’s responsibility
One of the great writers — a true craftsman — of the 20th century, E.B. White, had this to say on the responsibility that writers have:
“A writer should concern himself with whatever absorbs his fancy, stirs his heart, and unlimbers his typewriter. I feel no obligation to deal with politics. I do feel a responsibility to society because of going into print: a writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.”
—E.B. White (1899-1985), writer, interviewed by George Plimpton and Frank H. Crowther, The Paris Review, 1969
(Hat-tip to Ted Pease, Today’s Word on Journalism, at http://tedsword.blogspot.com/.)
A librarian friend of mine recently wrote this:
I just helped a woman find kids’ books on the Civil War. She told me, as we were wrapping up, her arms loaded with cool histories and historical novels, that she wanted to read them to her grandkids “while they’re still here.”
I made a polite noise, thinking she meant before her grandkids grow up and don’t want to be read to. But she went on, “I’m just afraid, with everything going on, they’ll disappear from the library.”
Growing suspicious, I said, “Well, yes, when school starts back up, in whatever form, these books will be in demand for sure.”
She persisted, “Well, no, I mean, with all the stuff, you know. With the statues being taken down, I’m just afraid these books will be taken out of the library.”
So there you have it: People are so paranoid about some racist statues and team names that they think actual history books will be censored out of public libraries. That’s the slipperiest snowflake slope I ever slipped across.
What’s going on right now, of course, is not “erasing history,” as some alarmists would have it. It’s changing perspective. That’s something we should all be willing to do now and again.
Dan C.: I have been capitalizing Black, White, and Brown (I would do Yellow and Red if they were not considered archaic slurs) for several years now. I think the Times rationale for capitalizing Black and not capitalizing White is ridiculous. You cannot generalize and place all people from Africa into a shared culture. I have found East Africa, West Africa, Southern Africa, and Blacks from Northern Africa do not have much culturally in common. If they are talking about the culture of those that were slaves, that discounts the millions of Blacks that have immigrated to this country in the last 150 plus years.
My bi-racial daughter who feels the same way about the Times’ actions has been in a quandary all her life. In Arkansas where her biological father was from, she wasn’t Black enough, in the White community she wasn’t White enough. With her coloring, she found that in the Hispanic community she found more acceptance and would often pass as Puerto Rican. The father of my grandaughter is Chicano and her new husband is from El Salvador. She has told me the racism between dark skin and light skin Blacks is as bad or worse than what is faced between Whites and Blacks.
Dan C: (again) When the year started I was so looking forward to the end of the year when I could launch into the “Hindsight is 2020” jokes.
The power to define the situation is the ultimate power. Jerry Rubin, activist and author (1938-1994)
Helping those in need
Fires in California, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast, tornados in Tennessee, and now coronavirus — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.
It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).
When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR.org) is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.
Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.
His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.
Last week’s newsletter: The real Mary Westmacott, capitalizing Black when referring to race, Tennessee Vietnam War Roundtable meeting: newsletter, July 10, 2020
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