Tag Archives: slavery

Jim’s Dilemma

Your pa, he says to me that I need to come and help you understand why he had to go away, why he had to join the Missouri Colored Regiment.[i]  Says I was good at explaining and good at leaving my own self, and so I might as well be the one.  But you knows what your pa’s doing, don’t you?  You knows that he joined up so’s you all be free when he come back.  That’s cause you listen good, child.

Your pa, he never did understand, though, about why I went away.  Never did let me tell the whole story.  Always said I loved that white boy better’n him.  Never did understand.  But that’s my fault, I reckon.  Or maybe that’s just the way it goes.

Ole missus, that’s Miss Watson as was, she moved in with her sister, see?  And I hads to go with her; didn’t have no choice, though that meant I was 20 miles or more from your nanny and your pa and your aunt ‘Lizabeth what as died before you was born, 20 miles instead a just a few.  Used to come see them most every night, but after that—  Johnny—your pa—had to be the man of the house whiles I was gone—much as slavery lets you to be a man.  But love that white boy more’n him?   Huhn!  I tell yah—first words I says to that white boy, I says

 “Name’s not ‘nigger,’ boy.  Name’s Jim.  And I lay I’ll teach you to know it.”  Those was the first words I said to him.

Huh?  You’re right.  Told you, you’s a smart boy, and I admit it.  Them’s the first words I thought when that little white trash moved in and got dressed up in all the fancy clothes and done called me out my name though he just crawled right outten a hogshead his own self.  What I said aloud was “Yassuh, young massa?”  Man’s gotta know where the corn pone comes from.  It’s a tough world, it is, child, and don’t you forget it.

The boy weren’t so bad, though, as white folks go.  Fact is, I believe he had a good heart in there when it weren’t messed up and confused.  He told some of the story round about here, when that Tom Sawyer would let him talk.  And Huck, he told the truth so far as he could, I guess.  As he says, we all gots some stretchers in us.  But he was the only white man I ever know that even tried to keep his word to old Jim.  Only white man I ever know that thought a word was a something to keep, when talking to a black man.  Most of them’d sooner lie than look at you.  But you know, they don’t really like looking now, do they?

Huck, he weren’t so bad, though.  And he did try.  But with a dad like his’n and that Tom Sawyer always raisin’ Cain and messing with his head, calling him chucklehead when he got a fair point an’ such truck as that.  Huck never had no chance.  But he tried, and I got to give him credit for trying.  He was a good boy, take it all in all.

I done told you the story lots a times, about the time I runned.[ii]  Had to.  You know that.  The devil he got in me.  And old missus, she got scared.  Was gonna sell me down to Orleans, she was.  Never woulda seen your pa or ‘Lizabeth again.   I lit out mighty quick, made a good plan, too, but there’s people everywhere, on account of they thought Huck done been killed.   They was crawling all over both sides of the river.

I took my chance in the dark—you knows the story—how I hid in the driftwood, then latched onto the raft.  I needed to get far away, and I knowed it.  Heard all day from where I was hiding in that cooper’s shack about how Huck‘s killed on the Illinois side.  Knowed oncet they realized I was gone, they’d blame me for it.  Ridden by witches and with the devil’s own coin, they’d never believe it weren’t me, and they’d know I’d lay for Illinois.  Where else a man going to go?   It’d be like that black Joe in Boone County what killed that white trash with de axe, or that Teney in Callaway that they said killed that woman.[iii]  I’d never a seen the inside of a jail.

But I didn’t have no luck.  When the man come toward me with the lantern, there weren’t no use for it; I struck out for the island.   Had to lay low, ‘cause they was hunting Huck, and pretty soon, they was hunting me, too.  Couldn’t get much to eat.  Knew I needed to swim for the Illinois shore afore I was too weak from hunger, but they was hunting too hard.  And push come to shove, I kept thinking ‘bout your pa, and about poor little ‘Lizabeth, and somehow I couldn’t leave.  My head was just a busting and so was my heart.  Lit myself a fire to keep warm, made sure it didn’t smoke, but I kept seeing ‘Lizabeth’s eyes looking into mine.  Wrapped the blanket round my head to shut them out, but that didn’t make no matter.  Finally done fall asleep, though.

First thing I saw when I wakes up was that there dead white boy, big as life.  Thought he was a ghost at first, I did, come to haint old Jim, who only tried to help him when his pa come back.  Old Jim, who never told the missus bout all the times he sneaked out in the night to cat about.  Slaves never have no luck—you remember that, child—it’ll save you lots a disappointment in this life.  But no ghost ever blim-blammed like that, and so I knowed it was really him, his own self.  That child could talk the hind leg off a donkey, he could.  I kept quiet and let him run on, thinking mighty hard.

He had a gun, see.  And people thought he was dead.  Or was that just one a him and Tom Sawyer’s jokes again?  It weren’t the first time white folks thought they was dead, though this’d be the first time a body had cared that Huck was gone, first time in his whole life.  But there he was with a gun, a-chatterin and a-jammerin on.  Was he a-hunting me?  Hunting old Jim after he had his lark and made folks think he was dead?

Then he busts into my thoughts.  Tells me to make up the fire and get breakfast, just like he owned me.  That boy playing me, I thinks to myself, but I gots to know.  Maybe he’s just a-hunting.  So I axed him some questions, and found out he been there since the night he was killed.  So whatever he’s a-playing at, he ain’t a-hunting old Jim.  I tells him I’ll make a fire if he’ll hunt us up something for to cook on it.

I was expecting him to come back with some squirrel or some mud-turkles or such truck, or maybe a rabbit iffen I was lucky, and I hoped he had a knife with that gun, but I looked round for a sharp stone, just in case.  When he come back, he come back with all kinds of stuff, a catfish and sugar and bacon and coffee and dishes, if that don’t beat all.  I was set back something considerable, ‘cause I knew right away what it meant.  Continue reading →

Sunday Sermon: Activist Humor and Frederick Douglass’s “Servants, Obey Your Masters”

Courtesy of the National Park Service, Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, Frederick Douglass

Today, Frederick Douglass seems a formidable and imposing figure, his speech eloquent, inspiring, provocative and fiery.  He was certainly all of this and more.  But he also made people laugh.  During the antebellum years, lecturing alongside an uncompromising firebrand like Henry Highland Garnet could mean broken bones (and Douglass himself could attest to this), lecturing with Douglass usually meant getting out unscathed,  outwitting the enemy, and perhaps even changing some minds — even if his humor bothered some critics. 

But as Billy Kersands, a renowned African American blackface performer, once said without a trace of a smile, “Son, if  they hate me, I’m still whipping them, because I’m making them laugh.”  While Douglass wrote caustically about white blackface performers and earlier African American blackface performers such as Gavitt’s Serenaders, I think that he shared Kersands’ assessment of the power of humor. 

Douglass’s humor ranged from the self deprecating to the bitingly caustic.  He wielded humor to defuse tense situations, but, perhaps more importantly, he used it as an activist strategy to forward the abolitionist cause and as a powerful tool in the fight for equal rights.  Often these moments of humor were simply that — moments inserted to defuse tension or to skewer a point with precision.  Other times, Douglass used extended routines to drive home his points and pull his audience right along with him

One of his most powerful extended uses of humor is when he takes on the persona of a white preacher addressing a slave congregation (the actual audience being made up of largely white attendees and hecklers at abolitionist meetings).  This text is from a meeting in Scotland in 1846, but he used versions of this speech for years across America, too.  The speech presented below is excerpted from a newspaper account, and it includes parenthetical asides relating the audience’s responses.  The reporter sets up the speech, saying that Douglass was going to 

give them a sketch of a sermon which he had often heard preached. The text was ‘Servants obey your masters.” He would divide it into separate heads, and here he was going to imitate the preacher, for he wanted to show them how rantingly, how piously he might appear when in the service of the wicked one himself. Mr. Douglass then in tones of mimic solemnity gave the following epitome of the discourse:

Frederick Douglass humor

—”Servants obey your masters.”

–You should obey your masters, in the first place, because your happiness depends on your obedience. (Cheers and laughter.) Now, servants, such is the relation constituted by the Almighty between cause and effect, that there can be no happiness neither in this world nor the world to come save by obedience; and it is a fact, that whenever you see misery, wretchedness, and poverty, want and distress, all is the result of disobedience. (Laughter.) Peculiarly is this the case with yourselves. Under the providence of God, you sustain a very peculiar relation to your masters. The term “servant” in the text means slave, and you will of consequence perceive that this is a message to you by the mouth of the Apostle; so as a preacher of the Gospel I beg you to listen to the words of wisdom. (Great laughter.)

–I said it was peculiarly the case that your happiness depends upon your obedience. It is verily true, and suffer me to illustrate this position by the statement of a fact. A neighbour of mine sent his servant Sam into the fields to perform a certain amount of labour which ought to have taken him two hours and a half. Now, by the way, his master was a pious soul, and after having waited till the expiration of the time which he had allotted to Sam for the performance of the work, he went out into the field, as he was accustomed to do, for the purpose of ascertaining why Sam was detained. (Laughter.) When he went, lo and behold, there lay Sam, his hoe in one place, and Sam fast asleep in the corner of the fence. (Great laughter and cheers.) Think of the feelings of that pious master. Oh! it was a trying situation for a servant of the Lord to be placed in. (Laughter.) He went “to the law and to the testimony” to know his duty, and he there found it written, that “the servant who knoweth his master’s will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes.” Accordingly, he took up Sam, and lashed him till he was not able to bear it. Now this is the point I want to come to. To what was Sam’s whipping traceable? (Cheers and laughter.) Solely to disobedience. (Much laughter.) If you would be happy, therefore, and not be whipped, you will avoid sleeping when you should be working, for if you would enjoy and live under the sunshine of your master’s good pleasure, let me implore you, as one who loves your souls, ”be obedient to your masters.” (Cheers and laughter.)

–You should obey your masters, in the second place, because of a sense of gratitude for your present situation compared with what it might have been. You should be inspired by a knowledge of the fact, that the Lord, in his mercy, brought you from Africa to this Christian country. (Shouts of laughter.) Oh! this is an important consideration, and one to which I will call your attention for a few moments. Your fathers—and I dread to enter upon the picture—were taken from Africa—degraded, lost, and ruined Africa—darkness may be said to cover that earth, and gross darkness that people—to be brought into the sunshine of this land of freedom. (Laughter.) Continue reading →