Saturday, January 31, 2015

‘The Half Has Never Been Told’ Comment Four


MORE ON SLAVERY AND CAPITALISM, continuing our journey through ‘The Half Has Never Been Told.’ Chapter 5 is titled ‘Tongues.’ And it begins with the fact of slave songs and their meaning. Often the enslaved on US soil couldn’t speak the same language—some spoke a French Creole from Haiti, others an English from the Chesapeake, still other the Gullah language of the Georgia coast, or other African tongues. The author here stresses the role of the work song in developing a common tongue, the African American dialect of English. But more than a common language, he shows the emergence of a common culture, one of resistance and the need to survive, to endure, under terrible odds.

The wider political context is the need for various ‘compromises,’ bringing new states into the Union in pairs--one slave, one free—to maintain a balance of power. The chief theoretician of slavery was John C. Calhoun, and one opponent at the top was John Quncy Adams. After one conversation with Calhoun in 1820, where the latter threatened civil war, Adams kept his mouth shut, but wrote the following in his diary:

“If the dissolution of the union should result from the slave question, it is obvious as anything…that it must be shortly afterward followed by the universal emancipation of the slaves.” For “slavery is the great and foul stain upon the North American Union… The Union might then be reorganized on the fundamental principle of emancipation. The object is vast in its compass, awful in its prospects, sublime and beautiful in its issue. A life devoted to it would be nobly spent or sacrificed.”

Adams clearly saw through a window into the future, and it serves to show the clarity both sides saw on the importance of the stakes.

The author returns to the activities of the slaves themselves, describing Saturday night corn husking competitions as entertainment, and circle dances after one or another had won, and the new music that arose. As opposed to the music of those not enslaved, which was conservative, trying to keep to the patterns of old Europe, the emerging slave cultural was dynamic and modern. Among free Blacks, it traveled to urban centers like New York City, where it was performed, even copied by ’whites’ in ‘Blackface,’ in poor and gross imitations of the real thing. The ‘tongues’ were giving the world a new music, a gift that keeps on giving, even to this day. More to come.

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