John Brown

John_Brown_by_Augustus_Washington,_1846-47[A daguerreotype photograph taken by the Black photographer Augustus Washington in Massachusetts during the years 1846-1847. This photograph is in the public domain. This daguerreotype was later reproduced under the title “John Brown from a daguerreotype loaned me by Annie Brown” by Levin C. Handy between 1890-1910 over 40 years after Brown’s death. The Handy photograph’s original caption reads “Regarded as the best picture by the family” – and we certainly can see why!]

Today’s post (coming just a little over a week after his 217th birthday!) is dedicated to the controversial radical, by-any-means-necessary white American abolitionist John Brown. Born in the year 1800 in Torrington, Connecticut, Brown was descended from some of the earliest English Puritan settlers, tracing his family lineage back to 17th c England. After marrying Dianthe Lusk, Brown and his family – including several children – moved to Pennsylvania. After Lusk passed away, he remarried a young woman named Mary Ann Day and moved to Ohio,  where he worked as a hide tanner and sheep breeder (as he had earlier in life). In 1846, he moved yet again (after declaring bankruptcy several years earlier) – this time to Springfield, Massachusetts, which would prove a central turning point in his path towards becoming a radical and violent abolitionist.

Prior to his move to Massachusetts, when abolitionist journalist Elijah P. Lovejoy was murdered, Brown had reportedly declared that “before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery” (as quoted in War and Reconciliation: The Mid-Missouri Civil War Project); however, it would be several years before this sentiment would be put into action. This is not, though, to suggest that Brown had been pro-enslavement previous to 1837. As a devoutly religious man (Calvinist), Brown’s abolitionism was deeply intertwined with his religiosity, especially in relation to how he understood enslavement to be a sin. Nonetheless, his time spent living in Massachusetts was pivotal to his developing abolitionism as he became a parishioner at the famed Sanford Street Free Church, where he encountered Black radical abolitionists such as Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, and became involved in the Underground Railroad. It was his time spent with Douglass that led him to believe that he was “less hopeful for [enslavement’s] peaceful abolition” (as quoted in Carvalho III, 2012). In 1850, because the Fugitive Slave Act had been passed, Brown helped to found the League of Gileadites (in reference to the Biblical Mount Gilead), a militia-style group that prevented the recapture of fugitive slaves. Shortly thereafter, he left Massachusetts for North Elba, New York.

During this time, several of Brown’s adult children were living in the newly established settler territory of Kansas, from whom he learned that there were mounting fears that pro-enslavement settler forces were growing in militancy. Newly founded settler territories such as Kansas proved critical points of contention in a nation built on enslavement, but divided between states who allowed enslavement to operate within their borders (for ex. the Plantation South), and states who profited from enslavement via commerce and indirect trade but viewed themselves to be ‘outside’ of enslavement (for ex. New England). Each new settler territory therefore proved a point of contention – would enslavement be legal or not within its borders? In response to his adult children’s’ concerns regarding growing pro-enslavement militarism, Brown made his way to Kansas in 1855 in attempts to help Kansas go from a territory to a free state. The following years (particularly a set of several months) would come to be known as “Bleeding Kansas” because of the violence that ensued between abolitionists and other anti-enslavement militias, and pro-enslavement militias. During the ensuing violence, one of Brown’s sons was killed by a pro-enslavement militant; Brown and several of his adult sons later fled Kansas in order to raise money amongst abolitionists and their supporters.

John Brown is perhaps most (in)famous in American history for the final years of his life, wherein he and a dedicated few radical abolitionists (including Harriet Tubman and former enslaved Black people living in Ontario) took it upon themselves to plan and lead an insurrection against enslavement, specifically against a federal armoury, hoping that this would set off a domino of other insurrections. In July 1859, Brown began to put his plan into action at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Unfortunately, far fewer people joined him than he anticipated (under 25 altogether, all men under the age of 50 including several Black men). In September of 1859, Brown led the attack on Harpers Ferry which quickly failed, beginning with the first death of the attack accidentally being a free Black man named Hayward Shepherd on an incoming train. Several of the radical abolitionists died, including two of Brown’s sons, in the violence that followed. Brown was eventually captured, put on trial, and found guilty, sentenced to hang in December. On December 2, 1859 Brown was killed by hanging, dying (in his words) “a martyr” for abolitionism. Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry would come to be understood as one of many, many initial catalysts for the American Civil War.

Brown, as other revolutionary figures in history, is often demonized in mainstream white American histories because he resorted to fighting the inhuman violence of enslavement with his own forms of violence. Writing histories of violence can be difficult, especially when confronted with figures such as John Brown who has both been vilified and romanticized for his actions. As there is no such thing as an objective or neutral history, I have not attempted here to hide my biases and subjectivity when writing about John Brown’s commitment to the lives of enslaved Black people in the United States. For me as for many others, the intertwined horrors of enslavement, colonialism, and capitalism far outweigh the moral arguments against John Brown’s use of violence at Harpers Ferry. Brown was a contentious figure during his time – contemporary abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass disagreed with his use of violence to fight enslavement, while others viewed this as the only way out of enslavement – and he has remained a contentious figure to this day. In my view, John Brown was a radical and revolutionary man not without his idiosyncrasies and questionable actions who was willing to lay down his life in order to fight one of the founding violences (enslavement) of the United States. Although a settler and the father of settlers who participated in displacing Indigenous peoples off of their lands, John Brown understood the enmeshed violence of capitalism and enslavement. He and his abolitionist sons were willing to fight by any means necessary against the enslavement of Black people in the United States and the capitalist structures of power that rested upon their stolen labour.

For those who have not always viewed John Brown as anything other than an “unhinged” or “crazy” violent man, it is important to begin to read other accounts of his life. When we remember John Brown, we may recall the words of the late historian Howard Zinn, who wrote that although it was “Abraham Lincoln who freed the slaves, not John Brown,” Brown was “hanged, with federal complicity, for attempting to do by small-scale violence what Lincoln would do by large-scale violence several years later – end slavery.” If you are someone who has valourized Lincoln, but demonized Brown, these are important words to jump off from into asking yourself why one form of violence (large-scale war) creates an historical hero of one man, and another form of violence (small-scale rebellion) creates an historical villain in another.

With this, I leave you with the words of John Brown, specifically a dramatic reading of his last speech originally delivered on November 2, 1859 and performed here by actor Josh Brolin. I encourage all of you to go out and search for critical histories of John Brown, whether academic texts or popular ones, books or blogpost, as this short post is just one condensed sliver of the many histories of John Brown.

~ M

“Had I interfered in the manner which I admit, and which I admit has been fairly proved (for I admire the truthfulness and candor of the greater portion of the witnesses who have testified in this case), had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends, either father, mother, brother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class, and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.
[…]
I believe that to have interfered as I have done, as I have always freely admitted that I have done in behalf of His despised poor was not wrong but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments I submit. So let it be done.” – John Brown, November 2, 1859.

Bibliography

“Biography of John Brown.” : War and Reconciliation: The Mid-Missouri Civil War Project. Accessed May 10, 2017. http://law.missouri.edu/bowman/hatts/john_brown/biography.html

“John Brown’s Last Speech.” Teaching A People’s History: Zinn Education Project. Accessed May 10, 2017. https://zinnedproject.org/materials/john-brown/

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. New York: HarperCollins, 1980.

John Brown

Ira Aldridge

Ira_AldridgebyNorthcote

James Northcote, Manchester Art Gallery: “Description Half length frontal portrait of Ira Aldridge, celebrated nineteenth century black actor, in the role of Othello. He is dressed in a white shirt, with a white lace necker-chief, he looks nervously to the left. Plain background.” 1826. This image is in the pubic domain. [https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AIra_AldridgebyNorthcote.jpg, accessed 25 March 2017]

Today we tip our hats to 19th-century Black actor, Ira Aldridge, whose career spanned two continents, won some of the most coveted leading male roles in the English-language literary canon, engendered praise (both earnest and patronising) and criticism (unequivocally racist) and provided a platform from which Aldridge publicly supported abolition. Aldridge may be generally unknown, but his life and career negotiated the oppressive white gaze trained upon him as Black man on and off the stage.

Aldridge was born in present-day NYC in 1807. He received an education at Manhattan’s African Free School (for free Black children), where his gift for oratory was recognised. His father, a minister, wished Ira to apply the gift to ministry. But Ira Aldridge’s lifelong vocation would be acting.

From the 1816 to 1824, Aldridge honed his craft, but racist casting discrimination limited his opportunities; he worked mainly backstage, though he also did land roles with the African Company, a Black-founded and Black-managed company that, in 1821, became “the first resident African American theatre in the United States.” (1)

In 1824, Aldridge moved to Liverpool, hoping for greater opportunities. Unsurprisingly, he worked in Black companies and/or was often cast in racialised roles (e.g., his debut role in England in 1825, Oroonoko, the lead in The Revolt of Surinam, or a Slave’s Revenge). But Aldridge’s many leading roles (and not all racialised ones, like Othello, but also King Lear, for which he donned white face) attest to his range and the space he claimed for himself.

Aldridge did not allow himself to be made a hack for theatres cashing in on racialised spectacles; he was dedicated to his craft, and also made the stage a platform for the abolitionist message to which he was devoted. He often reappeared on stage with his guitar after finishing performances to play abolitionist-songs, and eventually became known for his post-performance, closing-night addresses, during which he attacked the abominable, unjust institution of slavery. He also donated considerable funds of his own to abolitionist causes. Thus, he expanded his racialised and constricted position into a space not just for himself as a Black man, but also for abolition. Through his donations he redirected English theatre-goers’ funds to the movement.

Aldridge challenged the restrictions that racist social and theatrical conventions placed upon him. When he couldn’t get satisfying work in the U.S., he moved to England, where he was not just an urban curiosity of Liverpool and London. He toured the provinces for years, and later branched out to continental Eurasia, where his performances were well-received by audiences across nations. His career demonstrates the wrongness of the general assumption that England was completely white before the 20th century, or that those Black people in England before that time were wholly segregated. After leaving the U.S., Aldridge married an English woman, and when she predeceased him, he remarried his Swedish mistress, with whom he would have several children.

Considering Aldridge’s career opens up an avenue for us to recall the long history that Black people have in Britain, both on and off the stage. Successful as he was, Aldridge in another sense was simply another in a succession of Black actors in England going back at least to the time of Shakespeare. (2)

Footnotes*:

  1. Emmanuel Sampath Nelson, African American Dramatists: An A-to-Z Guide (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004).
  2. ‘Black Faces in Tudor England – The Scholemaster’, https://andrewbretz.wordpress.com/2016/02/21/black-faces-in-tudor-england/, accessed 25 March 2017; ‘Britain’s First Black Community in Elizabethan London’, BBC News, 20 July 2012, sec. Magazine, http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-18903391, accessed 25 March 2017.

*This entire piece is inspired by the articles in footnote 2.

Ira Aldridge

Babo and Mori

Following our last post from a few weeks ago, today’s HHBlog post is in commemoration of Black History Month here in the United States. However, we at the Blog believe that it is important to expand our knowledge and understanding of the African Diaspora to regions in the Americas beyond the conventional scope of the United States or even Anglophone and Francophone North America. Today’s post is therefore in commemoration of two West African men, a father and son, named Babo (father) and Mori (son). For those who have read Herman Melville’s 1855 novella Benito Cereno or Greg Grandin’s academic text The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World (2014), this history will be a familiar one.

Babo and Mori were two amongst many enslaved West Africans who were on board a slave ship, the Tryal, traversing the South Pacific towards Lima, Peru at the beginning of the nineteenth century. We know little about them – their lives before capture from Senegal and enslavement, their personal intimacies and thoughts – yet due to the events that transpired in 1804 and 1805, we in the academy know considerably more about their lives and desires than we do for the majority of the millions of enslaved Africans who were dispossessed of their homes and stolen to the Americas.

In 1804, as the Tryal was led to the Americas by Spanish sailors, Babo and Mori led a revolt on board the ship, killing their white captors save for a select few. Benito Cerreño, the Spanish owner of the ship and its captain, was kept alive and ordered by the West Africans on board to navigate the Tryal back to Senegal. Cerreño instead sailed back and forth along the coast of Chile hoping to be rescued,  until they came across a New England seal ship, the Perseverance. When the captain of the Perseverance, Amasa Delano (distant relative of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt) boarded the Tryal, Babo, Mori, and the other West Africans aboard the Tryal performed their own enslavement in order to not be found out. They quite literally created a theatre out of what they knew the white gaze would believe to be true – not what was true i.e. that enslaved Black people had revolted and were in control of the ship and of white men – and what the white gaze accepted as “natural” roles for Black people.

They held Cerreño captive at knifepoint for the better part of an entire day, all the while Delano attempted to help what he believed to be a Spanish ship in distress. As Cerreño was forced into playing the role he had previously had – as captain and slaver – the Black rebels on board acted out the roles of enslaved and docile West Africans, all while keeping a close eye on their audience Amasa Delano. At the end of the day, after spending hours upon hours with a desperate but silent Cerreño, Delano boarded his own away ship after having given provisions to the Tryal and made his way back to the Perseverance. But as he pulled away from the Tryal, Cerreño dove on to Delano’s boat and suddenly the obvious was made clear to Delano. Delano’s New England crew rained violence down upon the West African rebels aboard the Tryal, leading eventually to the ship’s capture and a trial against the West Africans, including Babo and Mori, that took place in 1805.

The events of this rebellion of enslaved West Africans was later dramatized by Herman Melville, where I first encountered it for a course on Blackness in Latin America. The genius rebellion, down from the violent assault on their captors/enslavers to the performance of enslavement for a white American audience, is a captivating story that reminds us of both the attempts at dehumanization enslavement created, and the resistance to this dehumanization that the African Diaspora engaged in throughout the entirety of this diverse history. Although we do not know exactly what Babo, Mori, and the other enslaved West Africans thought before or after their revolt, we know from their actions that they were determined to resist enslavement by any means necessary.

~ M

Bibliography

Grandin, Greg. The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World. United Kingdom: Picador, 2015 [2014].

Melville, Herman. Benito Cereno. Charleston: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016 [1855].

 

 

Babo and Mori

Ella Cara Deloria

ella_c_deloria

[A wonderful photo of Ella Cara Deloria, found on the website for the Akta Lakota Museum & Cultural Center]

Ella Cara Deloria (Anpetu Wastéwin “Beautiful Day Woman”) was born in 1889 on the Standing Rock Reservation in what is known as the state of South Dakota, USA. Deloria was born to a prominent Christian Dakota family, with famous Dakota activist academics such as Vine Deloria Jr. (her nephew) and Philip J. Deloria (Vine Deloria Jr.’s son) making up part of her familial relations.

In 1915, Deloria received a Bachelor’s degree from Columbia Teacher’s College. During her time at Columbia, she met the famous anthropologist Franz Boaz with whom she began to collaborate with. Her knowledge of both Dakota and Lakota Sioux dialects became an asset within the early twentieth century world of anthropology, a discipline which was born of colonial, exploitative inquiry into the lives of Indigenous peoples by mostly white men. With her introduction to Boaz, Deloria began to become involved in anthropological work as a key translator and critical analyzer of Sioux texts.

Her work in the academy demonstrates some of the ways marginalized people navigated early twentieth century academia, and specifically how Indigenous women were intrinsic in the development of anthropology as a field of academic inquiry. While anthropology is embedded within a colonial history of exploitation, figures like Ella Deloria complicate what can often be painted as a one-dimensional narrative of academics exploiting Indigenous communities. Deloria demonstrates, quite literally, how Indigenous peoples spoke back with and against anthropologists during the twentieth century, often making space for themselves to work in helping their own people.

Outside of her work as an anthropologist, linguist, and ethnographer, Deloria was also a novelist and – interestingly – an advisor to the Camp Fire Girls, an early version of a settler girls “back to nature” style camp. Although camps such as the Camp Fire Girls utilized stereotypes of Indigenous peoples as “noble savages,” people like Deloria hoped to change these harmful stereotypes by working from within. From 1929 to 1931, Deloria taught Camp Fire Girls about different Indigenous philosophies, songs, and dances, advancing what Philip J. Deloria has referred to as “her own cultural mission – constructing positive images of Indians around the primitivist foundation laid by the Camp Fire Girls. Just as the Camp Fire Girls used a universal Indianness to reproduce specific ideals of middle-class womanhood, so too did Deloria seek access to American cultural institutions in order to reshape popular conceptions of Indianness” (122).

Deloria’s work spanned not only the academy, but everyday middle-class settler contexts such as summer camps for children. She worked tirelessly within institutions that were not meant to accommodate the voices of Indigenous people in general, and specifically not Indigenous women. Ella Deloria was of a generation of middle-class Indigenous activists who gained entry into settler academic institutions, albeit in often marginal forms, and attempted to work towards change from the inside out. Deloria, like many other members of her family, paved the way for later generations of Indigenous activists. As the recent and ongoing defense of Indigenous land, water, and treaty rights at Standing Rock demonstrates, the fight for justice continues. We here at the HHBlog tip our proverbial hats to Indigenous women such as Ella Deloria who fought – and continue to fight – in myriad ways for their respective peoples.

~ M

Bibliography

Deloria, Philip J. Playing Indian. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.

“Ella Cara Deloria, Anpetu Wastéwin (Beautiful Day Woman).” Akta Lakota Museum & Cultural Center. Accessed December 9, 2016. http://aktalakota.stjo.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=9006

Ella Cara Deloria

The Amistad Africans

We here at the Blog dedicate ourselves each week to writing a post on a person (or set of people) that has been in some way marginalized, written out of mainstream historical narratives, or dismissed as unimportant for various reasons. We spend a lot of our time for each post researching the person/people in question, writing up a short but still informative post, and editing to make sure there aren’t too many glaring mistakes, inaccuracies, or problems with what we choose to present our readers with each week. Some posts come easier than others, not because of an assumed superficiality of the historical subject we are writing about but for various other reasons. Other posts – at least for myself – take on a fourth step in my “research-write-edit” (repeat) process. That fourth step often includes a self-critical (re)evaluation of the entire post and the Blog.

The responsibility that comes with running a blog named Historical Hotties weighs heavily when you are trying to both bring attention to oft-overlooked historical figures or their communities without simultaneously fetishizing or bringing unwanted bigotry to their descendants or present-day communities. Today’s post grapples more clearly with those issues than perhaps other posts, specifically because the subjects were a group of Black men and four Black children who were captured, enslaved, and brought across the Middle Passage to the Americas (Turtle Island). The present-day issues of how to commemorate and celebrate their resilience without romanticizing or fetishizing suffering and oppression are key questions that we must deal with here at the Blog, and that historians working both within and outside of the academy must be held accountable to. These issues are also layered with the larger questions of who has claims to what history. These questions present themselves differently to those of us who write about our own people’s histories versus those of us who write about the histories of peoples who we do not come from.

With these questions in mind, for today’s post we present to you the history of the Amistad Africans (as they are commonly and presently referred to). The story of the Amistad Africans is one that many historians of enslavement will be familiar with, or fans of Steven Spielberg films will be at least vaguely familiar with. The Amistad Africans were a group of forty-nine adult men and four children who were originally from interior Mende country in what is present-day southern Sierra Leone (Osagie, 4). These fifty-three people were kidnapped in 1836 and sold into enslavement to two Spanish slavers, Pedro Montes and José Ruiz, who then proceeded to force them across the Atlantic Ocean along the Middle Passage until they reached the Caribbean. Stopping in La Habana and switching ships to La Amistad, their ultimate destination was Puerto Príncipe.

On the third night en route from La Habana to Puerto Príncipe, the forty-nine Mende men revolted after the ship’s cook Celestino taunted them with cannibalism. Senbge Pieh (one of the Mende men) incited the other men to action: “We may as well die trying to be free, as to be killed and eaten” (as quoted in Osagie, 5). Senbge with the help of another man, Grabeau, broke out of his chains and once all of the men were freed from their iron collars, proceeded to grab cane knives and kill the captain and the cook. In the ensuing rebellion, two of the Mende men were killed and two Spanish seamen managed to escape by boat. Ruiz and Montes – the men who were to hold the Amistad Africans in enslavement – were captured and became prisoners on the ship. However, as none of the Mende men knew how to navigate La Amistad, they depended on their prisoners Ruiz and Montes to aid them back to Africa.

Ruiz and Montes by day travelled east, and by night steered La Amistad west and north, hoping to land in the United States. After two months, eight people dying of various illnesses, and a quickly depleting food supply, they eventually reached Long Island, New York. The Amistad Africans, after attempting to negotiate with local captains, were captured by the navy and taken prisoner where they would spend the next twenty-seven months in captivity. On August 27th, 1836, La Amistad was towed to New London, Connecticut and the story soon turned into an international incident as the enslaved people’s worth exceeded an estimated $70,000, leading the case to be taken up by the American court system. The case was presided over by pro-enslavement judges where the adult Amistad Africans were tried with murder and piracy.

While the case developed in Connecticut, abolitionists began to take notice, including Dwight Janes who went to the August 29th hearing and learned that the Mende men and four children had been brought to La Habana directly from Mende country despite the Atlantic Slave Trade being legally “over” (although, of course, in practice this was not the case). The editor of the Emancipator Rev. Joshua Leavitt and Simeon Jocelyn (a White minister in New Haven’s first Black church) along with the businessman and abolitionist Lewis Tappan soon rallied in support with Janes, hoping to meet the needs of the Amistad Africans in regards to their legal defense (Osagie, 7). The group of abolitionists who took it upon themselves to provide legal counsel eventually found John Ferry, a free Black Mende man living in New York, who served as the initial interpreter in the early stages of the case. Eventually another free Black Mende man, James Covey, took on the role of interpreter for the duration of the case.

The case proceeded to gain more attention not only within the United States but in Cuba, Spain, and Great Britain. However, it was not the attention of other imperial powers that swayed the former President John Quincy Adams to eventually take on the case in front of the Supreme Court. It was instead the words of two of the Amistad Africans, Kali and Kinna (sometimes spelled Kenna) who wrote to him, pleading for his legal aid. Adams took on the case, with the Supreme Court upholding the rulings of lower courts stating that the Amistad Africans (only thirty-five of whom were still alive at this point) were not enslaved but instead free men illegally kidnapped from Africa, pointing to the Atlantic Slave Trade’s illegal status in 1836 as proof of their freedom. The Amistad Africans and the Amistad Committee (comprising the many abolitionists who came to their aid) raised money to return to Mende country by various means including going on church speaking tours and making crafts (Osagie, 18). Eventually, the thirty-five remaining Amistad Africans made it back to their homeland by sailing with a group of White and Black American missionaries.

We here at the Blog tip our proverbial hats to the resistance the Amistad Africans enacted against their enslavement, both the violent aspects of their rebellion and the non-violent ones such as the letters Kali and Kinna wrote to John Quincy Adams. The histories of these fifty-three Mende people point us in various directions, including being cognizant of the history we are literally living on top of. As a student at Yale University, an institution built on stolen Indigenous land and with the funds of enslavement as its source of original wealth, in New Haven, it is important for me to engage with the history of the place I live in, and this includes situating myself in relation to this history that partly took place in New Haven, Connecticut (located on Quinnipiac Territory). Alongside the familiarity with the history of particular places that academic spaces are found in, the histories of the Amistad Africans also forces us to recon with questions regarding the limits of utilizing the (il)legality of settler colonial and imperial states in seeking justice; of how piracy was often depicted as a specifically racialized threat; and of how transnational histories of enslavement and resistance engage with one another across and along the Atlantic.

We hope our readers take it upon themselves to seek out histories of resistance such as those of the Amistad Africans, or at least in learning a little bit about the places we variously call “home.”

~ M

Bibliography:

Osagie, Iyunolu Folayan. The Amistad Revolt: Memory, Slavery, and the Politics of Identity in the United States. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000.

 

 

The Amistad Africans

Lucy Hicks Anderson

ts-Lucy-Hicks-Anderson

[A photograph of Lucy Hicks Anderson looking fantastic, year unknown]

Lucy Hicks Anderson was a Black trans*woman born in Waddy, Kentucky in 1886. She, like many of the people featured on this blog, does not appear in high school history textbooks, or even in most university textbooks either. Instead, her story comes to us through the work of people outside of the academy who work tirelessly to ensure that the histories of their own marginalized communities continue to be remembered and (re)told.

At a very young age, Lucy began wearing dresses and other items of clothing gendered as “women’s clothing” or “feminine clothing.” According to blogger and activist Monica Roberts (aka the TransGriot), an African-American transwoman, “[s]ince the transgender definition hadn’t been coined at that time to diagnose what was going on in [Lucy’s life], her mother took her to a physician who advised her to raise young Lucy as a girl” (Roberts, 2011). Lucy left high school at age fifteen and began working as a domestic worker, eventually leaving Kentucky for Texas. After working for a decade in a hotel, she met her first husband Clarence Hicks, whom she was married to from 1920 until their divorce in 1929.

After her first marriage, Lucy went on to own and operate a brothel, and eventually met her second husband Reuben Anderson. They married in 1944, but unfortunately it was this second marriage that caused her to encounter various legal problems. When it was discovered by a District Attorney that Lucy was not born “biologically female,” she was prosecuted for perjury based on there being no legal objections to the marriage, with the transantagonistic implication that her being a trans*woman “should” have caused there to be a legal objection.

Lucy, in response to this obvious pile of hateful garbage, told reporters that she “def[ied] any doctor in the world to prove that I am not a woman. I have lived, dressed, acted just what I am, a woman.” After this initial set of legal problems, Lucy and her husband were convicted of fraud in 1946, as she had received allotment cheques from the American military as the wife of a U.S. soldier i.e., as the wife of Reuben Anderson. Unfortunately, Lucy and Reuben were tried and found guilty, with both being sent to prison. Once Lucy was released from prison, she went on to live in Los Angeles (because she was barred from returning to her previous home by the police commissioner) until her death in 1954.

Today’s post is dedicated to all of the QTPOC who lost their lives in the targeted hate crime shooting that took place in Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub on June 12, 2016. Lucy’s story is emblematic of the ways in which trans* and gender non-conforming people have been legally and extra-legally persecuted in the United States, and of how despite this, they continue to resist, thrive, and survive.

~ M

Bibliography

Black Past [Kevin Leonard]. “Anderson, Lucy Hicks [Tobias Lawson] (1886-1954).” http://www.blackpast.org/aaw/anderson-lucy-hicks-1886-1954. Accessed June 25, 2016.

Roberts, Monica. “Black Trans History: Lucy Hicks Anderson.” The TransGriot. http://transgriot.blogspot.ca/2011/08/black-trans-history-lucy-hicks-anderson.html. August 2011. Accessed June 24, 2016.

 

Lucy Hicks Anderson

James Barry

James_Barry_(surgeon)05

[James Barry, c. 1813-1816. This image is in the pubic domain.]

It’s often said that historians make meaning or sense of the past. It’s been my experience as a student of history that, when I come across certain historical figures, I wish to make sense of them. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves to let people be who they are. Thus, this week I am featuring James Barry, an Irish-born medical reformer from the British Army.

James Barry was born in 1799 in a body that was considered after death to be female. From early childhood, Barry’s mother and her friends identified Barry as a wunderkind. In 1809, Barry began studying university medicine and literature as a male student. Three years later, Barry successfully graduated with an MD, despite the university’s attempts to stopper someone so youthful from presenting a thesis. Later in the same year, Barry moved to London and apprenticed with a surgeon at St. Thomas’s Hospital. A year later Barry joined the army as a junior-most medical officer, a career that took Barry to several colonies.

As an army surgeon, Barry displayed professional prowess and enacted medical reforms. Sydney Brandon, one of Barry’s biographers, has noted that Barry had an egalitarian attitude toward medicine—“She invariably championed the neglected and oppressed of any race or station in life. Prisons, leper colonies, and indigent patients always received her attention, and she never accepted fees for her private practice.”[1] And this led to conflicts with authority figures. Nonetheless, Barry had a long career as a medical inspector in the army. When Barry died in 1865, the death certificate was signed without a corresponding medical examination; the signatory of Barry’s death certificate had long known Barry, and found it unnecessary to examine, and especially to sex the corpse. The death certificate listed Barry’s sex as male, and Barry was buried in the masculinised garb in which the surgeon had dressed in life. However, the woman who laid out Barry’s body considered it to be female (and to have once been pregnant), and the story was picked up by the press in cities across Britain.

As a historical figure, Barry is problematical (not least because of his military and colonial associations). Some might consider Barry an example of an empowered, rebellious woman who presented herself as a man—hoodwinking contemporary intellectuals and military officials—in order to pursue a successful, masculinised career. Indeed, Barry has been retroactively credited with being the first woman MD. Some authors refer to Barry as “she,” and others as “he.” I confess, the question of which pronoun I ought to use plagued me as I wrote this. Would it be truest to the surgeon to present Barry as a woman, a man, or as genderqueer? The singular they would anachronistically place Barry into a category that wasn’t contemporaneously defined. Would that be more or less “truthful” than labelling Barry as “she” or “he?” (In the end I chose to use alternate sentence construction in order avoid pronouns altogether). Predominant present day perspectives compel one to understand Barry as either a woman living secretly as a man, or else as a transgendered man. Either or these may be the case. Or they may not be. Not everyone is male, female, trans or intersexed. Assumptions about gender limit how we understand one another in the present day, and this is equally the case when we try to discern the “truth” of those in bygone times.

~S

[1] “Barry, James (c.1799–1865),” Sydney Brandon in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, eee ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: OUP, 2004); online ed., ed. Lawrence Goldman, January 2008, http://www.oxforddnb.com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/view/article/1563 (accessed April 15, 2016).

James Barry