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.

 

 

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The Amistad Africans

Terri-Jean Bedford

dominatrix-terri-jean-bedford

[A fantastic photograph of Terri-Jean Bedford with her iconic black riding crop, retrieved from her personal website www.http://terrijeanbedford.com/%5D

Terri-Jean Bedford is a name that many in Canada might recognize, and whom many might question as to whether or not she might count as an “historical hottie” or a contemporary one. We here at Historical Hotties hope to constantly push the boundaries of what constitutes “history” – and that includes forcing us to rethink the lines between past and present, historical and contemporary.

Bedford was born in October 1959, and has spent a large portion of her life working in the sex work industry, most notably as “Canada’s most famous” (in her words) dominatrix and as the former owner/operator of Madame de Sade’s House of Erotica in the Thornhill neighbourhood of Toronto, Ontario. In 1994, fifteen police officers stormed Madame de Sade’s, arresting Bedford (along with several other women) while committing acts of police violence including “pushing and shoving the female dominants, demanding that the accused call them ‘master,’ asking for a demonstration of boot licking, […] ridiculing the sadomasochistic props and clothes” and strip-searching the employees of Madame de Sade’s (Khan, 168). The arrests led to charges of keeping a bawdy house for Bedford. As defined by the Criminal Code, a bawdy house is “a place that is (a) kept or occupied, or (b) resorted to by one or more persons for the purpose of prostitution or the practice of acts of indecency.” However, Bedford and the accused insisted that the legal definitions of prostitution in Canada did not apply, as Bedford specifically mandated that no vaginal or oral sex could take place on the premises (in order to adhere to the law!). During the several trials that resulted from the 1994 arrests made in relation to Madame de Sade’s, Bedford only made legal appearances with her black riding crop in tow, dressed in black leather (like the total boss dom she is).

Bedford has gone on to become prominent in sex work advocacy in Canada and,along with Valerie Scott and Amy Lebovitch, was involved as an applicant in the high profile case Canada (AG) v Bedford, [2013] 3 SCR 1101. In Canada (AG) v Bedford, Canada’s prostitution laws were struck down, with bawdy house provisions being deemed unconstitutional.

Bedford is known in Canada as a vocal advocate for the rights of sex workers, working tirelessly to ensure that sex workers are treated with dignity and respect both in the proverbial eyes of the law and amongst the general public. Terri-Jean Bedford challenges us to reevaluate how we define whether someone is an historical personage or a contemporary one, and whether or not this distinction even matters. Furthermore, her work and the way she has been treated by the law and broader Canadian society forces us as historians to confront how we deal with questions surrounding desire, sexuality, consent, and sex work that bleed from the past into the present day. Bedford is most definitely a Historical Hottie, and one that makes us especially aware of the role “hotness” plays in different historical contexts of desire and (supposedly) deviant sexualities.

~ M

Bibliography

Canada (AG) v Bedford, [2013] 3 SCR 1101.

Khan, Ummni. “‘Putting a Dominatrix in Her Place’ The Representation and Regulation of Female Dom/Male Sub Sexuality.” The Canadian Journal of Women and the Law 21 (2009):  143-177.

Terri-Jean Bedford

Jack Greenberg

greenberg

[A photograph of a young Jack Greenberg, found on the Smithsonian’s educational website http://americanhistory.si.edu/brown/history/5-decision/challengers.html]

Where to start with Jack Greenberg? Greenberg served as the second Director-Counsel —  after none other than Thurgood Marshall — of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) from 1961 to 1984. The NAACP LDF was founded in 1940 with the mission of “achiev[ing] racial justice, equality, and an inclusive society” under the leadership of Thurgood Marshall.

Greenberg was born to a Jewish family in the Bensonhurst neighbourhood of Brooklyn, New York in 1924. At the age of twenty-four in 1949, he joined LDF, initially because Marshall needed an assistant well-versed in American law to help him fight the legal, state-sanctioned system of Jim Crow in the United States. At the age of twenty-seven, Greenberg became the youngest lawyer who brought one of the most important civil rights cases of the twentieth century — Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, 1954 (commonly referred to as Brown v Board) — before the Supreme Court of the United States. In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. approached Greenberg as Director-Counsel of LDF to take on cases involving the Southern Christian Leadership Coalition (SCLC). Part of his legal representation of Dr. King included representing him in Birmingham, Alabama, winning him the right to march from Selma to Montgomery. Greenberg continued to fight for the rights of Black Americans for decades, being integral to “landmark legal cases” in relation to employment, education, housing, and voter registration during the 1960s and 1970s. Some of these cases include Meredith v Fair, 1961 (the integration of the University of Mississippi) and Griggs v Duke Power Company, 1971 (employment discrimination). Greenberg retired from LDF in 1984, later serving as dean of Columbia College.

Greenberg’s activism is, however, important to contextualize within broader histories of racialized oppression in the United States and the solidarity between non-Black Jewish Americans and Black Americans.* As noted in the freely accessible LDF @ 70 document published by the NAACP LDF, “Greenberg saw a resemblance between anti-Semitism and black oppression in the United States. Raised in a family committed to fairness and justice, Greenberg became part of the black world of the Civil Rights Movement.” Greenberg’s work in the Civil Rights Movement is representative of the important coalitions that have historically existed between two (often overlapping) groups of marginalized and oppressed peoples in the United States: Jewish Americans and Black Americans. The solidarities formed are much longer, and much older, than can properly be explained here, but it is nonetheless important to recognize them as interlocking histories of injustice and resistance.

By highlighting Greenberg today, we do not intend on decentering the Black Americans that fought valiantly during the Civil Rights Movement (and continue to fight today in the Black Lives Matter Movement, for example). We wish to instead highlight people like Greenberg who were not Black but dedicated their lives to the fight for the rights of Black Americans. The experiences of Greenberg’s own community in relation to anti-Semitism in part spurred him to fight for the civil rights of Black Americans, and he should continue to be a shining example for those of us who wish to stand in solidarity with Black folks who are struggling against systematic oppression today.

~ M

* It is important to make this distinction, as often times Black Jews are completely erased from histories of anti-Black racism and anti-Semitism, and the fight against these injustices, in the United States. This erasure of Black Jews from modern American history is not something that we at Historical Hotties Blog want to perpetuate, and therefore feel it necessary to address.

 

Bibliography

Greenberg, Jack. Crusaders in the Courts: How a Dedicated Band of Lawyers Fought for the Civil Rights Revolution. New York: Basic Books, 1994.

LDF. “History.” Accessed January 21, 2016. http://www.naacpldf.org/history.

LDF. LDF @ 70 Defend, Educate, Empower: 70 Years Fulfilling the Promise of Equality. 2010. http://www.naacpldf.org/files/publications/ldf@70_0.pdf.

Jack Greenberg