Forgotten Founding Fathers

LOVE this article from WHYY Philadelphia about the New Freedom Theatre’s play Forgotten Founding Fathers, a rap and hip-hop performance about the US’ unsung Black heroes, and the recent meeting between the great-grandsons of Frederick Douglass and John Brown organized by the theatre. I was amazed to learn that when Brown was famously hanged for treason he was wearing a pocket watch Douglass had given him. Brown’s great-grandson recently returned the heirloom to Douglass’ great-grandson.

Douglass refused to finance or participate in John Brown’s raid, which was intended to spark an armed slave revolution, but later celebrated Brown as a martyr and said Brown’s attack had been a “thunder clap” to awaken Americans to the fact that the time for compromises was gone, and that it was time to take up arms (meaning join the Union army) to end slavery. Henry David Thoreau was also an ardent defender of John Brown.

One thing not mentioned in the article, and I daresay I’m the first to make the direct connection through my own archival research in India, is that Brown and Douglass and people whom they inspired would, decades later, serve as direct inspirations to armed Indian revolutionaries fighting the British Raj in Calcutta starting in 1908.

If you want a glimpse of that history and the John Brown connection, it’s in my critical commentary in the latest issue of peer-reviewed academic journal Democratic Communiqué. Download the PDF of my article at https://doi.org/10.7275/9w1h-k362 .

It’s only one slice of a much larger story I’ve written. I’m not condoning or condemning revolutionary violence. We all have our positions on that, usually on a case-by-case basis, and that’s okay. I’m eager to shine a light on this history. More to come.

PS – there are a couple of minor errors in the WHYY article; it’s Crispus Attucks, not Crispin, and Brown was executed in 1859, not 1857.

I did not say “anyways”

Otherwise the section on Boneyards and me in this National Journal article by Simon Van Zuylen-Wood is accurate except where otherwise noted, which is everywhere. Ever feel icky and used by a fellow writer? This article seems disappointingly slanted at every small, contrived opportunity against the Amtrak superliner and against the writers’ residency. How smarmy and petty of the writer to cobble together his thesis in such a desperate way.

Otherwise the section on Boneyards and me in this National Journal article by Simon Van Zuylen-Wood is accurate except where otherwise noted, which is everywhere. Ever feel icky and used by a fellow writer?

amtrakcapture

LAST YEAR, AMTRAK LAUNCHED an odd initiative called the Amtrak Writer’s Residency. The idea was to send 24 writers wherever they wanted, on a long-distance train, where they would basically stare out the window and type on their computers. The program was bashed by conservatives and lightly mocked on the Internet; yet an astonishing 16,000 people wound up applying. Among the eventual winners were several high-profile media figures, including the writer Jennifer Finney Boylan and the public-radio host Marco Werman.

In mid-March, I met up in D.C. with Jeff Stanley, a 47-year-old Amtrak resident writer who would be taking the Capitol Limited to Chicago, before heading to San Francisco on the California Zephyr. Stanley, who wore an Ed Hardy–style Western shirt, is a playwright, performer, and adjunct professor both at New York University and Drexel University. A fan of all things occult, he staged his latest production in the basement of a South Philadelphia synagogue, where he used a Ouija board and a martini shaker, among other instruments, in an attempt to connect with the dead [see Boneyards].

“Now, supposedly, the old station at Harpers Ferry is haunted,” Stanley tells me, as we approach West Virginia, sitting in his sleeper car. He goes on for a while about a ghost called Screaming Jenny, [Um, no. I spent about 30 minutes between DC and Harpers Ferry explaining to this writer that I had visited Harpers Ferry many times due to my love of history.  I told him that the Capitol Limited runs the route of the former B&O Railroad, and that many times I’ve stood outside the small building that was the Federal arsenal which was seized in 1859 by radical abolitionist John Brown and a group of 20 followers including his son and five African-Americans. They holed up in the arsenal and were thwarted by a detachment of US Marines under the command of a young Robert E. Lee. 

I told him that in 1865 as the Civil War ended, Storer College opened in Harpers Ferry to educate recently freed slaves.  

I told him that years before John Brown’s raid and Storer College, Meriwether Lewis came to Harpers Ferry and waited while a local iron worker created a collapsible canoe according to his specifications. Lewis started out from here in 1803 in a Conestoga wagon following almost the exact same route that is now the very train line we were following. Lewis  met up with Clark near Pittsburgh to continue their journey West.  

Talking about the Lewis & Clark expedition got me thinking about Thomas Jefferson who funded it, and I mentioned to the writer that one of the many reasons I admire Jefferson is that whenever a slave in Virginia sued for his freedom Jefferson would represent them pro bono. He knew they would lose in court but he wanted to force the issue, make the judges, juries, reporters and politicians discuss the curse of slavery and the need to end it.  

All of the above got boiled down by the writer to “but, anyways.”  See below.

Continue reading “I did not say “anyways””

The Ghost of August Wilson

20150323_220621Amtrak Residency
Day 12
3/24/15

This morning while hurtling across western Pennsylvania I enjoyed my final Amtrak breakfast.  I sat next to a uniformed Amtrak police officer en route to a meeting at our final stop on the Capitol Limited, Washington, DC. From there I’ll take a two-hour ride  to Philadelphia on the Amtrak Acela Express and be home in time for dinner.

Across from us sat two elderly women from Pittsburgh and Baltimore. The officer had spent 26 years on the Chicago police force before retiring into a much less stressful “second career” working for Amtrak.

20150324_111119
Old round house; Martinsburg, WV station

After a few minutes of instinctively probing their names, destinations, life stories, I sprung it on them that I’m a Continue reading “The Ghost of August Wilson”