August 5, 2011

Read it, if your prejudices will allow

On August 5, 1833, a book was published with the long title An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans, widely accepted as the first antislavery book published in the United States. Its author was Lydia Maria Child, who was inspired in part by William Lloyd Garrison to take a stand as an abolitionist. She knew, however, that the book would be controversial. In her preface, she wrote:

Reader, I beseech you not to throw down this volume as soon as you have glanced at the title. Read it, if your prejudices will allow, for the very truth's sake: Read it, from sheer curiosity to see what a woman (who had much better attend to her household concerns) will say upon such a subject.

Child said that forced enslavement was a debasement of nature. She recognized that it Africans were forced into slavery then told they have to remain one because they have not seen freedom. "We first crush people to the earth," she wrote, "then claim the right of trampling on them forever because they are prostrate." She recognized that white people called these people unintelligent only after they had denied them access to education. Further, she notes that even Northerners who do not participate in the institution of slavery directly still hold "the very spirit" of it by falling into the same prejudices and encouraging segregation. The assumption was that black people did not resist enslavement but she noted:

By the thousands and thousands, these poor people have died for freedom. They have stabbed themselves for freedom — jumped into the waves for freedom — starved for freedom — fought like very tigers fro freedom! But they have been hung, and burned, and shot — and their tyrants have been their historians!

Much of her research for the book was done at the Boston Athenaeum; the private library exclusively granted membership to men but offered special access to Child after her novel Hobomok (1824) proved popular. Shortly after the publication of her Appeal, however, her access was revoked. At the time, Child was also editing Juvenile Miscellany, a children's magazine, which soon suffered from scores of canceled subscriptions. Even so, some scholars credit Child's Appeal with inspiring more men and women to join the abolitionist cause than any other publication.

*For information in this post, I am indebted to Tongue of Flame: the Life of Lydia Maria Child (1965) by Milton Meltzer.

3 comments:

  1. From Edward Everett Hale’s Memories of a Hundred Years: “I remember perfectly the indignation with which, when I was ten or eleven years old, I saw on a placard in the window of the Old Corner Bookstore in Boston the announcement of Mrs. Child’s book called “An Appeal for that Class of Americans Called Africans.” I and the boy with me were indignant that a negro should be called an American at all.”

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  2. Thanks for this, JLB... I would never have expected it from E. E Hale! Considering he was an abolitionist, it's interesting to note the hypocrisy (and, worse, that he authored "The Man Without a Country," and here admits that the term "American" shouldn't be granted to all).

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  3. Looking at Hale's quote in context, two years after the above comment, I have to point out that Hale seems to be saying Child's book was the turning point in Boston, even in his young mind - that once the book was published, Bostonians began to realize the wrongs of inequality, even if in small degrees.

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