THE WORD "freedom" is bandied about a great deal today. We all want more of it, whether it's freedom to chose those who represent us to the freedom of having an extra hour of sleep in the morning. "Freedom" for me was a visceral word, full of meaning. Growing up the child of a son of black sharecroppers, and witnessing on television some of the most momentous events in the struggle for human equality that the 20th century had seen, I heard the word sung by people only a few years older than me as they tried to go do something as simple as go to school. Being a child, I did not at the time understand the boldness of their song.
I am still old enough to recall history classes where black people were shown bent over in cotton fields, the implication being that this was all they were good for, and that they were happy and grateful to be where they were. There was a map of the world on the board. Africa was smaller than Europe. Every Friday afternoon, our school was shown a film, and when Tarzan was the film, with the screaming natives leaping all over the place, we all slid under our seats.
But I also knew something very important: we all did, since our parents, our grandparents, and those before them had come up to Chicago from the South. We knew that those "happy darkie" faces in the media hid a bitter reality. Being educated at a time of great transition in America, I both saw the jolly Mammy of Gone With The Wind and was taught, too, why she might have been so jolly, so rotund. Mammy would have been bred, the way a horse or a dog was bred, to breed. The British had, by the middle of the 19th century, eradicated the transportation of slaves on the high seas so that, in effect, Southern plantation owners had to grow their own. Thin was out, and fat was in. A big woman was more fertile. The systematic eradication of clan, language, any sense of the past, was part of a process that would be considered genocide today. I learnt that my family name, "Greer", had not been some exotic moniker brought over from Africa but the name of the man who had owned our family. We had no name. I often think now that the interesting names that so many of us have today derives in part because, at last, we can call ourselves what we like. Because we belonged to the land.
Yet there were communities, families and associations that worked to secure the release of their people from slavery. They came f together in the face of everything to plan escapes via "The Underground Railroad", a system of safe-houses for runaways that led to Canada. And they created sophisticated means of directing them on their journeys. Those happy songs sung in the cotton fields were, in many cases, codes. "Follow the Drinkin' Gourd" instructed the runaway to keep her eyes on the Big Dipper - the North Star - which would point the way to freedom. Freedom meant the right to do, to move, to get away.
The black soldiers who joined the union cause in the Civil War did so for a higher purpose than mere preservation of the Union. The risks they took were enormous. If captured they were sent back into a far harsher slavery than they had escaped. The regiment upon which the film Glory is based made a heroic stand, but the majority of them were killed and the rest sent back to who knows what fate.
These fighters for freedom were not seen graciously in many quarters in the North. Irish immigrant workers, fearful for their jobs if blacks were free - a lot like the immigration debate today - rioted against the draft and the Southern influx in New York in 1863 and killed 100 blacks in the process. You can see the mythology in the scene in Gone With the Wind when the "carpetbaggers" came from the North to settle in the conquered South, bringing with them black men dressed in top hats and silk breeches, the Old Confederacy's nightmare.
That nightmare was alleviated in the 1870s when a compromise was reached with the South allowing it to return to some of its old practices. …