Young Aware of Danger of Smartphones

(This essay is the second in a series on Technology, Society, and the Human Being. It was originally published on January 18, 2020, in the Newport Daily News.)

It is easy for the Baby-Boom Generation to criticize the younger generations for spending too much time on individual screens; however, maybe there is hope. If my undergrad students are any indication, more and more of them are aware of the downside of smartphones and social media.

Over the past several years, I have watched individual screens come to dominate the lives of some of my grandchildren. In some cases one screen is not enough; they need two. Sitting together in front of a large TV, some are not satisfied. Simultaneously most of them are also busy on their smartphones. Regrettably, smartphones tend to be used inside and while stationary.

On a beautiful, sunny Saturday last September at a beach cottage in Little Compton, after devouring the scrambled eggs I had prepared for them, my four youngest grandchildren returned to their bunkbeds and individual screens rather than bike to the beach, explore the woods, climb a tree, shoot hoops, or explore the neighbor’s blackberry patch. Regrettably, this was not a singular event. They tend to default to the smartphone rather than other activity.

In a survey by the Common Sense Media non-profit, released in October, of 1677 young people, ages 8 to 18, it was found that the average tween, 8-12, spent four hours and 44 minutes daily with entertainment devices. For teens, the figure was an incredible seven hours, 22 minutes. (This did not include time spent in cyberspace listening to music, doing homework, or reading books.)

Since their introduction in 2007, I have been amazed at the places I find people using smartphones: driving a car, driving a lawn mower, riding a skateboard, riding a bike, using the urinal, sitting in a library surrounded by a million books, between sets at the fitness center, and walking out of a college classroom and bumping into me entering.

However, I have found grounds for hope in my Gen Z (born after 1995) college students. For the past four years on their term exam, I have given Salve Regina undergrads in my Western Civilization class the opportunity to write about one “good aspect” and one “bad aspect” of their civilization. I provided a list of possible subjects to choose from, but also encouraged them to choose any subject. For three years from 25% to 33% chose to write about the negative impacts of the new technologies. (Note: In some cases they examined it also as a positive aspect.) This past fall, however, for the first time 50% of my students chose to criticize it.

Over these years, the students made different criticisms of the smartphone and social media. Camille said: “I can honestly say that my phone and other electronic devices distract me. Even when I know I need to focus on something, I can’t if I know my phone is there …” Another student indicated: “…people no longer live in the moment. They are always on their phones.”

Several female students addressed the unrealistic beauty standards set by the internet. Lindsay said: “Media in American society is toxic to adolescents. Media portrays celebrities as perfect human specimens without flaws. This causes adolescents, especially girls, to form unrealistic expectations of physical beauty.” Nicole wrote of the ad pop-ups with “…pictures of beautiful people who make normal people self-conscious.” This can lead people to think they are not “good enough,” leading to mental disorders. Hanna made the same point: Social media makes users “feel inadequate,” “…as if you aren’t living up to a social standard.”

Andrew had another criticism: “Many people use social media to put down others and make fun of people,” adding that “social media can ruin a person’s life.”

Nicole addressed an opportunity cost: Smart phone are “taking over people’s lives…. They do not enjoy nature, or other people’s company …. They miss out on parts of life, human interactions, and the many things outdoors ….”

Carla was apocalyptic: “…I think technology is ruining our generation.” “…it is difficult for the modern person to stay connected to what is real.”

By far the most common criticism was what smartphones are doing to inter-personal communication. This past fall nearly every student who criticized smartphones addressed this point. Ray said it has led to “social disconnect.” Al stated bluntly: “The art of public speaking has been lost in my generation.” Sophia said: “We are so dependent on them, a lot of us cannot have a real conversation with someone. Digital screens have completely taken over our lives….” Ainsley pointed out: “…technology has become something that divides us rather than brings us together. It encourages deception and numbs social interaction.”

Finally, several students took their criticisms to a higher level, speaking to the essence of society and human-ness. Kyle said: “…social media can corrupt a human being…. “[It] is limiting our ability to communicate with others in person, which is essential to our nature.” Kristin stated that because of the dependence on technology, “generations lack what is necessary to live fully.” There is “a loss of depth, meaning, and fulfillment in life’s experience….”

Dan addressed this same point and tied it to a giant of Western Civilization: “Smartphones prevent humans from fully exploring all the possibilities life has to offer. And as the immortal Socrates said: “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University and a regular columnist.

 

 

 

 

 

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Metacomet: From Heathen Savage to American Archetype

(This essay was originally published in the Newport Daily News on December 14, 2019.)

One hundred and ninety years ago, the play “Metamora; or, the Last of the Wamponoags” opened in New York City. The play written by John Augustus Stone re-interpreted Metacomet and many events of Metacom’s/King Philip’s War (1675-76). Rather than a brutal barbarian heading a heathen race, Metacomet was presented as a hero. The play also dramatized his death. Rather than dying silently in a swamp, he gave an impassioned monologue ending in a curse on white men.

In 1662, Metacomet became chief sachem of the Wampanoag after the deaths of his father, Massasoit, and his brother, Wamsutta. Unlike his father, he did not strive for peaceful relations with the settlers; rather he became more and more irritated by their increasing numbers and their ways.

Named after Metacomet who had earlier taken the European name of Philip, the war devastated both the English settlers and the Native Americans. About one-third of the towns of New England (Connecticut to Maine) were destroyed. Historian Nathaniel Philbrick in his book “Mayflower” estimates that per capita the war was twice as bloody as the Civil War and seven times as deadly as the Revolutionary War. Plymouth Colony lost about 8% of its adult male population; the Native Americans lost 60-80% of their total population in southern New England. (Aquidneck Island was untouched.)

Metacomet print by Paul Revere, 1772

Granger Collection, NY

By August 11, 1676, the fighting was ending and most colonial forces were disbanded. However, Plymouth militia Captain Benjamin Church and the allied Sakonnets were still searching for Metacomet and his band. An Indian whose brother was killed by Metacomet decided to inform on him. During the early morning of August 12, he guided Church and about two dozen colonists and Sakonnets to Metacomet’s hideout near a swamp at Mount Hope, surrounding it and attacking.

Metacomet leaped to his feet, grabbed his powder horn, bullet pouch, and musket, and began to run into the swamp. He approached Caleb Cook and a Pocasset Indian named John Alderman. When Cook’s weapon failed to fire, Alderman shot Metacomet through the heart.

Church gathered his men and told them of Metacomet’s death. The group cheered “Huzzah!” three times, a common cheer at that time. Church stated that because Metacomet “had caused many an Englishman’s body to lie unburied and rot above ground, that not one of his bones should be buried.” He then directed a Sakonnet to quarter the body, a common treatment for criminals in that era. Church awarded Metacomet’s distinctively scarred hand to Alderman, who later preserved it in rum and exhibited it for “many a penny” for years to come.

On August 17, Pastor John Cotton led his Plymouth congregation in a day of Thanksgiving. Shortly after the service, Church and his men arrived with Metacomet’s head, a great prize of war. For more than two decades, the head remained on a stake as the town’s main attraction.

One hundred years later, as Americans fought for their independence from the British, the image of Metacomet was still negative. Americans generally viewed him and the indigenous peoples as savages who wanted to oppress them, just as the British were doing. As the colonists fought the Indians to live in freedom, so now patriots had to fight British tyranny. In the earlier war they were fighting to remain good English citizens in America; in the War for Independence they fought not to be English, but rather to be American.

In the first decades of the 19th century, Americans were still trying to define themselves. It appears that American writer Washington Irving started the transformation of Metacomet in the American mind with his “Philip of Pokanoket,” first published in 1814. In it, Irving encouraged his readers to see beyond the prejudices of earlier historical accounts of such writers as Increase Mather and John Cotton Jr. He argued that the sachem should be seen as a brave leader who struggled to free his people from the tyranny of colonial authorities.
At opening night, December 15, 1829, Edwin Forrest, one of America’s leading actors and the man playing Metacomet, ended with a curse: “My curses on you, white men! May the Great Spirit curse you when he speaks in his war voice from the clouds! Murderers! The last of the Wamponoags’ curse be on you!”

As Jill Lepore indicates in her book, “The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity,” “…the audience at the Park Theater rose in wild and reportedly ‘rapturous’ applause.” Americans were now looking to the native peoples to help define themselves.

Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University.

Sources:

Lepore, Jill. The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity. NY: Random House, 1999.
Philbrick, Nathaniel. Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War. NY: Penguin Group, 2006.
Warren, James A. God, War, and Providence: The Epic Struggle of Roger Williams and the Narragansett Indians Against the Puritans of New England. NY: Scribner, 2018.

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Legislating Slavery and Race in Colonial Rhode Island

(This essay was originally published by the Newport Daily News on November 7, 2019.)

The first slaves in colonial Rhode Island were Native Americans, prisoners of war from the conflicts with the colonists in southern New England. The first African slaves entered the colony sometime after 1638, in exchange for Native American slaves.

In the second half of the 17th century, Rhode Islanders were of two minds regarding slavery. On the one hand, only Rhode Islanders among all northern colonies explicitly banned both Native American and African slavery in the 17th century. In 1652 officials in Providence and Warwick prohibited the lifelong enslavement of whites and blacks. In 1676 these same towns prohibited the enslavement of Native Americans. Despite these bans, by 1680 there were 175 slaves in Rhode Island of Native American and African descent.

On the other hand, as the Atlantic slave trade grew and the role of slavery in the economy of colonial Rhode Island expanded in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, town officials and the colonial General Assembly increasingly enacted laws institutionalizing slavery of both Native Americans and Africans. This occurred even though lawmakers never legalized slavery. Historian Christy Clark-Pujara, in her book, Dark Work, The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island, states: “white Rhode Islanders just assumed slavery was legitimate, inherited through the mother, and restricted to people of African and Native American descent.” This ensured white, race-based supremacy.

In the first two decades of the 18th century, not only Rhode Island, but also nearly all other northern colonies prohibited Native Americans from moving into the colonies. Viewing Native Americans as undesirable neighbors, hard to keep as slaves and difficult to control because of their intimate knowledge of the terrain, whites wanted them expunged from their communities. In 1715, the colonial General Assembly prohibited the importation of Native Americans. The Newport town council made it illegal to sell firearms of any sort to Native Americans. Portsmouth banished them to “live in the woods.”

While the institution of slavery began as a system for the control of Native Americans, it became more complex and comprehensive as a system for the enslavement of people of African descent. In the first decades of the 18th century, white Rhode Islanders replaced Native Americans, considered “dangerous,” with blacks “strangers,” now easily acquired from the burgeoning Atlantic slave trade. The colonists’ mindset of Native Americans as a heathen, uncivilized, inferior race was evidently applied eventually to people of African descent.

Logo

In 1703, the Rhode Island General Assembly wrote race-based slavery into law. “If any negroes or Indians either freemen, servants, or slaves, do walk in the street of the town of Newport, or any other town in this Collony, after nine [o’clock pm] without a [proper] certificate … or some lawfull excuse for the same, that it shall be lawfull for any person to take them up and deliver them to a Constable.” Blacks and Native Americans, free or enslaved, found after curfew were “to be whipped at the publick whipping post in said town, not exceeding fifteen stripes upon their naked backs.” The act also forbade free whites from “entertaining men’s servants, either negroes or Indians, without [the master’s permission].”

In 1708, the assembly forbade whites from socializing with “black slaves” and “Indian servants.” Clark-Pujara observes: “Whiteness was legally endowed with privilege and power, while people of color were legally identified as suspect and in need of supervision.”
In 1714, the assembly forbade an enslaved person from boarding ferries alone, even with the master’s consent, without a certificate of ownership carried by the master or person of authority.

By 1728, people of African descent were assumed to be dependent and burdensome. As part of providing them freedom, masters were required to post a bond of 100 pounds for each freed person to protect the white public from having to support a freed slave in need. The law stated that “no mulatto or negro slave” could be set free “until sufficient security be given to the town treasurer of the town or place where such person dwells … to secure and indemnify the town ….” The law had the obvious effect of discouraging manumission.

In 1750, the General Assembly forbade any person to “sell, give, truck, barter, or exchange …any strong Beer …to any Indian, Mulatto, or Negro servant or slave.” The fine was declared as 30 pounds for each offense. The claim was that liquor made them prone to stealing. The law further stated that free persons of color present at such occasions risked becoming bound servants.

Finally in 1757, the General Assembly allowed slave owners to search private vessels for slaves if they suspected their slaves were on board.

Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor at Salve Regina University and a monthly columnist.

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To Kill A Mockingbird, Still Powerful and Popular

(This essay was originally published by the Newport Daily News on October 25, 2019.)

Almost 60 years ago, Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, was published and drew immediate and sustained acclaim from both critics and the public. In 1961, it won the Pulitzer Prize, and over the decades it has maintained its position at the top of America’s most beloved books.


The story takes place in the Depression Era, 1932-35, in the mythical town of Maycomb, Maycomb County, Alabama. It is told through the voice of a young girl, Jean Louise Finch, nicknamed Scout, who is six at the outset of the book. The other main characters include her older brother Jeremy (Jem), their friend Charles Baker Harris (Dill), their heroic father Atticus Finch, Boo Radley, a reclusive man who lives nearby, and Tom Robinson, an African American farm hand wrongfully accused of raping a white woman.

The story is back in the news today for several reasons. In December, 2018, the play, To Kill a Mockingbird, starring Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch, opened on Broadway. It is based on the book and was adapted for stage by award-winning Aaron Sorkin. Second, our country is commemorating the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first African slaves to British North America. With its “Project 1619,” the New York Times is giving special coverage to slavery and racism in America, past and present.

Here in Rhode Island, two organizations are spear-heading drives to increase public awareness of the large role of slavery in the state’s history and to give the enslaved a measure of appreciation and dignity, denied them while living: the Newport Middle Passage Port Marker Project (www.Newportmiddlepassageproject.org ) and the Rhode Island Slave History Medallions organization (RISHM.org).

The novel deals with many issues on many levels. The most notable is racism/discrimination/segregation. While racism in the North is touched on, its focus is mainly racism in the Deep South in the 1930s.


A second theme is “other-ness.” In addition to “Negroes” as “others,” additional groups include women who do not conform, girls—such as Scout—who do not conform, lower class whites (“white trash”), and poor families (the Cunninghams). Even the persecuted Jews in Nazi Germany have a presence in the book. “Other,” non-conforming individuals include Boo Radley, Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose, and Mr. Dolphus Raymond.
A third theme is moral courage and heroism, most visibly in Atticus Finch who is the court-appointed lawyer defending Tom Robinson. While he stands out as a hero, he is not the only one. The heroism of others, including children, also emerges in several parts of the book.

A fourth theme is the unwritten codes of conduct we all follow. The book portrays several, both individual and group: that of Atticus Finch, of children, of gossipy women, of dominant whites, of oppressed blacks.

A final important theme is blatant hypocrisy, especially that of Christians behaving very un-Christ-like.

A few years after winning the Pulitzer Prize, Harper Lee stated: “I never expected any sort of success with ‘Mockingbird.’ … I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers but, at the same time, I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement.”

The novel has been translated into more than 40 languages and has sold more than 40 million copies. Last year, PBS aired a program called “The Great American Read,” an eight-part series exploring America’s 100 best-loved books, based on public votes. To Kill a Mockingbird took the top spot.

In 2007, President George W. Bush awarded Harper Lee the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In 1962, the film adaptation of the book was released, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus. It garnered three Oscars, including Best Actor for Peck. I invite you to a screening of the movie this Sunday, October 27, at 1:00 pm, at the Jane Pickens Theater. I shall be hosting the movie and offering commentary.

This movie can be the beginning of a great family discussion on some very important and still timely subjects. Take, for example, my favorite quote from the book and movie, stated by Atticus Finch: “…you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.”

Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor at Salve Regina University, RI, and a monthly columnist.

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Un-Erasing Rhode Island Slave History

(This essay was originally published in the Newport Daily News on August 24, 2019. A version of it was published the same day as “My Turn: Fred Zilian: Opening Our Eyes to the Enslaved,” in the Providence Journal.)

Whether unconsciously or by my father’s conscious decision, the history of my grandmother, Zenobia Dubois Zilian, was essentially erased from my family’s history. When I asked my father about her, long dead when I was born, he would tell me scant little about her. “She was from the island of Martinique,” he would say and then drop the subject. I possessed only two, very old, poor-quality photographs of her which suggested that she might have African blood.

Nonetheless, it came as somewhat of a surprise when I was able to find through an ancestry organization my father’s family on the 1930 Census document and to discover that not only she but also my father, then 19, and all his siblings were categorized as “Negro”. After all my research, it has become fairly clear that she had slave blood.

As I brought my grandmother back into memory and my family’s history, so an organization called Rhode Island Slave History Medallions is seeking to “un-erase” the history of the enslaved in Rhode Island, who not only made up a significant part of the population of colonial Rhode Island but also played an enormous role in its economy in the 18th century. This organization seeks to increase public awareness of the state’s slave history by marking pertinent locations throughout the state with medallions linked to a dynamic, informative website. (RISHM.org) The first medallion will be unveiled Sunday, 1pm, at Patriots Park, Portsmouth, an event free and open to the public.

Along with Rhode Island historian, Robert Geake, and web page designer and researcher, Peter Fay, I was honored to contribute to the content of the web page on the Park’s connection to slavery through the First Rhode Island Regiment, commonly called the “Black Regiment, and the Battle of Rhode Island in 1778. We uncovered information on at least some of the former slaves who served in the regiment.

Ruttee Gardner was sold to the RI General Assembly on May 8, 1778 for £30 by Nicholas Gardner of Exeter. He served in the regiment with Capt. Lewis’ company. He appears to have served out his time with the regiment and likely was injured or became ill during his time of service. He was listed as “sick in North Kingstown” in March 1779 and was honorably discharged from service in April of that year. His illness or injuries seem to have continued to plague him, for on March 28, 1785, Hezekiah Babcock submitted a bill to the town of Hopkinton for the “boarding and nursing of Rutter Gardner, a negro man who formerly belonged to Nicholas Gardner of Exeter, and a late soldier in the Rhode Island Continental Regiment”.

Prince Brown was a slave owned by the influential Brown family of Providence. When Joseph Brown and cousin Nicholas Power discovered their slave Prince had enlisted in the 1st Regiment, they immediately petitioned and persuaded the General Assembly to “resolve that a negro man Prince belonging to [them]… be discharged from the said regiment.” He was returned to slavery on their farm in Grafton, Massachusetts.

Ichabod Northup of North Kingstown was sold to the Assembly for £120 by one of the Northups of North Kingstown. Ichabod not only fought in the Battle of Rhode Island but also at Croton, N.Y., when attacked by loyalist forces. He was captured, threatened with hanging for not divulging troop movements to the enemy, and spent the remainder of the war as a prisoner. He returned after the war to East Greenwich, purchasing a house which still stands on Division Street. In 1820 he testified that he relied on charity, was unable to work—his toes having frozen in the war—was “impoverished”, “could not support himself” and family, and his house was “much out of repair”.

London Hall was 40 when he enlisted in 1778 for three years in Capt. Dexter’s Company. However, in 1790 his former master, William Hall of North Kingstown, claimed he had never been appraised for his value before enlisting and demanded his re-enslavement or £80. Luckily, by 1790 the legislature considered his required three years’ service sufficient for his freedom and dismissed the claim.

Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is a writer and an adjunct professor at Salve Regina University, RI.

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Woodstock: An Amazing and Unreal Four Days

(Note: This essay was originally published by the Newport Daily News on August 15, 2019.)

Fifty years ago in America, the summer of 1969 was punctuated by two major events. In mid-July the Apollo 11 astronauts walked on the moon, and in mid-August the counterculture movement peaked at an amphitheater-shaped hillside on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in Bethel, NY, about 100 miles north of Manhattan. It was there that 400,000 mostly young people gathered for the Woodstock Music Festival, “An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music.”

(woodstock.com)

But beyond the peace and music were also drugs—some bad, rain and mud, bad sanitation, food shortages, and a general no-rules atmosphere. Nonetheless, even with all that humanity gathered in one place, there was no reported violence and only two deaths, one when a farmer ran over someone sleeping in his field and the other from either insulin usage or heroin overdose.

Earlier in the year pop music hits were apt precursors for Woodstock. In April the song, “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” hit #1 on the billboard charts, proclaiming a new age and promising peace, love and harmony. The month before the festival, the dark, ominous song, “In the Year 2525,” reached #1 and remained there till after the festival had concluded.

For over three days the enormous crowd listened to 33 musical acts, including Creedence Clearwater Revival, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Santana, Canned Heat, Janis Joplin, Sly & the Family Stone, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Joe Cocker, The Band, Crosby, Stills & Nash, and the Grateful Dead.

Declining invitations to perform were The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Byrds, and Bob Dylan, who lived in the actual town of Woodstock about 43 miles away. He stated: “I didn’t want to be a part of that thing.” “I just thought it was a lot of kids out and around wearing flowers in their hair, taking a lot of acid.”

Richie Havens opened the festival at 5 pm, Friday, Aug 15. When the next act, Sweetwater, was delayed, he agreed to keep playing, belting out his improvised chant “Freedom,” which became a touchstone of the festival. He remarked: “It was about love, about sharing, about helping each other, living in peace and harmony.” Of course, “freedom” as interpreted by most of the Woodstock Generation was the shallow kind: freedom to live without restriction and obligation.

Another high point came when Country Joe MacDonald and the Fish performed “I Feel Like I’m Fixin to Die Rag,” one of the anthems of the anti-Vietnam War movement.

Now come on all of you big strong men
Uncle Sam needs your help again
Got himself in a terrible jam
Way down yonder in Vietnam
Put down your books pick up your gun
Gonna have a whole lot of fun

And it’s 1, 2, 3, what are we fighting for?
Don’t ask me I don’t give a damn
The next stop is Vietnam.
And it’s 5, 6, 7 open up the Pearly Gates
Well, there ain’t no time to wonder why
Whoopee, we’re all gonna die.

The final signature moment came at the end with the performance of Jimi Hendrix, clad in a blue-beaded white jacket and red scarf in his Afro. Because of delays, Hendrix could not take the stage until 8:30 am, Monday, Aug 18. Central and climactic was his piercing, exploding, transfixing rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” as part of his two-hour set.
Despite the chaos, disorder, poor sanitation, and mud, most of the attendees probably had very positive memories and feelings about the event. But not all. Pete Townsend of The Who was horrified: “What was going on off the stage was beyond comprehension—stretchers and dead bodies and people throwing up and people having bad trips.”

(woodstock.com)

Mark Hosenball writing in Newsweek in 2009 said: “Woodstock was, if not a nightmare, then a massive, teeming, squalid mess.” “If you like colossal traffic jams, torrential rain, reeking portable johns, barely edible food, and sprawling, disorganized crowds, then you would have found Woodstock a treat.”

Portsmouth resident, Joe Lubiner, drove to the festival on Friday but was stopped in Monticello, NY, and was forced to walk the remaining 10 miles to the festival site. When he arrived, he could not find sufficient space to unroll his sleeping bag. Then the rain came. “I regretted it, because I never really got to experience the music, and the basics [of life] were lacking.”

At 20 and entering my senior year at West Point, I had just assumed command of the summer training camp for sophomores, “Camp Buckner.” My world of order, military training, uniforms, parades, rules and regulations, and military music rather than psychedelic rock was the polar opposite of the free and unrestrained unreal world of Woodstock.

Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor at Salve Regina University, RI, and a monthly Daily News columnist.

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In Colonial Rhode Island, the Enslaved Resisted

(Note: This essay is the fifth in a series on “Slavery in Rhode Island.” This essay was originally published on July 19, 2019, by the Newport Daily News.)

In the 18th century the colony of Rhode Island came to dominant the slave trade in British North America, explaining why the colony had the highest percentage of slaves of all New England colonies. These enslaved African Americans lived and worked, and even sometimes prayed and played next to their white masters; however, without basic human and civil rights, without ownership of their own bodies and destinies, their lives were always less than whole.

So they resisted, with multiple motives and means. Some sought freedom by escaping on foot or on a water vessel; others wanted revenge and justice by burning their masters’ property or even killing them. Others simply wanted community and social connection, perhaps denied them by their masters.

In 1707, an unnamed “negro” man from Newport reportedly murdered his master and drowned himself rather than be captured. The colonial General Assembly’s reaction to this is shocking to us today; however, it was clearly at the time morally and legally sound. It ordered “that his head, legs, and arms be cut from his body, and hung up in some public place, near the town [Newport] to public view: and his body burnt to ashes, that it may, if it please God, be something of a terror to others from perpetrating of the like barbarity for the future.”

In many cases in the colony, the enslaved had easy access to waterways. Therefore, stowing away on a ship or simply paddling away must have been an attractive option, especially for a young enslaved man. In 1728, Jethro, an enslaved “negro,” stole a canoe from his master in North Kingstown and paddled to Martha’s Vineyard to live with the Native Americans.

In 1714, it was reported that a “mulatto” man ran away from Newport, depriving his owner of his work. Such actions must have been a great concern to the government because in 1714 the RI General Assembly forbade enslaved from boarding ferries alone. In 1757 the Assembly continued its attempts to control the enslaved by passing a law allowing slave masters to search private ships in search of runaways.

The resistance to slavery is also indicated by the publicized attempts by masters to find runaways. According to Christy Clark-Pujara, in her book, Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island, RI slaveholders during the colonial period placed one hundred runaway slave ads (92 men and 8 women) in local and regional newspapers.
She also states that the vast majority of runaways were young men and that about 29% of the runaways in the colonial period were from Narragansett Country (South County), about 19% from Newport, and 11% from Providence.

Despite the laws to control the social lives of the enslaved, they resisted. Throughout New England the enslaved had annual celebrations usually in June called Negro Election Days, great celebrations with much dancing and music. As part of these celebrations, they would even elect a “governor” or “king,” a position that came to hold great prestige within the enslaved communities.

Anthropologist Akeia Benard, in her forthcoming book, Strangers and Outcasts in a Strange Land: The Early African American Community of Newport, RI, indicates that such celebrations occurred in Newport, with elections being conducted through a formal ballot system. By 1756, elections took place at the head of Thames St. It appears that slave owners competed to have the best dressed slaves providing clothing, jewelry, wigs, horses, and carriages. Having a “governor” or “king” for a slave evidently gave a certain amount of prestige to the slave owner.

As fully feeling human beings with the range of human emotions and desires, the enslaved sought sexual intimacy, for which permission was evidently needed. Clark-Pujara states that in 1673, “negro servants” Maria and George were found guilty of fornicating and sentenced to “fifteen stripes.”

It is clear that the enslaved resisted, not only passively but also actively. They resisted the attempts by their masters to reduce them to simply cold, unfeeling property, like a chair, a horse, a fence post. The enslaved were fully human beings, with yearning hearts, minds, and souls, and they demonstrated this.

Two local organizations now exist to raise our level of awareness of slave history in Rhode Island, making it more complex and comprehensive. The Newport Middle Passage Port Marker Project seeks to remember, honor and commemorate the contributions of those Africans who perished in the middle passage journey and to acknowledge those survivors who helped build Newport and the nation economically and culturally. (www.Newportmiddlepassageproject.org )

The Rhode Island Slave History Medallions organization seeks to increase public awareness of the state’s slave history by marking pertinent locations with medallions linked to a dynamic, informative website. (RISHM.org)

Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor at Salve Regina University, RI, and a monthly columnist.

 

Sources

Benard, Akeia. Strangers and Outcasts in a Strange Land: The Early African American Community of Newport, RI. (forthcoming)

Clark-Pujara, Christy. Dark Work, The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island. NY: New York University Press, 2016.

Crane, Elaine F. A Dependent People: Newport, Rhode Island, in the Revolutionary Era. NY: Fordham University Press, 1992.

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