Poems: Erasure Timeline
October 16, 1854: Abraham Lincoln’s “Peoria Speech”
The repeal of the Missouri Compromise, and the propriety of its restoration, constitute the subject of what I am about to say. As I desire to present my own connected view of this subject, my remarks will not be, specifically, an answer to Judge Douglas; yet, as I proceed, the main points he has presented will arise, and will receive such
respectful attention as I may be able to give them. I wish further to say, that I do not propose to question the patriotism, or to assail the motives of any man, or class of men, but rather to strictly confine myself to the naked merits of the question. I also wish to be no less than National in all the positions I may take; and whenever I take
ground which others have thought, or may think, narrow, sectional and dangerous to the Union, I hopeto give a reason, which will appear sufficient, at least to some, why I think differently. And, as this subject is no other, than
part and parcel of the larger general question of domestic-slavery, I wish to MAKE and to keep the distinction between the existing institution, and the EXTENSION of it, so broad, and so clear, that no honest man can misunderstand me, and no dishonest one, successfully misrepresent me. In order to [get?] a clear understanding of what the Missouri Compromise is, a short history of the preceding kindred subjects will perhaps be proper. When we established our independence, we did not own, or claim, the country to which this compromise applies. Indeed, strictly speaking, the confederacy then owned no country at all; the States respectively owned the country within their limits; and some of them owned territory beyond their strict State limits. Virginia thus owned the North-Western territory—the country out of which the principal part of Ohio, all Indiana, all Illinois, all Michigan and all Wisconsin, have since been formed. She also owned (perhaps within her then limits) what has since been formed into the State of Kentucky. North Carolina thus owned what is now the State of Tennessee; and South Carolina and Georgia, in separate parts, owned what are now Mississippi and Alabama. Connecticut, I think, owned the little remaining part of Ohio—being the same where they now send Giddings to Congress, and beat all creation at making cheese. These territories, together with the States themselves, constituted all the country over which the
confederacy then claimed any sort of jurisdiction. We were then living under the Articles of Confederation, which were superceded by the Constitution several years afterwards. The question of ceding these territories to the general government was set on foot. Mr. Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, and otherwise a chief actor in the revolution; then a delegate in Congress; afterwards twice President; who was, is, and perhaps will continue to be, the most distinguished politician of our history; a Virginian by birth and continued residence, and withal, a slave-holder; conceived the idea of taking that occasion, to prevent slavery ever going into the north-western territory. He prevailed on the Virginia Legislature to adopt his views, and to cede the territory, making the prohibition of slavery therein, a condition of the deed. Congress accepted the cession, with the condition; and in the first Ordinance (which the acts of Congress were then called) for the government of the territory, provided that slavery should never be permitted therein. This is the famed ordinance of ’87 so often spoken of. Thenceforward, for sixty-one years, and until in 1848, the last scrap of this territory came into the Union as the State of Wisconsin, all parties acted in quiet obedience to this ordinance. It is now what Jefferson foresaw and intended—the happy home of teeming millions of free, white, prosperous people, and no slave amongst them. Thus, with the author of the
Declaration of Independence, the policy of prohibiting slavery in new territory originated. Thus, away back of the constitution, in the pure fresh, free breath of the revolution, the State of Virginia, and the National congress put that policy in practice. Thus through sixty odd of the best years of the republic did that policy steadily work to its great and beneficent end. And thus, in those five states, and five millions of free, enterprising people, we have before us the rich fruits of this policy. But now new light breaks upon us. Now congress declares this ought never to have been; and the like of it, must never be again. The sacred right of self government is grossly violated by it! We even find some men, who drew their first breath, and every other breath of their lives, under this very restriction, now live in dread of absolute suffocation, if they should be restricted in the “sacred right” of taking slaves to Nebraska. That perfect liberty they sigh for—the liberty of making slaves of other people—-Jefferson never thought of; their own
father never thought of; they never thought of themselves, a year ago. How fortunate for them, they did not sooner become sensible of their great misery! Oh, how difficult it is to treat with respect, such assaults upon all we have ever really held sacred. But to return to history. In 1803 we purchased what was then called Louisiana, of France. It included the now states of Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, and Iowa; also the territory of Minnesota, and the present bone of contention, Kansas and Nebraska. Slavery already existed among the French at New Orleans; and, to some extent, at St. Louis. In 1812 Louisiana came into the Union as a slave state, without controversy. In 1818 or ’19, Missouri showed signs of a wish to come in with slavery. This was resisted by northern members of Congress; and thus began the first great slavery agitation in the nation. This controversy lasted several months, and became very angry and exciting; the House of Representatives voting steadily for the prohibition of slavery in Missouri, and the Senate voting as steadily against it. Threats of breaking up the Union were freely made; and the ablest public men of the day became seriously alarmed. At length a com
January 1, 1863: “Emancipation Proclamation”
Whereas, on the twentysecond day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty two, a proclamation, was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit: “That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom. “That the Executive will, on the first day of January aforesaid, by proclamation, designate the States and parts of States, if any, in which the people thereof, respectively, shall then be in rebellion against the United States; and the fact that any State, or the people thereof, shall on that day be, in good faith, represented in the Congress of the
United States by members chosen thereto at elections wherein a majority of the qualified voters of such State shall have participated, shall, in the absence of strong countervailing testimony, be deemed conclusive evidence that such State, and the people thereof, are not then in rebellion against the United States.” Now, therefore I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, by virtue of the power in me vested as Commander-in-Chief, of the Army and Navy of the United States in time of actual armed rebellion against the authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion, do, on this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty three, and in accordance with my purpose so to do publicly proclaimed for the full period of one hundred days, from the day first above mentioned, order and designate as the States and parts of States wherein the people thereof respectively, are this day in rebellion against the United States, the following, to wit: Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, (except the Parishes of St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. Johns, St. Charles, St. James Ascension, Assumption, Terrebonne, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. Martin, and Orleans, including the City of New Orleans) Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South-Carolina, North-Carolina, and Virginia, (except the fortyeight counties designated as West Virginia, and also the counties of Berkley, Accomac, Northampton, Elizabeth-City, York, Princess Ann, and Norfolk, including the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth[)], and which excepted parts, are for the present, left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued. And by virtue of the power, and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and
naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons. And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence; and I recommend to them that, in all cases when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages. And I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service. And upon
this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and gracious favor of Almighty God. In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed. Done at the City of Washington, this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty three, and of the Independence of the United States of America the eighty-seventh. the President: ABRAHAM LINCOLN
January 31, 1865: “13th Amendment of the United States Constitution”
Section 1: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
September 3, 1866: Andrew Johnson’s “Cleveland Speech”
And let me say tonight that my head has been threatened. It has been said that my blood was to be shed. Let me say to those who are still willing to sacrifice my life [derisive laughter and cheers], if you want a victim and my country
requires it, erect your altar, and the individual who addresses you tonight, while here a visitor, [“No,” “No,” and laughter,] erect your altar if you still thirst for blood, and if you want it, take out the individual who now addresses you and lay him upon your altar, and the blood that now courses his veins and warms his existence shall be poured
out as a last libation to Freedom. I love my country, and I defy any man to put his finger upon anything to the contrary. Then what is my offence?[Voices, “You ain’t a radical,” “New Orleans,” “Veto.“] Somebody says “Veto.” Veto of what? What is called the Freedmen’s Bureau bill, and in fine, not to go into any argument here tonight, if you do not understand what the Freedmen’s Bureau bill is, I can tell you. [Voice, “Tell us.”] Before the rebellion there were
4,000,000 called colored persons held as slaves by about 340,000 people living in the South. That is, 340,000 slave owners paid expenses, bought land, and worked the negroes, and at the expiration of the year when cotton, tobacco,
and rice were gathered and sold, after all paying expenses, these slave owners put the money in their pockets- [slight interruption]-your attention-they put the property in their pocket. In many instances there was no profit, and many came out in debt. Well that is the way things stood before the rebellion. The rebellion commenced and the slaves were turned loose. Then we come to the Freedmen’s Bureau bill. And what did the bill propose? It proposed to appoint agents and sub-agents in all the cities, counties, school districts, and parishes, with power to make contracts for all the slaves, power to control, and power to hire them out-dispose of them, and in addition to that the whole military power of the government applied to carry it into execution.Now [clamor and confusion] I never feared
clamor. I have never been afraid of the people, for by them I have always been sustained. And when I have all the truth, argument, fact and reason on my side, clamor nor affront, nor animosities can drive me from my purpose.Now to the Freedmen’s Bureau. What was it? Four million slaves were emancipated and given an equal chance and fair start to make their own support-to work and produce; and having worked and produced, to have their own property and apply it to their own support. But the Freedmen’s Bureau comes and says we must take charge of these 4,000,000 slaves. The bureau comes along and proposes, at an expense of a fraction less than $12,000,000 a year, to take charge of these slaves. You had already expended $3,000,000,000 to set them free and give them a fair opportunity to take care of themselves -then these gentlemen, who are such great friends of the people, tell us they must be taxed $12,000,000 to sustain the Freedmen’s Bureau. [Great confusion.] I would rather speak to 500 men
that would give me their attention that to 100,000 that would not. [With all this mass of patronage he said he could have declared himself dictator.]The Civil Rights bill was more enormous than the other. I have exercised the veto power, they say. Let me say to you of the threats from your Stevenses, Sumners, Phillipses, and all that class, I care not for them. As they once talked about forming a “league with hell and a covenant with the devil,” I tell you, my countrymen, here tonight, though the power of hell, death and Stevens with all his powers combined, there is no power that can control me save you the people and the God that spoke me into existence. In bidding you farewell here tonight, I would ask you with all the pains Congress has taken to calumniate and malign me, what has Congress done? Has it done anything to restore the Union of the States? But, on the contrary, has it not done everything to prevent it? And because I stand now as I did when the rebellion commenced, I have been denounced as a traitor. My countrymen here to-night, who has suffered more than I? Who has run greater risk? Who has borne more than I? But Congress, factious, domineering, tyrannical Congress has undertaken to poison the minds of the American people, and create a feeling against me in consequence of the manner in which I have distributed the public patronage.While this gang-this common gang of cormorants and bloodsuckers, have been fattening upon the country for the past four of five years-men never going into the field, who growl at being removed from their fat
offices, they are great patriots! Look at them all over your district? Everybody is a traitor that is against them. I think the time has come when those who stayed at home and enjoyed fat offices for the last four or five years -I think it would be more than right for them to give way and let others participate in the benefits of office. Hence you can see why it is that I am traduced and assaulted. I stood by these men who were in the field and I stand by them now.I have been drawn into this long speech, while I intended simply to make acknowledgments for the cordial welcome; but if I am insulted while civilities are going on I will resent it in a proper manner, and in parting here tonight I have no anger nor revengeful feelings to gratify. All I want now, peace has come and the war is over, is for all patriotic men to rally round the standard of their country, and swear by their altars and their God, that all shall sink together
but what this Union shall be supported. Then in parting with you tonight, I hang over you this flag, not of 25 but of 36 stars; I hand over to you the Constitution of my country, though imprisoned, though breaches have been made upon it, with confidence hoping that you will repair the breaches; I hand it over to you, in whom I have always trusted and relied, and, so far, I have never deserted-and I feel confident, while speaking here tonight, for heart responds to heart of man, that you agree to the same great doctrine.
January 20, 1961: John F. Kennedy’s “Inaugural Address”
We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom–symbolizing an end as well as a beginning–signifying renewal as well as change. For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forbears prescribed nearly a century and three-quarters ago. The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe–the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God. We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans–born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage–and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world. Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty. This much we pledge–and more. To those old allies whose cultural and spiritual origins we share, we pledge the loyalty of faithful friends. United there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided there is little we can do–for we
dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder. To those new states whom we welcome to the ranks of the free, we pledge our word that one form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny. We shall not always expect to find them supporting our view. But we shall always hope to find them strongly supporting their own freedom–and to remember that, in the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside. To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required–not because the communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich. To our sister republics south of our border, we offer a special pledge–to convert our good words into good deeds–in a new alliance for progress–to assist free men and free governments in casting off the chains of poverty. But this peaceful revolution of hope cannot become the prey of hostile powers. Let all our neighbors know that we shall join with them to oppose aggression or subversion anywhere in the Americas. And let every other power know that this Hemisphere intends to remain the master of its own house. To the world assembly of sovereign states, the United Nations, our last best hope in an age where the instruments of war have far outpaced the instruments of peace, we renew our pledge of support–to prevent it from becoming merely a forum for invective–to strengthen its shield of the new and the weak–and to enlarge the area in which its writ may run. Finally, to those nations who would make themselves our adversary, we offer not a pledge but a request: that both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction. We dare not tempt them with weakness. For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed. But neither can two great and powerful groups of nations take comfort from our present course–both sides overburdened by the cost of modern weapons, both rightly alarmed by the steady spread of the deadly atom, yet both racing to alter that uncertain balance of terror that stays the hand of mankind’s final war. So let us begin anew–remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate. Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us. Let both sides, for the first time, formulate serious and precise proposals for the inspection and control of arms–and bring the absolute power to destroy other nations under the absolute control of all nations. Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths and encourage the arts and commerce. Let both sides unite to heed in all corners of the earth the command of Isaiah–to “undo the heavy burdens . . . (and) let the oppressed go free.” And if a beachhead of
cooperation may push back the jungle of suspicion, let both sides join in creating a new endeavor, not a new balance of power, but a new world of law, where the strong are just and the weak secure and the peace preserved. All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin. In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty. The graves of young
Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe. Now the trumpet summons us again–not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need–not as a call to battle, though embattled we are–but a call to bear the burden of a
long twilight struggle, year in and year out, “rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation”–a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself. Can we forge against these enemies a grand and global alliance, North and South, East and West, that can assure a more fruitful life for all mankind? Will you join in that historic effort? In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility–I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it–and the glow from that fire can truly
light the world. And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man. Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.
In their journal article “Against 1865: Reperiodizing the Nineteenth Century,” English professors and scholars Christopher Hager and Cody Marrs write, “The division of American literature…at 1865 correlates with no particular institutional mission or level of prestige. It is simply an unmistakable, seemingly immovable feature of the professional landscape. No other chronological break is nearly as ubiquitous.”
Only recently have I noticed the prevalence of the year 1865 in American literature. And it especially prevalent in the
literature of slavery.
The year 1865 marks the end of the Civil War. Consequently, 1865 has been writ into literature as a moment at which the United States was, at least to its contemporaries, transitioning into a new era, one that was seemingly positive and post-war. This is evidenced by the front page of The New York Times’ issue on Monday, April 10, 1865 (see right), whose headlines read: “Hang out your banners! UNION! VICTORY! PEACE! The war is over! Thanks to God, the Giver of Victory!”
1865 is also the year that the 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution was ratified, legally forbidding the practice of slavery (except as a punishment for crime). This monumental event has been widely reflected in slavery literature as a turning point of sorts, ushering America into a post-slavery era. While some educational materials like Khan Academy’s article “Life after slavery for African Americans” address the aftermath of slavery in America, they also often utilize a tone that refers to slavery as something that no longer exists. Consider, for instance, this bullet point from the “Overview” section of Khan Academy’s article: “The Thirteenth Amendment (1865) ended slavery, and slavery’s end meant newfound freedom for African Americans.” This sort of summarizing statement seems to render slavery as something that has been abolished indefinitely when, in many ways, it still exists. In effect, this reductivism neglects the various ways that slavery manifests itself in contemporary American society, such as mass incarceration (which will be discussed later).
I am attempting, then, to undo the binaries that surround the year 1865: the splits between the antebellum/postbellum and slavery/post-slavery periods. To do so, I have created an erasure timeline—a chronological series of redacted poems—to illuminate issues that have extended from the mid-nineteenth century well into the mid-twentieth century. Some of these issues surround race, nationalism, and citizenship, all facets of contemporary America that have been immensely shaped by this country’s past of slavery.
By shedding light on the restrictions placed on African Americans both before and after 1865, I hope to highlight how different spaces (especially Paris) offered and still offer African Americans opportunities that were and are not available to them at home.
Though my poems utilize found texts (e.g. speeches, amendments, etc.) from sources that were created or orated in America, I have also consulted Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845) and James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son (1955) to examine the differences in their
Ultimately, this research project will: 1) use poems to debunk the aforementioned binaries surrounding the year 1865; 2) consult Frederick Douglass’ narrative to confirm the ramifications of slavery that extend much past 1865; and 3) consult essays of James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son to delve into why migration, namely to Paris, was necessary for so many African Americans in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The first erasure I created for my timeline uses a speech delivered by Abraham Lincoln on October 16, 1854 in Peoria, Illinois—now referred to as the “Peoria Speech.” While the speech is largely remembered today for establishing Abraham Lincoln’s anti-slavery platform—a stance which would later allow him to sweep the Northern states and win the 1806 presidential election—its rhetoric also conveys a sense of ambivalence concerning how the country should hypothetically proceed without the institution slavery. This poem attempts to reflect this tone of ambivalence by redacting some of Lincoln’s lines to read: “to give a reason, / sufficient, I think / to keep / the existing institution.”
In this speech, Lincoln explains his opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which established the states of Kansas and Nebraska and left it up to popular sovereignty to decide whether slavery would be the source of labor for the thousands of farms that were to be run in these states. Lincoln articulates his qualms, arguing that climate and geography would not keep slavery out of Kansas and Nebraska as certain supporters of slavery said it would. This very speech, as cited by American Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Mark E. Neely Jr., is credited for having “resurrected [Lincoln’s] political career.”
One less-observed context of this speech, however, is the way in which Lincoln confronts the future of slavery. Lincoln calls for the abolishment of slavery by listing reasons why the institution is problematic on economic and moral, among other, levels, yet he does not state precisely how he wishes to abolish slavery, or how he thinks the nation should proceed with this imagined abolishment. In American historian James Oakes’ book The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics,” he similarly contends that Lincoln possessed a reluctant tone in his Peoria speech, albeit a strategic one. Oakes observes: “Lincoln proclaimed his commitment to racial discrimination not because it mattered to him but because it did not” (Oakes 126).
“Peoria Speech” Erasure Poem
For the first poem of my timeline, I used anaphora—a poetic technique where a sequence of words is repeated at the beginning of each clause—with the infinitive (i.e. with the word “to”) to create a tone of reluctance. The poem is intentionally left un-conjugated, unbound to the rules of English grammar, and thus the effect I hoped to produce was one of restriction. By limiting my own use of language, I have attempted to mirror Lincoln’s shaky stance on the abolishment of slavery.
Likewise, in the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Douglass comments on slave-owners’ hypocritical stances when it comes to the abolishment of slavery—how they sometimes outwardly proclaim to be opposed to slavery, but do not actually believe in what they profess. To remedy this hypocrisy, Douglass advises:
“I would leave [the slaveholder] to imagine himself surrounded by myriads of invisible tormentors, ever ready to snatch from his infernal grasp his trembling prey. Let him be left to feel his way in the dark…I will now proceed to the statement of those facts, connected with my escape, for which I am alone responsible” (Douglass 100-101).
While many slave-owners and Northerners were vocally opposed to slavery, in this passage Douglass notes that they could not imagine themselves in the role of a slave. And therefore they continued to practice the owning of humans, unable to envision a life without that practice. Douglass suggests, then, that slaveholders imagine what it is like to escape from bondage, to be captured upon escape and then be killed; he also declares that slaves have no other option than to seize their own freedom.
My second erasure poem works with another speech by Abraham Lincoln: the “Emancipation Proclamation,” delivered on January 1, 1863 after Lincoln had been elected President.
The Emancipation Proclamation firmly outlines the provisions by which the states were supposed to phase out the practice of slavery. Yet, at the same time, the text of the proclamation leaves room for the states to abolish slavery at their discretion, on their own timelines. Perhaps this was most evident in Texas, and in other Confederate states, where slaves were held in bondage and not even told about the Emancipation Proclamation until June 19, 1865, over two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
Juneteenth, as the historic date is now referred to, is celebrated yearly by many African Americans as a kind of “Independence Day.” However, African American literary critic Henry Louis Gates Jr. writes that, “Juneteenth was, from its earliest incarnations, as Hayes Turner and others have recorded, a past that was ‘usable’ as an occasion for gathering lost family members, measuring progress against freedom and inculcating rising generations with the values of self-improvement and racial uplift.” Clearly, Juneteenth originally had very utilitarian purposes (e.g. finding one’s own family) for African Americans. That these slaves were not informed of their emancipation is reflective of America’s own fickle commitment to the abolishment of slavery, despite any apparent anti-slavery rhetoric that may have been circulating in the nation.
“Emancipation Proclamation” Erasure Poem
Thus, for my second erasure poem, I tried to preserve the boldness of the proclamation’s text, except with a totally opposite subject matter. The poem is ultimately a decree to subtly preserve slavery, for this is how I have come to conceptualize the Emancipation Proclamation: an order to eliminate slavery and deem it evil, yet with no specific provisions on how to do so.
Again, in Frederick Douglass’ narrative, he recalls a moment on which he was discussing the issue of freedom (the lack thereof) with other slaves. He wonders what innate human quality rendered the white man free and black man enslaved:
“I used to talk this matter of slavery over with them [the other slaves]. I would sometimes say to them, I wished I could be as free as they would be when they [the white men] got to be men. ‘You will be free as soon as you are twenty-one, but I am a slave for life! Have not I as good a right to be free as you have?’ These words used to trouble them; they would express for me the liveliest sympathy, and console me with the hope that something would occur by which I might be free” (Douglass 41).
Here, I am intrigued by the speculative tone that Douglass uses when speaking about freedom. For him, just as for his masters, the concept of freedom for slaves is something imagined. At the same time, however, Douglass cannot produce a reason as to why a white man can be free at twenty-one but he himself must be “a slave for life!” Nor could his owners produce any substantive reason.
Even at the time of the Emancipation Proclamation, when the abolishment of slavery was declared, the institution remained strong. In his narrative, Douglass makes a note of the racial distinctions that existed—those which allowed the white man to own and dominate the black man—yet neither Douglass, nor his owners, could demonstrate any true evidence that these distinctions were found in fact.
For my third erasure, I utilized a text that came from the year 1865 itself: the 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution. Perhaps it is this singular text that has most prominently created binaries surrounding 1865 in literature, for this amendment has (seemingly) prohibited the practice of slavery and indentured servitude within the United States. In its entirety, the text of the amendment reads:
Section 1: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
Section 2: “Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”
For the extent of my project, two parts of the 13th Amendment have been selected for closer analysis: 1) the clause of Section 1 which reads, “except as a punishment…convicted” and 2) the entirety of Section 2.
Although the 13th Amendment forbids the widespread and blatant practice of slavery in the United States, the aforementioned clause of Section 1 ultimately creates exceptions where the practice of slavery can subtly be allowed, even today. That is, by allowing the implication of slavery and indentured servitude as a “punishment for crime,” the 13th Amendment has, in effect, not outlawed slavery, but rather made narrower the parameters in which it is acceptable.
As a result, in the contemporary United States there is a long history of the mass incarceration of African Americans. According to scholar, writer, and civil rights activist Michelle Alexander, the mass incarceration of Black Americans likely resulted from the 13th Amendment, which, as mentioned before, allows the implication of slavery on individuals as a punishment of crime. In her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Alexander theorizes that, as America transitioned out of its outright practice of slavery, it replaced this source of labor by criminalizing African Americans, incarcerating them, and forcing them to work (as allowed by the 13th Amendment).
Furthermore, Section 2 of the Thirteenth Amendment grants discretion to Congress to enforce the abolishment of slavery. Alexander observes in her book that, by granting this power of enforcement to Congress, the United States government has effectually permitted the arbitrary conviction of individuals and the arbitrary enslavement of these “criminals”—namely black Americans. As a result, Alexander remarks, for generations in America, there has been the development of a stereotype which equates black Americans, and specifically black men, with criminality. This stereotype ultimately functions to legitimize the mass incarceration of black men as a method of indenturing them.
“Thirteenth Amendment” Erasure Poem
My erasure poem simply and shortly reads, “slavery / as a punishment / shall exist.” The brevity of this poem is an attempt to leave no room for question: slavery, according to the 13th Amendment, still exists, even if only in more obscure forms.
My next poem works with a speech delivered by President Andrew Johnson in Cleveland, Ohio on September 3, 1866, shortly after 1865 and the events that took place during that year (e.g. end of Civil War, passage of 13th Amendment, etc.).
This speech was a part of Johnson’s national campaign in 1866, now referred to as “Swing Around the Circle.” In his article entitled “Andrew Johnson’s First ‘Swing Around the Circle’: His Northern Campaign of 1863,” American historian William C. Harris recalls how this national tour was disastrous, a last-ditch effort made by Johnson to gain support for his Reconstruction policies. Harris notes that, in the North, Johnson faced opposition for his mild Reconstruction policies and, in the South, Johnson too faced opposition for the same reason. Northerners wanted Johnson to more quickly abolish slavery, yet Southerners wanted to revert to the old system.
“Cleveland Speech” Erasure Poem
My poem employs the use of the grotesque to heighten the violent rhetoric that Johnson used during his speech, specifically in regards to slaves and slavery. I exaggerated the rhetoric of racism in this poem to emphasize the institution of slavery as a race-based institution. The extremely violent language of the poem hopes to contextualize the violence against Black bodies at the time—after 1865—and how this violence necessitated the mental and physical escape of Black Americans from slavery and the United States itself.
Extending past 1865, beyond the passage of the 13th Amendment, the racial divide between white and black Americans, as evidenced by Johnson’s speech and by my poem, has created a hostile environment for Black Americans in the United States. The supposed abolishment of slavery has merely been replaced by subtler forms of slavery, and the supposed legal equality of Black Americans has been met by lynchings and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, as well as other widespread forces that have sought to physically and psychologically destroy Black Americans.
For many African Americans, migration to foreign places has proven to be not only a means of achieving a prosperous life, but also a necessity to protect one’s own life, one that is threatened at home, in the United States. An NPR podcast hosted by American correspondent Eleanor Beardsley—entitled “Paris Has Been A Haven For African Americans Escaping Racism”—quotes Black Paris tour guide Ricki Stevenson to explain how, after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, “Blacks went from living free in a French territory to living in an American Apartheid state.” Beardsley further explores how Paris was devoid of the same racial tension that plagued the United States, thereby allowing African Americans to be more free in pursuing their artistry (i.e. during the Harlem Renaissance) or other pursuits.
Though James Baldwin’s collection of essays Notes of a Native Son came almost a century after Johnson’s speech, it provides incredibly timeless insights into the historical and contemporary need of Black Americans to migrate from the United States, especially to Paris.
This is demonstrated in the essay “A Question of Identity,” [written in 1955]. While Baldwin notes that Parisians assume that an “American cannot, of course, be divorced from the so diverse phenomena which make up
his country,” he also recognizes that, “the legend of Paris has done its deadly work, which is, perhaps, so to stun the traveler with freedom” (Baldwin 132-133).
In essence, Baldwin notices that the African Americans in Paris are somewhat relieved of their double-consciousness, the contention between their existence as both an American and also a Black body. Yes, they must continue to navigate the tension between their black and American identities; however, in Paris, they do not face the same persecution. Baldwin describes how Parisians are aware of the “diverse phenomena” that make up American history and the African American experience, yet they do not render these Black Americans inferior. As Baldwin observes, in Paris, African Americans have been largely stunned by the freedom that was presented to them, freedom which surpassed that which they were offered at home, even after 1865.
Finally, for my last erasure poem on my timeline, I move forward nearly a century to President John F. Kennedy’s beloved inaugural address, delivered on January 20, 1961. Perhaps one of the greatest speeches in American history, Kennedy’s inaugural address is remembered for the way that it united the country even amidst the divides that pervaded the ongoing civil rights movements.
However, while Kennedy’s language undoubtedly seeks to instill a sense of patriotism in Americans, it also promotes the belief of American exceptionalism: the idea that the United States stands above all other countries. This belief in American exceptionalism reverberates ideologies that upheld the institution of slavery—that a certain people can innately be superior, and thus dominant, to another.
In an NPR podcast hosted by correspondent and economy reporter John Ydstie, he explains how “The legacy of American slavery that started in Jamestown undermines the idea of American exceptionalism.” More specifically, Ydstie elaborates, the past need of white Americans to dominate and enslave black Americans is directly linked to the modern need to dominate people, and nations, elsewhere. However, the fact that America has had an extensive history of slavery also proves that the country cannot be exceptional or superior to all others. Ydstie writes: “Belief in American exceptionalism has played a role in justifying our treatment of prisoners in Iraq and in Guantanamo, where another prisoner committed suicide this week.” I believe that the need to dominate other peoples—this belief in American exceptionalism—is quite ostensible in Kennedy’s speech (and much of modern political rhetoric), and thus, according to Ydstie’s theories, this belief is likely linked to the United States’ slave history.
“Kennedy Inaugural Address” Erasure Poem
The crux of my poem occurs at the end, where I redacted Kennedy’s address to read: “so, / ask not what your country can do for you / ask / whether you are citizens of America.” By erasing Kennedy’s iconic phrase, I tried to generate an ostensible sense of American exceptionalism and show how it mirrors ideologies of America’s past of slavery.
In James Baldwin’s essay “Encounter on the Seine: Black Meets Brown” [written in 1950], he explains how migrating to Paris has allowed African Americans to isolate themselves from the United States and its remanences of slavery. Baldwin states:
“[African Americans’] isolation from each other is not difficult to understand if one bears in mind the axiom, unquestioned by American landlords, that Negroes are happy only when they are kept together. Those driven to break this pattern by leaving the U.S. ghettos not merely have effected a social and physical leave-taking but also have been precipitated into cruel psychological warfare. It is altogether inevitable that past humiliations should become associated not only with one’s traditional oppressors but also with one’s traditional kinfolk” (Baldwin 120).
In examining Baldwin’s essay, American studies professor James Miller comments in his article “What Does It Mean to Be an American? The Dialectics of Self-Discovery in Baldwins ‘Paris Essays’ (1950–1961)” that African Americans in Paris have also had the opportunity to isolate themselves from each other—individuals who bore similar marks of trauma—and thus escape the pervasive psychological torment that the system of slavery created in the United States. Simply put, an African American has the chance to get lost in Paris, and there he or she has the autonomy to choose to be isolated from his or her past or not. In contrast, slavery is inescapable in America. Reminders of the institution are largely visible, seen in anything from lynchings to Jim Crow laws and segregation to sit-ins. Paris, then, as Baldwin describes, is a space to which African Americans can, and often must, take physical and mental leave.
As I continue to navigate the space that is my relationship to American history, I am attempting to recontextualize the texts and events that had previously and so profoundly (mis)informed my own understanding of things. Speeches and laws that called for the “abolishment” of slavery have lately begged me to ask the question: In what ways has slavery actually been abolished? In what ways does it still exist? Similarly, when I read a speech that is revered for unifying “the people”—a phrase which I distrust more and more each day—I cannot help but wonder who is actually included in this said people. I hope, then, to move forward and look at history, particularly America’s slave history, in a more intersectional way. For the history of slavery is not just that, not just in the past; its aftermath exists today and manifests itself all around, if I only look.
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