Bringing the Middle Passage Home: The Schooner Phillis

Detail of Figure III in Brooks slave ship diagram. From “The Cries of Africa to the Inhabitants of Europe or A Survey of the Bloody Commerce Called the Slave Trade”, by Thomas Clarkson, circa 1821. Special Collections, Leeds University Library.

Most of y’all know that I am writing a book of poetry on Phillis Wheatley. I’ve been talking about it forever, and I’m furiously working on it right now, along with my novel.

Wondering how I am working actively on not one but two books and giving both my all? Caffeine! I’m not playing with y’all. I rise early in the morning on most days, drink some black tea, power down to green tea for noon, and then I get it going until I pass out in the mid-afternoon.  It’s going well, believe it or now, but now, I’m wearing my hair in a ponytail every day and my house is looking like Who Shot John. And who has time to fold laundry and commune with the Muse at the same time?  Not this Miss Lady.

Anyway, four years ago this summer, I read letters between Timothy Fitch, the owner of the slave ship Schooner Phillis and Peter Gwinn, the captain of the ship, which is assumed to be the ship that brought the child who would be Phillis Wheatley into Boston Harbor; the letters were on the Medford (Massachusetts) Historical Society website.

Here’s a link to the letter that sent me on this four-year journey to write a full poetry book on the life and times of Phillis Wheatley.  (After I had been writing poems on her already for a previous four years. You do the math!) 

I have my personal, sweet angel, a librarian at the American Antiquarian Society in Wooster, Massachusetts to thank for pulling this slave trade letter up–just like that!—on my laptop back in 2009. She’s a genius.

As I finish up this book–God willing–I’ll be sharing little tidbits on the blog from my journey of writing about this time, which has been very educational and even more emotional–lots of tears, because you can’t write about black folks and the eighteenth century and not write about the Middle Passage and the horror of slavery.

But now, the good news is that in the middle of those tears, I met my husband in Senegal while doing research for this book, and let me tell you, this man has provided a sturdy shoulder for me to cry on when the research for the book has led me to some painful, ancestral places.

By the way, there is no known illustration of the Schooner Phillis. The picture that I have included above is of the Brookes slave ship. (It is spelled both with an “e” and without in historical writings.) There are several other illustrations of the Brookes that were used by eighteenth-century British abolitionists to bring home the human atrocities of slavery. Here is the most well-known and commonly used illustration of that ship.  

Now you know what you were wearing on your t-shirt back in the day. Don’t you feel good knowing?!–And don’t worry, I’ll talk a bit about the Brookes at a later date.

On Don Lemon’s List: Breaking Down His Tough Black Love

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First, this blog post is not to curry favor with conservative, extremely right-wing white folks who don’t like African Americans, but who suddenly are pretending to take interest in “black community issues” so they can practice their Strange White Supremacist Hoodoo Rituals in public, instead of the privacy of their own homes.

I’m talking to you, Bill O’ Reilly.

Go sit your annoying, obnoxious self down somewhere and stop pretending you really cared about the ills of the African American community when you recently went on a tirade saying that we had serious problems, including the “drug situation,” the disintegration of the black family,” and “gangsta culture.”

You’re using your fake concern about “black on black crime” to attack black people—as you’ve attacked us in the past—and with friends like you, what black person really needs the White Citizens Council of Jackson, Mississippi or the Ku Klux Klan?

Thank you, Mr. O’ Reilly, take care, and be blessed.

Now that I have established the ground rules, let me begin to explain the mysterious ways of Brother Don Lemon.

Lemon is black and Lemon is gay. That would seem to be a recipe for the most liberal black man. Instead, he was on the TV recently, going off on black folks all in public, in a seemingly willy-nilly fashion, and aligning himself with the aforementioned Social Plague That Is Bill O’ Reilly.

Then, Lemon listed his top five issues with black people. We’ll come back to those in a second.

And then, black folks started getting upset online, in the blogs, on the comment threads of blogs, on Twitter and on Facebook, wondering whether Don Lemon was an Uncle Tom Race Traitor, whether he was off medication for a psychiatric disorder (possibly connected with his being an Uncle Tom) or whether he needed to be on medication for an as yet diagnosed psychiatric disorder (that had Uncle Tom tendencies), and so on or so forth.

Like a lot of middle- and upper-middle class black folks Don Lemon is just fed up with what is happening in this community, and so, he had one too many cups of coffee (probably), and snapped on TV. And I must say, I agree with much of his frustration.  But how much on his list really contributes to crime in the black community? Let’s examine it.

1) Don Lemon thinks black men need to forgo sagging pants.

I agree.

Many black folks know where that “sagging pants” fashion comes from: prison culture. (Brothers inside aren’t allowed belts.) We are constantly having discussions about how to keep our young black boys out of the prison industrial complex, but then, we think it’s perfectly okay to let our young black boys walk around in a style made fashionable by the prison industrial complex?

I’m confused, mightily.

But what I will say is, there is no demonstrable link between a boy who walks around looking like he’s got on a man-sized, full, dirty diaper beneath his pants and criminal behavior.  The demonstrable link is between having a job and not having a job, when he shows up to the job interview looking “besides like a fool,” in the words of my Grandma Florence.

Surely, I know that we should look past the exterior to the inside. Surely, some black boys use their attire as a temporary disguise to express their personalities. Some of them have teachers in high school or professors in college who will look past their dress to the brilliant young men inside—but some of them won’t.

Many young black men don’t have role models to guide them and tell them how to dress for a job interview or a campus visit for college, because nowadays, a middle- or upper-middle class black elder is attacked for trying to teach a poor or working class black kid about the realities outside of his own mind.

Nowadays, we’re supposed to keep quiet, instead of training these kids for mainstream American society. So we do remain quiet, and we revert to an “I’ve got mine, you get yours mentality.” And then, we middle- and upper-middle class black folks get criticized for not reaching back. It’s a racial catch-22.

2) Don Lemon says black men need to finish school.

I agree.

People who graduate high school have more access to jobs and make more money than people who don’t. Everyone knows that—but what Don Lemon should have done was exhibit some sensitivity and discussed the erosion of the public school system in America, and how, if one is poor and black one is more likely to attend a substandard school that is not getting the funds that a school in a majority white neighborhood will.

And why? Well, there are a number of factors, but one that many of us never hear discussed is the issue of property taxes. Live in a more affluent neighborhood? Property taxes provide more money per child for education, which means lower student to teacher ratio, better trained teachers, better facilities, and more after school enrichment programs. Live in an urban poor—read black—neighborhood? Then there’s lots less money per child for education. Is that fair? No it’s not, and studies have shown that poorer schools have a lower retention rate for students.

In addition, there is a demonstrable link between lack of high school education and criminal activity; if you can’t get a job, you’re going to have to make money some kind of way and crime is usually it.

3) Don Lemon says black folks need to stop using the n-word.

I agree.

Let’s face it, black folks of all classes have and will continue to use the n-word in private. I use it in private, I admit it, and that’s that.

But for the life of me, I don’t understand why reasonably sane black folks of all educational levels are putting forth valuable energy which could be used to solve a host of other community ills just to defend the right of RayRay, Pookie and Them or Famous For A Day Fill-In-The-Blank Rappers to stand on a street corner or in a music video and publicly abuse each other with a term slaveholding white folks invented to debase us.

However, there is no demonstrable link between using the n-word and criminal activity.

4) Don Lemon says black folks need to respect where they live and don’t litter.

I agree.

Littering is bad. Black folks shouldn’t do it. Everyone should respect the neighborhood in which s/he resides–but have you been to a poor white neighborhood lately? I have. They litter, too. And I teach at a majority white university and every class period I have to remind the kids to pick up their trash before they leave because their mothers don’t work there.

And is Lemon saying that if you recycle your soda cans in your neighborhood, you won’t pick up a gun and kill somebody? Because there is no demonstrable link between littering and criminal activity, to my knowledge.

5) Don Lemon says black women need to stop having children out of wedlock and black people should marry before having children.

I’m not sure what I feel about this one.

Statistics show that unmarried mothers are more likely to be poor, which means that unmarried mothers must work more hours and they don’t have as much time to spend with their children. That would be an argument against out of wedlock parenthood and for married parenthood.  But Don Lemon didn’t mention poverty. He discussed marriage from a “values” point of view, as if there is something shameful about unmarried mothers. What are we, on the second verse of Diana Ross and The Supremes’ “Love Child?”

One can have a family without marriage, and one should not be ashamed if one’s parents never married. We’ve all seen many examples of happy, unwed families. (And this is coming from a happily married woman.)

I also think that the term “fatherless sons” is very insulting to apply to children born out of wedlock. Simply because a father and mother don’t marry doesn’t negate them as parents and doesn’t mean a child is “fatherless.” What I believe is more important than the legal bond of marriage is a strong bond between parent and child and that parents are committed to the work of child rearing and nurturing.  That should be the starting point, because while marriage should be a choice, abandoning your child and never looking back should not be.

And yes, there is a demonstrable link between broken families and criminal behavior, but it is dangerous to reduce that link to simply “no father in the home” without mentioning the issues of poverty, which we know is a contributing factor to crime. And what would have helped Lemon’s case is if he mentioned how there could be ways to help single mothers facing poverty, instead of shaming them by implying that every out-of-wedlock child was on a fast track to the penitentiary.

Lemon’s list constitutes individual problems in the black community—very real problems—but taken together, they don’t constitute any sort of unified solution to black-on-black crime.  And I must say that the biggest problems that I see are his issues of logic, timing, and class insensitivity.

Only a few days ago, George Zimmerman was found not guilty of murder or manslaughter in the killing of Trayvon Martin.  It was insensitive and didn’t make much sense for Don Lemon to pretend that, coming so close after the verdict in the Zimmerman trial, his remarks would not have been taken in the context of the Trayvon Martin tragedy and as a characterization of this dead black teenage boy. And do I need to tell y’all that Lemon made himself look absolutely ridiculous by even mentioning the name of Bill O’Reilly?

In addition, Lemon clearly is of a higher socio-economic status, and if middle- and upper-middle class black folks want to be critical of pathological behavior in the black community—which is our right as African Americans—we need to be very clear on what behavior simply embarrasses us because of class sensitivity (and makes us want to invent a whole new racial category for Bourgie Negroes) and what behavior is actually criminal. In these times, it does not help to make silly, stupid, or even trashy behavior a crime when talking about the very real issue of, say, the black-on-black murder rate in Chicago.

I do believe that Lemon really does care about other black people and he really is concerned and thus, his diatribe. Many black people are concerned. Unfortunately, Lemon is a symptom of what has been happening for far too long: a failure to connect between poor black folks and middle- and upper-middle class African Americans, and an unwillingness to hear and tell the truth. And it is time for the truth—the entire truth. Lemon’s List wasn’t it, but perhaps now he has lead the charge for more black folks of his socio-economic class to be honest and say what they think that truth might be, without fear.

An Open Letter to Mr. Richard Cohen, Washington Post Columnist

Dear Mr. Cohen:

I’m writing you to discuss your latest column, “Racism vs. Reality” dated July 15, 2013 and to parse a point of logic with you—your considerably flawed logic concerning racial profiling. The gist of your column is that it’s unfair not to expect white people to be afraid of black men because they commit a lot of crime.

In your column, you wrote:

….There’s no doubt in my mind that [George] Zimmerman profiled [Trayvon] Martin and, braced by a gun, set off in quest of heroism. The result was a quintessentially American tragedy — the death of a young man understandably suspected because he was black and tragically dead for the same reason. [Emphasis mine.]

Mr. Cohen, I don’t even know you, and I’m sure you mean well, but I’d like to address the issue that you raise of “understandably suspected” black men. And I’d like use your own logic to explore what might be the aftermath of racial profiling of white people by black people.  Let’s call it the “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander” logic of racial profiling.

As someone who is the survivor of violence, I understand post-traumatic stress. It’s a horrible thing to look at someone who resembles the person who committed violence against you or someone you love; you tremble, overcome with fear. 

My mother, an African American woman, was born in the segregated South—in Georgia—in the 1930s and remembers when a group of white men lynched four black people in a town not far away from her. There is a book written about this lynching called Fire in the Canebrake: the Last Mass Lynching in America.  Those white men never went to jail for their crime.

My mother’s great-grandmother Mandy was an enslaved woman whose first memory is of her father’s being sold down south. She never saw him again. It was a source of great pain for her. Later, however, she entered into a relationship with a white man and had a child by him; the man financially supported her biracial child and gave the child his last name, an unusual occurrence in the last 1800s.

My mother grew up in a racially terrorized South—and yet, she belongs to a predominantly white church and has several good, white friends, but according to your logic, because of Mama’s background, she is supposed to be terrified of every white person she sees, to seethe with anger or fear or some sort of traumatic emotion, remembering these painful moments from her childhood, to cook up some sort of retaliation in her Big, Black, Racial Trauma Pot. Certainly, my great-great-grandmother never would have made the romantic choice that she did.

Let’s explore the other side of my heritage: not only am I black, I’m of Native American heritage; my direct ancestors weren’t removed on the Trail of Tears, but surely relatives of mine were.  In case you aren’t familiar with the Trail of Tears, it’s the journey where thousands of Native Americans were forced to relocate in the nineteenth century, after their land was stolen by the United States government.

Much of the Southeastern land that belonged to Natives was used for the cultivation of short-staple cotton; Eli Whitney made possible the separation of the seed from the boll with the invention of the cotton gin in 1794, and thus, Native folks were pushed off their own property, and more black folks were enslaved to pick that cotton.

As a person of Native descent, should I suspect that every white man appearing on my porch—say, to check my gas meter, spray my house for ants, or even just inform me about the teachings of Jesus Christ (even if it is too early in the morning for me to be awake and ready to receive piety)—is there to yank me through my front door, take me clear across the country to land that’s even flatter and more unattractive than where I live now and make me stay there, and on the journey, knowingly hand me a smallpox infested blanket to wrap myself in?

According to your logic, I should.

There are all kinds of ways I could isolate myself even further:  I’m a woman who is a rape survivor and men commit over 90% of the rapes in this country.  What if every woman who was raped decided she never wanted to be touched or approached by a man again, let alone, want him for her lover or husband or the father of her children?

When I met the man with whom I fell in love and married, should I have screamed at him in his face that he was a potential rapist, or pulled out a dull nail file and tried to stab him—just in case he might have been a rapist?

According to your logic, I should.

Mr. Cohen, if someone like me—the descendant of and relative to people who were lynched, raped, sold, branded, spat on, physically displaced, called names, terrified again and again for over three hundred years—can learn to take every white person (or every man of any race) I meet on a case-by-case basis, to think the best of someone until he or she shows me differently then Mr. Cohen, how dare you—a person who looks a lot like the people who lynched, raped, sold, branded, spat on, physically displaced, verbally abused, and terrified my people for over three hundred years—tell me that it’s common sense to feel that a black man is “understandably” a criminal because of crime statistics that don’t even reach back forty years?

In the words of my mother, what kind of sense did you make in your column? Nonsense, that’s what kind. 

According to your flawed sense of logic, what would your whiteness mean to me– if I couldn’t believe in a better time, if I didn’t have faith in humanity’s ability to positively grow, if I didn’t possess a need to love my fellow man and woman, regardless of what he or she looks like, in the brightest day or the darkest of night?

At some point, you, I, and all the people who make up a “we” must take the risk of not blaming people because of past unpleasant, traumatic, or even violent experiences suffered at the hands of someone else.   It may sound naïve, but if we Americans don’t decide to accumulate courage to say “enough” we will continue to live in disharmony, distrust, and yes, hatred surrounding race in this country.

Is that how you want to live the rest of your life? I know I don’t.

We all have a bone to pick, in the ancient or recent past.  Every single one of us, regardless of race or gender, can locate a grievance of some kind against someone else. My pain is no greater than anyone else’s, and yours is no greater than mine.

We can honor the past transgressions against us personally or against our blood ancestors, but it is not fair to blame or hurt a person who has done us no immediate wrong in the here and now, just for inhabiting the skin color or gender or religion (or so on) of person who did the original crime.  

Mr. Cohen, I’m not here to argue the Zimmerman trial verdict; that trial is over, and however I may feel, I have to continue to live by my principles. What I am here to do is to remind you of what it means to be a more loving and hopeful human being, in the long run. I hope this letter has helped you on that journey.


Honorée Fanonne Jeffers