Mary Bowser’s Secrets Are Ours

A Review by Frank Fear

Reading engages you. You start and stop, reflect, make notes, ponder, and visualize, interacting with the text all the while, slowly and progressively.

That experience intensifies when reading historical fiction. You imagine what it was like “back then,” speculate what you might have done, and ponder what the story means in contemporary terms.

Historical transposition was my specialty while reading The Secrets of Mary Bowser. The academic in me enjoyed learning about an important historical figure. But vocation, I soon found, was trumped by something more powerful.

I’ve known hundreds of ‘Mary Bowser’s’ in my life. None of them was as bold in character or as important in history, but they did important things, still.  

Some ‘Mary Bowsers’ turned their backs on privileged positions with institutional accouterments. Others fought from within—as Mary did—as ‘guerillas of the bureaucracy.’

All of them jettisoned chains that had once entrapped them. They stopped playing the role of ‘made-up self’—a self that ‘assumed the position’ and parroted ‘the party line.’ And they all experienced that’ moment: “Enough!” “No more!”

Mary’s ‘secrets’ are theirs, too—and ours—in a collective sense. That’s because social activists share much in common, irrespective of time, place, or issue.

Reaching that conclusion made it possible to align Mary’s story (see text quotes that follow) with stories I’ve heard over the years.

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At the start, Mary and others thought their evolution wouldn’t be difficult.

“I been a slave wishing for freedom my whole life. Being a free woman play-acting as Secrets of Mary Bowser Bk Coverslavery can’t be harder than that.” (p. 48)

But they soon found it wasn’t easy—even after discovering they had companions on this new journey.

“I knew Miss Bet was playing a necessary part in front of our fellow passengers, that she was reminding me of the need for me to play my part as well. But her words stung me hard. As we took our seats, my head hung heavy with loneliness.” (p. 55)

Life quickly turned on its head.

“All my childhood, we in the house were allied in constant conspiracy with Miss Bet. I learned from watching Mama and the rest to smile and nod at her, but then roll eyes and mimic her words once her back was turned…. Now here I was in the North, and about the first thing I had to do was defend her, and to a colored woman.” (p. 66)

It was easy to be angry at this, angry at that, and—especially—angry at self.

“I was angry at that weasel-faced woman for sending me back to that bench, angry at the Quakers for having such a bench at all, angry at the elderly colored man for sitting on that bench for five decades or more…. But I was most angry at myself, for forgetting what Mama and Papa taught me, the thing that guided every moment of my life in Richmond…. I berated myself for not remembering their most important lesson.” (p. 116)

It would have been SO much easier if the targets of angst were always up to no-good. They weren’t, though. They were flawed, though. They’d talk about the real world as if they really knew something about it. But what they offered came mostly from privilege, not practice.

“The slavery I was born into…was very different.” (p. 126)

So how did Mary and my colleagues respond to hogwash? They learned to parse words carefully, that’s what. Speaking out/acting up less was better than speaking out/acting up more—even when egged on.

(Theodore to Mary)

“Your audacity that evening was quite impressive. I was longing to say something to that lot of pompous fops myself.’” (p. 138)

“They’re as predictable as parrots, repeating the same dull phrase over and over.” (p. 144)

“You are as fresh and unspoiled as the first breeze of spring coming through the window of a house that’s been shut up all winter.” (p. 148)

Political viability required cultivating the art of ‘picking one’s spots.’

Yes, the old life was easier. This new life, on the other hand, was chock full of unknowns, risks, and dangers.

“The first time I ever saw McNiven, I’d feared what threat he might be, to Mr. Jones and to me. Now because of him, I’d been in the greatest true peril I ever knew—but he’d had as much to do with getting me out of it as with putting me into it.” (p. 179)

Rather than wilt under pressure, though, they drew strength from peril—strength that was apparent in language. Expressed lyrically, their words were uplifting, grounded in values and lathered with principles.

“We hear folks speaking of compromise, and containing slavery, and preserving the Union. But what is to be compromised, contained, or preserved, for the husband who has a wife in slavery, the mother who has a daughter in slavery, the brother or sister, the child a father?” (p. 198)

“John Brown dies this morning. But Dangerfield Newby is already dead. John Brown did a great thing in the name of justice. But Dangerfield Newby did as great a thing in the name of love. John Brown is an exemplar to many in the struggle to end slavery. But Dangerfield Newby is a hero of our own. It is his death we must mourn, must honor, and must be ready to die ourselves, if need be.” (p. 201) 

This new life was about convictions—convictions shared with kindred spirits, including people they never dreamed would become allies.

“When I first met McNiven, I couldn’t have imagined I’d take pride or comfort in knowing he meant for us to ally together. But back then I couldn’t guessed I’d ever connive to travel back across the Mason and Dixon’s line, either.” (p. 213)

Those associates stood tall, always in opposition to others’ backpedaling and intransigence.

“Compromises. Congress would continue carrying on with its compromises…. Decades and decades of them, and every one made to protect slaveholding.” (p. 229)

How inspiring! It confirmed that ‘the cause’ was right, proper, and just.

“The thing that seeps so sweet and warm it makes you feel like every day is the first day of spring.” (p. 241)

Exuberance was necessary, too. The fight wouldn’t end quickly, no ‘sixty-day war’ (p. 284) would it be. Persistence was required, especially when defeat seemed imminent.

What then?

“I wasn’t about to give up so easily. After all, Mama raised me on a steady regimen of stealth and surreption, especially when it came to doing right by those in need.” (p. 266)

“…Mr. Ralph Emerson’s Essays. I had read them years before, in Philadelphia…. Mr. Emerson’s theme of following one’s moral purpose rather than succumbing to the weight of social convention was inspirational.” (p. 268).

Flowery prose wasn’t enough, though. Skills and capacity were. Getting progressively better at playing one’s role was required to counter “their” ingenuity.

“Sketched on the bottom of the missive was the oddest-looking maritime conveyance I’d ever seen. She had no sails, and most of the hull sat below the squiggly marks meant to show the waterline…. The Virginia was an iron-clad monster of the sea.” (p. 298)

And they did just that.

“A balloon big enough to life men into the air and carry them over the battle lines, so they may observe the Confederate defenses.” (p. 317)

Going to that next level of proficiency often came after a ‘hot button’ was pushed. It fueled anger. The use of duplicitous language was one trigger:

“We do not fight for slavery…. We fight for the right of States to govern themselves.” (p. 311)

Self-serving assertions were another:

“Everything will return to how it was.” (p. 318)

But the worst moments came …

…when they aided what they were fighting against…

“Papa was likely…making bayonet stocks for Confederates to use to impale the very men who were fighting to make him…free.” (p. 334)

…when they recognized that the fight was about many things, not just one…

 “What was smallpox but another form of suffering in a world full of pain and misery? ….Colored or white, the infectious corpses of the smallpox dead met the same ignominious end—the incinerator….” (pp. 343, 346)

…when they realized this fight was unending.

“I realized how vulnerable negroes were, even in their own houses in the North…. Freedom from slavery, maybe, but clearly not freedom from harm.” (pp. 363, 364)

In the face of all that, how far would they go for ‘the cause’? Not as far as you might speculate. Ethics prevail.

“What you describe is a despicable act, and if it occurred as you say, there is no excuse for it. But there is no excuse for us to behave their way, either.” (p. 395)

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Do Independents have a role to play in these dynamics? You bet.

Unencumbered by strictures that otherwise constrain, Independents are society’s best hope for championing ‘the cause,’ that is, serving the public good. There is no higher calling in America’s politics.

Mary understood that.

You do, too.

Many others will.

“The past is the present, isn’t it? It’s the future, too.” Eugene O’Neill

(Cited by L. Leveen, Reader’s Guide, #12, The Secrets of Mary Bowser)

 

frank-fear

Frank A. Fear is professor emeritus, Michigan State University, where he served as a faculty member for thirty-year years and worked in various administrative positions for nearly twenty years. Find him on Twitter @frankfear and on Tumblr, “For the Public Good”.  Frank also writes about issues that intersect sport and society. You can read him at The Sports Column.

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Founder of the Politics for the People free educational series and book club for independent voters. Chair of the New York County Independence Party.

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