The Secrets of Mary Bowser
Racism in the 1800’s, and beyond.
What it means to be free in the 1800’s, and beyond.
It’s complicated, for Mary Bowser: a smart, inquisitive, courageous black gal turned spy.
Lois Leveen’s The Secrets of Mary Bowser does such a powerful, cutting job at expressing the contradictory, complicated, painful face of racism and classism, southern-style and northern-style.
I so appreciate her willingness to expose the condescension of the progressive white abolitionist movement in her portrayal of Miss Bet, who is Mary’s white savior and who has the white savior complex, not recognizing her own racism.
Mary expresses that there is a certain kind of freedom as a slave in Virginia because she was with beloved family and the race arrangement is known, and experiences a certain kind of bondage in Philadelphia with the class structure: keeping some free blacks in another sort of chains with limited economic and educational opportunities, while the so-called middle class blacks put on airs to separate themselves from the lowly Negros.
But what I find most powerful, particularly as a white progressive Philadelphian in the new millennium, is Leveen’s unapologetic exposure of northern racism. Mary, excitedly thinking she could ride the omnibus when she first arrives in free Philadelphia, is kicked off and called nigger. Mary wonders how could a place so different from Virginia as the city of brotherly love make her feel the same, and even worse than the south. Then, It took my breath away when her new black associates in Philadelphia challenged Mary, asking what she missed about slavery and the south: “Who could miss slavery?” Mary said. “Only, at least in Richmond, slavery’s the reason why we’re treated so bad. What’s the reason here?” (p92).
Today, with leadership of Black Lives Matter and Me Too and 43% people identifying as independent while the two major parties maintain control of our democracy, it’s still complicated. I am so proud to be an activist with Independentvoting.org, and play a role as coordinator of the Pennsylvania affiliate, Independent Pennsylvanians. My work to make elections fair and open in Philadelphia, petitioning on the same streets Mary walked many years ago, with a multi ethnic group of activists is very important to me.
I look forward to finishing the book this week and to the call Sunday. I will hold close Mary Bowser’s courage and the author’s wonderful rendition of her life.
Jennifer Bullock is the coordinator of Independent Pennsylvanians.