While I was reading The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen, I saw Call Mr. Robeson, the one-man show written and performed by Tayo Aluko, at the Castillo Theatre in New York. Like Paul Robeson, Mary Bowser made a political choice: she rejected the life of relative privilege that was open to her as a talented, educated, free black person living in the north. She chose instead to return to Virginia, and risk her life in the war for the liberation of her people.
Ms. Leveen’s account of Mary Bowser’s heroic life also shows very clearly that an entire nation cannot abuse and degrade a whole group of human beings without corrupting and degrading itself. The injustice of slavery corrupted not just the southern “slave power”, but the northern “free” states as well. Ms. Leveen shows us how racism infected even the abolitionists in the north.
Today, one hundred fifty-three years after the end of chattel slavery, the corruption of racism is still degrading, poisoning, shaming, and holding back America. Three generations ago, President Truman (DP) told Paul Robeson that the time was “not right” for anti-lynching legislation. This past week, the NFL ruled that its players would face sanctions if they kneeled during the national anthem to protest police violence against the black community.
The racists – and this includes Roger Godell, the smooth-talking Commissioner of the NFL – reserve their most rabid hatred for people of color like Mary Bowser, Paul Robeson, and Colin Kaepernick who have the unmitigated temerity to lay down their privilege to stand with their people. The rest of us reserve for them our greatest respect, admiration, and love.
Lou Hinman lives in New York City and is an activist with IndependentVoting.org and the New York City Independence Clubs.
In reading Lois Leveen’s book, “The Secrets of Mary Bowser” I am reminded again of the importance of reading American history. A very richly textured book about the life of a real person, a former slave, Mary Bowser. The level of detail in both the hardships and the mundane have had quite an impact on me.
I can’t but help think about how some of the themes in the book are common to present day African American families. For example, I grew hearing from the oldest generation of my own family stories of the lack of certainty about who was born when given the lack of record keeping as it applied to a people who were once enslaved. The conflicting emotions of pride and loss at just the possibility of access to education. As an adult, attending the with my parents the very same church I attended as a child, listening to announcements about young people in the church who were graduating from high school and soon to be going away to college accompanied by cheers and tears.
The thing that probably surprised me the most, was from the very beginning to see slavery through the eyes of a child. Maybe it’s because I’m older now, have a better sense of what it means for a parent to want better than they had for their children. And since I don’t have any children myself, think about my own parents, and their parents for before them and the strength it must have taken to send children off into nearly unimaginable hostility only to hope against hope that would that they not only survive but also thrive.A very powerful book, I hope everyone reads.
Sheryl Williams is a long-time independent; an activist who believes in the power of the people.