Thursday, January 20, 2005


Different drummers

I've spent most of the day preparing this draft syllabus (PDF) for the course I'm teaching this semester, "Black Abolitionists." Below is a rough draft of the course description for the first page, which I include for students who enjoy poring over their syllabi after the first day of class (like I did). Right now it might be a little too elliptical and metaphorical. Feedback on either the description or the syllabus would be welcome.

FOR A CENTURY after the Civil War, most historians credited white reformers as the primary movers behind the abolition of American slavery. The year 1831, when fiery white editor William Lloyd Garrison founded the Liberator, was often treated as the starting point for the timeline of American antislavery, a timeline that went from Garrison to Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Brown, and the “Great Emancipator” himself, Abraham Lincoln. If black abolitionists were recognized as part of this timeline, they were often portrayed (except by pioneering African American historians) as little more than the followers of white abolitionists.

This standard timeline began to be revised in the 1960s and 1970s, with the publication of new histories like Benjamin Quarles’ Black Abolitionists (1969). Quarles criticized the fact that African American contributions to the crusade against slavery had been perennially neglected. And he showed that “the black abolitionist phalanx was not just another group of camp followers.” In many cases, their efforts and ideas preceded and made possible those of white abolitionists like Garrison. Black abolitionists, according to Quarles, were the movement’s “different drummers.”

This course is about those “different drummers.” Over the course of the semester, we will try to become, like Quarles and others, historians of black abolitionists. To do that, we will first have to listen closely to the historical record, so we can hear the drumbeats that were often drowned out in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century histories of abolitionism. Most of our reading will be from “primary sources” written by black abolitionists themselves. And one of your major assignments will be to do your own primary research and write a paper about a black abolitionist of your choice.

Yet once we begin to hear these “drummers,” as historians we must also ask: How “different” were they, and in what ways? To extend the metaphor that Quarles used, we will be hearing an antislavery movement that was polyrhythmic. There were not simply two “drummers”—the white abolitionist, on the one hand, and the black abolitionist on the other. There were more than two drummers—many more. Even among black abolitionists, there were disagreements about which beat to march to. Both white and black abolitionists thus had to be disc jockeys as well as drummers. They often sampled ideas that they heard both from other reformers and the culture around them, looping and layering those ideas on top of each other. And from out of these intellectual “remixes,” leading black abolitionists improvised new rhythms that emphasized certain beats and muted others.

One thing all black abolitionists shared in common: a courageous willingness to drum up protests against slavery and white racism. But there were different ways of doing this—various kinds of percussion to be used, and different beats for marching to. Should African Americans stay in the United States and beat the drum for full citizenship? Should they emigrate to Africa, Canada, or the Caribbean and start new communities there? Were black Americans degraded by their enslavement, or were they racially superior to Europeans? Was violence justified in the pursuit of emancipation? These were only some of the questions that black abolitionists asked. And different drummers gave different answers.

Collective Improvisation:

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