Category Archives: Black History and Candy

Abolitionists, Resistance, and the Nation’s First Candy – Part 3

The Author’s Illuminating (for her) Experience

I recently had an experience in my hometown of Shepherdstown, WV. It was about racism, not against African Americans but Muslims, and it did not directly involve me. Still, I felt strongly about it and got involved. The situation, which is still ongoing, gave me new insight into how Mrs. Spencer and, dare I say, the escaped slaves, felt.

Here’s how it started: I found, among other things, an anti-Muslim meme on the Facebook page of the town’s police chief, who is also a star in the hit show Ghosts of Shepherdstown which reaches tens of thousands of people. Someone had shared the meme and it stayed there for ten days until I called it out. Through Facebook I revealed the post and said the community needed to make decisions about how the town could prevent such posts in the future.

Here’s what happened: At the prompting of a town council member, the chief took the meme down. Once he did, the town council member told me the matter would not be discussed any further. The chief soon weighed in on Facebook, saying he too had rights to freedom of speech and could express what he wanted.*  The town’s people rallied behind him and were among hundreds who testified on his behalf , volunteering that he was “nice guy” and a “good, honest man”  although that was never the question. Some castigated me for calling him out in the first place. I did contact a number of attorneys and local political figures about the matter. The response was minimal. The chief never apologized for the meme.

Insights into Mrs. Spencer:  From my experience I could imagine with greater clarity the loneliness Mrs. Spencer must have felt. She was part of a community of decent people. Still, the overwhelming population were not abolitionists. They may have addressed issues in the safety of a group, at church, for example, but were unwilling to confront them in the immediacy of their communities. To stand out from the crowd in protest is difficult –to be an activist abolitionist in the early 1800s must have been remarkably isolating.

Mrs. Spencer was also up against those with the greatest power: the police, attorneys, political figures. Even more to the point, she was standing up to an unjust law which, if broken, would have profound consequences on her and her son’s lives, including fines, imprisonment, and physical punishment. Whatever supports that were available, were few and too hard-pressed to devote time to any one person.

As for the slaves – it’s hard to grasp their perspectives in this regard, many existential in nature. How could they fathom why a mass of people could subject them to such inhumane treatment?  And how could they make sense of a universe where their very children were stolen from them? We can only focus on their actions, their songs and words, and their many modes of resistance.

And in Conclusion…

The issues regarding the meme were existentially jolting. I wake up in the morning asking how my neighbors could fail to confront that sinister form of racism. These are people who vote, join marches, comment on the news. What does this say about their ability to act on their convictions? To take a stand outside of the group? Work against their best interests for something of consequence? I wake up in the morning and confront the community that I love. The meme is somewhere in cyberspace. But Mrs. Spencer, and other abolitionists of the early 19th century, and above all, those who were enslaved, did not have that escape.

*The reality behind the chief’s claim to freedom of speech was untrue: the courts make provisions for law enforcement officers. Punishments range from fines to firings.

Abolitionists, Resistance, and the Nation’s First Candy – Part 2

Resisters Under the Seat

Salem Waterfront 1770-1780

Salem Waterfront 1770-1780
At the time Mrs. Spencer landed in Salem, slavery had been part of the New England landscape. The first slaves were brought to Boston in 1634 and by the mid-1700s, 2.2% of the population were enslaved. All told, the total population of African Americans was 10% yet even those who were “free” did not have the same rights as whites. While slavery was less common in the early 19th century, it still existed and remained legal until the ratification of the 13th amendment.
Some of the most impressive symbols of Boston were constructed from the “blood and sweat of slaves” as abolitionists called it. Faneuil Hall was built by wealthy slave trader Peter Faneuil and Harvard Law School, financed by a donation from slaveholder and plantation owner, Isaac Royall Jr. to name only two.

It’s hard to know where the enslaved people in Mrs. Spencer’s buggy started. Slaves labored at the ports of Salem and many other nearby places in the 18th and 19th centuries. Likely, they didn’t come from the South, as freedom was too far for escape. Regardless, they traveled on inconspicuous roads and paths, with little food, drink, or chance to rest.

The escaped slaves fled for many reasons, among them the harsh reprisals of slaveholders; starvation and brutality where they worked; and the need to seek out family members who were sold away from them. How they found Mrs. Spencer is also unknown: possibly through a formal network of abolitionists or through informal contacts. They waited out the hours as the buggy rocked on gutted roads, moving slowly forward then stopping when Mrs. Spencer sold her candy, keeping up the guise of normality.

Within the buggy, they were certainly cramped and hungry, whiffs of sea air filtering through the wooden buggy skin, penetrating the suffocating air. There they encountered icy loneliness: outside was a world of strangers where even the sympathetic ones could turn them in or silently let them be caught. Should the worst happen, they could be flogged, branded, imprisoned, returned to slavery, or killed.

Mrs. Spencer resisted enslavement by transporting slaves toward their freedom. The enslaved people resisted, too, by escaping. Some succeeded.

…Stay tuned for the Final Chapter

Philly

Historic Philly Sign

Historic Philly Sign

I just gave a talk about the history of candy at the Historical Society in Philadelphia. The most amazing aspect of the “City of Brotherly Love,” more than the architecture, the ports, or the gardens, is the people. Sitting curbside at a Cuban restaurant afterwards, I watched the parade of humanity go by: Muslim women with hijabs, Latino families with dark-eyed children, a Vietnamese cook in chief’s whites, European American students chatting at a nearby café, and two African American workers with key-laden rings at their hips.

Philadelphia Talk & Tasting by Susan Benjamin

Philly Girls

As for candy – for most people, candy is a metaphor, a metaphor based on the experience of love. For generations, grandmothers have fished sweets from their purses for eager grandchildren; lovers have shared chocolates in ribbon-wrapped boxes; and on occasion children have given candy to their teachers, bosses to their secretaries, and friends to each other. They are the stuff of birthday parties and weddings: they are us.

Philadelphia Cuban Restaurant

Philadelphia Cuban Restaurant

You could also say that our diversity is a metaphor for sweets, but it’s more literal than that. Chocolate originated in Mesoamerica and was eaten by Native Americans, long prepared with sugar from India and spices from Asia, or as a coating on Mediterranean almonds, British raisins, and North African coffee beans, first consumed by Muslim men. The hard candies were European and jellies from the ancient Arabic Apothecaries.  The brittle came with the Irish fleeing starvation, while the peanut traveled from Argentina to Africa then back on slave ships whose struggling inhabitants produced the sugar with the strength of survivors, which they were.

We owe them, all of them, gratitude. They are the sea of inhabitants in Philadelphia, new arrivals and countless generations. That’s it. Love. Brotherly, sisterly and for all time.

The Charleston Chew

james-johnson

James P. Johnson

The Charleston Chew, that dense chocolate covered marshmallow-taffy-toffee substance may be nostalgic, but beneath the chocolate exterior, is an edgy, activist DNA embedded in the candy which, as it happened, was named for the song and the dance known as the “Charleston” in 1925.

Let’s start with the dance. No one knows where it originated exactly, but it likely was in the domain of enslaved African-Americans living on a small island near Charleston, South Carolina. Their dance likely had Ash-Ante African roots, modified to deceive the slaveholders and their rules prohibiting it. You have to remember that both song and dance were a powerful means to resist the slaveholders’ grip on those who were enslaved. They could communicate information about food resources, escape plans, and other matters central to their existence as well as maintain a spiritual and generational connection to their pasts.

Snap forward 1894 and the great African American musician and composer James P. Johnson was born. Classically trained, he went on to bridge the gap between ragtime and jazz, as back-up player for such greats as Ethel Waters and Bessie Smith, mentor to Duke Ellington and  Fats Waller, among many others, and an accompanist on over 400 recordings, and colleague of George Gershwin. As ground-breaking as he was, Johnson’s role as resistor also played out in the classical music landscape, where he was intent on breaking barriers with compositions that reflected African beats.  He succeeded.

One of his most enduring compositions, was the song, the Charleston, likely written in 1913. The popularity snowballed a 1920s hit. The flappers adopted the song and the dance, where it was featured in images of speakeasies with overflowing and deliciously illegal cocktails. The Charleston came to represent female liberation, irrant behavior and flight from the Victorian-esq norms.

It was during the wild times that Donley Cross, an actor in San Francisco, ended his career by falling from stage and injuring his back. With no back-up profession and for unknown reasons, he went into candy-making, instead.  In 1925, his most famous hit the market and the name tapped into the spirit of defiance and resistance, both crazed and serious.  And that was, of course, the Charleston Chew.

Sources:

http://redhotjazz.com/jpjohnson.html

http://blackhistorynow.com/james-p-johnson/

Black History Museum Talk & Tasting

black-history-museumLast Saturday, I had the pleasure, and I do mean pleasure, of speaking at the Black History Museum in Alexandria. The museum was formally a one-room library for African Americans during segregation. Since then, the site has expanded and now features a presentation and exhibition area.

I don’t know what I liked best. The museum itself is beautiful, clean, bright and airy. And while African American history is too large to fit into the New York City library, the small museum presents just the right information to make the trip warm and informative.

before-the-spiritsThe exhibition on the day I gave my talk was called “Before the Spirits are Swept Away: African American Historic Site Paintings” by Sherry Z. Sanabria . I’ve seen Sanabria’s work else –portraits of captivity expressed though abandoned slave quarters, mental hospitals, concentration camps and prisons. The images are disturbing, revealing and beautiful at the same time.

audrey-davisThe best part for me as a speaker, though, was undoubtedly the people: Audrey Davis, the curator, the staff, and the guests. All of them were friendly, smart and quick to engage in interesting conversations.  The talk lasted longer than scheduled but no one, especially me, seemed to mind.