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Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, July 8th, 2018

Book Review: “The Bone and Sinew of the Land” recovers some American history that actually has been erased

When it so hap­pens — more reg­u­lar­ly now than before but nev­er yet reg­u­lar enough — that a cheap zinc or bronze cast of some semi-famous slaver is yanked from its pedestal in the mid­dle of a city night, or when a sub­ur­ban school board in broad day­light votes to no longer com­pel stu­dents to adorn their bod­ies with the name and imagery of a par­tic­u­lar child traf­fick­er, invari­ably there ris­es the cry:

“You’re eras­ing his­to­ry! You’re cen­sor­ing our Con­fed­er­ate past! You’re rewrit­ing col­lec­tive mem­o­ry to san­i­tize it!”

This, of course, is worse than non­sense and akin to defend­ing the main­te­nance of NAM­BLA-installed plaques to Jer­ry San­dusky.

It should be regard­ed as such whether it’s an argu­ment being made by angry, open big­ots in Face­book com­ment sec­tions or under the aus­pices of the Nation­al Review.

But some wor­thy por­tions of our his­to­ry have indeed been buried, erased, and min­i­mized. Har­vard’s Anna-Lisa Cox’s lat­est book The Bone and Sinew of the Land is an exam­ple of what it actu­al­ly looks like when that sort of his­to­ry is exca­vat­ed for a pop­u­lar audi­ence, and what a pos­i­tive effect that can have.

The Bone and Sinew of the Land by Ana-Lisa Cox (Hard­cov­er, Pub­li­cAf­fairs, 304 pages)

Now, I knew going in I was read­ing a book about “Amer­i­ca’s For­got­ten Black Pio­neers & the Strug­gle for Equal­i­ty” but I was blind­sided when that book was­n’t set in the West dur­ing Recon­struc­tion but in the Old North­west and lat­er states between the 1787 and 1860.

Cox puts it into scale like this: more than 63,000 black Amer­i­cans lived in those ter­ri­to­ries in 1863, enough to qual­i­fy for their own state if they were all in one place. They were the largest pop­u­la­tion of free African-descend­ed peo­ple out­side of Haiti.

Stan­dard pub­lic school edu­ca­tion tends to teach his­to­ry as fun­da­men­tal­ly pro­gres­sive, includ­ing dur­ing Black His­to­ry Month.

But Cox details how con­di­tions wors­ened for black Amer­i­cans in those ter­ri­to­ries and states over time, from the promise that area would be entire­ly free of slav­ery and assump­tion any male who owned at least fifty acres could vote regard­less of race to the reg­u­lar anti-black pogroms in cities like Cincin­nati and pro­to-Black Codes mak­ing it impos­si­ble for black peo­ple to give tes­ti­mo­ny against whites in court.

This is all com­pelling enough on its own in broad strokes, but Cox also did research in-depth on par­tic­u­lar peo­ple and fam­i­lies affect­ed by new devel­op­ments, high­light­ing the per­son­al stakes for peo­ple involved. Ta-Nah­e­si Coates’ “The Case for Repa­ra­tions” inten­tion­al­ly leaves aside the harm caused by slav­ery direct­ly, but the aver­age enslaved man could be worth $150,000 in today’s mon­ey as prop­er­ty. Enslaved peo­ple rep­re­sent­ed up to half of all South­ern wealth.

Yet pri­or to the Civ­il War, an enslaved per­son­’s own val­ue was not only of no use to them but a debt to over­come. They had to lit­er­al­ly pay for their own flesh to be con­sid­ered free, typ­i­cal­ly at exor­bi­tant rates and some­times their slaver would still attempt to sell them away after get­ting the mon­ey.

They had to pay to get their fam­i­ly mem­bers out of slave soci­ety, risk­ing legal re-enslave­ment if they remained longer than six months.

After sur­viv­ing bru­tal con­di­tions like pick­ing cot­ton in the deep South or the Salt Springs of Illi­nois and achiev­ing their free­dom, black Amer­i­cans still had to sur­vive on their home­steading plot of land with all the typ­i­cal chal­lenges of remov­ing boul­ders and plow­ing, or make do in a city where any pover­ty was proof they weren’t fit to be free and any sign of pros­per­i­ty incensed whites to come burn their part of town.

Attack­ing free black peo­ple with artillery and bombs in Cincin­nati in 1841 was an act repeat­ed lat­er in Tul­sa, Okla­homa in 1921, the MOVE bomb­ing in Philadel­phia in 1985, the mil­i­ta­rized police aggres­sion in Fer­gu­son, Mo. in 2014, gassing peo­ple in their own back­yards.

The sto­ry Cox tells cul­mi­nates in the hero­ic stand of the Lyles fam­i­ly in 1857 against a white mob, led by the local law enforce­ment who came to try to lynch the pros­per­ous black fam­i­ly in their home after the fam­i­ly had attempt­ed to recov­er stolen hogs from white rustlers tar­get­ing them.

The Lyles defend­ed them­selves in a bloody attack but were forced to move away. How­ev­er, they refused to sell their land and leased it to some white allies instead, mov­ing back after the Civ­il War and found­ing Lyles Sta­tion.

For all this stacked against them, there were hun­dreds of free, black Amer­i­can fam­i­lies who achieved the Amer­i­can dream of own­ing at least two hun­dred acres of prop­er­ty, and Union recruiters knew where to go to look for black enlis­tees dur­ing the Civ­il War. This is the sto­ry Cox tells.

The book’s title refers to a res­o­lu­tion from an 1843 con­ven­tion of black Michi­gan­ders: “Where­as agri­cul­ture is the bone and sinew of our coun­try: There­fore be it resolved, that we rec­om­mend it to our peo­ple as best cal­cu­lat­ed to pro­mote their rise and progress in this State.”

Most of their white neigh­bors resolved to do every­thing pos­si­ble to pre­vent that.

The game is crooked, and it always has been, but it’s the only game in town, and to under­stand the present, we need to under­stand the past instead of for­get­ting it or accept­ing hate­ful revi­sion­ist his­to­ry as truth.

Cox’s book is a great step in that direc­tion.

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