Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Mitch Kachun's "First Martyr of Liberty"

Mitch Kachun is Professor of History at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He is author of Festivals of Freedom: Memory and Meaning in African American Emancipation Celebrations, 1808-1915 and co-editor of The Curse of Caste; or the Slave Bride: A Rediscovered African American Novel by Julia C. Collins.

Kachun applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, First Martyr of Liberty: Crispus Attucks in American Memory, and reported the following:
Page 99 contains a full-page image: a line drawing from Arthur Huff Fauset’s 1927 book for young readers, For Freedom: A Biographical Story of the Negro. The image shows Attucks giving a speech to a crowd of white Boston colonists. This image and the text from pages 98 and 100 touch on some of the book’s central themes.

We have little evidence about Crispus Attucks. Probably, Attucks was born a slave in Massachusetts around 1723 and was of mixed African and Native American ancestry. He escaped in 1750, then worked as a sailor and dockworker. On March 5, 1770, Attucks was part of a Boston mob harassing British troops. The troops fired and Attucks and four others were killed in what came to be known as the Boston Massacre.

Over the past 250 years, Attucks has often been presented as an American patriot, the first to die for American Independence. However, some have argued that he was either a street thug who got what he deserved or merely an insignificant bystander. Americans continue to debate who Attucks was and how (or if) he should be remembered.

First Martyr of Liberty explores the relationship between Attucks’s actual life and the myths that have grown around him. I examine literature, poetry, drama, music, art, television, histories, textbooks, commemorations, and more to clarify what we actually know about Attucks and to illustrate how Americans go about constructing a shared public understanding of the nation’s past.

The chapter that includes page 99 examines the 1920s and 1930s, a period shaped by the mass migration of blacks into northern cities; the cultural flowering of the Harlem Renaissance; the expanding political activism of the New Negro movement; and the emergence of movies, radio, and other mass media. Page 98 discusses Fauset’s book and several other works that present wild speculations about Attucks as if they were facts. It is extremely unlikely, for example, that Attucks gave public speeches. Page 100 discusses the emergence in the 1920s of a new wave of highly trained black scholars researching and writing black history. This section exemplifies African Americans’ longstanding efforts to incorporate their story into the mainstream narrative of American history, while also demonstrating the problems with trying to create a plausible story about Attucks that can be supported with evidence.

In the 21st century Americans continue to debate Crispus Attucks’s place in the nation’s history. First Martyr of Liberty engages the paradoxes and politics involved with remembering and forgetting and illuminates the contested terrain upon which we construct our understandings of American heroes, American patriotism, the American historical narrative, and the question of who “belongs” as a part of the nation and its story. I hope you’ll give it a look!
Learn more about First Martyr of Liberty at the Oxford University Press website.

My Book, The Movie: First Martyr of Liberty.

--Marshal Zeringue