I read a lot of novels by Charles Dickens when I was a teen, and it amazed me when I reached college and discovered that Dickens wrote his lengthy novels as serials—individual chapters were published in weekly or monthly magazines, and readers could purchase them for a fraction of the cost of a bound book. Fiction for the masses! I’ve been on a writing tear (despite 2 whopping migraines in three days), and now feel like I want to post some of my work online. I suppose there are valid reasons for NOT doing that…I may make changes later on, and perhaps if readers dislike a particular chapter they’ll feel disinclined to buy the book whenever it comes out. Right now I’m a little worried about my 19th-century prose; it’s easy to write, but sounds so formal and stiff—will that turn off teen readers? Henry Highland Garnet is an important figure in 19th-century NYC black politics; he’s the founder of the African Civilization Society so he encourages emigration to Liberia, and he also spearheaded recovery efforts after the devastating draft riots tore the black community apart. So I wrote three chapters over the past few days; maybe I’ll post some of the brothel scene later (it’s a little graphic), and for now I’ll clip some of Judah’s encounter with Rev. Garnet…
We don’t normally eat this late in the evening, but Mrs. Claxton wouldn’t dream of sending her guest to bed on an empty stomach. Rev. Garnet is spending the night with us in Brooklyn and even after delivering a three-hour lecture at tonight’s meeting of the African Civilization Society, he still has a lot more to say. Megda is supposed to be clearing the table, but she can’t stop thinking about Rev. Garnet’s narrow escape during the draft riots. “The mob came right to your door?” she asks, her eyes open wide.
Rev. Garnet sits at the head of the table, as solemn and stately as he had been in the pulpit earlier this evening. “They would have, my dear—they marched right up the block calling for me by name. I shudder to think what the blood-thirsty fiends might have done had my family and I been discovered.”
Mrs. Claxton stops pouring the coffee and sinks into her seat. “Had you already fled? Where did you go?”
“Not far—there wasn’t time. Were it not for the consideration and compassion of our white neighbors, we might have shared the fate of the other martyrs. And our home would surely have been plundered had my daughter not had the forethought to take an axe to the brass plate on the front door.”
Mrs. Claxton’s pale face flushes with rage. “It’s not enough that they hunt us like animals. The brutes must also take the fruit of our labor—the proof of our striving! Hardly a month off the boat and they feel entitled to all that we have paid for with our blood, sweat, and tears!”
“Cora—” Mr. Claxton softly checks his wife’s rage. Embarrassed, she rises and goes into the kitchen. Megda hesitates then decides her proper place is not at the table with the men, but with her mother.
Rev. Garnet puts a hand on Mr. Claxton’s arm, but speaks loud enough for Mrs. Claxton to hear. “It’s alright, Lionel. Her indignation is fully warranted. Even the angels in heaven beat their breasts over the suffering of our people. Why, I saw with my own eyes the mutilation of a colored man whose only crime was the color of his skin. A fiend in human form took a knife and cut his prey’s flesh into shreds, asking ‘Who wants some nigger meat?’ And the shameless rowdies, they clamored for it, even coming to blows as if a dead man’s flesh were worth more than gold.”
I look up and see Megda standing in the doorway, horrified but transfixed by the terrible tale. Mr. Claxton follows my gaze and clears his throat to stop Rev. Garnet from going on. “Megda, why don’t you go on up to bed,” he suggests, but it is really a command. Mrs. Claxton comes up and puts an arm around her daughter’s shoulders. Megda jumps, startled by her mother’s touch, then allows herself to be led upstairs.
Rev. Garnet tucks his thumbs into the front pockets of his silk vest. “You’ve made good use of the funds set aside for the victims, Lionel.”
Mr. Claxton only gives a grim nod. “We’ve built temporary housing for almost all of the refugees. Cora and the other church ladies have supplied warm blankets, clothes, and victuals, of course. Those who choose to remain here in Weeksville will receive all the assistance they need in finding work, shelter, and schooling for their children. Your white merchants were more than generous.”
“Indeed they were. Most were appalled by the riots—ashamed, even. Our beleaguered race could not ask for better allies.”
I open my mouth to speak, then change my mind. Rev. Garnet smiles, sensing a challenge. “You have a different opinion of our white benefactors?”
I was not raised to challenge my elders and don’t want to offend the Claxtons’ guest, so I hold my tongue. Felix snickers and says, “Judah’s shy.” A stern look from his father wipes the smirk off Felix’s face.
Mr. Claxton looks straight at me. “Humility has its place, Judah. But you’re free to speak your mind here.”
I clear my throat and try to make sure my logic is sound. “Sir,” I say to Rev. Garnet, “wasn’t it the wealth of our white sympathizers that infuriated the Irish? Rich Republicans used money to buy their way out of the war. Seems to me money’s just a substitute for real action and true conviction.”
Rev. Garnet looks at me for a moment, then glances at Mr. Claxton and says, “You were right, Lionel. Your new apprentice has surprising depth.”
“Still waters run deep.” Mr. Claxton looks at Felix. “Judah may not run his mouth all the time, but his mind is always working. He reads a great deal also.”
Rev. Garnet now takes an interest in me. “You think we ought not to accept the aid of our friends?”
“The constitution of the African Civilization Society stresses the importance of self-reliance, sir.”
“Indeed it does, Judah. But the colored race cannot afford to refuse the generosity of like-minded citizens. Four million of our people still toil under the lash without hope of just compensation for their labor. The financial support of our white sympathizers is, I’m afraid, indispensable. Once this war ends and slavery is abolished, then we can focus on generating our own wealth.”
But the war won’t end until 1865, and most freed slaves will never get their forty acres and a mule. I want to say this out loud but know I can’t. Instead I ask, “Do you think the war will end soon?”
“Now that colored troops have joined the fray, I’m sure victory will be swift. If I could, I’d shoulder a rifle and march off to war myself!” Rev. Garnet adopts a loud, patriotic voice and thrusts his fist into the air. “Give me liberty or give me death!”
“Who first said that, Felix?” Mr. Claxton drills his eyes into his son’s reddening face.
Felix darts his eyes at me as Rev. Garnet frowns with disappointment. “Uh—I guess it was…uh…”
Finally I put Felix out of his misery. “Patrick Henry said it in 1775.”
Both Mr. Claxton and Rev. Garnet give me looks of approval. Felix seethes silently.
“All patriots know the full price of freedom. And true Christians know, as did our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, that there is no hope for redemption without the shedding of blood.”
Felix clasps his hands behind his head and tips his chair back from the table. “I’m ready to spill some blood.”
“Your own, no doubt, the way you handle a gun.” Mr. Claxton’s contempt for his son has never been more obvious. I glance at Felix and realize for the first time how much he hates his father. Rev. Garnet tries to change the subject.
“I pray the war will end before you reach the age of enlistment, son. For now, you should focus on your studies. When I was your age, there were many obstacles to an education that we have since fought to clear from your path.”
Felix slumps sullenly. “It’s hard to focus on facts and figures when there’s a war going on. I want to fight!”
“A well-developed mind is as dangerous as a loaded gun, Felix. Why do you think whites have fought so mightily to withhold knowledge from colored people? Why, thirty years ago I could hardly find a school that would accept colored students. I went to New Hampshire, to the Noyes Academy, and the local whites hitched a team of oxen to the school building and dragged it off its foundation. Then they set it on fire and threatened to turn their cannons on us!”
“What did you do?” asks Felix.
Rev. Garnet winks and makes his hand into a gun. “I fired a warning shot into the mob, and we fled the town once night fell. Eventually I went upstate and graduated from Oneida Institute.”
I think of my classmates in 2001. Many of them would cheer if their school burned down. “Do you think things have really changed since then?” I ask Rev. Garnet.
“We’re fighting to create change, Judah. The Negro has made great strides, but there is still a long way to go.”
“Do you really think they’ll allow colored men from these parts to take up arms?” Mr. Claxton asks.
“They must if the Union is to be preserved,” Rev. Garnet replies.
Felix perks up now that we’re talking about the war again. “Look at the 54th—even President Lincoln praised them for their courage in battle down in South Carolina.”
“They lost, Felix,” I remind him.
“Yeah, but I bet they took a whole lotta Rebs with ’em!”
I’m so busy rolling my eyes at Felix I don’t see Rev. Garnet turn to me. “What about you, son?” he asks.
“You’re a smart, sturdy young man. Are you ready to stand up and fight for the cause of freedom?”
All eyes are on me, but there are so many words crowding my brain that I can hardly see. I blink and try to focus on something simple, yes or no, but not a single word comes out. I want to ask Rev. Garnet a hundred different questions, but I’m afraid to say them out loud. I am afraid of losing the approval I so often see in Mr. Claxton’s eyes.
“I…I should see to the animals. Excuse me.” I push my chair back from the table and flee to the barn, my face burning with shame.