Thursday, July 11, 2013


On Saturday July 11, 1863 the government of US President Abraham Lincoln initiated a policy of draft conscription for white males living in New York City. This was at the height of the American Civil War and followed the passage of the nation’s first military draft act in March 1863. In New York City the draft law allowed any of these white men to buy their way out of military service by paying a fee of $300 (approximately $5,500 in today’s money.) African Americans were exempted from the draft (African Americans voluntarily served throughout the Civil War) as they were not considered American citizens. Hundreds of thousands of African American men and women served in every section of the military during the Civil War. Harriet Tubman was one of the more famous names who served as a nurse and an undercover agent during that war. She is credited with leading the famous Combahee River expedition (June 2, 1863) which saved more than 700 enslaved Africans from chattel slavery when she led an expedition of 150 men in three gunboats “up the Combahee River, the object of the expedition being to take up the torpedoes placed by the rebels in the river, to destroy railroads and bridges, and to cut off supplies from the rebel troops.” On Friday, July 10, 1863 (ironically just 3 days before the murderous rampage against African Americans in New York City) on the front page of a Boston newspaper “The Commonwealth,” a report of the successful Combahee River Expedition appeared which read in part: “Col. Montgomery and his gallant band of 300 black soldiers, under the guidance of a black woman, dashed into the enemy’s country, struck a bold and effective blow, destroying millions of dollars worth of commissary stores, cotton and lordly dwellings, and striking terror into the heart of rebeldom, brought off near 800 slaves and thousands of dollars worth of property, without losing a man or receiving a scratch. It was a glorious consummation.”
Meanwhile in New York City the mostly Irish immigrant working class population was against the Civil War and by extension against the draft. They also resented the fact that African American men in New York City competed with them for jobs. Ignoring the fact that African American men living in New York City were the descendants of enslaved Africans (some of them had probably escaped slavery from others states and made their way to New York City) who had paid their dues in blood, sweat and tears and had a right to paid employment the Irish men refused to work alongside African American men. Not caring that their oppressors were other White men who owned the businesses in which they laboured the Irish immigrants (men and women) violently targeted African American men, women and children. The Conscription Act which was so hated by the Irish immigrants required all White males between the ages of 20 and 35 and all unmarried White men between 20 and 45 to serve in the military except if they paid the $300.00 dollars or could hire someone to serve in their stead. Obviously the enemies of those Whites who lived in poverty in New York City and could not afford to buy their way out of the draft were not African Americans but rich White people who could buy their way out of serving in the military. The racial violence did not begin with the Conscription/Draft Act but it was used by the White men and women in New York City to visit extreme brutality on African American men, women and children. Even before they had the excuse of being drafted into the military the Irish regularly attacked African Americans in New York City. In his 2002 published book “Ear Inn Virons: History of the New York City Landmark - James Brown House and West Soho Neighborhood” author Andrew Coe writes about an Irish gang called the “Spring Street Fencibles” who were known for “knocking down black females.” It is not clear if the Irish gang members were too cowardly to confront African American men or if the phrase “knocking down black females” has something more sinister to its meaning besides the brutality of “knocking down black females.”
On the first day of the draft Saturday, July 11, 1863 all seemed to be orderly as the implementation of the Conscription/Draft Law began in New York City. For 24 hours after (Sunday July 12) all was quiet but it was the lull before the storm. In the 2004 published book “In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863” author Leslie M. Harris writes: “On Saturday, July 11, 1863, the first lottery of the conscription law was held. For twenty-four hours the city remained quiet. On Monday, July 13, 1863, between 6 and 7 A.M., the five days of mayhem and bloodshed that would be known as the Civil War Draft Riots began. The rioters' targets initially included only military and governmental buildings, symbols of the unfairness of the draft. Mobs attacked only those individuals who interfered with their actions. But by afternoon of the first day, some of the rioters had turned to attacks on black people, and on things symbolic of black political, economic, and social power. Rioters attacked a black fruit vendor and a nine-year-old boy at the corner of Broadway and Chambers Street before moving to the Colored Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue between Forty-Third and Forty-Fourth Streets.” It seems that the White mob was envious of the 233 homeless and orphaned African American children housed in the “Colored Orphan Asylum” because at 4:00 p.m. on Monday July 13 on the first day of the riots they attacked the building. The White mob looted the building of “bedding, clothing, food, and other transportable articles” before setting the building on fire and watching it burn to the ground. The firefighters (all White men) were apparently not able to save the building which was completely destroyed within 20 minutes. Harris writes in his “In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863” that: “John Decker, chief engineer of the fire department, was on hand, but firefighters were unable to save the building. The destruction took twenty minutes.”
The mostly Irish mob (there were some German immigrants in the mix) went on a five day rampage attacking and murdering African Americans and destroying their homes and businesses. Leslie M. Harris writes of the barbarity of the attacks in “In the Shadow of Slavery”: “In July 1863, white longshoremen took advantage of the chaos of the Draft Riots to attempt to remove all evidence of a black and interracial social life from area near the docks. Black men and black women were attacked, but the rioters singled out the men for special violence. On the waterfront, they hanged William Jones and then burned his body. White dock workers also beat and nearly drowned Charles Jackson, and they beat Jeremiah Robinson to death and threw his body in the river. Rioters also made a sport of mutilating the black men's bodies, sometimes sexually. A group of white men and boys mortally attacked black sailor William Williams—jumping on his chest, plunging a knife into him, smashing his body with stones—while a crowd of men, women, and children watched. None intervened, and when the mob was done with Williams, they cheered, pledging "vengeance on every nigger in New York." A white laborer, George Glass, rousted black coachman Abraham Franklin from his apartment and dragged him through the streets. A crowd gathered and hanged Franklin from a lamppost as they cheered for Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president. After the mob pulled Franklin's body from the lamppost, a sixteen-year-old Irish man, Patrick Butler, dragged the body through the streets by its genitals. Black men who tried to defend themselves fared no better. The crowds were pitiless. After James Costello shot at and fled from a white attacker, six white men beat, stomped, kicked, and stoned him before hanging him from a lamppost.”
In July 2013 there may not be an enactment of July 13-17, 1863 but African American men remain the target of white men whether they are wearing police uniforms in New York City practicing the infamous “stop and frisk” law or they are in Florida shooting unarmed teenagers under the infamous “stand your ground” law.


It is that time of year again when we can experience Africa in Toronto by riding, walking, driving or taking the TTC to Woodbine Park. For more than two decades in early July, Queens Park was the place to experience African culture at Afrofest. For two days Queens Park was transformed into an African meeting place. The festival was moved to Woodbine Park last year and “Afrofest 2013” is on July 6 and 7 as Music Africa presents its 25th Afrofest in Toronto. From 1:00p.m. to 10:00 p.m. on both days we can experience African culture, listen to African music, chat, dance, drum and eat. On their website Music Africa describes Afrofest as a: “celebration of African culture and diversity centered on the non-stop music and dance taking place on two outdoor stages as well as at the Drum Zone. Afrofest features world-renowned African music acts, as well as dozens of highly-rated African musical groups based in Canada. With a bustling African marketplace, food and craft vendors, artistic displays, a Children’s Creative Village, a drum area, music workshops, and organized fun and educational activities for youth and children, Afrofest provides guaranteed fun for the whole family.” This is an opportunity for those of us who were not born on the African continent to experience some of Africa in Toronto. Afrofest is a free event; however you will need money because there is much on sale to tempt you to buy something.
Over the years as I have attended Afrofest and immersed myself in the sights and sounds (the drumming, books, clothes and jewelry on sale and the camaraderie and goodwill of attendees) I usually think of how different the lives of Africans would be today if Europeans had not greedily descended on the African continent, enslaving and colonizing Africans (Ethiopia is the sole African country that was never colonized by a European tribe.) Without that period of slavery which affected generations of Africans on the continent and in the Diaspora our lives would not be affected by internalized racism. This blight where many of us view ourselves through European eyes is a direct result of the four hundred years enslavement of our ancestors.
The repercussions of European enslavement and colonization of Africans are felt in the 21st century. There are many of us who continue to suffer from what Dr. Joy DeGruy Leary describes as Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome. In her 2005 published book “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome” Dr. DeGruy Leary describes Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome (PTSS) as “a condition that exists when a population has experienced multigenerational trauma resulting from centuries of slavery and continues to experience oppression and institutionalized racism today. Added to this condition is a belief (real or imagined) that the benefits of the society in which they live are not accessible to them.” There are various manifestations of PTSS including self hatred and internalized racism where some of us apply harmful chemicals to bleach our skin. Based on the White supremacist culture in which we live the belief is that achieving a European “look” is the ideal. This can be attributed to our continued struggle to define ourselves without viewing ourselves through the eyes of White society. DeGruy Leary defines this as a legacy of slavery: “Today the legacy of slavery and oppression remains etched in our souls. The impacts of our history can be witnessed daily in our struggle to understand who and what we are, and in our jaundiced vision of who and what we can become. Taking on the negative stereotype as our identity; developing low expectations for ourselves, our families and our community; assuming that we will fail in most things that we set out to achieve; losing the critical respect for ourselves and thus diminishing others like us; perpetually trying to outrun the demon of shame by amassing material things in exchange for our dignity; forgetting how to love ourselves and each other: These are some of the ways the vacant esteem of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome is manifested today."
The many centuries of European enslavement and dispersal of Africans and the subsequent carving up of the continent has done untold harm to Africa and Africans. The young and productive members of various African communities were kidnapped and scattered to provide coerced, unpaid labour that enriched Europe, Europeans and their descendants in the Americas and elsewhere. Guyanese historian Dr. Walter Rodney in his 1973 published “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa” states: “The massive loss to the African labour force was made more critical because it was composed of able-bodied young men and young women. Slave buyers preferred their victims between the ages of 15 and 35, and preferably in the early twenties; the sex ratio being about two men to one woman. Europeans often accepted younger children, but rarely any older person. They shipped the most healthy wherever possible, taking the trouble to get those who had already survived an attack of smallpox, and who were therefore immune from further attacks of that disease, which was then one of the world’s great killer diseases.”
While African communities were devastated by the attacks, Europeans in contrast could concentrate on inventions that would make their conquest of Africa that much easier. Rodney addressed this in “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa” when he wrote: “the same technological changes which created the need to penetrate Africa also created the power to conquer Africa. The firearms of the imperialist epoch marked a qualitative leap forward. Breech loading rifles and machine guns were a far cry from the smooth-bored muzzle loaders and flintlocks of the previous era. European imperialists in Africa boasted that what counted was the fact that they had the Maxim machine gun and Africans did not.”
The inhumane slavery to which Africans were subjected is sometimes trivialized when people speak about working for “slave wages” or describe working conditions as “slave labour.” Granted that there are various sectors of workers who are exploited, their experiences cannot and should not be likened to the horror that Africans experienced during the enslavement period where they were bought and sold, their children were sold away from them, they were denied even the very basic human rights. Enslaved Africans were denied the right to speak their language, practice their religions and beliefs and name themselves and their children. Many were beaten to death and even worked to death and their “owners” were never held accountable.
Even though European enslavement of Africans on the continent was not on the same scale as the enslavement of Africans in the Americas, Africans on the continent did not fare much better. Africans colonized by Europeans continue to suffer as the Europeans never completely surrendered their stranglehold on their former colonies even after “independence.” Today there is a new scramble for Africa with powerful corporations operating in mineral rich African countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC.) The ghost of Leopold (the Belgian monarch who visited unspeakably vile abuse on the Congolese from 1884 to 1908) is alive and well in the form of international mining companies that have been accused of fomenting war to exploit the Congolese people and gain control of minerals like coltan or columbite-tantalite (an essential part of our cell phones, DVD players etc.,)
There is great irony in the similarities between what happened to our ancestors during slavery and what is happening to the Congolese today. During the enslavement of our ancestors Europeans did not think about the suffering of enslaved Africans as they spooned sugar into their tea every morning. Similarly, most of us while using our cell phones, DVD players, computers, flat screen televisions and other electronic equipment, do not think about the people who are displaced, killed, raped and maimed as the war for coltan rages.
For two days this weekend many of us will hike down to Woodbine Park to socialize, dance, eat etc., in an atmosphere of African culture. As we enjoy the great summer weather this weekend at Afrofest imagine the lives Africans would live now if there had been no enslavement or colonization of Africa and Africans. What if those tens or hundreds of millions in their most productive years had not been removed from the African continent over a period of half a millennium? As Africans from an extremely rich continent (whose riches are continually looted by others) we would be on an equal footing with people from other continents with the accompanying respect. We would not have to deal with racial profiling by the descendants of those who enslaved our ancestors and colonized the African continent. This is a daily reality for many in our community. Gathering and celebrating our culture helps many of us cope with racial profiling. Dr. De Gruy Leary suggests: "Telling our stories can be redemptive. Telling our stories can free us. Telling our stories can help lift others up. I believe an integral part of racial socialization is learning the histories of those in our family and community. Story telling is an important part of our education; it strengthens us and helps us build resilience. It helps us put things in the proper perspective." Let us find time, place and space to gather, tell those stories and strategize!!