Experiencing the Chasm, Standing on the Mountain

It seems to me, important to note, that I have never been someone who has cared much for speaking about race; mainly because the term and the concept is thrown around and almost weaponized, on a daily basis, in our modern and softer-skinned culture. I think this feature of who I am, is at least part of the reason I was less than excited to take my first free Saturday in a while, and venture to a place where race was the preeminent focus. In my aversion to race-related issues, I did recognize that perhaps a bit of apathy had arisen in me, over time, since I have had the privilege of growing up in a society that is vastly different from what my grandparents knew. But that apathy sort of colored (no pun intended) over the fact that these things I saw on the walls, were actually experienced by people in my own family. It seems likely that a sort of dissonance is created upon realizing that many of these things I saw were also perpetrated by others in my family.

As soon as you enter the initial room of the museum, you are met on both sides with pictures littering the walls.

 

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A collage of photographs labeled “White”

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A collage of photographs labeled “Colored”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the left side, black and white photographs, crowned with neon letters that read, “White”. On the right side, black and white photographs, crowned also with neon letters that read, “Colored”. There wasn’t really any weight that hit me here, as I have known that this was the case, once upon a time. In fact, my own mother told me years ago, about when she had to get her birth certificate from her home town (of Metter, Georgia), how on it she saw the same words, “colored”. So, having been faced with it before was not really altogether shocking. It was more interesting, than anything, at how similar the walls were. On the one side, there were people smiling, dancing, and living their lives. On the other, you had the very same thing. What was so different about these people? Well, nothing. The black and white tint of the photographs demonstrated that much.

Continuing through the dark rooms of the lower bits of the museum, led us past old school televisions that were flashing poignant quotes and scenes from current events of the time.

My inquisitive nature meant I had to fondle the dials a bit, and run my fingertips over the metal casings, of these devices that seemed so foreign yet so familiar. It was fascinating to me, to be so close to something that was out of the past. I didn’t quite feel the same way though, when I came to the wall that read, in big white letters, “SEGREGATIONISTS”. A wall adorned by men who would have seen me and wondered how I could be in such an institution as a University; men who may have even looked upon me bewildered or even angry at how immensely their efforts failed. I didn’t feel any sort of animosity, in the least. On the contrary, I have more of a passing fascination with how a person can look upon another human being, who is made in the same image, and hold such a disdain for them, simply due to a difference in the hue of their skin. It always strikes me as highly illogical and unfortunate, because it is the easiest way to miss out on getting to know good people and getting to see the best of what those people have to offer your life, or society as a whole.  But that is the point though, isn’t it? When people have come up in an environment of fear of others, or a disdain for them, rather than an acknowledgement that all human beings are in this life-walk together, it leads them to lack value for the sanctity of every single life. And when that value for life’s preciousness is found deficient, man can bring his mind to the proper rationalization that malice against his neighbor, is justified, necessary, and perhaps even the right thing to do.

The violence, is what brought me out of my apathy toward this trip. In particular, the lunch counter simulation. A previous professor of mine told me about it, but I sort of dismissed it, for reasons I have stated, but experiencing it firsthand, is a different beast altogether. Upon first sitting down, writing on the counter prompts you to place your hands above the hand prints in front of you; the goal of course being to simulate a peaceful protest. The thing I noticed immediately was that having your hands in that position, sort of forces you to arch your back and place your head in a downward position. Immediately, your ears are bombarded with voices of men bellowing vulgarities in your direction and it escalates to a level of surreality that I had not expected. The vibration of my seat, to simulate someone kicking it, caused me to jump a bit and told my mind, ‘this is real’. With perfect clarity, I could hear a man sneering in my ear. I could hear the sound of spit he sucked in as he ravenously threatened me with, “I’m gonna kill you boy.” It was as if I could actually feel him with one hand on my shoulder, as he slid his face next to my ear. I noticed the words on the table in front of me also prompted me to close my eyes, but I refused to close them. I already felt as though I was there, and I knew if I did, my eyes would probably betray my successful composure. Upon getting up, I walked over to a friend from class, who had been sitting at the table next to me, and she was in tears. Every tear she wiped away broke me a bit. It broke me for a few reasons: it moved me that she was more upset about it than I was; seeing the pain in her face was eating away at the composure I had put so much effort into; and it reminded me just how far we have come.

We have come so incredibly far, in our society. I do not think we focus on that fact quite enough, if I am being honest. I also believe we forget that it would have been almost impossible to have gotten where we are, had people on both sides of the racial divide not organized under the auspices of togetherness.

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Marchers, of both races, together under one flag

Not togetherness in a generic or contrived sense of the word, but in actually coming together to combat a problem people on both sides saw and wanted to fix. What struck me throughout the exhibit, as profoundly amazing—whether from freedom riders who were willing to be beaten or killed for their cause or the holding of hands during marches, risking police retaliation—were the pictures of people of all hues, singing & walking together, showing that only together could this problem be fixed.

 

 

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Marchers on both sides of the racial divide, holding hands, in solidarity

 

Many times in our society, as a result of much of what has transpired in the past, we tend to paint all people in one group as the boogeymen, when in actuality, it takes people from all sides, to bring a nation together. It is a mistake not to recognize that only together, can we continue to move forward. Only through the lens of love’s patience, love’s kindness, love’s gentleness and understanding, can we move past the chasm of separation and onto the fertile promised land that Dr. King saw. He saw us ALL as Americans that were equal, under the only three colors that should really make the difference. We should all strive to remember what those colors are and why they hold us together.

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A young boy, at the Washington Monument, standing under the American flag

Faith in Women’s Rights

Faith was a cornerstone of both the women’s movement and the abolitionist movement. It is arguably what empowered so many women and men alike to finally arise and make their voices known. In part, as a result of the learned among them, as they worked out their own faith, had begun to see the glaring inconsistencies of those in power, attempting to use the faith they held so dearly, as a means by which to subjugate those they deemed the lesser. Faith was a central aspect of many of the arguments made concerning both women and slaves, and whether or not either had the right to even challenge their standing, let alone attempt to do away with that standing altogether. There were those few rhetorical giants, however, who saw through the silencing of women and slaves. People like the Grimkes, for instance, who took issue with, “men’s power, their fear of losing power, and their desire to keep it” (Sklar 130). In reality, this is not a male phenomenon, but a human one, and it seems that many of these rhetoricians knew this on some level. It is that need to have and keep power that drives so many of this race we call humans. Unfortunately, the outcome of such a singularly malcontented purpose, stokes the fires of dissent within the hearts of those being crushed under its weight.

The Grimkes had a different purpose. Theirs was not in gaining power, per se, but in reclaiming the agency that was taken away from themselves and their fellow women, by

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The Grimke sisters sitting for a photograph.

men who sought to keep them quiet. Not even simply quiet through the means of discreditation, but also through the means of less than adequate education being offered to women, at the time. Lucretia Mott also shared similar thoughts pertaining to woman’s education. In a letter Mott wrote to the women’s rights convention in Ohio, she said, “…when a fair opportunity shall be given for the equal cultivation of the intellect, and the stronger powers of the mind shall be called into action” (Sklar 65). Champions of women’s equality recognized that much of their difficulty in engaging with their opposition, in rhetorical spaces, was that men had greater “intellectual resources”. That is to say, more access to the means of expanding one’s intellect past the bounds of the small box our everyday lives are placed in. They had a higher quality of education, which sort of placed the opponents on a mountaintop and the proponents on a steep incline to climb, in order to even reach the first peak. Mott’s sentiment is an interesting one, because it is one that is echoed, or rather alluded to, in Frederick Douglass’ writings.

 

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Frederick Douglass was the most photographed man of his time.

Being that Douglass grew up in the prison of slavery, he put the utmost focus on education. He did educate himself after all. He figured out something, at an early age, that thousands of other slaves never figured out: learning to read and write was the key to forging his path out of slavery and abject poverty. He found that reading a variety and educating himself, was the way out of bondage. He realized that the reason the slave master refused to teach him how to read and write, was because even the master recognized that keeping the bound dumb, in the classical sense of the word, was the best way to keep them content in their bondage. To this point Douglass wrote, “the more I read, the more I began to detest my enslavers”. Douglass’ sentiment ties directly into the mindset of the women’s rights advocates. Women began to recognize that men in power wanted to keep them confined to “their spaces” in the house and as advisers to the men, because they feared how effective women would be at opposing the domineering culture that had been erected in an effort to keep them in their places. This is why people like the Grimkés were immensely effective.

 

The Grimkés used their rhetorical prowess, written and spoken, to refute two major institutions, or modes of thought, during their day. The subjugation of women— their speech stifled in the public forum— and the second would be, the institution of slavery. Many of the justifications for the acceptance of these two peculiar modes of thought were given on biblical grounds, from that aforementioned foundation of faith that the two sisters held close to the core of their beings. In actuality, biblical grounds were used for many justifications of the day. Of course, this is not shocking considering many early states, and of course the nation as a whole, were started by people of faith. What the Grimkés do extremely well however, is utilizing the bible to reason out why the modern justifications for both the subjugation of slaves and of women alike, often given on biblical bases, are falsely reasoned. They studied scripture, in its original forms of Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament), which gave them an ethos they might have otherwise been without. They wanted women to be able to speak freely in the public forum and live as equals to men, as God intended. In one of her letters, addressed to Mary S. Parker, Sarah Grimké invokes Jesus himself to bring this point home, by saying,

“The Lord Jesus defines the duties of his followers in his sermon on the Mount. He lays down grand principles by which they should be governed, without any reference to sex or condition… I follow him through all his precepts, and find him giving the same directions to women as to men, never even referring to the distinction now so strenuously insisted upon between masculine and feminine virtues: this is one of the anti-Christian ‘traditions of men’ which are taught, instead of the commandments of God”.

In that statement, Grimké immediately puts any person, who might be in opposition, on the defensive by pointing out how any argument that is opposite of men and women being completely equal, flies directly in the face of the very word they all claim to believe. She uses direct and precise words, to sort of cut directly to the heart of the matter, causing the reader or listener to contemplate their own hypocrisies. The most

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Grimké Sisters, at a later state in life.

notable way Grimke refutes the common notion of female inferiority, is a masterful one. As alluded to above, she uses the argument from authority. Such an argument is immensely effective against a group who claims to believe in the authority the speaker is invoking. God, the ultimate authority, is who the Grimke’s use continually to demonstrate to their audience, that much of what they have been taught does not actually stand the test of following Christ. She says, “hence our intercourse, instead of being elevated and refined, is generally calculated to excite and keep alive the lowest propensities of our nature… surely no one who contemplates the design of God in the creation of woman, can believe that she is now fulfilling that design”. She is saying here, that if men claim to follow God and believe in His precepts, that they should not accept women as mere objects for carnal enjoyment, not on the feminine basis, but should have interaction with woman as equal, because then women will serve the purpose which God put in them to do and can therefore be better partners for men, and for society. To this point her sister Angelina, in a letter to Theodore Weld and John Whittier, says, “…women could do and would do a hundred times more for the slave if she were not fettered… but we are actuated by the full conviction that if we are to do any good in the Anti Slavery cause, our right to labor in it must be firmly established… on the firm basis of human rights, the Bible” (Sklar 131-132).

 

 

“Whipped Peter”

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Peter (Gordon) as he submitted himself to be inspected by Union doctors. His scars shocked them and led them to action.

 

 

In talking about the institution of slavery and the movements that led to its abolition, it is important to take note of the artifacts that helped to give such movements the ethos that allowed them to gain ground. Few artifacts are as worth analyzing as that of the photo of “whipped Peter”. Peter, also named Gordon, was a slave who escaped from Tennessee, to a Union camp in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. At the camp, he was given a medical examination by a couple of the doctors there, and when he removed his rags, they saw the evidence of the brutality of slavery, right in front of them. The sight was described as,

Raised welts and strafe marks crisscrossed his back. The marks extended from his buttocks to his shoulders, calling to mind the viciousness and power with which he had been beaten. It was a hideous constellation of scars: visual proof of the brutality of slavery. (Blakemore 2019)

The doctors took the picture of Peter and it was turned into a carte de visite—a thin paper photograph, mounted on a thicker paper card, made popular in the 1850’s—and recommended to the General that it be spread across the nation, and it was. Many may remember seeing this image (pictured above) in elementary or middle school history books, and there is good reason for that: the image was one of the widest spread images of its time. The thinking was, the more it was spread, the more Northerners, who had not quite experienced the horrors of slavery—since all Northern states had voted to abolish slavery by 1804—would no longer be silent. This is important because this rhetorical artifact, of a man who had known slavery was, at least in part, a catalyst for bringing people to action, for only when people speak can that image have an impact that is wider than one mere person.

This idea of moving people to action was of course the entire goal of the anti-slavery movement, but it was also a focus of Lloyd Bitzer’s own rhetorical theory, which can offer some insight here. Bitzer believes rhetoric, in all its pragmatic qualities, should be used for the sake of something that transcends itself. He does not believe in rhetoric for rhetoric’s sake but rhetoric for the sake of bringing about change in the world. Rhetoric, or persuasion, for Bitzer does hold the weight of carrying a task, or an action, but not in and of itself because words that do not move an audience can’t be altogether rhetorical, as it implies effective persuasion; it must be able to alter reality. He says rhetoric is “mode of altering reality by the creation of discourse which changes reality through the mediation of thought and action… such speech that audience becomes mediator of change” (Bitzer 4). In order for change to happen— or for rhetoric to come into existence at all— Bitzer believed that there must first exist a set of conditions or a situation that invited utterance. This idea is what he gave the role of exigence in his theory; to the situation itself. To this point Burke states, “rhetorical situation is a natural context of persons, events, objects, relations, and an exigence which strongly invites utterance…”— in other words, situation provides an urgency that leads the audience to action—“…this invited utterance participates naturally in the situation, is in many instances necessary to the completion of situational activity, and by means of its participation with situation obtains its meaning and its rhetorical character” (Burke 4). To Burke, the situation, in all its exigence, is what confers rhetorical significance to any persuasive speech. This is the importance the two journalists, who published the picture of “Whipped Peter”, understood. They recognized that the rhetorical power of the image of Peter’s scarred and welted back, would cause those in the North, who had been silent about slavery, to be empowered by the rhetorical situation created by such an artifact.

This artifact, was disseminated to combat the metanarrative that southern slavery sympathizers created that justified the institution, by making it seem safe and harmless for slaves. In fact, many supporters claimed outright that slaves were well-cared for. It can be a useful exercise—in understanding the effectiveness of this photographic artifact in combating the prevailing narrative of the day— to look at such narratives through Michael Foucault’s eyes. Foucault seemed to view master narratives, or metanarratives, sort of from an onlooker perspective. A perspective say, of the modern reader; from a place of reason. He does not appear to take a stance on whether or not he views such narratives as either positive, or negative, but rather as useful means toward the ends of allowing true rhetorical discourse to flourish. In addition, master narratives serve the purpose of providing a lens through which to view why socioeconomic, psychosocial, and ritualistic paradigms within society always lend themselves toward controlling events, chance, and perhaps by extension, individual existence. To this point he says, “since discourses themselves exercise their own control; procedures which function rather as principles of classification, of ordering, of distribution, as if this time another dimension of discourse had to be mastered: that of events and chance.” He continues with, “in what is broadly called commentary, the hierarchy between what is called primary and secondary text plays two roles which are in solidarity with each other… it allows the (endless) construction of new discourses: the dominance of the primary text, its permanence, its status as a discourse which can always be reactualized, the multiple or hidden meaning with which it is credited, the essential reticence and richness which is attributed to it, all this is the basis for an open possibility of speaking” (p. 1464).  In other words, the master narratives, provide a space where commentary, which is always in flux, can analyze the narratives existing notions, as well as take them beyond the given texts, to give rise to discourses that will continue to move the narratives either further foundationally, or further into obscurity. Herein lies the effectiveness of Peter’s photograph. Peter’s whipped back, serves as a sort of primary text, that challenges the narratives of his time. Through his first-person experience, endless constructions of new discourses, as Foucault said, were allowed to be created, that allowed the metanarrative of slavery to be reactualized  into a new narrative altogether.

There is something truly profound to be said for the visual effects of rhetoric, or for the artifacts that cause rhetorical situations to arise. The picture of “Whipped Peter” would have had the effect that people like Frederick Douglass understood when he was talking to Northerners who doubted his ever having been a slave. He too had to show his scars. I imagine the conviction the people in his crowd felt must have been multiplied exponentially throughout the states, as a result of Peter’s scars. There is an ethos that comes with such a vulnerability, made known. Or perhaps, deeper than a mere vulnerability, a genuineness that arises, when first-person artifacts like these are allowed to speak.

 

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Peter (Gordon) when he arrived at the camp, as he was being medically inspected, and after he joined the Union Army.