Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Crispus Attucks Day


I've decided to rename the Fourth of July Crispus Attucks Day. Why, you might ask? Well there are some U.S. national holidays that are insidious with contradictions. You might want to celebrate Thanksgiving with its nostalgia inducing traditions as a family holiday within many African American communities, but then blossoms the sting of loss from your Native American/American Indian side, and well after you've thought about the early forays into germ warfare in the colonies, even if they were inacted by the British, it's hard to get quite as excited about carving up the turkey even if you make it out of tofu (actually the tofurkey might make it harder for some folks, that's when you go for the old school mac 'n cheese). Again contradictions abound as the British considered the white colonialists less than human--many of them British convicts whose punishment was relocation to the harsh colonies in North America--and expanded the British germ warfare program to them. (pictured right, the Crispus Attucks/Boston Massacre monument in Boston Commons)

Still, the 4th of July strikes me as one of those holidays. Celebrating whose independence, etc? According to some, like comedian/actor Paul Mooney, we're still not free. Now maybe the sting of the 4th and all the flag waving should be less post-Juneteenth celebrations, especially since it is an official holiday in a growing number of states. (Recently I was speaking with some German nationals who wondered at all the flags in New York City, "don't they know who they are, do they have to be constantly reminded?" Even post-9/11--perhaps especially so--good question.) I still feel the dissonance of the of the 4th, and the rhetoric of the founding "fathers" regarding African Americans and Native Americans (John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, et al; a white male patriarchal mama's baby, papa's maybe moment if ever there was one).

As little is known about him, Crispus Attucks' prior life and martyrdom as the first person to have been killed in the Boston Massacre allows for numerous questions, and maybe some contradictions as well. At least that's the yield from my admittedly brief research. One of the most detailed sites for information on Attucks comes from PBS' Africans in America series, another comes from Mass Moments' page for the Boston Massacre. It is believed Attucks was an escaped slave, designated a mulatto due to his father, Prince Yonger, being an African (tribe unknown) and his mother, Nancy Attucks, a Nantucket Indian. He was a sailor, a ropemaker, and worked on the docks--a politicized site of labor. With its proximity to the British, dock workers were in danger of being pressed into military service for the Crown, and there were on-going labor disputes with British soldiers who took part-time work there, for lower wages, to supplement their income. An earlier labor-related dispute with British soldiers may have created the impetus for the Boston Massacre, which apparently was also labor-related.

Here's one version:
On March 5, 1770 a British soldier entering a pub searching for work was taunted by a crowd of about thirty who threw snowballs, sticks, and insults, among their number was Attucks. Ah, another contradiction, not only was the 27-year old Attucks part of this crew of, well, we'd have to call them bullies, wouldn't we? This group of bullies was a multi-racial group (or as future president and then lawyer for the Crown John Adams described them, "a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and molattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jack tarrs,"). Seven armed British soldiers came to their colleague's aid and began firing, leaving five men dead eventual martyrs all, but Attucks was killed first and his name remains the best known.

Here's another version:
By 1770 Boston was over-run by British soldiers, two regiments had been stationed in the area after colonists protests against against taxes (this is prior to the Boston Tea Party protest of 1773). Apparently besides regularly patrolling the streets the British military also had two cannons trained on the Town Hall. The soldiers were also reported to have engaged in anti-social behavior, brawling, getting drunk and shouting through the night, racing horses on the Commons, and loudly singing "Yankee Doodle-Dandy" outside of churches during Sunday services. Then there were the labor issues mentioned in the earlier version of this tale. Plus there seemed to have been attacks on individual colonists, including one resulting in the death of a young boy. On March 5, 1770 a soldier leaving a barbershop was confronted by a barber's apprentice for leaving without paying for services. The soldier struck the youth and this seems to have been the proverbial straw on the camel's back. As indignant citizens gathered in various Boston locales, a church bell was rung which typically indicated a fire. British Captain Thomas Peterson called the 29th Regiment to handle the crowd which had swelled to 400, outnumbering the soldiers whom they pelted with snowballs. Peterson ordered the troops to hold their fire. A group of men entered the area armed with clubs, they were led by Attucks who reportedly shouted at the soldiers, "Come on you rascals, you bloody backs, you lobster scoundrels, fire if you dare, God damn you, fire and be damned, we know you dare not." A soldier heard the word "fire," thought it was a command, and began shooting as did others in his ranks, in the end five Bostonians lay dead.

Hmm, like I said, Crispus Attucks Day (originated by black abolitionists in 1858, to be celebrated on March 5th), it's ripe with contradictions that typify U.S. history: bully or hero? leader or mob-mentality sheep? Proud defender of laborers or anger management candidate? First to give his life for freedom or first to give his life for a nationalist labor dispute? First to give his life for whose freedom? First mixed-heritage leader of a multi-racial nationalist or labor group in the U.S.? It's a mystery. Which is what intrigues me about such a holiday, it throws all the contradictory national mythology out there. And it certainly speaks to our nation's prevalent legacy of violence. (pictured left, Crispus Attucks)



Despite Massachusetts' history as a seat of abolitionist activism in the 1800s, it was the first slave-holding colony in New England, and according to historian Douglas Harper's research imported slaves prior to the settlement of the Massachusetts colony in 1629. (Interesting note re: New England slavery denial, Harper's account of the repeated disappearance of his history of northern slavery website Slavery in the North from Google.com. It's about midway through his bio.)

Endnote: according to the PBS site: "in 1888 the Crispus Attucks Monument was erected on the Boston Common, despite the opposition of the Massachusetts Historical Society and the New England Historic Genealogical Society, which regarded Attucks as a villain."

8 Comments:

At 7:36 PM, Blogger John K said...

Audiologo, I'm definitely going to have to adopt this. Crispus Attucks Day--I love it.

 
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