Freedom's Prophet

Paul Harvey

You know the old adage, often intoned to students as we dispense nuggets of wisdom, of how the more we know, the more we know what we don't know. We pretend like we really believe that. It's a reassuring process of confirming our own ego while ostensibly humbling ourselves.

But we don't really think that, usually. How do I know that? Because of how I often make my own personal reading lists. Biographies of subjects I think I know pretty well already often don't make the list. "I know about that already," my self says, "so better to read about some other stuff that I don't know."

Then if we actually read about what we assume we know already, we come to know what we allegedly knew but actually didn't know. Humiliating though that is to the ego, it's also what makes "keeping up with the scholarship" fun and exciting, and it invigorates both research and teaching.

I went through this process, from dismisal to discovery, yet again recently when encountering Richard Newman's new book Freedom's Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church, and the Black Founding Fathers. Ok, my self said as I gave it a brief skim initially, I'm pretty well up on African American religious history, and I know Allen pretty well, so I'll save my reading energies for elsewhere. Then a student of mine last semester prepared a senior thesis on the AME Church in Colorado Springs (Payne Chapel, constructed on land donated by the founder of this city). Before getting to his subject, the student went through a lengthy and well-presented history of the AME Church, and included material that I didn't know (one way of learning how much we don't know about what we "know"). The student's thesis drew heavily from Newman's biography, compelling me to reopen the book for real this time.

So, a shout out to you, Marcus, for exposing my need to learn about what I already knew, and making me excited about a subject on which I had grown rather passe, inclined to rely on my standard bromides rather than resituating my knowledge in ways that kept my thoughts fresh.

I was reminded of this again reading over Alan Taylor's review of Newman's biography here at The New Republic (I also read a similar review elsewhere, but can't track that down presently). Taylor's review captures Allen's significance beautifully, and gives the author his props for managing to forge bricks out of evidentiary straw.

I find "founding father kitsch" as tiresome as anyone, until the founding generation gets set in ways that demonstrate afresh the significance of the period. Here's how Taylor does it:
Newman employs the notion of a "black founder" in two ways, one bolder than the other. In the more modest (but still important) sense, Allen was a Founder for African Americans, a man who pioneered black institutions and black politics. . . .

In a bolder sense, Allen was a Founder for all Americans. He advanced a prophetic vision of America as a multi-racial democracy of equal rights and equal opportunities. His egalitarian vision was far more daring than anything considered by the more famous white Founders. Allen exceeded them by fighting against the white racial privilege that so stunted, and threatened to stifle, the libertarian promise of the American Revolution. . . .

Allen and other black activists--James Forten, Prince Hall, Absalom Jones--struggled against the constriction of the revolution into a race-based republic for white men. In 1776, the white Founders had declared all men created equal and divinely endowed with inalienable rights, but by 1790 most of them had regretted that revolutionary burst of enthusiasm. In 1790, Congress adopted a naturalization law that limited new citizenship to white male immigrants. In late 1799, Philadelphia blacks petitioned Congress, then meeting in their city, to repeal the fugitive slave law (which had pinched Allen) and to consider emancipating all of the slaves by some gradual process. But by an 84 to 1 vote, the House of Representatives rejected the appeal with contempt, asserting that free blacks lacked the standing as citizens to petition Congress. A Congressman from Georgia sneered that "'We the people' does not mean them." Most white men had hardened around the consensus that the United States was a white man's republic. Even most white abolitionists of that generation doubted that black freedom should bring equal political rights. In their view, the best that blacks could hope for was a limbo above slavery but below citizenship.

Despite this crushing defeat, black activists refused to abandon the universal freedom and equality promised by the Declaration of Independence. Allen insisted that blacks had a sacred and prophetic mission to save the republic from the racism of white Americans. Since most whites had lost faith in true freedom, black Americans, as Newman remarks, were "the people on whom the great experiment in liberty depended." By non-violent resistance, blacks had a duty to remind the majority of the inclusive dream.

Taylor concludes his piece with thoughts on the meaning of "black founders," riffing on Richard Hofstadter's famous bon mot that America was born in perfection and aspired to progress:

The central narrative of American history insists that we began purified by leaving Europe and have been getting better ever since, perfecting our special brand of freedom. In this morality play, the American Revolution serves as an accelerator, creating a republic on a slow but inexorable course to freedom and justice for all. If this is so, then it matters little that the white Founders failed in their own time to extend freedom to most blacks or to allow equality to any of them. Instead, it is said, their republic ensured that freedom, equality, and justice would emerge in due time--and not a moment too soon.

By casting the early republic as a perfect machine of inevitable progress, this consoling version of our history is doubly distorting. First, it obscures the contradictory nature of the revolutionary generation. The revolution enhanced the liberty of common white men and allowed a measure of freedom for the black minority in the northern states--but the revolution denied citizenship to free blacks, while entrenching and expanding Southern slavery, which remained the lot of most African Americans. White supremacy became more virulent and more ratified by law after 1800 than before. During the 1820s and 1830s, most northern states rescinded the right to vote from blacks (who had rarely been allowed to exercise it previously). And thanks to the southwestern extension of slavery, there were twice as many American slaves when Allen died compared to when he was born. "Richard Allen's world was filled with high hopes and dashing disappointments," Newman concludes.

Our comforting story of inevitable progress also obscures the endurance and the creativity of real people working to change their society--or at least to preserve its ideals for a better day. In particular, the usual story reduces black people to silent victims, waiting for white people to liberate them once the time becomes right. By recovering Allen's life as a troubled but persistent redeemer of our republic, Newman illuminates a truer history of struggle by black as well as white Americans. In his scholarship, Newman reflects Allen's legacy: just as Allen sought to redeem the republic from the unbearable burden of whiteness, Newman helps to reform our national memory which insists that our Founders were all white men at the center of power. If we should finally achieve a genuinely egalitarian society, we will owe as much to our black founders as to their white brethren.

Taylor's review and Newman's book bring Allen to life and set him in historical context in ways that command attention, so I commend both.

And here's an interview with the author which sheds more light on the book.


Phil said…
Earlier this year I saw a segment on Newman and his book on Book TV. Great segment about a great book.
Christopher said…
An important and needed book, indeed. Thanks for the heads up on this. For all of the increased scholarship on early American Methodism over the last decade or two, the experience of black Methodists has been severely under-treated (which isn't to say the many fine treatments on Methodism haven't discussed race, Allen, and the AME; just that the subject deserves its own book-length treatment(s)).