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Jourdan Anderson Letter, Essay Example

Pages: 2

Words: 682

Essay

This letter has been around since 1865, being published that year both in a book entitled The Freedmen’s Book and on the front page of the New York Daily Tribune. In 1980 it was published in Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery, by a professor of History at U.C. Berkeley (Litwack). But as a Web phenomenon it is so new that its Wikipedia entry is only about three weeks old, perhaps posted in conjunction with February being Black History Month.

There is no reasonable doubt that the author and all those named in the letter were actual people who lived in Ohio and Tennessee. Some readers have questioned the letter’s authenticity, citing the language. That issue opens up a Pandora’s Box of doubt for all kinds of historical writing. In Litwack’s book, several other letters are shown as genuine. (There must be a kind of sub-genre of former slave’s letters to their former owners.) Jourdon’s letter is included, but also shown is another letter by Alice Dabney to her own former owner. She writes in a kindly tone, saying  I am anxious to see you and my young masters and mistresses. Contrast that with Anderson’s I would rather stay here and starve and die if it comes to that than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. Alice Dabney continues Though freedom has been given to the colored race, I often sigh for the good old days of slave-times, when we were all so happy and contented . . . In another chapter of Litwack’s book, we have an excerpt from the words of a former slave: De white folks would pay niggers to lie to the rest of us niggers to git the farming done for nothing. Dem lying niggers caused all dat. Yes dey did. And here is some speech from the slave Jim, Mark Twain’s fictional creation from the antebellum era, as quoted from Huckleberry Finn:

Say, who is you? Whar is you? Dog my cats ef I didn’ hear sumf’n. Well, I know what I’s gwyne to do: I’s gwyne to set down here and listen tell I hears it agin. Now look at the writing of former slave Harriet A. Jacobs, describing her fourteen-year old sister, in Letter From a Fugitive Slave, published in the (again) New York Daily Tribune in 1853: Innocent and guileless child, the light of our desolate hearth! But oh, my heart bleeds to tell you of the misery and degradation she was forced to suffer in slavery.

What are we to make of the authenticity of these excerpts? Even fictional Jim’s speech can’t be discounted. Twain wrote in the introduction: In this book a number of dialects are used  . . . The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity . . .

To me, the issue of authenticity is critical in viewing Anderson’s letter, but it seemed to lead to a dead end. Finally though I sensed something that I think the readers of 1865 simply took for granted: that the letter is genuine because it isn’t sarcasm. The figure of  $11,680 meant nothing to its illiterate author, who may in fact have been drifting into madness borne of social dislocation. He actually believed Col. Anderson could pay it and guilelessly recommends Adams Express. Jourdon then conversationally asks if there any colored schools now his daughter might attend. If this were sarcasm it would be breathtaking, but why mention V. Winters, Esq.?

Sarcasm or sincere, the letters of Jourdon and the others show that the ex-slaves were acutely aware of their condition and were, no doubt, better off than they had been before. They weren’t dancing in the streets, but instead just getting along day by day, trying to make the best of what remained of their lives and the future lives of their children. That was freedom to them.

Works Cited

Litwack, Leon H. Been in the Storm So Long. New York, NY: Vintage, 1980. Print.

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