On Saints, Angels, and Real Live People

Published:February 3, 2009 by Brendan Wolfe

The New Yorker‘s David Remnick writes about the Georgia congressman and Civil Rights Movement veteran John Lewis. Before the Inauguration, Remnick says,

Lewis had told parishioners that he would have thought that only a ‘crazy’ person would predict the election of an African-American President in his lifetime, but now he was sure that the masses on the Mall would be joined by the ‘saints and angels’: by Harriet Tubman and Carter G. Woodson, Marcus Garvey and W. E. B. Du Bois, Nat Turner and Frederick Douglass, John Brown and Sojourner Truth.

This jumped out for me for two reasons. One, it’s an interesting group of “saints and angels” that includes John Brown and Nat Turner. Two, there’s a lot of Virginia in that small group. Woodson and Turner were, of course, natives of the state, and as for Brown, well, we know all about how Brown came to Virginia.

And speaking of Carter G. Woodson, he is the father of Black History Month, which is, as you might have heard, this month. Ta-Nehisi Coates complains that Black History Month has not always been particularly inspiring to him.

. . . when I think of Black History Month, I think of being made to watch footage of Negroes getting the sh– kicked out of them, and then Negro teachers extolling the nobility of letting someone kick the sh– out of you. You can imagine how well that went over in West Baltimore at the height of the Crack Age.

Coates argues that inspiration—if, indeed, inspiration is what you’re after—is better found in telling us about real people and not all of these so-called heroes. (Or, put differently, giving us heroes as real people.)

Fair enough. But Carter G. Woodson is good for that. I just finished reading Edward P. Jones’s The Known World, the 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a free black man in antebellum Virginia who owned thirty-three slaves. Turns out that Woodson did groundbreaking research on just this phenomenon back in 1924 and 1925. A couple of years ago, the scholar Thomas J. Pressly updated Woodson’s work, and here’s what the two have concluded:

The 1830 U.S. census shows 3,776 free black slaveholders—or about 7.5 percent of all free blacks—owning a total of 12,907 slaves. In Virginia, 12 percent of all free blacks owned slaves, or 950 heads of families owning 2,235 slaves.

“Less empty celebration of achievement,” pleads Mr. Coates. “We need more people in our past, and less idols.” Woodson gave us 3,776 such people, and Edward P. Jones one more.