Thank You Onesimus of Boston (by Way of Africa)

By Leslye Joy Allen

Historian, Educator, Theatre and Jazz Advocate & Consultant, Doctoral Student

Copyright © 2012 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

“The irony and glory of being a person of African descent is that when you study your people’s history, along with their many contradictions and foibles that they possessed like all other human beings, you also learn how much your people contributed to the well-being of the people who abused and mistreated them.” – Leslye Joy Allen, Copyright © 2012 

The year was 1721.  The city of Boston experienced one of the most serious outbreaks of smallpox in its history.  One Puritan minister, the Reverend Cotton Mather—best known for his participation in Salem’s witchcraft trials—watched his male slave Onesimus with continued curiosity.  Onesimus, who was born in Africa, had been in the company of people suffering from smallpox, but he never contracted the disease and became sick.

Cotton Mather had, years earlier, asked Onesimus why he did not get sick. Had he ever had smallpox?  Onesimus replied, “Yes and No.”  He told Mather that he had endured a procedure when still in Africa that forever cured him of smallpox.  He explained that you took a thorn and punctured the pustules of a person who had smallpox; the smallpox fluid that came out of the pustules saturated the thorn.  You then took the thorn and rubbed the smallpox juice into the skin of a healthy person.  Occasionally the person who had this procedure done would become mildly ill for a short time, but once they recovered, they would never have smallpox again.

Onesimus noted that this procedure had been done for centuries amongst his people—the Garamantes—in Africa.  The Garamantes appear in the written records of the Greek historian Herodotus in the 5th century.  Herodotus considered them a great nation.  We know about Onesimus and his African ethnic identity, along with his people’s knowledge of inoculation and immunization from Cotton Mather’s letters to government officials and physicians.  Initially, when White Bostonians learned that Reverend Mather had gotten this information from his African slave Onesimus, they said that what Mather was suggesting to them was nothing more than “African Witchcraft.”  Eventually the desire to stay alive outweighed White Bostonians’ racism, and people there began to receive inoculations against smallpox. Go figure.

Take the time to consider that the only thing that has changed about immunization and inoculation procedures is the instrument medical professionals use to perform them.  Some scholars argue that an early form of smallpox inoculation had been developed centuries earlier in India.  Indeed, the Chinese developed a method of blowing the scabs from smallpox sores up healthy people’s noses, which was successful.  Yet this method was not as effective as the introduction of smallpox “juice” into the skin of healthy people.  Suffice it to say that there obviously was a continued exchange of ideas between Africans and Asians.  Needles have replaced thorns used by early Africans, but this nearly ancient science was accurate and well on its way to perfection long before any European or Euro-American doctor ever set foot on the North American continent.  If you and your children are healthy and have never suffered smallpox or any number of preventable diseases, then thank an African slave named Onesimus.  Thank the Garamantes of Africa.

Books:

Instead of a video game or $200.00 sneakers, give a kid (and yourself) a book!  The story of Onesimus and Cotton Mather is located in numerous books.  Mather’s own medical book, diaries, and letters all give credit to Onesimus.  However, there are several other books worth reading.

Invisible Enemies, Revised Edition: Stories of Infectious Disease by Jeanette Farrell (for children age 12 and up), (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2005)

1001 Things Everyone Should Know About African American History by Jeffrey C. Stewart, (Three Rivers Press, 1998).

The African Background in Medical Science: Essays on African History, Science and Civilizations by Charles S. Finch, (Karnak House, 1990).

Blacks in Science: Ancient and Modern (Journal of African Civilizations; Vol. 5, No. 1-2) edited by Ivan Van Sertima, (Transaction Publishers, 1990).

Copyright © 2012 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

Leslye Joy Allen is proud to support the good work of Clean Green Nation.  Visit the website to learn more about it: Gregory at Clean Green Nation!

Creative Commons License This Blog was written by Leslye Joy Allen and is protected by U. S. Copyright Law and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.  Any partial or total reference to this blog, or any total or partial excerpt of this blog must contain a direct reference to this hyperlink: http://leslyejoyallen.com with Leslye Joy Allen clearly stated as the author.

The Persistence of Old Models / Old Beliefs

by Leslye Joy Allen                                                                                                      Historian, Educator, Theatre and Jazz Advocate & Consultant, Doctoral Student

Copyright © 2012 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

Last month, I had the good fortune to sit down with, break bread with, and drink good wine a couple of times with award-winning playwright, Black Theatre expert, and educator Paul Carter Harrison.  I have to thank fellow scholar R. Candy Tate for turning what was supposed to be our first meeting (to trade academic notes and talk shop) into a meeting where we added yet another spirited scholar to the mix.  This was one of those rare opportunities we graduate students receive where we can converse with someone who is, arguably, one of the first artists to seriously study Black Theatre and create a scholarly canon that tells us what Black Theatre is and what it is not.

However, I deliberately did not ask Paul about his many books (The Drama of Nommo or Black Theatre: Ritual Performance in the African Diaspora).  Among the many things we discussed was his frustration and anger about what he considered to be some younger playwrights, actors, and directors’ pandering to the tastes of White audiences; and an unfortunate dumbing-down of theatre, television and film in an effort to appeal to audiences of all races for the sole benefit of entertainment just for entertainment’s sake.  He was not ambiguous at all; he was livid.  He saw a disturbing trend where some Black performers decided to cater to what White producers and audiences—even well-meaning White folks—wanted them to appear to be on stage.  No more martyred Black folks, he said.  Exactly how many times must everything WE do be a response to some other group of people?  Exactly how many times must we be characterized as long-suffering and stoic or, for that matter, be the super baadaass Black man who always manages to rush in and save the day?  He made his point.

He saw this pandering as something that, while it might be quite commercially satisfying,  stifled Black creativity and stunted artistic risk-taking while it simultaneously applauded and rewarded the mundane, the ordinary.  He noted that this lack of vision, this lack of adventurousness, would eventually cause a lot of artists to hit a commercial brick wall.  He did not bite his tongue about the fact that certain Black stereotypes and certain Black archetypes had become the norm in film, on TV, and on the stage.  While Paul is a part of my larger ongoing research, which will not be discussed here, he did make me think about not only why artistic and scholarly risk-taking is necessary for growth, but also why stereotypes are particularly dangerous.

After our two marathon conversations, I thought about how people on both sides of the political and racial aisle, so to speak, hold onto and cling to certain images and ideas about Black people.  I have to honestly wonder whether, WE Black folks have any real friends who actually know US; that is, friends outside of our own racial/ethnic group.  I am not kidding; I mean this.  Aside from the racist who assumes that at any given moment I will be spitting out watermelon seeds or that I have bred babies like rabbits, there are also those White folks that go to other extremes.  They are so hell bent on proving that they are not racist that they see beauty and goodness in everything and everybody that is Black—and that is a fallacy as well.  Blackness and Black people become a fetish.  One of the first things that makes us, Black folks, human is our ability to be great or weak, right or wrong, smart or dumb, honest or dishonest.  Any belief, sentiment, or romanticism that strips us of the full range of human expression denies us our humanity, no matter how flattering those beliefs and sentiments might be.  It is dangerous to hold onto those kinds of extremes and expectations.

Only a few days after my meeting and hanging out with Paul, one of my History students, a young White male, told me about this funny video he saw.  According to this student, someone filmed security personnel in a department store.  In the video, all of the security personnel were following all the Black customers assuming that the Black customers would be the customers who would shoplift.  However, while security was following all the Black customers, White shoplifters were stealing everything they could get their hands on.  Both my student and I laughed, but the humor quickly faded when we began to consider what really happens when someone makes assumptions based solely and purely on race, or I should say, on racism.  Now, anyone with half a brain knows that people of all races and ethnicities steal for a variety of reasons.  Nevertheless, this video—that I have never seen, by the way—said something else about misconceptions based solely on race.

When people buy into any stereotype it does something more than degrade and devalue the victim of the stereotype, it tells everyone else exactly who they need to victimize or who they need to “not look like” or “not behave like” in order to get away with whatever they are attempting to get away with.  I am not going to say anything about Trayvon Martin, this time.  However, for all of those frightened and paranoid White folks (and Black folks) who live in gated communities in Florida and elsewhere, I have only one thing to say:  Beware of respectable looking young White males who may be walking through your neighborhoods.

While I am sure most of these young White men will not be planning to commit any crime or do anyone any harm, one of them might have decided that since he did not look a certain way that he could get away with certain things.  When you buy into and believe those old models and old beliefs, eventually, someone figures out that all they have to do is make sure they do not fit the model.  After that, they can get away with anything!  And for those folks who might be feeling guilty for believing the worst stereotypes about Black people,  the last thing you need to do is stop for some poor Black guy on the side of the road at midnight, just to prove a point.

The majority of us Black people work hard, pay our bills, take care of our homes and lawns, and never ever hurt anyone, but that does not mean that all Black people are saints.  If we could just let these old models and old beliefs go, we could proceed in this world based just on facts rather than assumptions.  Now, I have a Black elder statesman of Theatre and a young White male student to thank for raising the level of the discussion.

Copyright © 2012 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

Leslye Joy Allen is proud to support Clean Green Nation.  Visit the website to learn more about it: Gregory at Clean Green Nation!

Creative Commons License This Blog was written by Leslye Joy Allen and is protected by U. S. Copyright Law and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.  Any partial or total reference to this blog, or any total or partial excerpt of this blog must contain a direct reference to this hyperlink: http://leslyejoyallen.com with Leslye Joy Allen clearly stated as the author.

This Will Not Appear in a History Book or on the News

by Leslye “Joy” Allen                                                                                                        Historian, Educator, Theatre and Jazz Advocate & Consultant, Doctoral Student

Copyright © 2012 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

Back during the first week of December 2011, late on a Saturday night, my doorbell rang. Since I was not expecting anyone, I was hesitant to answer the door.

“Who is it?”  I asked.

A male voice answered back, “Did you know there is somebody laying at the foot of your yard?”  I answered that I did not know, but that I would be calling the police.  I turned off my lights and peeked out the window. I did not see anything.

Then I became frightened. Was the man who rang my doorbell trying to gain entry to my home? I erred on the side of caution. I dialed 911. After I spoke with the 911 Operator, I again looked out of my bedroom window. This time I saw what initially appeared to be a large object writhing on the street right in front of my home. I felt a lump in my throat.

Soon I saw the swirling reflection of police lights against my closed blinds and curtains. I cracked my bedroom window so that I could hear what was going on outside and peeked through the curtains.

A young, Black police officer repeatedly questioned the man lying in the street.  “What is your name sir?” How did you get here?”  “Do you know where you are?”  “I need you to talk to me so that I can help you, sir.”

The man did not answer. Soon, the young officer started walking to my door.  He asked me if I had seen anything out of the ordinary. The only thing I could say was that a man rang my doorbell and told me that someone was lying in the street in front of my house.

The police officer told me the man lying in the street was incoherent, and that an ambulance would arrive soon. He thanked me for contacting the police. “That man that came to your door should have called the police rather than ring your doorbell,” he said. I agreed. I told the police officer that this kind of thing was not customary in my neighborhood.  He told me to be careful and said goodnight.  I thanked him for his courtesy.

Before I closed my door, the ambulance arrived. The police officer and the paramedics picked the man up, placed him on a stretcher, lifted him into the back of the ambulance which soon sped away. It was a strange moment for me for a variety of reasons.

I still live in a Southwest Atlanta neighborhood where most neighbors know each other, can go next door to borrow a couple of eggs, and Saturday mornings are devoted to mowing grass and raking leaves. I also recall that I had been an adult for a good long time before I saw anyone in Atlanta who appeared to be incoherent and homeless.

A few folks that I have met in recent years who migrated to Atlanta from some larger urban northern communities informed me right away that they grew up seeing homeless people. That depressed me almost as much as thinking about that poor man lying in the street.  Yet, there is another way of looking at the events of that particular night.

There was a time when those of us who are Black and who call Southwest Atlanta home were not welcomed here; a time when you were more likely to be harassed (or dealt much worse) by an Atlanta police officer. There are folks that would argue that the police still occasionally treat us that way. I will not argue that they are entirely wrong. However, I am always concerned when any of us paints one group or one profession with the same broad brush. I learned yet another important lesson.

The man who came to my door that night might have called the police himself.  Instead, he passed that obligation to me. At least he DID SOMETHING and SAID SOMETHING. He also took a risk that I, as a woman, would never have taken—He rang a total stranger’s doorbell to alert them to a problem in front of their home.  I have met folks who would have seen someone lying in the street and then driven on about their business.

I also met a young Black police officer who addressed me with courtesy and who treated an unfortunate, incoherent man with concern and respect. I watched him help the paramedics get this man into the back of ambulance.

People like this police officer, someone who was simply doing his job, are rarely, if ever, in the history books; and they do not make the evening news either. Yet, we can spread the word about the work they do.

It would not hurt if each of us occasionally acknowledged and said “Thank you” to those sisters and brothers who simply do their work and their duties with dignity and cheerfulness.

Tell your neighbors, friends, and co-workers about that nice young brother that always smiles and says “Hello” when he bags your groceries or the young Black female student who always gets up and offers her seat to an elderly person whenever an elderly person boards MARTA or the police officer who truly serves and protects.

At one time or another, all of us have spent too much time discussing the latest gossip with friends and family.  However, let us also make a point to acknowledge and celebrate the folks, our folks, who do the right thing everyday. They are out there when we bother to look; and there are plenty of them right here in Southwest Atlanta.  Peace.

Copyright © 2012 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

Leslye Joy Allen is proud to support the good work of Clean Green Nation.  Visit the website to learn more about it: Gregory at Clean Green Nation!

Creative Commons License This Blog was written by Leslye Joy Allen and is protected by U. S. Copyright Law and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.  Any partial or total reference to this blog, or any total or partial excerpt of this blog must contain a direct reference to this hyperlink: http://leslyejoyallen.com with Leslye Joy Allen clearly stated as the author.