A Thought for the Old and New Year

By Leslye Joy Allen                                                                                                     Historian, Educator, Theatre and Jazz Advocate & Consultant, Ph.D. Candidate

Copyright © 2014 by Leslye Joy Allen.  All Rights Reserved.

One of the first things that came to mind shortly after Christmas and before the New Year was how much my Mom and Dad would have been thrilled and proud that a great film like 12 Years a Slave received great reviews and had enjoyed large viewing audiences.  I would have heard a litany of what they remembered about their childhoods and how far we Black folks have come.  And if they were still alive they would surely have warned me not to hyperventilate about whether or not Santa Claus was Black or some of the foolish and racist slips of the tongue that seem to dominate our current news cycles on most days.

Strangely, my mind goes back to that one scene in the film 12 Years a Slave where after a slave has literally dropped dead from exhaustion while laboring in the fields, you see the slaves standing around a gravesite that they have prepared for their fallen comrade.  Suddenly, a slave woman begins singing the old Negro spiritual “Roll, Jordan, Roll.”  Then all of the slaves joined in and they sang with a joyous abandon.  At this moment in the movie theater, I completely lost my composure.  I wept so loudly that I had to place my hand over my mouth to muffle the sound.  For days, I wondered why that scene—and not one of the other more horrible scenes where someone was beaten or tortured—caused me to cry like a two-year-old toddler.  Then it came to me.  This was a gift.  The gift was not simply my ancestors’ songs, but their decision that they had a right to sing their songs.

Their gift feels as familiar as a book of black poetry or history or the first time my parents took me to a Jazz concert or to see the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre or to a Broadway play.  Afterwards, they would always inform me that I must never forget that it was my people that had created the artistry and creative offerings that I had just witnessed.  The lesson was simple—I could perpetually cry about what white folks had done to my people or I could fight for and celebrate what my people had done for themselves and for me, all of which is a balancing act.  Yes, one must call out and fight against racism.  Yet, one cannot allow it too much space in one’s head, lest one descend into perpetual victimhood.  “How much of your energy are you gonna’ give THEM,” Daddy would ask without blinking?

I wept in the dark of that movie theatre, as the slaves on the screen sang with abandon and rejoicing.  It is difficult to count one’s blessings when the world and everyone in it seems to be your enemy.  Yet, that is exactly what the slaves did.  My slave ancestors did not sing with joy because they were happy and content, but rather because the singing allowed them to reclaim their humanity, to reclaim their right to joy.  No degree of inhumane treatment routinely meted out to them by white slave masters could make them surrender their own humanity, or their very human need for joyousness and a belief in the future even when that future was uncertain.  Their gift is still a gift that keeps on giving if you are willing to claim it.  This is what I hope to remember now, and in the New Year.

Peace.

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

Copyright © 2014 by Leslye Joy Allen.  All Rights Reserved.
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 and visibly stated as the author.

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.