Friday, March 4, 2011

Blacks, Whites, Quakers, Trouble: A History

The first official protest against slavery in North America was written by four Quaker men in Germantown, Philadelphia in 1688:  "And those who steal or robb men, and those who buy or purchase them, are they not all alike? To bring men hither, or to rob and sell them against their will, we stand against." 

The petition was kicked around to varying levels of Quaker decision-making bodies, each of which dismissed it (in the words of what is now Abington Monthly meeting) as "so weighty that we think not expedient for us to meddle with it here."  The "weighty" part was that a lot of Quakers owned slaves. 

The often agonizing relationship between American Quakers and African Americans from colonial days to the present is exhaustively covered in Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship: Quakers, African Americans and the Myth of Racial Justice written by Donna McDaniel and Vanessa Julye.  According to them, "the 1750s became the 'crucial decade' for those (Quakers) working against enslavement."  Quakers were the first denomination in America to prohibit its members from owning or trading slaves.  60-some years, 16 pages of tiny print in the book, and lots of waffling, debate, and pain lie between that first appeal and the actual steps toward justice for which Quakers are renowned.  That sterling reputation is, unfortunately, a myth, at least when it's applied to the Society of Friends as a whole.

Whatever the issue: from the morality of slavery, the dynamics of Reconstruction, Jim Crow laws and segregation, equal rights, how European-American Quakers should relate to the Black Power movement, to figuring out how integration can work successfully, progress has always been incremental.  Quakers stood for the integration of public schools well before most were ready to consider opening the doors of Quaker schools to Black students.  Initially, some of those who were accepted had to live as pariahs in the community.

The 350-year sweep of the history says something about small steps.  If progress is incremental, then every flicker counts.  In 1688, a couple of miles from where I live, 4 men issued a protest.  They were ignored, but other voices spoke up, increasingly, until momentum swung the course of history.  In a way this is encouraging; the cumulative effect of many individual acts of courage on the part of Blacks and Whites is like the accretion of spring water into a lake that's harnessed to power electricity.

Racism persists.  There's still plenty to do, and there are plenty of opportunities to challenge it. In a way, there's good news:  What each one of us does, says, and thinks really matters.


Rich Sidney said...

You make a couple of really important points:

1. "That sterling reputation is, unfortunately, a myth..."

If we don't know this about every endeavor humankind undertakes or processes, we are fooling our selves. All sterling reputations are a myth, and all ideals are unreachable.

What's key is to attempt to live up to the ideal and the sterling reputation.

2. "If progress is incremental, then every flicker counts."

It is. As you say, we can only hope to be at least one of the flickers. That's true about anything, not just racism.

Catherine Stine said...

Yes, every flicker of enlightenment counts, from four men in Pennsylvania in the 1680s to brave opposition leaders in Libya and Iran now.

HelenQP said...

Computer difficulties have made my comments late--but I appreciate both these thoughts. Truly, we're in this together.