"Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me."
By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here
On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation by executive order. On paper, the legal status, as recognized by the United States federal government, changed for 3 million slaves in designated areas of the South — from "slave" to "free." Two years later, Lee surrendered to Grant on April 9, 1865 — ending the Civil War.
In August of 1865, Colonel P. H. Anderson, a cruel and abusive former slave owner, sent for his former slave, Jourdan Anderson, to come back to work at the plantation. Jourdan Anderson responded back to his old master in epic fashion. As transcribed in The Freedmen's Book, Jourdan Anderson's letter is a brilliant piece of Mark Twain-style sarcasm from an illiterate ex-slave to his former slave master.
(If you'd rather listen to it as it may have been dictated, here is a narrated version by Winston Tharp from LibriVox's Short Nonfiction Collection Vol. 025.)
Even with varied education, there was a certain character and eloquence to the language of the time. They didn't have tweets, they didn't have social media (and memes), or an outlet for immediate reaction — not even a telephone. Their only tools were words, yet words once written were permanently damning. They had to speak with clarity, but also be clever enough to express anger and resentment while maintaining restraint.
I liken it to a fine actor; any hack can act over the top, a craftsman can say all there is to say in the subtleties. Though there are times to express absolute rage, unfortunately for Mr. Anderson, this was not yet that time. However, he did a masterful job burning his old master — with class! A rare documented example of the deadpan "slave humor" of the time that would be equivalent to today's "viral" hit.
The jokes probably went right over the old master's head, as that is how that style of comedy originated. Just as martial arts was hidden from slave owners in South America, in the US, first-class burns had to be disguised from the masters. Different forms of self-defense, but the intent remains the same: minimize risk while protecting yourself.
Not Long After...
Deep in debt, without any slaves, P. H. Anderson had to sell his land for a paltry amount. Two years later, P. H. Anderson died. Later, American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote a short story, "The Wisdom of Silence," based on Jourdan Anderson.
Useful Companions (Improve Your Education and This Site by Buying a Book):
- The Freedmen's Book - Lydia Maria Child
- First published in 1904, The Heart of Happy Hollow by Paul Laurence Dunbar features sixteen short stories that provide rare glimpses into the lives of African Americans after the Civil War
- Capoeira: A Brazilian Art Form: History, Philosophy, and Practice – Bira Almeida