Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Happy Independence Day! Remembering Crispus Attucks

Last night, I watched the first two installments of HBO's mini-series John Adams, starring the exceptionally talented Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney as John and Abigail Adams. Although I am sure that some moments are romanticized, the series is still much closer to the reality of America's struggle for independence from Great Britain than the fairy tales many of us were fed as children, and this more accurate version of the truth gives a deeper meaning to the ideals of liberty that inspired the Great Experiment we call the United States of America: That's what this country is, an experiment in humanity's attempt to govern itself and the evolution of human consciousness in its understanding of freedom.

The series does not avoid the issue of slavery and the status of women in the 1700s, the paradox of men calling for the rights of humans while keeping other humans oppressed. (As history tells us, America leaders, in order to avoid facing their own hypocrisy on the matter, declared that people of African descent were three-fifths of a person; black people were deemed not to be citizens.) In the John Adams mini-series, Africans (called then Negroes) remain visible in crowd scenes and even in some scenes in which characters protest British control. Consequently, while watching, I recalled Crispus Attucks.
Little is known for certain about Crispus Attucks beyond that he, along with Samuel Gray and James Caldwell, died "on the spot" during the incident. Two major sources of eyewitness testimony about the Boston Massacre, both published in 1770, did not refer to Attucks as a "Negro," or "black" man; it appeared that Bostonians accepted him as mixed race. Historians disagree on whether Crispus Attucks was a free man or an escaped slave; but agree that he was of Wampanoag and African descent.

While the extent of his participation is unclear, Attucks became an icon of the anti-slavery movement and was held up as an example of the first black hero of the American Revolution.
That information from Wikipedia supports the way I learned of Attucks. Growing up in New Orleans, attending public, all-black elementary schools, I always heard of Attucks's bravery whenever a grade-school teacher taught us about the American Revolution (with the exception of my white teacher in third-grade at Lafayette Elementary, Ms. Pineiro, a woman who resented orders to integrate), and my mother, who was also a school teacher, made sure I remembered Attucks as well.

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