Stories of Black American Courage and Faith
Some of the lesser-known figures who worked for change and reform without giving in to cynicism about America’s ideals or despair about its future.
Crowned With Glory
How Proclaiming the Truth of Black Dignity Has Shaped American History
by Jasmine L. Holmes
Baker, 222 pp., $17.99 (paperback)
WHEN MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. GAVE his “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963, he pulled off a difficult balancing act. On the one hand, he exposed the emptiness of America’s egalitarian ideals as they applied to its black citizens. Calling the Declaration of Independence a “promissory note,” King said that “America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’” On the other hand, he did not turn his back on America and its ideals. Instead, he called on the country to live up to its own promises, and he expressed confidence that it could: “We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.”
Few have toed the line between critique and allegiance more eloquently than King. Our present-day debates over race demonstrate how hard it can be to criticize the country’s faults without being decried as an America-hater, or to praise its virtues without being accused of whitewashing the past. It was a sign of King’s greatness that he could steer between this Scylla and Charybdis in a way that still speaks across racial and political divides.
Jasmine L. Holmes aims to do something similar in Crowned With Glory. In ten concise chapters focused mainly on the nineteenth century, Holmes describes a variety of interesting and impressive black Americans who, in the face of indignity and injustice, prodded America to embody its proclaimed ideals of liberty and equality more fully. Although one sometimes wishes for more detail or a less episodic approach, the result is an intelligent though not academic book that provides helpful historical perspective on our often acrimonious racial debates.
Some familiar names make an appearance—Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois—though mostly in cameos. Holmes reserves most of her attention for lesser-known figures whom readers may not have encountered in the history books. We meet people like Maria Stewart, “the first American woman—Black or white—to speak publicly to a mixed crowd,” who condemned racial injustice and appealed to the biblical examples of Deborah, Esther, and Mary Magdalene in defense of a more public role for women. Or the abolitionist Reverend Henry Highland Garnet, who alarmed Douglass by calling openly for slaves in the South to rebel. Or Mary Ann Shadd, a black teacher for whom even Garnet was all talk and no action and who emigrated to Canada, where she started an integrated school and campaigned for other black Americans to follow her.
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But it is the Forten family that most obviously captures Holmes’s imagination and whose various members appear frequently in different contexts throughout the book, tying many of its different stories together. Two generations after his grandfather had been shipped over from West Africa, Thomas Forten learned the craft of sailmaking in Philadelphia and then passed it on to his son James. After serving in the Revolutionary War and surviving a stint as a British POW, James returned to Philadelphia and prospered in sailmaking. James Forten became an advocate for black citizenship, a donor to William Lloyd Garrison’s weekly newspaper, the Liberator, and a financial supporter of abolitionist causes.
James Forten’s descendants were equally impressive. Daughter Harriet married Robert Purvis, and the two became outspoken abolitionists and early feminists, while helping to found the Underground Railroad. Her sister Sarah wrote abolitionist poetry in her younger years before enduring a difficult marriage to another Purvis brother. Margaretta, the oldest of the three daughters, never married and devoted her life to advocacy on behalf of blacks and women. Their brother Robert fathered Charlotte Forten, a teacher who was spurred into activism by the Fugitive Slave Law’s consequences; joined a project that brought her to the Sea Islands off South Carolina to teach emancipated slaves, becoming there an anthropologist and folklorist; and later returned north and married the Presbyterian pastor Francis James Grimké. The two devoted the rest of their lives to ministry and black education. In the Fortens, Holmes has found a black counterpart to the Adamses, a family of great talent exercising influence across multiple generations in early America.
PERHAPS THE MOST PROVOCATIVE MOMENT in Holmes’s book comes in her opening chapter, where she juxtaposes revolutionary hero Patrick Henry with Nat Turner, leader of an 1831 slave rebellion in Virginia. Henry is of course famous for his ringing proclamation, “Give me liberty or give me death!” In that 1775 speech he compared the colonists’ situation to slavery, asking, “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?” Turner, by contrast, is typically condemned for the brutality of his rebellion, in which even women and children were murdered. But if we admire Henry, wonders Holmes, should we think twice before criticizing Turner, who merely put Henry’s logic into action, deciding that life was indeed not so dear as to be purchased at the price of slavery?
“If readers wish to lionize the Founding Fathers of yore,” Holmes writes, “consistency might demand they not see Turner as a villain either.” She does not endorse Turner’s actions or claim that he was a hero, but she does suggest that if taxation without representation merited a rebellion, surely chattel slavery was an even better justification. At a moment when Americans seem increasingly prepared to condone political violence, I might have liked a more discriminating discussion of the legitimate targets of deadly force. Nevertheless, the Henry-Turner pairing is a powerful one, and Holmes leaves it to readers to decide how they should respond to the comparison.
The various figures Holmes highlights do not always agree with one another. Some support colonization schemes to help blacks emigrate to Africa; others criticize those same schemes for denying blacks their rightful place in the country they had helped to build. Some think that suffrage for women must accompany suffrage for black men; others are prepared to prioritize the vote for black men as an essential step toward equality, even if female suffrage must wait longer to be realized. Some believe that vocational education and economic progress are the key to winning recognition for blacks; others believe that only a classical liberal arts education will enable them to campaign successfully for the rights they deserve. The picture that emerges is of a boisterous debate, generated by a commitment to racial equality and individual rights but by no means always united about the best ways of reaching that goal.
There is, however, one essential theme linking together the disparate figures that Holmes unearths: all of them argue for liberty and equality as the proper fruits of Christian faith. Although the church has sometimes been complicit in or an outright advocate of racial discrimination and slavery, Holmes wants to show that there is another version of Christianity—often most evident in those who suffer from injustice—that recognizes the image of God in every man and woman. “The unity of Mary Ann Shadd, Henry Highland Garnet, and Frederick Douglass,” she writes, “can be distilled into the theme of this book: Black Americans are made in the image of God and, as such, are invested with identity, dignity, and significance. That is the thread that holds them together.”
Inspired by Christian faith and committed to American ideals, Holmes follows in the footsteps of the people she profiles, and in those of Martin Luther King himself. Like him, she offers an example of what the political theorist Michael Walzer has called the “connected critic,” one whose criticism proceeds from attachment to rather than hostility towards those she criticizes. As Walzer argues, such criticism, though no less intense, is likely to be more effective than criticism arising from hatred or disrespect.
Not all those whom Holmes portrays are equally “connected.” Not Nat Turner, certainly; not, I think, Mary Ann Shadd, who left for Canada. Many of them had good reason to break the bond that connected them to other Americans—making those who held fast despite tremendous suffering and indignity all the more impressive. We who follow after them should be grateful for their example. By unearthing these unfamiliar stories and encouraging us to be inspired by them, Holmes offers what is ultimately a hopeful story, one suggesting that there may still be reserves remaining in the nation’s great vaults of opportunity.