Robert (gurdonark) wrote,

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The deep symbolic power of non-sequitur

"Take a look at the Lawman
Beating up the wrong guy
Oh man! Wonder if he'll ever know
He's in the best selling show
Is there life on Mars?"--David Bowie

History serves other functions than merely informing as to the mistakes of the past. I love the outbursts of trivia with which history rewards the desultory reader and google user.

Let's take Liberia as an example. In elementary school history classes, one learned that Liberia was founded by people who had originally been slaves in the USA. It all sounded so noble. As we watch civil war rage in Liberia today, and the UN prepares to send in armed forces to restore order, the curious oddity of Liberian history comes into full relief.

We often think that our own age is more Hemingwayesque, and that earlier societies used unduly flowery language. But what could be more precise and terse than the American Colonization Society, which sponsored the shipment of freed slaves back to Africa? The Society, founded in 1816, included among its members James Monroe, Bushrod Washington, Andrew Jackson, Francis Scott Key, and Daniel Webster. The thesis of the group was simple--and telling. The notion was that freed African Americans would never successfully assimilate in American life, so that freed slaves should be returned to Africa. The entire story sounds like a kind of parody, but this is just what happened. Subscriptions were raised to send free African Americans back to Africa, in a new kind of colonization. The US government ponied up 100,000 dollars, a princely sum in that day.

The first ship which took the first colonizers back to Africa was called the Elizabeth. But yellow fever soon set in, and the ship had to return to Sierra Leone. The second ship was called the Nautilus, and I must say this seems entirely appropriate to me. For one thing, this name conjures up the Jules Verne submarine, and I consider the entire Liberian story to be filled with coincidences worth of M. Verne. For another, the nautilus is a creature made up of whorls within whorls, and serves as a metaphor for the moral ambiguity which stained the whole project.

The new settlers of Liberia ran into a little problem of course. The existing residents of Liberia saw a great deal less nobility in the project than did the American Colonization Society.
Battles ensued. Nonetheless, some 2638 freed slaves settled there in the next decade, and arrangements were made for slave ship prisoners to be removed to Liberia as well.

The whole thing had a predictably patronizing tone.
The first 21 years, the governor of the settlements were white. Finally, though, a Liberian state was based more or less on self-rule. It is a that nation which now sits in its latest Civil War, destroyed by years of petty dictators and children with machine guns.

Why does it help to know that the people who started all this were called the American Colonization Society, or the ship The Nautilus?
I cannot say, but it does help, somehow. I cannot understand facts as facts per se, which may explain that poor grade in Calculus III. I can only understand facts as story. I will resist here the obvious parallels to a 20th Century repatriation effort whose dismal tragedy we all watch on the news everyday, because my topic today remains the hypnotic power of the stray, random fact.

I love, for instance, that the Cherokee written language was called "Talking Leaves" and that its founder was named Sequoyah. How do these facts help me? I'm not sure. But somehow they provide some context to understand what happened in Georgia in the 1830s. Cherokee Indians in Georgia assimilated into American life, building farms, churches, roads and schools. Many were prosperous, and they were peaceful. But in 1830, a federal law was passed called the Indian Removal Act. Once again, I extend my tribute to our forebears, for the act literally was what it sounded like, rather unlike the euphemisms so common in our past two presidential administrations. Did the Cherokees rise up and go to war against this removal? No, they did not. They went to court,and they won. The US Supreme Court ruled they were a sovereign nation, and could only be moved by treaty revision.

Andrew Jackson, then the President, was a valiant campaigner, though, a wily general by all accounts.
He concluded a treaty with a minority party of Cherokee, calling for their removal. Although Daniel Webster and Henry Clay spoke out against ratifying this treaty, it passed by a single vote.

Not all people are craven cowards. I find it illuminating that General John Wool resigned his commission rather than begin the forced relocation.
I find a non-sequitur by Davy Crockett, who opposed the intial federal act, quite illuminating. He said:
"I would sooner be honestly damned than hypocritically immortalized" Yet the "immortal" Mexican War general Winfield Scott carried out the forced relocation in 1838, making law-abiding, assimilated people move from Georgia to Oklahoma.

Four thousand Cherokee died on the trip through the south into Oklahoma. The Cherokee developed a term for the trail. They called it "The Trail Where They Cried". We call it "The Trail of Tears".

I believe it is interesting to note what General Winfield Scott said to the Cherokees, when he issued his ultimatum that they leave. One thing he said was that the Cherokees should gather at transport places where they "will find food for all and clothing for the destitute at either of those places, and thence at your ease and in comfort be transported to your new homes, according to the terms of the treaty". Over twenty percent of the Cherokee being transported died of"ease and comfort". I am intrigued by another small fact in this story. What was it about the Cherokee land that prompted the rush to move them in 1828? Why, rumours of gold. Gold is an interesting metaphor to me. Gold is perhaps our defining 1990s metaphor. Gold is a corporate mantra. Gold is everywhere. Gold is in the Arctic wilderness. Gold is in the deserts of Iraq. Gold is in tennis bracelets women wear while they walk by homeless people. Gold is gold.

The Cherokee survived this travail, as did other Cherokee in Texas forced to relocate to Oklahoma. They settled in the Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, where 70,000 registered members of the tribe now exist, of some 200,000 nationwide. They built schools, churches, and a way of life. They lived on.

Of course, the Indian Territory did not remain the Indian Territory forever. Beginning in the late 1880, illegal immigration by anglos into Indian Territory began to be a problem. The "sooner" land runs beginning in 1889 allowed anglo settlers access to much of the best Oklahoma land. Two million acres in Indian Territory were thrown open for anglo settlement. They called some folks "sooners" because they staked their land claims sooner than the law allowed. It's a bit ironic, then, to read President Harrison's proclamation, throwing the land open for settlement:
"Warning is hereby again expressly given, that no person entering upon and occupying said lands before said hour of twelve o’clock, noon, of the twenty-second day of April, A. D. eighteen hundred and eighty-nine, hereinbefore fixed, will ever be permitted to enter any of said lands or acquire any rights thereto; and that the officers of the United States will be required to strictly enforce the provision of the Act of Congress to the above effect". These were strong words. It didn't happen this way. Oklahoma's nickname is now The Sooner State.

So why do these little factoids of history matter to me? What do I gain from chance quotes and musty old documents? I believe I get a sense of story. I am much better at seeing how to fight orcs than how to fight history. The non-sequiturs teach me that history is itself a kind of story, and the lessons are there, if you just read far enough. It's all a story, but you have to read the pages they don't put on television.

You see, I think that the story is that votes to move law abiding people sometimes only pass by one vote. Presidents who ruin economies sometimes only get elected by the votes of a single state. People in Le Chambon-sur-Ligne, in France, where 5,000 Protestant villagers hid 5,000 Jews from the Nazis. On the week that the French surrendered to the Nazis, their pastor told his congregation: their duty "is to resist the violence that will be brought to bear on their consciences through the weapons of the spirit". This catchy sermon phrase is itself a non-sequitur, but they acted on what they said. Of course, I am being ironic, and the phrase is not a non-sequitur. What renders it alive, though, is that people did the right thing.

This post ended up very far from where it started, because I was really going to just say how much I like the phrase "Is there life on Mars". salaryman has a wonderful Mars post worth checking out. But Mars is my non-sequitur today, and I'm thinking about justice and injustice, all around us.

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