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an earlier bid for freedom

Late last year, I visited the small city of Savannah, Georgia, for the first time. Founded near the sea, on the marshy border between Georgia and South Carolina, Savannah is one of America’s oldest towns, and for a long time was one of the most prosperous.

The day I arrived there, I decided to take one of the tour buses around, and fill myself in on some of the history of this historic-looking place. The bus driver was an African-American woman—let us call her Louisa—a jovial character who brought the tour to life for the mostly white passengers.

As we drove along the narrow cobblestone pass that followed the Savannah River and its once busy port, she pointed out the various buildings that had served as warehouses for cotton, or offices for insurers or shipping agents. She spoke of this profitable commerce with some pride, as though she had managed to disconnect it, in her mind, from the labour of black slaves.

The cotton plantations were not particularly far from Savannah. From the beginning of the eighteenth century until well into the middle of the nineteenth, black people had served as little more than farm animals; the city’s magnificent squares and the mansions on its outskirts had been built from these profits. Black ghosts whispered in the elegant streets; the ancient oak trees were sorrowful witnesses to what they had endured. But none of this was present in Louisa’s tour, either by her choice, or from the guidelines her employers had set down. Tourism, after all, pertains to local pride.

Nevertheless, I was surprised when, as she continued to tell the story of Savannah, she mentioned an episode from the American civil war. General William Tecumseh Sherman, one of Abraham Lincoln’s fiercest and most battle-tested commanders, had destroyed Atlanta, and marched on with his troops, towards the sea, towards Savannah.

“But we kept him at bay for a long time,” Louisa said. “Our great General fought valiantly until overwhelmed by Sherman’s men.” But this was Louisa, a black woman, speaking of the confederates, of “our great General,” as though they were on her side.

The absurd historical revisionism reminded me of something Obama was fond of repeating during his campaign for the presidency. “In no other country on earth,” Obama often said, “is my story even possible.” This was the myth of American exceptionalism, delivered in stentorian tones, calculated to stir the heart.

It was written into the DNA of both whites and blacks, and it found convenient versions of history to buttress it. Of course, the story of slavery, of the Civil War, of reconstruction and Jim Crow laws, and later on, the Civil Rights Movement, were well known. But they were integrated into this narrative. The journey was from darkness to light.

But how deep the darkness! What Louisa and Obama rarely acknowledged was how close to the heart of the American experiment, and its rhetoric of freedom, was the institution of slavery. The Civil War of 1861-65 seemed to have a clear relationship to the black experience, and Louisa’s support for the “other side” was peculiar. But Obama, as president, took oaths relating to the Constitution of the United States, and the foundational document of the country, the Declaration of Independence, and this put him in a situation no less peculiar.

The Declaration of Independence, when it was written in July 4, 1776, was a bold articulation of the concept of freedom, but many of those who signed it did not believe that such freedom applied to black people. Not because they did not believe blacks were human, but because it was too uncomfortable a contradiction to confront: slave-ownership was profitable.

American blacks therefore chafed under the oppression of the Founders (writing many petitions to them, explaining their plight), even as the Founders themselves chafed under British rule and described it as “enslavement.” Washington, Jefferson, Franklin: these men were, in a word, hypocrites.

Patrick Henry, famous for coining the phrase, “Give me liberty or give me death!”—a rallying call for American patriots—might have been surprised that one of his slaves took it literally, running off to join the British, risking death in pursuit of liberty

And, as Louisa drove her tour bus around once-wealthy Savannah, as I looked on the old trees and cobblestones, these forgotten stories were what came to mind. The last colonial governor of Virginia, the British nobleman, Lord Dunmore, had seen an opportunity in the hypocrisy. In 1775, he promised outright liberty to all slaves who managed to escape from the plantations and serve in the British Army.

The promise was earnestly intended, and earnestly taken by the blacks: from Virginia alone, 30, 000 escaped in the attempt to join British lines. Thomas Jefferson lost several dozens of his own slaves in this way. And this was what I thought of Obama’s “In no other country on earth is my story even possible”: that in no other country did rhetoric do such violent battle with reality.

Of those who did join the British, many donned the uniforms of the British Loyalists. Those who did not manage to escape found themselves forced to fight for the Americans. At the Battle of Monmouth in New Jersey, blacks fought against each other, and killed each other in large numbers: it is the kind of terrifying detail that history books leave out.

As sad as these fragments of buried history seemed to me, on that bus in Savannah, what became clear, also, was that black American freedom, the self-generated movement that would gain expression in Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr, had its roots in this unlikely black-British alliance. And though the successes of that initial effort were modest—the colony founded for free blacks in Sierra Leone after the Revolutionary War soon succumbed to chaos—the idea took seed, and manifested in countless slave revolts in the decades between America’s freedom from the British and black freedom from slavery.

That early bid for freedom, and the example of now-forgotten black heroes like Sergeant Thomas Peters (born an Egbe prince), was exemplary for those who came later. Without a doubt, given the choice in the 1770s, Louisa, Obama and I would all have preferred the British offer to the soaring rhetoric of the American Founders. The beautiful, crumbling facades of the cotton warehouses still standing all along the Savannah River were proof that, for many, that life-saving choice had remained just out of reach.

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