Politics for the People Book Club Recordings — A Conversation with Lois Leveen

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On Sunday, June 3rd the book club had the pleasure of spending an hour in conversation with Lois Leveen, the author of The Secrets of Mary Bowser. You can listen to our full conversation at the end of this post.

Lois says that she “dwells in the spaces where literature and history meet.” She has degrees in history and literature from Harvard, USC and UCLA and has taught at UCLA and Reed College.

In addition to being a novelist, Lois is a frequent essayist and contributor to the New York Times, LA Review of Books, Huffington Post and many other publications, literary and scholarly journals.

In the opening section of the call, you can hear Lois and I discuss how she first met Mary Bowser and decided to write the book.  We talk about the relationship between Mary and Bet Van Lew, the woman who freed her and was her collaborator in spying on the Confederacy.

Give a listen here or below:

 

Caroline Donnola, who orginally recommended The Secrets of Mary Bowser to be a Politics for the People selection, asked Lois how she created and built out the characters of the book, especially Mary Bowser.  How did she decide what she should sound like, how she should think, how she would respond to her many life challenges?  You can hear their conversation here or below:

 

Helen Abel from CA shared that one of the most astonishing parts of the book for her was how Mary Bowser extended the Civil War by withholding particular information so that slavery would become a main issue for Lincoln and not just preservation of the Union. She asked Lois whether she this part of the book was something she uncovered in her research and whether there were other spies who impacted the civil war in this or in similar ways?  Listen to Lois’ answer:

 

Alice Rydel was eager to ask Lois if she considered herself a social activist? Give a listen to her answer:

 

Dr. Jessie Fields shared with us how much she appreciated The Secrets of Mary Bowser, and how much it “…conveys a great deal of African American history in a very intimate fashion, that history also being integral to American history. ” She asked Lois how her study of African American literature influenced the writing of the novel. Lois talked about how much she learned from authors like Richard Wright, James Baldwin and many African American women authors about “how difficult it is to negotiate protecting your family in a place where you legally really have very few or no protection of them.”  She talks about the creation of Mary Bowser’s voice, and the private school education she received.  You can hear the full response here and below:

 

Jenn Bullock, the coordinator of Independent Pennslyvanians commented on how “powerfully and unapologetically” Lois portrayed the racism in Philadelphia, particularly among white progressives.  You can listen to Lois’ response.  She talks about how “not everybody who was antislavery would have described themselves as an abolitionist.”

 

Harry Kresky and Lois talked about Clarence Thomas, Thurgood Marshall, the movie Black Panther and, as Harry put it, the complicated and controversial “issue of what African Americans and others do with opportunity, giving back so called…”  A fascinating conversation to listen to:

 

Julie Leak shared how much she loved the book and some of her reminisces of growing up in the South.  Lois talked about a visit to Richmond during the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and emancipation and a visit to Lumpkin’s Alley with an African American woman whose family lived in Richmond for generations.  Give a listen:

 

You can listen to our entire conversation below:

 

And if you would like to learn more about Mary Bowser and Elizabeth Van Lew, take a look at this wonderful CSPAN video, “A Spy in the Confederate White House” from 2013. The video features Edward Ayers, President of the University of Richmond; Lois Leveen; and Elizabeth Varon, Professor at the University of Virginia and the author of Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy. 

Lois’ second book is Juliet’s Nurse, which tells the story of Romeo and Juliet through the eyes of Juliet’s nurse.  I have added this to my summer reading list.

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STAY TUNED
We will announce our next selection soon.

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Reader’s Forum — Alice Rydel. Reminder: Call at 7 pm EST

I never heard of Mary Bowser before reading Lois Leveen’s historic novel. Such a range of experiences and imagery! From the sadness of having her shiny ribbon thrown into the fireplace, being separated from her mamma and papa, her papa’s iron cross, getting kicked off the omnibus in the liberal north to Mary shooting the soldier in the head. Her

Alice-1remorse for this action unnecessary and her decency and bravery inspiring. I had to keep reminding myself this was an historic novel and yet left wondering about all the unknown people and actions of bravery that took place.

There were the humorous yet serious depictions of Aunt Piss and Queen Varina. And maybe this wasn’t so humorous as an “Aha!” moment: The slaves were invisible until there was the realization the Confederacy was losing, to paraphrase the leaders, “We have millions of slaves, we can recruit them too!” Then realizing what that would really mean!

Thinking about today, I’m fortunate to live in a comfortable building complex, about three blocks from a run-down housing project. There are many neglected housing projects throughout NYC, occupants are people of color who are starting to fight back for being treated as invisible. I walk out my door and there are homeless people on the streets. If you walk by the grand U.S. Post Office early in the morning, dozens of invisible people are sleeping/living on the stairs.

Then I turn on the news and hear that the economy is better, unemployment is down. Where are these people? Simply dropped from their statistics? Invisible?

Alice Rydel is a long-time activist with the independent development community.

 

 

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Join us tonight for the 

Politics for the People

Conference Call 

With Author Lois Leveen

Sunday, June 3rd at 7 pm EST.

Dial In and Explore

The Secrets of Mary Bowser

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Talk with Lois Leveen Tonight

MaryBowser_StewartLeveen

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Join us tonight for the 

Politics for the People

Conference Call 

With Author Lois Leveen

 

Sunday, June 3rd at 7 pm EST.

 

Dial In and Explore

The Secrets of Mary Bowser

641-715-3605 and passcode 767775#

 ***

Reader’s Forum — Lou Hinman and Sheryl Williams

LOU HINMAN

While I was reading The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen, I saw Call Mr. Robeson, the one-man show written and performed by Tayo Aluko, at the Castillo Theatre in New York. Like Paul Robeson, Mary unnamedBowser made a political choice: she rejected the life of relative privilege that was open to her as a talented, educated, free black person living in the north.  She chose instead to return to Virginia, and risk her life in the war for the liberation of her people.

Ms. Leveen’s account of Mary Bowser’s heroic life also shows very clearly that an entire nation cannot abuse and degrade a whole group of human beings without corrupting and degrading itself.  The injustice of slavery corrupted not just the southern “slave power”, but the northern “free” states as well.  Ms. Leveen shows us how racism infected even the abolitionists in the north.

Today, one hundred fifty-three years after the end of chattel slavery, the corruption of racism is still degrading, poisoning, shaming, and holding back America.  Three generations ago, President Truman (DP) told Paul Robeson that the time was “not right” for anti-lynching legislation.  This past week, the NFL ruled that its players would face sanctions if they kneeled during the national anthem to protest police violence against the black community.

The racists – and this includes Roger Godell, the smooth-talking Commissioner of the NFL – reserve their most rabid hatred for people of color like Mary Bowser, Paul Robeson, and Colin Kaepernick who have the unmitigated temerity to lay down their privilege to stand with their people.  The rest of us reserve for them our greatest respect, admiration, and love.

Lou Hinman lives in New York City and is an activist with IndependentVoting.org and the New York City Independence Clubs.

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SHERYL WILLIAMS

In reading Lois Leveen’s book, “The Secrets of Mary Bowser” I am reminded again of the importance of reading American history. A very richly textured book about the life of a real person, a former slave, Mary Bowser. The level of detail in both the hardships and the mundane have had quite an impact on me.

 

IMG_20171125_084439I can’t but help think about how some of the themes in the book are common to present day African American families. For example, I grew hearing from the oldest generation of my own family stories of the lack of certainty about who was born when given the lack of record keeping as it applied to a people who were once enslaved. The conflicting emotions of pride and loss at just the possibility of access to education. As an adult, attending the with my parents the very same church I attended as a child, listening to announcements about young people in the church who were graduating from high school and soon to be going away to college accompanied by cheers and tears.

The thing that probably surprised me the most, was from the very beginning to see slavery through the eyes of a child. Maybe it’s because I’m older now, have a better sense of what it means for a parent to want better than they had for their children. And since I don’t have any children myself, think about my own parents, and their parents for before them and the strength it must have taken to send children off into nearly unimaginable hostility only to hope against hope that would that they not only survive but also thrive.

A very powerful book, I hope everyone reads.

Sheryl Williams is a long-time independent; an activist who believes in the power of the people.

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Politics for the People

Conference Call

With Author Lois Leveen

TOMORROW

Sunday, June 3rd at 7 pm EST.

Join us and Explore

The Secrets of Mary Bowser

641-715-3605 and passcode 767775#

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Reader’s Forum — Lowell Ward, Diana Dakey, Harriet Hoffman, Maureen Albanese and Helen Abel

 

The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen

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LOWELL WARD

 I love the book, it’s brilliantly written.  When I’m reading it I feel like I’m there among the characters, and part of the 20180529_100153conversation.  The book is hard to put down to because of the adventure and intrigue that comes with a story as powerful as Mary Bowser’s is. I also find it fascinating how the Willy Lynch syndrome had already kick in. The self-hatred, envy and jealousy we were taught to have for each other ,way back when, let’s replace it with self-esteem, decent, and love. Mary Bowser is my HEROINE.”

Lowell Ward is an activist with the Massachusetts Coalition of Independent Voters.

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DIANA DAKEY

Author, Lois Leveen transported me back to the Civil War era in The Secrets if Mary Bowser.

Although it is fact that its main characters lived, that there were spies for the Union, that the underground railroad existed, that a colored society existed in Philadelphia, OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAthere is limited record of what it actually was like for people who lived during these trying times. It takes the research and imagination of a writer to create the realistic setting and to develop the characters of the time, masterfully done by Lois Leveen.

Through the eyes of our heroine, Mary Bowser, we learn of the overt and subtle prejudice against colored freed people, as well as the social order among freed (e.g., to sew for charity) and enslaved.

A takeaway from the novel was that one could be sustained in one’s convictions by taking the long view that one’s efforts could eventually make lives better for others (e.g., Mary’s belief that she had a mission in life), embodied by Mary, Wilson, Bet and others, both white and colored. Also, the personal dignity of Mary, who envisioned a life of greater importance for herself than being an accessory to her first beau.  The novel also shows us the compassion of the individual for others, a counterweight to the prevailing inhuman treatment of slaves at the time.”

Diana Dakey lives in Pennsylvania and supports a number of good-government groups.

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HARRIET HOFFMAN

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I loved Mary Bowser, especially her contrariness.  She lived a life that made no separation between the personal and political. She was ruthless and astute in her analyses of the people and events taking place around her. And of course she had enormous courage.  I wish I’d known her.”

Harriet Hoffman is a consultant specializing in grant writing and helping people maximize their Medicare and social security benefits.  She is an activist with  IndependentVoting.org and the New York City Independence Clubs. She is also active with the All Stars Project’s Committee for Independent Community Action.

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 MAUREEN ALBANESE

I had no idea who Mary Bowser was as we Americans are not good at teaching our history certainly not slave history. I want to thank Lois Leveen for giving me a history lesson I didn’t know I really needed.  In reading the book I was awestruck who by a slave who risked everything to get justice for her people.  They say someMaureen Albanese people are born great and other have greatness thrust upon them in Mary Bowser’s case it is both.  Although she was granted freedom and was able to be educated she wasn’t really free.  She realized to be free she would have to take matters in her own hand using a life of lessons learned against those who would enslave her people.  Her foes supposed smarts show they were not the masters of the universe they thought they were.  They never realized that Mary who toiled as a drudge in their midst was the one who ultimately brought them down.  Slavery has not gone away or has the institutional racism that still permeates our society today.  This book should be required reading in every high school in America.  We need to know our history to come to grips with it and this book can help us do that.”

Maureen Albanese is an administrative assistant and activist. She lives in Manhattan.

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HELEN ABEL

I loved this book and read it in 3 days on Kindle. It is a page turner. This is a remarkable story and kudos to the author Lois Leveen for writing such a fascinating and meticulous account of a little known piece of history. Yes it depicts the difference in what racism looked like in the North and South during the era of the Civil War. One of the things that I found interesting was how the house slaves and plantation slaves were treated. Also Mary Bowser was lucky in that one of her masters, the daughter of the plantation was against slavery and helped her get educated and free. It also depicts some of Mary’s conflicts over how slavery was depicted. While it was awful, it wasn’t just people being beaten and hung on a tree which is the way it was portrayed in a lot of the political propaganda of the abolitionists. And since this is historical fiction we don’t know the extent to which Mary might have been abused physically.

She also had a gift of a photographic memory and decided to use that to help end slavery and be a spy.

IMG_7132One of the most astonishing parts of the book for me was how she extended the Civil War by withholding particular information so that slavery would become a main issue for Lincoln and not just preservation of the Union. Was this part true? A possible question for the author.

She was obviously very smart and able to evade detection. However the environment that she was in, i.e. when she lived in Jefferson Davis’s house, shows the level of racism where a black woman slave in particular would never be seen capable of reading, writing or thinking, and definitely not smart enough to be a spy. So she was able to use that to work in her favor. They tried to accuse a white man. And the person who guessed part of her secret was another female slave that she worked with.

As someone who is an activist in the independent political movement it gives the word “perseverance” new meaning. I look forward to other books by this author.”

Helen Abel is a political activist with Independent Voice in California and on staff of Life Performance Coaching in San Francisco.

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Politics for the People

Conference Call

With Author Lois Leveen

Sunday, June 3rd at 7 pm EST.

Join us and Explore

The Secrets of Mary Bowser

641-715-3605 and passcode 767775#

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Reader’s Forum — Vicki Karant

A Review of  The Secrets of Mary Bowser

Vicki KarantLois Leveen has crafted a compelling novel, reconstructing the probable path that Mary Bowser took on her road to becoming a spy in the “Gray House”, the Confederate home of Jefferson Davis and his wife Varina during the American Civil War.  We learn early on that Mary knew that “a slave best keep her talents hidden, feigned ignorance being the greatest intelligence in the topsy-turvy house of bondage.”

By the age of eleven, in Richmond, Virginia, Mary could memorize overheard conversations when company came to visit her slave masters.  Mary was in possession of that most valuable commodity: information, the author observed.  Those around Mary recognized her to be extremely intelligent.  Upon her emancipation by the daughter of her slave owners, Mary’s mother stated to her daughter that she would live a different, special life “not just from mine but from most colored folks.”

Miss Bet, who released Mary from slavery, became her patron, taking her to Philadelphia for a classic, if segregated, education that included math, literature and Latin.  Mary’s years in Philly also introduced her to the world of northern racism where one might be able to go to a department store if one was black but not the opera.  Mary joined the Female Anti-Slavery Society and sewing circle.  There she encountered the snobbishness of lifelong freed blacks who did not understand the realities of slaves’ lives while still working for abolition.  She met Quakers who believed in freeing the slaves but could only allow blacks to sit on separate benches during worship meetings.

Life in Philadelphia enabled Mary to participate in the abolition movement, introducing her to activists.  She attended meetings where the great speakers of the day expounded on the need to end slavery.  More importantly, Mary’s best friend’s family ran a stop on the Underground Railroad.  Mary worked with them in the years before she completed her education.

Upon completion of her schooling and due to the death of her mother and the impending Civil War, Mary returned to Richmond to be with her aging father.  Known as an Secrets of Mary Bowser Bk Coverabolitionist and a risk taker, Mary was approached by a man posing as a slave trader.  In reality he was working to undermine the Confederacy.  He was fully aware of Mary’s sophisticated education and uncanny memory.  When a job appeared in the “Gray House” to be the servant to the wife of the president of the Confederacy, Mary took on the task.

In the years before recording and listening devices, before social media and cable news, Mary used her memorization skills to provide information to the north by being a quietly observant spy.  Her education, both formal and informal, gave her the courage to risk her personal life in the cause of enabling the Union to prevail. She contributed heroically to the cause of abolition.

Dr. Vicki Karant is a retired Social Studies teacher and supervisor.  She has advocated among her students and colleagues, urging the need to vote.  She is committed to expanding the right to vote to independents in primary elections.

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Politics for the People

Conference Call

The Secrets of Mary Bowser

With Author Lois Leveen

Sunday, June 3rd at 7 pm EST.

Call in number:  641-715-3605 

Passcode 767775#

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Reader’s Forum — Jenn Bullock

Ind PA at National Conference

Independent Voting National Conference of Independents 2017 with Nichele Richardson, Stephen Bouikidis, Barb Patrizzi, Melida Davila, and Jenn Bullock of Independent Pennsylvanians

The Secrets of Mary Bowser

Racism in the 1800’s, and beyond.

What it means to be free in the 1800’s, and beyond.

It’s complicated, for Mary Bowser: a smart, inquisitive, courageous black gal turned spy.

Lois Leveen’s The Secrets of Mary Bowser does such a powerful, cutting job at expressing the contradictory, complicated, painful face of racism and classism, southern-style and northern-style.

I so appreciate her willingness to expose the condescension of the progressive white abolitionist movement in her portrayal of Miss Bet, who is Mary’s white savior and who has the white savior complex, not recognizing her own racism.

Mary expresses that there is a certain kind of freedom as a slave in Virginia because she was with beloved family and the race arrangement is known, and experiences a certain kind of bondage in Philadelphia with the class structure:  keeping some free blacks in another sort of chains with limited economic and educational opportunities, while the so-called middle class blacks put on airs to separate themselves from the lowly Negros.

But what I find most powerful, particularly as a white progressive Philadelphian in the new millennium, is Leveen’s unapologetic exposure of northern racism.  Mary, excitedly thinking she could ride the omnibus when she first arrives in free Philadelphia, is kicked off and called nigger.   Mary wonders how could a place so different from Virginia as the city of brotherly love make her feel the same, and even worse than the south.   Then, It took my breath away when her new black associates in Philadelphia challenged Mary, asking what she missed about slavery and the south:   “Who could miss slavery?”  Mary said.  “Only, at least in Richmond, slavery’s the reason why we’re treated so bad.  What’s the reason here?” (p92).

McNeely and Co

An Omnibus features prominently in this 1860 lithograph by William H. Rease of G. H. McNeely

Today, with leadership of Black Lives Matter and Me Too and 43% people identifying as independent while the two major parties maintain control of our democracy, it’s still complicated.   I am so proud to be an activist with Independentvoting.org, and play a role as coordinator of the Pennsylvania affiliate, Independent Pennsylvanians. My work to make elections fair and open in Philadelphia, petitioning on the same streets Mary walked many years ago, with a multi ethnic group of activists is very important to me.

I look forward to finishing the book this week and to the call Sunday.  I will hold close Mary Bowser’s courage and the author’s wonderful rendition of her life.

Jennifer Bullock  is the coordinator of Independent Pennsylvanians.

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Politics for the People

Conference Call

With Author Lois Leveen

Sunday, June 3rd at 7 pm EST.

Join us and Explore

The Secrets of Mary Bowser

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Mary Bowser’s Secrets Are Ours

A Review by Frank Fear

Reading engages you. You start and stop, reflect, make notes, ponder, and visualize, interacting with the text all the while, slowly and progressively.

That experience intensifies when reading historical fiction. You imagine what it was like “back then,” speculate what you might have done, and ponder what the story means in contemporary terms.

Historical transposition was my specialty while reading The Secrets of Mary Bowser. The academic in me enjoyed learning about an important historical figure. But vocation, I soon found, was trumped by something more powerful.

I’ve known hundreds of ‘Mary Bowser’s’ in my life. None of them was as bold in character or as important in history, but they did important things, still.  

Some ‘Mary Bowsers’ turned their backs on privileged positions with institutional accouterments. Others fought from within—as Mary did—as ‘guerillas of the bureaucracy.’

All of them jettisoned chains that had once entrapped them. They stopped playing the role of ‘made-up self’—a self that ‘assumed the position’ and parroted ‘the party line.’ And they all experienced that’ moment: “Enough!” “No more!”

Mary’s ‘secrets’ are theirs, too—and ours—in a collective sense. That’s because social activists share much in common, irrespective of time, place, or issue.

Reaching that conclusion made it possible to align Mary’s story (see text quotes that follow) with stories I’ve heard over the years.

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At the start, Mary and others thought their evolution wouldn’t be difficult.

“I been a slave wishing for freedom my whole life. Being a free woman play-acting as Secrets of Mary Bowser Bk Coverslavery can’t be harder than that.” (p. 48)

But they soon found it wasn’t easy—even after discovering they had companions on this new journey.

“I knew Miss Bet was playing a necessary part in front of our fellow passengers, that she was reminding me of the need for me to play my part as well. But her words stung me hard. As we took our seats, my head hung heavy with loneliness.” (p. 55)

Life quickly turned on its head.

“All my childhood, we in the house were allied in constant conspiracy with Miss Bet. I learned from watching Mama and the rest to smile and nod at her, but then roll eyes and mimic her words once her back was turned…. Now here I was in the North, and about the first thing I had to do was defend her, and to a colored woman.” (p. 66)

It was easy to be angry at this, angry at that, and—especially—angry at self.

“I was angry at that weasel-faced woman for sending me back to that bench, angry at the Quakers for having such a bench at all, angry at the elderly colored man for sitting on that bench for five decades or more…. But I was most angry at myself, for forgetting what Mama and Papa taught me, the thing that guided every moment of my life in Richmond…. I berated myself for not remembering their most important lesson.” (p. 116)

It would have been SO much easier if the targets of angst were always up to no-good. They weren’t, though. They were flawed, though. They’d talk about the real world as if they really knew something about it. But what they offered came mostly from privilege, not practice.

“The slavery I was born into…was very different.” (p. 126)

So how did Mary and my colleagues respond to hogwash? They learned to parse words carefully, that’s what. Speaking out/acting up less was better than speaking out/acting up more—even when egged on.

(Theodore to Mary)

“Your audacity that evening was quite impressive. I was longing to say something to that lot of pompous fops myself.’” (p. 138)

“They’re as predictable as parrots, repeating the same dull phrase over and over.” (p. 144)

“You are as fresh and unspoiled as the first breeze of spring coming through the window of a house that’s been shut up all winter.” (p. 148)

Political viability required cultivating the art of ‘picking one’s spots.’

Yes, the old life was easier. This new life, on the other hand, was chock full of unknowns, risks, and dangers.

“The first time I ever saw McNiven, I’d feared what threat he might be, to Mr. Jones and to me. Now because of him, I’d been in the greatest true peril I ever knew—but he’d had as much to do with getting me out of it as with putting me into it.” (p. 179)

Rather than wilt under pressure, though, they drew strength from peril—strength that was apparent in language. Expressed lyrically, their words were uplifting, grounded in values and lathered with principles.

“We hear folks speaking of compromise, and containing slavery, and preserving the Union. But what is to be compromised, contained, or preserved, for the husband who has a wife in slavery, the mother who has a daughter in slavery, the brother or sister, the child a father?” (p. 198)

“John Brown dies this morning. But Dangerfield Newby is already dead. John Brown did a great thing in the name of justice. But Dangerfield Newby did as great a thing in the name of love. John Brown is an exemplar to many in the struggle to end slavery. But Dangerfield Newby is a hero of our own. It is his death we must mourn, must honor, and must be ready to die ourselves, if need be.” (p. 201) 

This new life was about convictions—convictions shared with kindred spirits, including people they never dreamed would become allies.

“When I first met McNiven, I couldn’t have imagined I’d take pride or comfort in knowing he meant for us to ally together. But back then I couldn’t guessed I’d ever connive to travel back across the Mason and Dixon’s line, either.” (p. 213)

Those associates stood tall, always in opposition to others’ backpedaling and intransigence.

“Compromises. Congress would continue carrying on with its compromises…. Decades and decades of them, and every one made to protect slaveholding.” (p. 229)

How inspiring! It confirmed that ‘the cause’ was right, proper, and just.

“The thing that seeps so sweet and warm it makes you feel like every day is the first day of spring.” (p. 241)

Exuberance was necessary, too. The fight wouldn’t end quickly, no ‘sixty-day war’ (p. 284) would it be. Persistence was required, especially when defeat seemed imminent.

What then?

“I wasn’t about to give up so easily. After all, Mama raised me on a steady regimen of stealth and surreption, especially when it came to doing right by those in need.” (p. 266)

“…Mr. Ralph Emerson’s Essays. I had read them years before, in Philadelphia…. Mr. Emerson’s theme of following one’s moral purpose rather than succumbing to the weight of social convention was inspirational.” (p. 268).

Flowery prose wasn’t enough, though. Skills and capacity were. Getting progressively better at playing one’s role was required to counter “their” ingenuity.

“Sketched on the bottom of the missive was the oddest-looking maritime conveyance I’d ever seen. She had no sails, and most of the hull sat below the squiggly marks meant to show the waterline…. The Virginia was an iron-clad monster of the sea.” (p. 298)

And they did just that.

“A balloon big enough to life men into the air and carry them over the battle lines, so they may observe the Confederate defenses.” (p. 317)

Going to that next level of proficiency often came after a ‘hot button’ was pushed. It fueled anger. The use of duplicitous language was one trigger:

“We do not fight for slavery…. We fight for the right of States to govern themselves.” (p. 311)

Self-serving assertions were another:

“Everything will return to how it was.” (p. 318)

But the worst moments came …

…when they aided what they were fighting against…

“Papa was likely…making bayonet stocks for Confederates to use to impale the very men who were fighting to make him…free.” (p. 334)

…when they recognized that the fight was about many things, not just one…

 “What was smallpox but another form of suffering in a world full of pain and misery? ….Colored or white, the infectious corpses of the smallpox dead met the same ignominious end—the incinerator….” (pp. 343, 346)

…when they realized this fight was unending.

“I realized how vulnerable negroes were, even in their own houses in the North…. Freedom from slavery, maybe, but clearly not freedom from harm.” (pp. 363, 364)

In the face of all that, how far would they go for ‘the cause’? Not as far as you might speculate. Ethics prevail.

“What you describe is a despicable act, and if it occurred as you say, there is no excuse for it. But there is no excuse for us to behave their way, either.” (p. 395)

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Do Independents have a role to play in these dynamics? You bet.

Unencumbered by strictures that otherwise constrain, Independents are society’s best hope for championing ‘the cause,’ that is, serving the public good. There is no higher calling in America’s politics.

Mary understood that.

You do, too.

Many others will.

“The past is the present, isn’t it? It’s the future, too.” Eugene O’Neill

(Cited by L. Leveen, Reader’s Guide, #12, The Secrets of Mary Bowser)

 

frank-fear

Frank A. Fear is professor emeritus, Michigan State University, where he served as a faculty member for thirty-year years and worked in various administrative positions for nearly twenty years. Find him on Twitter @frankfear and on Tumblr, “For the Public Good”.  Frank also writes about issues that intersect sport and society. You can read him at The Sports Column.

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Politics for the People

Conference Call

With Author Lois Leveen

Sunday, June 3rd at 7 pm EST.

Join us and Explore

The Secrets of Mary Bowser

 ***

Reader’s Forum–Melissa Meyer and Ramon Pena

If you have not started reading The Secrets of Mary Bowser, perhaps the Memorial Day Weekend gives you an opportunity to take this rich and rewarding journey.

Below are comments from two Politics for the People members who have just started reading the book.

MELISSA MEYER

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I’ve listened on audio tape to a very small piece of Lois Leveen’s book and her depiction of the life and work of Mary Bowser.

The beauty of Ms. Leveen’s  prose about an ordinary Sunday juxtaposed against the horror and inhumanity of slavery….  To read about the ordinary lives of African Americans loving each other, is a joy…. even as their joyous times are cut short under the control of their slave masters. Ms. Leveen takes you into a moment of history without teaching, but inviting you in.  Thank you!

Melissa Meyer is the Coordinator of International Programs at the East Side Institute in New York City.

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RAMON PENA

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I am enjoying this book although still halfway through.

Two things that I love about Mary is that she always listened as a child. By listening she was becoming educated to the politics of that time. She even continued doing this as an adult.

I also loved her relationship with her father. He loved her dearly and she loved him back. The book is full of these father daughter moments. Thanks Lois Leveen for giving the readers a different kind of story about slavery.

Ramon Pena is a long time independent activist and lives in New Jersey.

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Secrets of Mary Bowser Bk CoverHappy Memorial Day Reading

***

Politics for the People

Conference Call

With Author Lois Leveen

Sunday, June 3rd at 7 pm EST.

Join us and Explore

The Secrets of Mary Bowser

 ***

Reader’s Forum — Steve Hough

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I enjoyed reading Lois Leveen’s historical novel The Secrets of Mary Bowser. While being based on a true life figure, Mary’s story is as incredible as if it had been total fiction. As I had no knowledge of Mary Bowser before, the book affected me on several levels beyond the enjoyment of reading a well-crafted novel.

Much of what has been written about the Civil War chronicles events from a military perspective, but not being a student of such things, I am not surprised I had never heard of Mary Bowser. However, for those who do study military campaigns, intelligence gathering would be an integral part of the story. A former slave, having been freed and educated in Philadelphia, voluntarily returning to Richmond, pretending to be a slave is remarkable. To then become a servant and spy in the Confederate White House is unimaginable. But then, I also had never heard of Katherine Johnson before the movie Hidden Figures was released.

Another surprise was how my visualization of slavery and the antebellum South had been limited to atrocities occurring in the bowels of slave ships, the brutality of Secrets of Mary Bowser Bk Coverplantation life, and the perils faced by those who attempted to escape and by those who aided them. Mary’s experience as an urban house slave of a well-to-do merchant may have been vastly different than those on plantations, but her bondage was nonetheless cruel and inhumane.

I live in the South. I first moved from Southwest Missouri to Florida as a teenager after my parents divorced. That was 1968.  I only lived here for two and a half years before returning to Missouri to finish high school. After joining the Army and living abroad, then moving to California for a few years, I returned in 1987. Much has changed since 1968, but much has remained the same.

Just as Mary experienced segregation and discrimination as a free young lady in Philadelphia, vestiges of the past still afflict many today. Perhaps most prominently, the Jim Crow era manifested the lingering toxic attitudes displayed by whites in the South, however many people of color all across the country are adversely affected by our shared history and an institution abolished long ago.

While we can point to a plethora of anecdotal evidence on a daily basis, comparative data confirms this. Everything from disparities in wealth, quality of education, employment opportunities, and incarceration rates, points to an ongoing struggle for true equality. Our economic and political model imposes arbitrary limits on the resources available across the broad spectrum of society, and a pecking order exists within the context of competition favoring some more than others. While the struggle is not exclusive to communities of color, one cannot help but believe our history plays a role in amplifying the disparities.

That history, and its impact, is still a point of contention and continued debate. From a call for reparations to simply seeking to remove monuments to the Confederacy from prominent public spaces, the ghosts of our past still haunt us.

Steve Hough is a lifelong independent and became an activist for political reform after retiring as an accountant. He is the director of Florida Fair and Open Primaries.

***

Politics for the People

Conference Call

With Author Lois Leveen

Sunday, June 3rd at 7 pm EST.

Join us and Explore

The Secrets of Mary Bowser

 ***

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