"O Holy Night" and the Abolitionist Movement

Note: Interminable Rambling will be taking a break for the next two weeks. We will see you again January 5th.

Did you know that “O Holy Night,” a Christmas carol we sing every year, has ties to the abolitionist movement? I didn’t realize this until recently when I heard the song sung. Typically, performers only sing the first or maybe the first two verses; however, this time I heard the third verse, a stanza that can be seen in an abolitionist light, especially during the years leading up to the Civil War.

In 1847, French composer and music critic Adolphe Adam wrote the music “Cantique de Noël” based off of the poem “Minuit, chrétiens” written by Placide Cappeau. Later, in 1855, John Sullivan Dwight, a Unitarian minister in Boston translated Cappeau’s text and noticed some lines in the third verse that corresponded to his abolitionist beliefs. Sullivan translated the third verse to read: 

The Redeemer has broken every bond:The Earth is free, and Heaven is open.He sees a brother where there was only a slave,Love unites those that iron had chained.Who will tell Him of our gratitude,For all of us He is born, He suffers and dies.

Of particular interest here, of course, are the third and fourth lines. Reading these, it does not seem unrealistic that someone who ardently argued againt slavery in the South would take up the song in relation to the movement. “O Holy Night” has the audience observe Christ’s birth on Christmas day as if they were there. Entwined within this, though, comes a call for equality and respect. “The Redeemer,” Christ, “sees a brother where there was only a slave, Love unites those that iron had chained.” Arguments about the use of Christianity to “civilize” slaves and Native Americans aside, these lines fall right in step with the abolitionist movement. In fact, they even make me think about the “Am I not a man and a brother?” medallion


This led me to recall Frederick Douglass’s description of the holidays in his Narrative. After relating his fight with Covey, Douglass takes a moment to speak about the purpose of the holiday respite from the slave’s and the master’s perspectives. Between Christmas and New Years, the slaves would not have to work in the fields; instead, they either “used or abused it nearly as [they] pleased (81-82). Douglass argues that this practice served as a “safety valve” for the slaves, allowing them “to carry off the rebellious spirit of enslaved humanity” so they will not rise up and overthrow their masters later (82). Douglass even writes, “From what I know of the effect of these holidays upon the slaves, I believe them to be among the most effective means in the hands of the slaveholder in keeping down the spirit of insurrection” (82). 

The holiday season served as a deceitful time where the master allowed respite and relaxation, only to appear benevolent and generous. By letting the slaves get drunk, the masters worked “to disgust their slaves with freedom by plunging them into the lowest depths of dissipation,” making them feel as if they have an inability to care and fend for themselves, thus casting the slaveholder as a benevolent caregiver (83). Rather than giving in to the facade of freedom by drinking, playing games, wrestling, and dancing, Douglass suggests that slaves who remained industrious during the period stung his or master by essentially rejecting the favor the slaveholder bestowed. 

Slaves, in the North and the South, did participate in various festivities, not just at Christmas. In the North, slaves took part in Pass celebrations during Easter and in “Election Day” activities where the community received a day off and voted for a “leader” who would serve as a liason between them and the white community. These celebrations, like the holidays, provided a release, and some semblance of autonomy. However, the freedom that came with the festivities did not last, and life went back to “normal” soon afterwards. 

During this holiday season, listen to the songs you sing and think about their historical relevance. For “O Holy Night,” that historical connection exists within the 1850s and the abolitionist movement, arguing for the rights of enchained slaves. In the comments below, let me know about some songs that may have more meanings than we typically perceive. For more on the holidays and slavery, see Documenting the American South‘s post on “The Slave Experience and the Holidays.”  

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave Written By Himself. New York: Signet, 1997. Print. 

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Dorie Miller, Joe Louis, and World War II

Last week, we remembered December 7, 1941, and that commemoration made me think about the ways that the government used African American bodies, during World War II, to booster morale and support the war effort. Two instances of the government’s deployment of African Americans in “propaganda” posters comes to mind: Dorie Miller and Joe Louis.

 

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Dorie Miller served as a mess attendant on the USS West Virginia. As the attack commenced, Miller dropped the laundry he was cleaning, rushed on deck, and took command of a machine gun, shooting down two Japanese planes. As well, he rescued a wounded captain. All of this does not sound out of the ordinary for a soldier; however, as an African American, Miller did not receive formal combat training and was relegated to specific duties in the Navy, non of which involved combat. Jennifer James notes that the War Department initially refused to recognize Miller’s heroic deeds until the African American press took up the story. James continues, “In a move both crass and ironic, the War Department then appropriated his name for military propaganda, issuing a poster featuring a drawing of the brawny Miller from the chest up, the slogan, ‘above and beyond the call of duty’ floating loftily above the sailor’s head” (168). When Miller served their purposes, the government chose to provide him with accolades and appropriate him as a symbol of the war effort.

Driving this point home even more, Gwendolyn Brooks’s “Negro Hero/ to suggest Dorie Miller” (1945) highlights the hypocrisy found in the guise of Liberty. The poem opens with Miller blatantly commenting on the fact that he had to break the law in order to save those that he did: “I had to kick their law into their teeth in order to save them” (19). Denied combat training by law, Miller had to deal with the men who refused him any equality. Later, Miller speaks of his love, one that goes against the Liberty he swore to protect: “Their white-gowned democracy was my fair lady,/ With her knife lying cold, straight, in the softness of her/ sweet-flowing sleeve” (20). “Their” democracy, one that Miller strives to maintain, hides something sinister underneath its flowing robes, a knife poised to strike at him if he gets too close. James views this image as the fears that white men harbored regarding the violation of white women by African American men. She says, “If the chaste white female body is a sign of nation, as Brooks’s invocation suggests, any desire on the part of black men to access citizenship becomes an act akin to violation, nothing less than a political rape” (169).

Like Miller, the government also enlisted Joe Louis as a face for its “propaganda” posters. Louis, a world famous boxer, defeated Germany’s Max Schmeling in 1938, a fight that pitted Germany against the USA. When America entered World War II, Louis enlisted and went to Fort Riley, Kansas. There, he trained with future Brooklyn Dodger Jackie Robinson. In fact, it could be argued that Louis provided the spark that allowed Robinson, and other African American soldiers, to become a commissioned officer. When the military rejected a commission for Robinson, Louis refused to do anything to promote the war effort. Even with this pull, though, Louis experienced Jim Crow restrictions at Camp Silbert in Alabama. Waiting for a cab with another boxer in the bus station, Military Police arrested them because the pair were not sitting in the “Colored” section of the terminal.

Despite all of this, the government still used Louis’s image prominently in their war campaign. The poster above shows Louis poised to impale someone or something with his bayonet, and the words “We’re going to do our part. . . and we’ll win because we’re on God’s side” appears at the bottom. Are these words actually Louis’s? Despite all of the subjugation he experiences in Kansas and Alabama, could these words be his? No matter the answer to that question, the words signify a untied front, one where the entire country takes part in fighting for freedom and liberty. Through these displays of Louis and Miller, the government makes them into “disposable” images, ones that serve a “greater” purpose.
Reading Nikky Finney’s “The Battle of and for the Black Face Boy” made me think of these instances even more. Finney’s libretto crosses time and space, tracing the restriction of African American bodies throughout our nation’s existence. At two points, she draws upon the image of recruitment posters. While these references specifically zero in on the Civil War, I would argue that they cross time and space to even involve the second Great War. Opening the Civil War, the narrative voice commands, “Step forward nigger! Save your country! The Recruitment poster rings out!” (49) Of course, the irony here is that the country that needs saving does not recognize the African American body; in fact, it takes to calling that body contraband. Later, the voice proclaims, “General Lee paints graffiti on a recruitment poster when no one is looking. Just underneath the black face he writes, whispering as he scrawls, ‘You are now and forever our great disposable!’” (50) The body serves as nothing more than a tool to be used, and once it serves its purpose, it becomes worthless.
In many ways, Finney’s poem highlights what happened with Dorie Miller and Joe Louis during the war. As stated earlier, Miller and Louis become “disposable.” What are your thoughts on this topic? How do the discussions above correlate to DuBois’s call for the Double V Campaign (victory at home and abroad)? Let me know in the comments below.m
Brooks, Gwendolyn. “Negro Hero/ to suggest Dorie Miller.” Selected Poems: Gwendolyn Brooks. New York: Harper Perennial, 1963. 19-21.
Finney, Nikky. “The Battle of and for the Black Face Boy.” Oxford American 90 Fall 2015: 44-59.
James, Jennifer C. A Freedom Bought With Blood: African American War Literature from the Civil War to World War II. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

Interview with Genaro Kỳ Lý Smith on “The Land Baron’s Sun”

Last post, I wrote about Genaro Kỳ Lý Smith’s The Land Baron’s Sun. Today, I am sharing a recent interview I conducted with Smith. In the video above, Smith talks more about his grandfather and reads two poems from The Land Baron’s Sun.

Leave a comment below by 7:00 AM CST on December 15 to be entered for a chance to win an autographed copy of The Land Baron’s Sun for Christmas. I will choose the winner next Tuesday with a random generator. 

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In the acknowledgements of The Land Baron’s Sun, you write about Darrell Bourque telling you that your grandfather’s “story needs to be heard” because it is an important story to everyone. What makes Lý Loc’s story so significant?

Lý Loc came from a privileged life: inherited land from his father who was only known as the land baron (to this day, my mother does not know his name), had seven wives, twenty-seven children, seven houses (1 per wife), mistresses to go with each wife; he was a major commander for the South Vietnamese Army.  When the Fall of Saigon occurred, he lost everything to the point of writing my mother a few years later asking for money, food, medicine, and clothes.  It is a tragic story that needs to be told.  The idea of someone who had it all to living as a pauper is and has always been an intriguing story.  Also, had I not known about his seven wives or his privileged lifestyle, his story would have died with my mother.  The goal therefore was to resurrect his life, the lives of his wives and their children.  The purpose of writing the book was to leave his legacy.  I simply did not want him to die.

You dedicate “Ghost Stories: Ái” to Robert Olen Butler whose book A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (1992) tells the stories of Vietnamese immigrants to Louisiana. What, if anything, did you take away from Butler when writing The Land Baron’s Sun? What other writers inspired or influenced you overall?
Honestly, I was envious of Robert Olen Butler’s ability to tell stories from the point of view of Vietnamese people/characters.  It forced me to learn about the mindset of immigrants and how they had to assimilate in America.  Butler understood my culture, history, and the language better than me, and I wanted to reach that level of immersing the readers into my country, my culture, my people.  It finally happened in 2002 when I sent a couple of fiction pieces to Neil Connelly, a McNeese alumnus and author of 4 books, who told me, “I kept forgetting you were half Vietnamese.  In reading your work, I thought I was reading a person who lived his whole life in Vietnam, a person who was a full blooded Vietnamese.  I had to keep reminding myself that you are half.”  That has always been my goal: to make people think they are reading someone who is completely Vietnamese.  Nam Le, author of The Boat, is able to do so in his collection of short stories whereby in one story it is from the point of view of a Vietnamese creative writing student, in another he is a white female visiting a former college friend in Iran, or a white teenager in Australia, in another a teenage Columbian assassin, and so forth.  He understands the language of “others” so well that you forget Nam Le is Vietnamese.

Before I read Mike Tidwell’s Bayou Farwell (2003), I did not realize the Vietnamese immigration that took place. I knew there was a large Vietnamese population, even in north Louisiana, but I did not realize some of the reasons for the migration, specifically, until I read Tidewell’s book. In “The Bottom Dreamers: Tú Đức, Minh, Thanh, and Bảo” and “Fidéle” you present immigrants to two very distinct regions of Louisiana: the Gulf Coast and the I-20 corridor. How were the experiences of the characters in these two poems different or similar?
I grew up in a section of Los Angeles I called “Asia Minor,” which appears in the upcoming novel The Land South of the Clouds.  We had an enclave of our own made up of Chinese, Philippine, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese women married to American men.  However, there were “outsiders” who wanted to convert us religiously, or tried their hardest to make us assimilate, but we wanted to do so on our own terms, at our own pace.  On the opposite end, there were those who did not want us to assimilate and just go away.  Vietnamese people for the most part settled according to their trade.  For instance, if you were skillful at fishing, you settled in the regions near the Gulf of Mexico or in the Pacific Northwest.  Also, they settled according to climate:  Louisiana’s humid climate is similar to Vietnam’s, for instance.  But you take New Orleans, for instance, or any parish in the southern regions of Louisiana, and it looks like home to them.  New Orleans, Grand Coteau, Lafayette, and many other places are influenced by French architecture and also by Catholicism, and so they easily identified with that since Vietnam was colonized for 100 years by the French.  New Orleans is a mirror image of Saigon, Cholon, Nha Trang, and so many other cities and villages.

Throughout The Land Baron’s Sun, the landscape takes on the appearance of God. In “Vacation,” Lý Loc describes the road to the beach as “the back of God’s hand” and the backdrop as “God’s spine.” Elsewhere, the cave in Italy where Michelle Jolibois experiences he sexual awakening appears like the mouth of God yawning with His molars on full display. How does the landscape and spirituality intermingle within these poems? Is there an intermingling?
There is an intermingling of landscape and religion.  We see it every day.  Some people, most people, I believe, take it for granted and don’t realize the magnitude of His creation, the beauty, bounty provided for us.  They’re all at our disposal to use for the greater good, and oftentimes, we don’t give thanks.  This intermingling of the landscape and God has been so prevalent with Southern literature, and I notice it with Asian literature:  the idea of Asians being thankful for what the land has provided for them to sustain their lives through Buddha or God.  I wanted to treat the landscape as something sacred and personal as faith.   I also treat the landscape as though it were a woman:  beautiful, and we want to covet it/her.  But through our actions, we rape the land, mistreat the land, and a woman’s body, to me, is something I cherish and worship, though I know that sounds sacrilegious.

After reading Ernest J. Gaines, William Faulkner, and other Southern authors, I am always drawn to the use of dust in literature. Sometimes it’s just used as a descriptive item and nothing more; however, with poetry, where every word means so much, dust appears in “The Land Baron’s Sun,” a poem that shows Lý Loc’s “collecting” rent from his tenants. After the father collects sex for the rent, the boys gathered outside resume their playing, “filling the morning with laughter and rising dust” as they chase the ball around the yard and “kick up a storm of dust that linger/ among the trees, coating the pears.” Does the dust have a significance here? Or, is it just a descriptive word for the scene? I ask this because the scene makes me think of Gaines’s Of Love and Dust (1967) where dust chokes out the idea of love amongst the characters. 
Dust plays a significant role in my faith and writing.  We often see it as decay, and in a sense, in “The Land Baron’s Sun” when Lý Loc sees his father “collecting” the rent from a female tenant, there is that shattering or decaying of his innocence when espying something he does not understand.  But dust represents a rebirth, and I’ve always been intrigued by the concept that something can be reborn or recreated from the dust and ruins.  His idea of who his father is has been shattered, and from this incident he is reborn in a sense, and he becomes his father later in the book, but he also becomes a better father and husband than his father ever was.

Reading The Land Baron’s Sun, I couldn’t help but think about the ways that the experiences of Vietnamese immigrants and African Americans overlapped in the South during the mid to late part of the twentieth century. This becomes apparent in the “The Bottom Dreamers: Tú Đức, Minh, Thanh, and Bảo,” “Fidéle,” and “The Shape of Things.” Do you see similarities between these experiences?
The similarities are always the same: trying to recreate themselves in a new environment, in a new country but also holding onto their roots.  “Fidéle” was inspired by an incident where a couple took walks every early evening, and they invited my mom to come to their church.  This went on for several weeks until she agreed only if they would attend her temple for service to see how she worshipped.  I just see the hypocrisy in religious people and it doesn’t matter what the religion:  you want my mom or anyone to come to your church but when invited to do the same, you decline.  That has always stuck with me.  Because we’re minorities, because we exist in a dominant society, it’s like we have to reeducate ourselves in coexisting with different people.  What we’re also doing is trying to ingratiate ourselves so that we are not discriminated against, and it’s not just with blacks, and Asians, but anyone, anyone who is not white.

Food plays an important role in The Land Baron’s Sun. The first poem, “In the House of Snails,” sees Lý Loc’s seven wives gathered in the kitchen plucking “snails from their spiraled homes.” Elsewhere, in the reeducation camp, Lý Loc recalls the food he eat at home. What is the importance of food within the context of the poems?
Food or eating is a sacred act.  We wash our hands before we eat, we say grace before we take the first bite, and so I wanted to show the importance of being nourished not just by food but through what is a sacred act: eating.  What I also wanted to show is this juxtaposition or contrast of a time before the fall of Saigon where “plenty” is set before them in “great abundance,” and so with the first poem, they have all they could ever ask for, or all they could ever consume.  It portrays a time of leisure, of gathering as a family unit, and then of course with the fall, that abundance is absent and the characters are starving physically, religiously, and spiritually.  When you’re reduced to eating just rice and greens, your body and mind pine for what you’ve always enjoyed: fish, pork, beef, chicken, ducks.

Part III, “What of My Wives and Children,” chronicles Lý Loc’s loved ones as they either remain in Vietnam or migrate elsewhere. This section confronts the idea of the American Dream head on, presenting the immigrant experience in Louisiana specifically. Rather than becoming the land of opportunity that would provide a better life, America suffocates even more. The collection even concludes with the image of fish in a market stall. Their mouths open, “only to discover the world outside their oceans/ is empty of the promise of breathing.” For me, these lines comment on the American Dream. For you, should we even still consider the idea of the American Dream as something that everyone, immigrants and citizens, can attain? Are their fallacies with the very principal of that dream? 
There are fallacies with the American Dream just like The Great Migration for Negroes.  There are those who go through the right channels, work hard, and discipline themselves, and many obtain the dream.  There are plenty of stories of immigrants achieving the American Dream.  Look at Marco Rubio, for example.  However, some gain the dream through ill and illegal actions because of outside forces that prevent them from obtaining it the right way.  And then there are those who try but fail due to circumstances, or by the dominant culture obstructing their paths.  There are laws they do not understand or do not know exist that could have aided them in receiving a better education, better housing, better line of employment, just an overall better standard of living.  What troubles me is that there are those will be born poor and starving, born without being exposed to the simplest things like art, film, and literature, and they will die poor and starving and never learning the aesthetics of watching classics, traveling abroad for vacation, or reading a poem and be moved by it.  And that is what inspired the lines regarding the world outside their oceans empty with the promise of breathing.  There is this suffocation they only know, and that is the sad part about living:  existing one way and never being exposed to something positive, fulfilling, satisfying, joyful, something that is out of their grasp.

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Leave a comment below by 7:00 AM CST on December 15 to be entered for a chance to win an autographed copy of The Land Baron’s Sun for Christmas. I will choose the winner next Tuesday with a random generator.