If you are at all interested in Native American or Early American literature, I would highly recommend reading Philip F. Gura’s biography of William Apess (Pequot). The Life of William Apess, Pequot chronicles Apess’s life based partly on Apess’s own writings but also on historical documents such as newspapers, correspondence, and other items. Gura takes all of this information and paints a portrait of Apess that further solidifies the activist’s importance in our understanding of American history and literature by showing how Apess existed within the specific miles of early nineteenth century America and how he worked tirelessly to argue for the rights of his own people and other Native American tribes, from the Mashpee to the Cherokee.
There are many aspects of Apess’s life and career that are worth more in-depth discussion, and those are the aspects that I want to briefly explore today. The most interesting aspect of Apess’s career, and the one that I have written about before, deals with his interaction with the abolitionist movement and more specifically with participants in that movement. As I have mentioned before, William Lloyd Garrison repeatedly put notices for Apess’s lectures in his abolitionist newspaper The Liberator. This, however, is only the tip of the iceberg. While now concrete evidence exists, at least to this point, that Apess came into contact with African American activists such as David Walker, Hosea Easton, Maria Stewart, and others, Gura makes the point that it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Apess interacted with, or at least heard and knew of, these individuals.
Gura does not spend an exorbitant amount of time on the links between Apess and these other activists; this is partly understandable because the book serves as a biography and not as a literary analysis. In this respect, Gura mirrors Maureen Konkle’s and others quick mentions of the possible connections between activists like Apess and Easton. Even though we know that each of these authors focus on the rights of oppressed groups, when we delve into the texts in greater length than Grua does, we discover that each of these authors have similarities on the rhetorical level that need to be examined. I examine these rhetorical connections in relation to the influence of Scottish Enlightenment rhetoric in “We wish to plead our own cause”: Rhetorical Links Between Native Americans and African Americans during the 1820s and 1830s.
In my work, I discuss the ways that Apess and Easton both draw on the idea of sympathy to highlight the “psychological disposition, historically formed, [that] had to be eliminated” (Gura 59). Both authors describe the ways that language and wide held beliefs of the inferiority of “colored” people led to psychological indoctrination of the racist ideas in the minds of whites and oppressed groups. Apess does this in his autobiography A Son of the Forest and other writings. In his autobiography Apess relates a childhood story where, as an indentured servant, he was picking berries in the forest and came across a couple of “dark skinned” women. Perceiving them to be “Indians,” he ran home to his master scared that they would harm him. His fears arose from the negative images that his master and other whites painted of Native Americans. Elsewhere, Apess rejects the use of the disparaging term “Indian,” pointing out its negative effects on the psyche of those who say it and hear it.
Likewise, Easton, in his A Treatise on the Intellectual Character, and Civil and Political Condition of the Colored People of the U. States; and the Prejudice Exercised towards Them: With a Sermon of the Duty of the Church to Them (1837), highlights the dangerous effects of words, in his case “nigger.” Easton writes, “Negro or nigger, is an opprobrious term, employed to impose contempt upon them as an inferior race, and also to express their deformity of person” (105). He then proceeds to discuss the way the term becomes a marker through its use in describing body parts, seats of discipline in schools, and as a specter who could come and discipline or take away a child when he or she becomes unruly. All of these uses, among whites, becomes “most disastrous upon the mind of the community; having been instructed from youth to look upon a black man in no other light than a slave, and having associated that idea the low calling of a slave, they cannot look upon him in any other light” (108).
What I did not consider upon first researching the connections between Easton and Apess was each activist’s relation to the Methodist ministry. Grua notes that both men become linked together because each on did not have the ability to ascend to permanent places within the church ministry because of their race. When I begin to expand on this work, I plan to look at this aspect, especially in relation to the continued idea of sympathy and sentimentalism. What are your thoughts? What other links do you see between the authors mentioned in this post? As usual, let me know in the comments below.
Note: Hosea Easton was possibly mixed race (African American and Wompanoag).
Easton, Hosea. To Heal the Scourge of Prejudice: The Life and Writings of Hosea Easton. Eds. George R. Price and James Brewer Stewart. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999.
Gura, Philip F. The Life of William Apess, Pequot. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2015.