Abolition and the Wild Goose Festival – Melvin Bray

The United States government’s support of slavery was based on an overpowering practicality. In 1790, a thousand tons of cotton were being produced every year in the South. By 1860, it was a million tons. In the same period, 500,000 slaves grew to 4 million. [How’s that for workforce efficiency: 1000 times the output for only 8 times the investment!] A system harried by slave rebellions and conspiracies (Gabriel Prosser, 1800; Denmark Vesey, 1822; Nat Turner, 1831) developed a network of controls in the southern states, backed by the laws, courts, armed forces, and [the unabashedly articulated] race prejudice of the nations’s political leaders.

It would take either a full-scale slave rebellion or a full-scale war to end such a deeply entrenched system. If a rebellion, it might get out of hand, and turn its ferocity beyond slavery to the most successful system of capitalist enrichment in the world. If a war, those who made the war would organized its consequences. Hence, it was Abraham Lincoln who freed the slaves, not John Brown. In 1859, John Brown was hanged, with federal complicity, for attempting to do by small-scale violence what Lincoln would do by large-scale violence [just a few] years later–end slavery.

Howard Zinn, “Slavery Without Submission, Emancipation Without Freedom,” A People’s History of the United States

Zinn’s analysis of the abolition of slavery knocked me on my ass. I’ve heard several analyses of what brought slavery to an end and why, but I wasn’t prepared for this one. Thus, my one word commentary–DAMN!

Zinn’s A People’s History is the first history text I’ve ever undertaken of my own volition to read from cover to cover. It is an emotionally difficult book to read by myself. It’s actually depressing at times to see how much we think of as new or breakthrough that just isn’t. As a nation, we’ve been on the same treadmill for a while in regards to many things. Every once and a while we’ll jump off, pick the treadmill up and relocate it, but I’ve had to accept that much of that movement is lateral. For instance, the run up to the 2001 US War in Iraq was in broad strokes identical to the run-up to the US Mexican War of 1845.  In similitude, post-Revolution American cities saw their own Occupy movements silenced with the same authoritarian prerogative being exercised now.

So too we see in the instigation of the US Civil War a pattern and purpose that has since repeated itself time and time again. Zinn continues his insight, “With slavery abolished by order of the government–true, a government pushed hard to do so, by blacks, free and slave, and by white abolitionists–its end could be orchestrated so as to set limits to emancipation. Liberation from the top would go only so far as the interests of the dominant groups permitted. If carried further by the momentum of war, the rhetoric of a crusade, it could be pulled back to a safer position. Thus, while the ending of slavery led to a reconstruction of national politics and economics, it was not a radical reconstruction, but a safe one–in fact, a profitable one.”

In light of Zinn’s incisive analysis, the failures of American societal integration and other attempts of sub-set diversification since all make sense. Diversification fails when it is managed so as to be “orderly” or “non-offensive” or “fair” to the already privileged because these purposes smack of the very fear and prejudice and preservation of power that diversification is meant to overcome. To abolish the tyranny of inequity, one must also abolish the purposes for which that tyranny was established: one must die to them… daily.

This brings me to the Wild Goose Festival. Ours is not the first attempt to make room for everyone to celebrate a common hope in faith, music, art and social justice. What may be distinctive, however, is that we have caught in the wind two course correctives from our lead goose, the one we’re chasing. One is that the festival is not ours alone. The other, that at its best the festival will privilege those routinely (historically) underprivileged at other such gatherings.

The implication seems pretty straight forward enough: extend ownership of the festival to those routinely underprivileged who are most committed to making room for everyone else. But once articulated, it dawns on me how seldom this is done. Most often those privileged within a particular construct try to accommodate others without abdicating power (power is privilege; privilege is power), which creates a tokenistic dynamic that inevitably breeds resentment, alienation and contention.

Read the rest of Melvin’s post on his blog here.

Wild Goose board member Melvin Bray is a devoted husband, committed father, learner, teacher, writer, storyteller, lover of people, connoisseur of creativity, purveyor of sustainability and believer in possibilities.  He’s deeply engaged in helping to shape the festival as a safe space for dangerous conversation, at which we learn to own the parts of ourselves that may oppress others, and find space to express the parts that may be wounded.


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