We have a ‘voluntary’mock A level today. Students choose their poison and are given a suitable question with mark scheme to use around 2 hours. They should write and review and assess… My students received this unseen, from Albion Tourgee’s novel which considers how the ‘reconstruction’ period post-bellum went so badly wrong and led to the freed slaves receiving little freedom in actuality.
The passage and my mark sheet/scheme are below.
Write a critical appreciation of this passage, relating your discussion to your reading of American Literature 1880–1940.
Albion Tourgee – Bricks Without Straw
“Wal, I ‘clar, now, jes de quarest ting ob ’bout all dis matter o’ freedom is de way dat it sloshes roun’ de names ‘mong us cullud folks. H’yer I lib ober on de Hyco twenty year er mo’–nobody but ole Marse Potem an’ de Lor’, an’ p’raps de Debble beside, know ‘zackly how long it mout hev been–an’ didn’t hev but one name in all dat yer time. An’ I didn’t hev no use for no mo’ neither, kase dat wuz de one ole Mahs’r gib me hisself, an’ nobody on de libbin’ yairth nebber hed no sech name afo’ an’ nebber like to agin. Dat wuz allers de way ub ole Mahs’r’s names. Dey used ter say dat he an’ de Debble made ’em up togedder while he wuz dribin’ roun’ in dat ole gig ‘twixt de diff’ent plantations–on de Dan an’ de Ro’noke, an’ all ’bout whar de ole cuss could fine a piece o’ cheap lan”, dat would do ter raise niggers on an’ pay for bringin’ up, at de same time. He was a powerful smart man in his day, wuz ole Kunnel Potem Desmit; but he speshully did beat anythin’ a findin’ names fer niggers. I reckon now, ef he’d ‘a hed forty thousan’ cullud folks, men an’ wimmen, dar wouldn’t ha’ been no two on ’em hevin’ de same name. Dat’s what folks used ter say ’bout him, ennyhow. Dey sed he used ter say ez how he wasn’t gwine ter hey his niggers mixed up wid nobody else’s namin’, an’ he wouldn’t no mo’ ‘low ob one black feller callin’ ob anudder by enny nickname ner nothin’ ub dat kine, on one o’ his plantations, dan he would ob his takin’ a mule, nary bit. Dey du say dat when he used ter buy a boy er gal de berry fust ting he wuz gwine ter du wuz jes ter hev ’em up an’ gib ’em a new name, out ‘n out, an’ a clean suit ob close ter ‘member it by; an’ den, jes by way ob a little ‘freshment, he used ter make de oberseer gib ’em ten er twenty good licks, jes ter make sure ob der fergittin’ de ole un dat dey’d hed afo’. Dat’s what my mammy sed, an’ she allers ‘clar’d dat tow’rd de las’ she nebber could ‘member what she was at de fus’ no more’n ef she hed’nt been de same gal.
“All he wanted ter know ’bout a nigger wuz jes his name, an’ dey say he could tell straight away when an’ whar he wuz born, whar he’d done lived, an’ all ’bout him. He war a powerful man in der way ob names, shore. Some on ’em wuz right quare, but den agin mos’ all on ’em wuz right good, an’ it war powerful handy hevin’ no two on ’em alike. I’ve heard tell dat a heap o’ folks wuz a takin’ up wid his notion, an’ I reckon dat ef de s’rrender hed only stood off long ’nuff dar wouldn’t ‘a been nary two niggers in de whole State hevin’ de same names. Dat _would_ hev been handy, all roun’!
“When dat come, though, old Mahs’r’s plan warn’t nowhar. Lor’ bress my soul, how de names did come a-brilin’ roun’! I’d done got kinder used ter mine, hevin’ bed it so long an’ nebber knowin’ myself by any udder, so’t I didn’t like ter change. ‘Sides dat, I couldn’t see no use. I’d allers got ‘long well ’nuff wid it–all on’y jes once, an’ dat ar wuz so long ago I’d nigh about forgot it. Dat showed what a debblish cute plan dat uv ole Mahs’r’s was, though.
“Lemme see, dat er wuz de fus er secon’ year atter I wuz a plow-boy. Hit wuz right in de height ob de season, an’ Marse War’–dat was de oberseer–he sent me to der Cou’t House ob an ebenin’ to do some sort ob arrant for him. When I was a comin’ home, jes about an hour ob sun, I rides up wid a sort o’ hard-favored man in a gig, an’ he looks at me an’ at de hoss, when I goes ter ride by, mighty sharp like; an’ fust I knows he axes me my name; an’ I tole him. An’ den he axes whar I lib; an’ I tole him, “On de Knapp-o’-Reeds plantation.”
POINTS WORTHY OF CONSIDERATION
- Date: 1880 post civil war, rebuilding of the South. A time of potential for growth in the Black community of former slaves.
- Many opposed this and action by white supremacists was common and brutal.
- Many black citizens remained de facto slaves.
- Beginning of a vast economic boom in the Northern states, based on the industrial revolution and coming of the railway.
- Infrastructure of defeated South was in a state of collapse.
- Locus: The South between the Dan and Roanoke rivers – in a slave state
- Character talks of the need to find ‘piece o’ cheap lan’ – to raise ‘niggers and to pay for itself. Cheap suggests an unwillingness to engage beyond the basic investment.
- Recalls ‘plantation’ life – slavery
- Recalls in first person narrative, the time of slavery – some 20 years before, at least. Thus an adult, probably at least 30 yrs old. Possibly older. His name ‘hevin’ bed it so long’… suggests an older man. Is puzzled: ‘de quarest ting ob ‘bout all dis matter of freedom’…
- Memories based on hearsay – ‘day du say’
- Mother has died – ‘tow’rd de las’ – orphan?
- Bearing witness? Looking back with a degree of wistful longing for a past time?
- Focus of the passage seems to be names and identity – speaker takes pride in the plan of ‘Mahs’r Kunnel Potem Desmit’ to adopt individual names.
- Potem: suggests power from the Latin ‘Potentia’
- Speaker has no need for extra names, having only one – believes no slave would share a name and sees this as convenient – a curious and rather romantic notion given that the names remove identities and prevent family lines developing. We never learn his name.
- Speaks/writes in vernacular – suggests uneducated though not ignorant.
- ‘Kunnel Desmit’ – Colonel suggests military man and therefore a high figure in the Confederate hierarchy.
- Linked to God by association: ‘Ol’ Mahr’s Potem an’ de Lord…’ ‘he an’ the Debble made em up togedder’… is God/mater over his slaves and gave names in the same way as ‘Man gave names to all the animals’, reflecting Adam in Eden in the Genesis myth, thus establishing the slave owner as Adam, controlling a metaphorical Eden.
- Wealthy – 40,000 cullud folks
- Care and brutality mix – a ‘clean suit’ and ‘ten er twenty good licks’. Speaker does not seem to find anything wrong in the whipping.
- References to ‘time of freedom’ and ‘s’rrender’ suggest the speaker is reviewing the old practices in the light of recent events. Note that he does not wish the surrender had not happened, he just sees the opportunity for individual names to have been lost because it came too soon. Speaker sees the plan as ‘cute’
- Has total authority, supported by an overseer: ‘Marse War’ – the use of ‘Marse’ reinforces the sense of slave/master although the time of writing is one of freedom.
- ‘’hard favoured’ man who frightens the boy in the story – he wants to ride by ‘mighty sharp like’. Passage ends with obedient recital of where he lives.
- Religious motifs suggest a God-fearing man
- Establishes Master/Slave relationship of ante Bellum years
- Not critical of the master
- Focuses on discussion of names and is unaware of the effect of isolation and separation
- Desmit’s actions – the naming and the brutality are told briefly and without emotion
- Passage ends with the beginning of a recalled narrative: a journey to the Court House and a meeting with the master.
- Grammatically correct – not ignorant
- Conversational – use of subordination for little extra information
- Some individual use of coinage or reuse of words – ‘sloshes roun’ ‘come a-brilin’ roun’!’
- Acknowledges ideas as hear-say – gives authority to his voice
- Direct speech.
- Emancipation responses
- Naming as identity and source of self-awareness/ownership
- Concept of freedom for the slaves
- Attitudes to freedom might be surprising…
- White authors adopting a black vernacular -Twain
- Discussion of slavery and of Race usually focuses on sense of injustice – this does not – Twain, Native Son…
- Southern Hierarchy – Colonel: cf Twain. Power lies in the hands of the wealthy and the high ranked – in a time such as this, that suggests the military, rather than aristocracy.
- Ownership of slaves
- America as a fractured society
- Identity – names and shifts thereof
 Bob Dylan: Slow Train Coming, 1979, side 2 track 4.