J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, March 07, 2014

“Enough to Terrify Any Person”?

Kellie Carter Jackson at Harvard recently posted an essay at WBUR’s Cognoscenti opinion site invoking the Boston Massacre as a touchstone for some of our current debates about racial stereotypes. Jackson tied John Adams’s method of defending the soldiers in the Massacre trial to recent conflicts that started with a belief that law-abiding black men or boys looked threatening:
When presenting his case, Adams described the men killed as “a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and molattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jack tarrs.” To put this in contemporary language, he was basically describing the men as nothing more than a group of “thugs.” He centered his defense of the British soldiers on the charge that [Crispus] Attucks struck the first blow and led the “dreadful carnage.” Adams concluded the “mad behavior” of Attucks provoked the soldiers’ response, claiming that the group was “under the command of a stout molatto fellow, whose very looks, was enough to terrify any person.”

This defense sounds eerily familiar. . . .

Adams emphasizes Attucks’ race several times within his summation. Why would this emphasis be important? Moreover, why is Attucks’s behavior alone singled out? Why, of the several men killed, is Attucks the only one we know? Furthermore, why is Attucks physical description the primary focus of the threat? . . .

It is clear that in over 250 years of history, the racially charged perceptions of black men as bearers of a physique so innately menacing that their “looks” alone are “enough to terrify any person” has not changed. The Attucks case provides an implied precedent that powerfully explains the lack of justice present when whites cite self-defense in criminal cases against black people.
Attucks was in the front ranks of a big, angry, violent crowd. He was carrying a stick of cord wood, and on the way to King Street he’d pressed a similar club into the hands of another man, Patrick Keaton. Witnesses reported him grabbing a soldier’s bayonet and “twitching” it, and shouting, “Kill the dogs! Knock them over!” Adams was right to describe Attucks as threatening because he, and those other guys, were threatening the soldiers.

On the other hand, Adams singled out Attucks from that large crowd and all those other aggressive men. Someone else threw the stick that knocked down Pvt. Edward Montgomery and set off the shooting. Adams clearly played off stereotypes of “negroes and molattoes,” as well as the other social outsiders he named, for the sake of the (all or mostly Irish) solders he was defending.

Furthermore, the evidence that Attucks was threatening just highlights the difference between his behavior and that of the boys and men killed in recent incidents, as Jackson discusses: Trayvon Martin, walking home alone from a store; Jonathan Ferrell, seeking help after an auto accident; and Jordan Davis, sitting in a car with friends. None of them was at the head of a riotous mob or carrying a club.

Jackson is quite right that the stereotype of frightening black males has very old roots. As just one piece of evidence, on 1 Nov 1769 Boston’s selectmen swore in a special new Constable of the Watch with this instruction:
6thly. You are to take up all Negroes Indian and Molatto Slaves that may be absent from their masters House after nine o’Clock at Night and passing the Streets unless they are carrying Lanthorns with light Candles and can give a good and satisfactory Account of their Business that such offenders may be proceeded with according to Law.
Since it was impossible to tell if a person of color was free or enslaved just by appearance, that meant the town watchmen were supposed to stop all blacks and Natives walking at night and demand to know their business.

That was less than a year after Samuel Adams had written to the Boston Gazette objecting to how army sentries were stopping (white) people: “to call upon every one, who passes by, to know Who comes there as the phrase is, I take it to be in the highest degree impertinent, unless they can shew a legal authority for so doing.” But black or Native people, simply by walking outside at night, were seen as threats to the town. Those people didn’t even have to be at the head of a crowd of angry men.

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