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, February 08, 2008

Further Thoughts on the Figure of Oscar Marion

Back in December 2006, I linked to a news report about a U.S. Senate ceremony about John Blake White’s painting “General Marion Inviting a British Officer to Share His Meal,” and specifically about the identification of a black serving man in that painting as Oscar Marion.

I took issue with the ceremony’s description of that man’s “devoted and selfless consecration to the service of our country,” on the grounds that we don’t know his real desires and motivations because he was enslaved. He was forced to serve Gen. Francis Marion, and thus forced to serve the U.S. of A. While Oscar Marion might have supported the American cause if he’d been free, to imply that he made a free choice to do so seems to erase his individuality rather than reclaim it.

My next few posts will follow up on some historical questions surrounding the figure of Oscar Marion. First, I’ll note that other writers reacted to the 2006 ceremony with questions similar to mine. On his blog entitled Acting White, James C. Collier wrote:

It pings odd that a black slave, with no rights as the property of another, should be posthumously elevated to the distinction of patriot. A patriot is someone who gives of themselves, freely and clearly, for a cause they believe in. Could Oscar Marion, slave of General Francis Marion, freely decided to support a regime that kept him in bondage? Jose would probably say no-way.

This is not to declare that Mr. Marion’s family should not either be proud of him or want his face, on a painting in the Capitol building, to have a name, for all to see.

But what is really going on here? We are equating being an exemplary slave with being a patriot worthy of presidential honor, and in doing so we ignore that undermining their masters was the highest, and perhaps most noble, form of battle slaves could undertake in their quest for freedom.
I don’t think that “undermining their masters” was necessarily the quickest or most successful route to freedom for enslaved people; I think that choice depended on the circumstances. It seems clear, however, that for Oscar Marion there was no such route. He died in slavery.

Jabari Asim, senior editor of Washington Post Book World and a syndicated columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group, stated:
Experts believe White created the painting between 1815 and 1825, a period when the portrayal of African-Americans began to decline almost completely into caricature. Oscar Marion, by comparison, received a very dignified treatment. Although his facial features were not deliberately exaggerated—as was typical of the time—his kneeling posture makes his lowly stature clear.

In that regard, White’s painting is part of a well-established tradition: He is shown kneeling while everyone else is shown standing. . . .

We know little of Oscar Marion’s life other than what Jones has unearthed, and we certainly don’t know what he was thinking on days like the one preserved in White’s painting.

But I suspect [Ralph] Ellison’s words probably aren’t far off: “When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.”
Of course, rejecting reassuring assumptions about Oscar Marion doesn’t negate the value of genealogist Tina C. Jones’s work in seeking all the information that survives about the real man. A year ago, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History at Howard University made her the first non-academic recipient of a “people’s award” for her research.

TOMORROW: Boston’s own image of Oscar Marion.

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