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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Monday, September 27, 2010

The Problem with “Mark Codman”

Yesterday’s Boston Globe included an article by Francie Latour rounding up several books and a movie issued over the past decade about slavery in New England. It offers a good reading list on the subject, including Elisa Lemire’s Black Walden (and avoiding one unreliable recent title).

The article’s subhead says, “More than we like to think, the North was built on slavery”; a bunch of right-wing commenters confirmed that by showing that they’d prefer not to see such essays at all.

I have my own objection to how the article begins:

In the year 1755, a black slave named Mark Codman plotted to kill his abusive master.
The name “Mark Codman” pulled me up short because that’s not how the man was referred to in his lifetime.

John Codman called his slave “Mark,” with no surname. Massachusetts society and legal practices followed suit. Mark was tried, convicted, and executed under that single name. Referring to blacks by only a given name was undoubtedly a way to signal their lesser status in colonial society. But tacking on their owners’ surnames now strikes me as, in its small way, both a distortion of that history and another imposition on those individuals.

In many cases, we know that people who had been enslaved adopted the surnames of their former masters: Tony Vassall of Cambridge, Prince Estabrook of Lexington, Phillis Wheatley of Boston until her marriage to John Peters, and so on. But in other cases, enslaved people used surnames that differed from their owners’ or former owners’.

Crispus Attucks’s last name hints at a connection to the Natick Indians. Peter Salem also went by the name Salem Middlesex; he apparently took surnames from locations rather than from his one-time owners, Jeremiah Belknap and Lawson Buckminster.

In Framingham in 1721, two African-born slaves of the Rev. John Swift married. They are listed in church records as Nero Benson and Dido Dingo, the latter sounding more like an African name than an English one. Subsequent legal records usually refer to this couple by their first names only, but the surname “Benson” got passed down to their free descendants. (In Maryland later, Frederick Douglass was born Frederick Bailey, and never knew where his original surname came from—clearly not his or his mother’s owner. William S. McFeely’s biography suggests it might be a form of “Belali,” a common African name.)

Sally Hemings’s surname came from the ship’s captain who owned one of her ancestors and fathered another. The Hemings family retained that surname for generations despite owners like Thomas Jefferson usually referring to them only by given names. (Even today, one can often detect writers who want to dismiss Sally Hemings and her descendants’ link to Jefferson by how they refer to her only as “Sally,” or spell the name “Hemmings” as a white Jefferson biographer did.)

Being able to control their own names appears to have been significant for African-Americans. Gary Nash showed in a study of Philadelphia that emancipated black families quickly dropped the classical, geographic, and African day-names that colonial slave-owners liked—no more Pompey, Bristol, or Cuffee. Free blacks instead favored Biblical and common English names, like most of their neighbors.

Given those patterns, I always look for the name that an enslaved or formerly enslaved person appears to have freely chosen and preferred, and to try to use it in the same style as I would for white contemporaries: Attucks, Wheatley, Hemings, &c. (Olaudah Equiano presents a difficult case.) But when I can’t find a surname, I don’t add an owner’s surname because I’ve seen enough examples of individuals choosing otherwise. And recognizing people as individuals is what naming is all about.

I can therefore see the motive to give Mark a surname like most of his Massachusetts contemporaries. But he suffered at the hands of John Codman, and killed the man. Would he really want to be retroactively named “Mark Codman”? Enslavement constricted Mark’s life and treated him as less than fully human; the fact that he was called only “Mark” is a significant reflection of that history.


Anonymous said...

I noticed this too, thanks.

Charles K. said...

Quotting Gary Nash is no benefit to this publication.There has been more bogus revisionism in the "study"of black culture than virtually any oter subject.
Nash and his cohorts are simply not credible.

J. L. Bell said...

Gary Nash is a respected scholar of eighteenth-century America, known particularly for his book The Urban Crucible.

The study I refer to in this posting is “Forging Freedom: The Emancipation Experience in the Northern Seaports, 1775-1820,” which appears in Nash’s 1986 collection Race, Class, and Politics: Essays on American Colonial and Revolutionary Society. If you wish to argue against its findings, please do so. Simply trying to denigrate Nash is an ad hominem argument that makes you look empty-headed.

Nash stands on the American left wing, to be sure. That naturally prompted opposition from people who disagree so much with those ideas that they demonize them, as happened when Nash headed a committee to write new history teaching standards in the 1990s. That was classic “culture war” argumentation without much foundation in facts.

To jump from one historian to complaints about an entire field of history is beyond illogical and into simply hateful. Charles K., your racism is showing. I’m a little embarrassed that people like you read this blog, but happy to have the chance to denounce your foolish way of thinking.

Anonymous said...

I have been trying to find documentation (without success) for F. Latour's comment in her Globe essay (Boston Globe 9/26/10) that we know how long Mark the slave's body was on view because Paul Revere describ ed galloping past "Charlestown Neck, and got nearly opposite where Mark was hung in chains." Can you help me?

J. L. Bell said...

That refers to Paul Revere’s 1798 description of his April 1775 ride, transcribed here. Revere took the site of Mark’s body in chains as a landmark, both during his journey in 1775 and in his description for readers in 1798.

However, I’m not sure that means the remnants of the body were actually still there on either date. We New Englanders have a habit of giving directions according to what used to be at various locations (e.g., “Bell Circle” in Revere).

Revere’s remarks are definite evidence that the memory of Mark’s body in chains lasted for decades, whether or not the actual body did.

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

I started to write a comment, but it got too long, so I made a post out of it. Short version: I agree with you and have struggled with this problem when writing about gravestones.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for taking the time to help me.

AD said...

This is a very thoughtful piece; thank you for posting.

RFuller said...

I can't speak to the suject of right-wing commentators' blinders on this issue, but in my work I am amazed at how disbelieving- and uncomfortable- local progressively-minded, ostensibly better-educated Bay Staters become when I point out that Massachusetts had slaves until 1783. "I thought only those bad people in the South had slavery", one lady quipped. I did not know one particular region had a monopoly on evil.... ;)

J. L. Bell said...

I’ve written about this before, but I find it hard to believe that people are never told about slavery existing north of the Mason-Dixon line.

Instead, I think a lot of us don’t register that fact because we don’t have a mental picture of the institution here, with emotional meaning to make it memorable. Being able to tell individual stories and to show relevant sites helps to build up a mental picture for people’s brains to retain.