Wednesday, February 27, 2013

PBS' The Abolitionists: A Flawed Experience by WB ReevesFollow PBS' The Abolitionists: A Flawed Experience

American Experience's latest series: The Abolitionists has much to recommend it. Unfortunately it also propagates the popular myth that American Abolitionism is synonymous with the career of William Lloyd Garrison.

I hate to be critical of such a clearly heartfelt and high quality series as "The Abolitionists" but given the series begins with a profound misstatement of historical fact, I don't feel I have any choice. The first installment of the series contains the following(drawn from the program transcript):
"Narrator: The only voices advocating the abolition of slavery were black. Their frustration was growing, and some of them were becoming more militant, but no one in power was listening. As of yet, no white Americans could imagine turning millions of dollars worth of slaves into millions of black compatriots. But scattered around the country, a few lonely souls were convinced that slavery was a crime against God and man. And in Boston, one of them was coming to understand that God intended he do something about it. William Lloyd Garrison felt that he was destined to do great things, but he had no idea how to get there. In 1828 he was 22 years old, newly arrived in the city from his hometown of Newburyport. Garrison's father, a seaman and a drunk, had abandoned the family when Garrison was two years old. Plunged into poverty, Garrison's mother left her children for years on end as she looked for work. But in their time together, she managed to drum a fierce Christian conscience into her son."
The first sentence is at best misleading since Anthony Benezet, a French immigrant to America, published his pamphlet: "Observations on the Inslaving [sic], Importing and Purchasing of Negroes" in 1759. Later in the same episode the following claim is made:
"Narrator: In 1833, two years after William Lloyd Garrison launched The Liberator, abolitionists from all over the North gathered for the first time. They could feel the strength of their growing numbers -- the time had come to unify their far-flung groups into one national anti-slavery society."
Again this is misleading. In the context of the prior narration it suggest that Abolition, in terms of anything beyond purely local organization, post dated Garrison's publication of The Liberator. There is an overall impression given that Garrison's activity marked the emergence of organized Abolition in the US. This is simply false.
 In addition to the activities above, Anthony Bezenet founded the "Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage." The society was later reorganized as the the "Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery" (PAS), the world's first antislavery society and the first Quaker anti-slavery society. Benjamin Franklin became Honorary President of the Society in 1787. Both Thomas Paine and Benjamin Rush were members.

Moreover, the first meeting of the "American Convention for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, and Improving the Condition of the African Race", gathering together Delegates from the Abolition Societies established in different parts of the United States, occurred 1794. This is over 30 years prior to the event cited in first episode's narration.

It is unfortunate that "The Abolitionists", for all its merits, propagates the myth that Abolitionism in the United States began with the activities of Garrison and his generation. It's even worse luck that it suggests that Garrison's was the first white voice calling for abolition.