Teaching Celia in the age of black lives matter.

Author:Byrd, Brandon R.


The response of black activists to the acquittal of George Zimmerman on charges of second-degree murder in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin was swift. Three black women, Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and PatrisseCullors, wasted no time in initiating #BlackLivesMatter, a call to action and Twitter hashtag that has since blossomed into a chapter-based national organization. It has also achieved intellectual clarity as it has grown in size and stature. The official website of Black Lives Matter proclaims that when "we say Black Lives Matter, we are broadening the conversation around state violence to include all of the ways in which Black people are intentionally left powerless at the hands of the state." In fact, the movement does much more than just call attention to "the ways in which Black lives are deprived of our basic human rights and dignity." It acts. Black Lives Matter boldly asserts that it "is working for a world where Black lives are no longer systematically and intentionally targeted for demise." In short, the "call for Black lives to matter is a rallying cry for ALL Black lives striving for liberation." (1)

There is no doubt that Black Lives Matter has inspired new ways of conceptualizing and combating threats to black life in the twenty-first century United States. But its defiant call for black liberation is, of course, rooted in a long history of black radical thought and action. In one of the first substantive attempts to define black radicalism, historian Cedric J. Robinson called it "a specifically African response to an oppression emergent from the immediate determinants of European development in the modern era and framed by orders of European social life from the inception of Western civilization." (2) For Robinson, W.E.B. Du Bois embodied black radicalism because of his critiques of U.S. capitalism, political structures, and bourgeois culture. In more recent years, scholars have broadened the conceptual scope of black radicalism to include black women and organic intellectuals, working-class black people who understood the challenges confronting their communities and scorned the ideologies of the dominant class even if they did not enjoy the same relative privileges as traditional black intellectuals such as Du Bois. (3) In that sense, no historical figure better exemplified the black radical tradition than Sojourner Truth. To borrow the words of historian Ula Y. Taylor, Truth was not only quotable but also prophetic. She "isolated the core of issues that black radicals continue to struggle with and organize around today." (4)

Truth was remarkable. She was not incomparable, though. This essay addresses one of her contemporaries and fellow radicals, an enslaved teenager named Celia who killed the white man who owned her after years of sexual abuse. The infamous court case that led to her execution centered on the rights (or lack thereof) of enslaved women. But it revealed something much larger and much more enduring, too. Put simply, Celia's life offers a profound example of the systemic threats to black lives that have pervaded U.S. history and the resistance that black people have forged in the face of state-sanctioned efforts to render them powerless. Indeed, I argue that the central lesson of Celia's resistance and her trial has been made clearer in the age of Black Lives Matter. Students who relate to the language of black liberation captured by the three black women who have crafted the most trenchant challenge to racial discrimination today are better equipped to analyze and empathize with Celia's response to the systems of racial and gender oppression that pervaded her era. Historians must seize this opportunity. Rather than avoiding the impulse to make connections between the past and the present, we should encourage students and fellow teacher-scholars to take a multigenerational approach to the study of black radicalism, protest, and resistance. In doing so, we can best illuminate the differences between the worlds of Celia and the activists behind Black Lives Matter, appreciate the common visions of black liberation and social justice that animated both, and point the way to a better understanding of black radicalism and black resistance in the United States. (5)

Historians know very little about Celia before 1850. It is certain that she lived in Audrain County, Missouri, a small agrarian settlement located in the central part of the Show Me State. She was enslaved, but to whom? Her first master(s) could have been any number of white farmers or planters who migrated from the east to the frontier communities along the Missouri River in the hopes of profiting from land seized from American Indians and labor wrought from African Americans. It is possible that one or more of her earliest masters used Celia as a cook, for she would assume similar household duties at a later point in her short life. (6)

In 1850, Celia became the property of a white man named Robert Newsom. Newsom was a Virginian who brought his wife, adolescent son, and infant daughter to Missouri sometime between 1819 and 1822. They settled in Callaway County, a frontier settlement adjacent to Audrain, in a moment when Missouri was at the center of a national debate on slavery. A little more than a decade after the U.S. government acquired the territory of Missouri as part of the Louisiana Purchase, the influx of thousands of white settlers from the border South raised its population beyond the threshold required for statehood. When the territorial government of Missouri applied for statehood, northern members of Congress demanded that it abandon slavery as a condition for entering the Union. Missourians who had emigrated from slaveholding states were incensed. As congressmen considered an amendment that would require Missouri to prohibit the further importation of enslaved people and introduce measures for the gradual emancipation of enslaved people already residing in the territory, some white Missourians issued sardonic toasts to an insane proposal whose supporters deserved no less than "a dark room, a straight waistcoat, and a thin water gruel diet." (7)

It is likely that Newsom celebrated the resolution to this debate, the Missouri Compromise, that admitted Missouri to the Union as a slave state and presaged future federal appeasement of southern demands. By 1850, Newsom had carved out a prosperous existence on the banks of the Middle River, a minor tributary of the Missouri. His wife had since died but his family now included two more children, a son and a daughter born in Missouri. Both of Newsom's daughters and three of his grandchildren lived on his farm. So did four enslaved men and one enslaved boy. Their labor sustained the property owned by Newsom who, by then, was in his sixties. According to the 1850 census, the Newsom farm consisted of eight hundred acres (much of it improved land) worth about $3,500. Thanks to the backbreaking work of its enslaved occupants, it produced more than 1,200 bushels of grain each year in addition to substantial amounts of wheat, rye, corn, and oats. The farm featured sizable herds of livestock, too. The enslaved men owned by Newsom tended to eighteen horses, six milch cows, twenty-seven beef cattle, seventy pigs, twenty-five sheep, and two oxen, worth a collective total of $1,000. Of course, those enslaved laborers were also chattel. Their worth augmented their considerable work. Both made Newsom prosperous and, according to the pro-slavery logic of the antebellum South...

To continue reading