The Annual of the Association for Documentary Editing
2013, Volume 34
"Will not these days be by thy poets sung": Poems of the Anglo-African and National Anti-Slavery Standard, 1863–1864Edited by Elizabeth Lorang and R. J. Weir
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FOR THE ANGLO-AFRICAN.Bridgeton, N. J., Feb. 22, 1864.
NEGRO'S SONG OF FREEDOM.
Loud hail the theme so sweetly pealing, Flowing from the sunny clime; The voice of Liberty is stealing! Bursting forth, the strain sublime! Loud raise your strains, ye humble-minded few; Let despots hear, and say that ye are free: Lift up your heads, ye cowards hitherto; Strike home with battle-cry, "For death or liberty."
No more shall sweeping lash make lower Eyes that wept for liberty. Tyrants, behold! your time is o'er! The unavenged shall now avenged be; Hands that have toiled in many cotton fields, And hearts that only dreamt they should be free; These hearts and hands the sword of battle wield; Strike home with battle-cry, "For death or liberty."
- The address "ye cowards" raises questions about audiences imagined and actual. Are the imagined addressees a number of formerly enslaved African Americans, like the "humble-minded few" enjoined to sing in line 5, or does the writer from the Northern free state of New Jersey brand all freed people "cowards hitherto?" If the latter is the case, "H. M." ignores the historical realities of self-emancipation, resistance, and revolution—moments before citing a Revolutionary precedent (see note to "For death or liberty" below). "Hitherto" (until this time, up to now) is also problematic; when is the poem's "now?" The Anglo-African printed "Negro's Song of Freedom" in March, with the date "Feb. 22, 1864." By this time, glowing reports of freedmen soldiers' battlefield achievements had been appearing in the Northern antislavery press for almost a year. A broader reference to the historical moment that encompassed the Emancipation Proclamation and the US Army's recruitment drive in the occupied South is more likely.The juxtaposition of the address "ye cowards hitherto" and the quotation "For death or liberty" implies that (male) slaves came into the possession of their Revolutionary heritage as free men and soldiers. The poem celebrates militant resistance to racial oppression as an agent of transformation; at the same time, it seems to draw on contemporary racial stereotypes that led many Northern commentators to debate whether African American men would or could stand fire.
- A celebrated Revolutionary slogan. American patriot Patrick Henry was renowned for issuing the rallying cry "Give me liberty, or give me death!" "Gabriel," the enslaved leader of the Virginia uprising known as Gabriel's Rebellion (1800), told supporters that his battle flag would carry the words "death or Liberty" (Douglas R. Egerton, Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009], 279). Mid-nineteenth-century abolitionists and activists deployed both versions of the phrase.