Which Sides Are You On

Portrait of Benjamin Lay

William Williams, Sr. (1727 – 1791)

 

 

by Marcus Rediker

It was September 1738, and Benjamin Lay had walked 20 miles, subsisting on “acorns and peaches,” to reach the Quakers’ Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. Beneath his overcoat he wore a military uniform and a sword — both anathema to Quaker teachings.

He also carried a hollowed-out book with a secret compartment, into which he had tucked a tied-off animal bladder filled with bright red pokeberry juice.

When it was Lay’s turn to speak, he rose to address the Quakers, many of whom had grown rich and bought African slaves.

He was a dwarf, barely four feet tall, with a hunched back, but from his small body came a thunderous voice.

God, he intoned, respects all people equally, be they rich or poor, man or woman, white or black.

Throwing his overcoat aside, he spoke his prophecy: “Thus shall God shed the blood of those persons who enslave their fellow creatures.” He raised the book above his head and plunged the sword through it, and the “blood” gushed down his arm.

Lay did not resist when his fellow Quakers threw him out of the building. He knew he would be disowned by his beloved community for his performance, but he had made his point. As long as Quakers owned slaves, he would use his body and his words to disrupt their hypocritical routines.

Lay’s methods made people talk about him, his ideas, the nature of Quakerism and Christianity, and, most of all, slavery.

According to Benjamin Rush, a Philadelphia physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence, the name of this “celebrated Christian philosopher” became “familiar to every man, woman and to nearly every child, in Pennsylvania.”

Lay was the world’s first revolutionary abolitionist. Against the common sense of the day, when slavery seemed to most people as immutable as the stars in the heavens, Lay imagined a new world in which people would live simply, make their own food and clothes, and respect nature.

He lived in a cave in Abington, Pa.,   ate only fruits and vegetables — “the innocent fruits of the earth” —          and championed animal rights.

He refused to consume any commodity produced by slave labor and was known to walk abruptly out of a dinner in protest when he found out that his host owned slaves.

Today Benjamin Lay is largely forgotten, for essentially two reasons.

The first is that he did not fit the dominant, long-told story about the history of the abolitionist movement. Formerly a common sailor, he was not one of the so-called gentleman saints like William Wilberforce, an aristocratic leader of the abolition movement in Britain. He was wild and confrontational, militant and uncompromising.

A second reason is that he has long been considered deformed in both body and mind. As a little person and as a man thought eccentric at best and more commonly deranged or insane, he was ridiculed and dismissed, even among Quakers who were ostensibly committed to an ideal of spiritual equality. The condescension continued in subsequent accounts of his life.

Yet Lay predicted that for Quakers and for America, slave-keeping would be a long, destructive burden.  He wrote that it “will be as the poison of dragons, and the cruel venom of asps, in the end.”

The poison and the venom have had long lives indeed, as we still live with the consequences of slavery: prejudice, poverty, structural inequality and premature death.

Disparaged and abandoned by his fellow Quakers, Lay eventually helped win the debate over slavery. He wanted to provoke, to unsettle, even to confound — to make people think and act.

He asked everyone he met, Which side are you on?

Slowly, over a quarter-century, his relentless agitation changed hearts and minds.

In 1758 a friend arrived at his cave to inform him that the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting had finally taken the first big step toward abolition, ruling that those who traded in slaves would henceforth be disciplined and perhaps driven from the community. Lay fell silent for a few reverential moments, then rose from his chair, praised God and announced, “I can now die in peace.”

He died a year later, an outsider to the Quaker community he loved, but a moral giant of a man.

By boycotting slave-produced commodities, Lay pioneered the politics of consumption and initiated a tactic that would become central to the ultimate success of abolitionism in the 19th century, and one that still motivates global movements against abuses like sweatshops today.

In his time Lay may have been the most radical person on the planet. He helps us to understand what was politically and morally possible in the first half of the 18th century — and what may be possible now.

It is more than we think.

 

 

Marcus Rediker, a professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, is the author of the forthcoming “The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist,” from which this essay was adapted.

 

 

 

https://mobile.nytimes.com/2017/08/12/opinion/sunday/youll-never-be-as-radical-as-this-18th-century-quaker-dwarf.html?referer=

 

 

 

 

Tempera Wind

Andrew Newell Wyeth (1917 – 2009)
detail

 

Published in: on July 23, 2017 at 1:24 am  Comments (2)  
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The Colours of The Winds

detail, Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775 – 1851)

 

from the 
SALTAIR NA RANN
attrib. Oengus the Culdee, ninth century

 

King who ordained the eight winds
advancing without uncertainty, full of beauty,
the four prime winds He holds back,
the four fierce under-winds.

There are four other under-winds,
as learned authors say,
this should be the number, without any error,
of the winds, twelve winds.

King who fashioned the colours of the winds,
who fixed them in safe courses,
after their manner, in well-ordered disposition,
with the varieties of each manifold hue.

The white, the clear purple,
the blue, the very strong green,
the yellow, the red, sure the knowledge,
in their gentle meetings wrath did not seize them.

The black, the grey, the speckled,
the dark and the deep brown
the dun, darksome hues,
they are not light, easily controlled.

King who ordained them over every void,
the eight wild under-winds ;
who laid down without defect
the bounds of the four prime winds.

From the East, the smiling purple,
from the South, the pure white, wondrous,
from the North, the black blustering moaning wind,
from the West, the babbling dun breeze.

The red, and the yellow along with it,
both white and purple ;
the green, the blue, it is brave,
both dun and the pure white.

The grey, the dark brown, hateful their harshness,
both dun and deep black ;
the dark, the speckled easterly wind
both black and purple.

Rightly ordered their form,
their disposition was ordained ;
with wise adjustments, openly,
according to their position and their fixed places.

The twelve winds,
Easterly and Westerly, Northerly and Southerly,
the King who adjusted them, He holds them back,
He fettered them with seven curbs.

King who bestowed them according to their posts,
around the world with many adjustments,
each two winds of them about a separate curb,
and one curb for the whole of them.

King who arranged them in habitual harmony,
according to their ways, without over-passing their limits ;
at one time, peaceful was the space,
at another time, tempestuous.

 

Translations from Irish Gaelic Poetry into English Prose and Verse 
SELECTED AND EDITED BY ELEANOR HULL, 1912
To Miss Eleanor Knott I am indebted for valuable help in the translation

 

 

[with thanks to  for twitter discussion of wind-color]

Chrysanthemums in a jug by a tiled wall

lucie vdiLucie van Dam van Isselt  (1871 – 1949)

 

Beauty is not caused. It is.
–  Emily Dickinson

 

 

Boys In A Pasture

winslow homWinslow Homer (1836 – 1910)


Evening

carpaccio cupid stVittore Carpaccio (c. 1465 – 1525/1526)

 

Evening

The sky puts on the darkening blue coat
held for it by a row of ancient trees;
you watch: and the lands grow distant in your sight,
one journeying to heaven, one that falls;

and leave you, not at home in either one,
not quite so still and dark as the darkened houses,
not calling to eternity with the passion of what becomes
a star each night, and rises;

and leave you (inexpressibly to unravel)
your life, with its immensity and fear,
so that, now bounded, now immeasurable,
it is alternately stone in you and star.

 

Rainer Maria Rilke (4 December 1875 – 29 December 1926)

translated by Stephen Mitchell

Lullaby in Blue

Gerard_David_-_Madonna_and_Child_with_the_Milk_SoupMadonna and Child with the Milk Soup
Gerard David
 (c. 1460 – 13 August 1523)
–painter and manuscript illuminator. Only a bare outline of his life survives



Lullaby in Blue

[. . . . .]

Child, from this world now you will draw your breath
   and let out your moth flutter of blue sighs.
Now your mother will listen for each one,
   alert enough to hear snow starting to flake

   from the sky, bay water beginning to freeze.
Sleep now, little shadow, as your first world
   still flickers across your face, that other side

   where all was given and nothing desired.
Soon enough you’ll want milk, want faces, hands,
   heartbeats and voices singing in your ear.

   Soon the world will amaze you, and you
will give back its bird-warble, its dove call,
   singing that blue note which deepens the song,

   that longing for what no one can recall,
your small night cry roused from the wholeness
   you carry into this broken world


Betsy Sholl
from  ROUGH CRADLE (Alice James, 2009)
[This is an excerpt from Lullaby in Blue.
Please see the complete poem here: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/lullaby-blue]

 

Published in: on December 27, 2015 at 5:52 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Study of Cacti

study of cactiRobert Knaus (Austrian c. 1900)

 

Published in: on August 19, 2015 at 11:34 am  Leave a Comment  
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New

H S child
Helene Schjerfbeck (July 10, 1862 – January 23, 1946)

Seamless, A Garland

carracciAnnibale Carracci (1560 – 1609)

 

Alchemy

Chlorophyll C55H72N4O5Mg
differs from human blood
only by substitution of one
atom of magnesium
in philodendron
for the single atom of iron
in Keats.


Stephen Sandy