A Mythical Slave Story

A few days ago I saw a tweet which had gone blog-viral.  It quoted a letter from a slave to his former master.  I read the letter  – it was fantastic but then I started to have my doubts if it was a real letter.  (see Huffington post for an example of a post)

With a little searching, I found this  copy of the 1865 New York Daily Tribune that published the letter.  I almost said, “OK, well, I guess it is true.  Here is the actual letter.” But my skeptical mind said, “Wait, what if some Northerner made up the letter back in 1884 just to make his political points?”

You may think I am a racist for even having such suspicions about a letter that confirms your rightful hatred of slavery, but I am willing to risk that judgement to make my point on this post.  The letter seems too perfect, too ironic and too superbly composed. “But wait!” you may say, “Are you such a racist that you doubt a black man could be this brilliant work?”  No, but I am suspicious and I am very happy to be proven wrong.  But I am not afraid to doubt.

It is hard to verify the historicity of reports that were made even a 150 years ago yet alone 2-3,000 years ago when many of today’s religious texts were composed.  It is clear to me that the authors of these documents had an agenda and could have forged or altered the “histories” they wrote.  Modern textual analysis techniques were made to aid in this issue, but we still must face much uncertainty.

Did Jesus exist?  Did Jesus say what is reported he said?  Did people reporting these things have reasons to alter the truth or to just plain make things up?

Some people doubt about the Buddha in similar ways.  Unlike Christians, who depend on the historicity of their founder’s death and resurrection, many Buddhists don’t really care if their founder was highly mythologized.  But many other Buddhists, finding out that the Buddha was a myth, would be devastating.

Slavery wasn’t a myth, of course, but this letter could be fictional.  Yet we can’t go back and find out if it happened or if this letter was contrived to make a point.  But even if it were contrived, couldn’t something have happened very similar to what is written in this letter?  Sure!  But is this report real?  Hmmmm, what do you think?  Are you a natural doubter, or a natural believer?


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

19 responses to “A Mythical Slave Story

  1. The HuffPo article has been updated, now suggesting that the letter was written by the white lawyer mentioned in it, on behalf of the sender.

  2. @ David
    Damn, I should have posted this 5 days ago when I first read about it. I would have been a skeptical genius. I was wondering why none of the blogs I read doubted it when it seemed so obvious to me. I wondered about the fear of doubt.

    Had you read it earlier before seeing my post?

  3. No, this was the first I had heard of it.

    I’m naturally skeptical, and I think I would have doubted the letter on first reading too. But it’s easy to say that in hindsight.

  4. BTW, I was reminded of the famous letter from Chief Seattle, which is still widely quoted even though there is zero doubt it is fictional.

  5. Darn, when I was composing this post in my head on the way to work the other day, I was thinking about including the Chief Seattle speech controversy in this post for the exact reason it popped into your head. Again, a great myth because it says everything many politically correct believers want to lap-up. These sort of myths thrive in all religions because because they say exactly what the believer wishes to believe — to hell with reason.

  6. I was writing my separate post on this letter when your post came up in my newsfeed so I added some discussion of authenticity here: http://anadder.com/thoughts-on-jourdan-andersons-1865-letter

    Besides this, I have a few more points:
    1. You say people might think you’re “racist for even having such suspicions about a letter that confirms your rightful hatred of slavery”. I’m a bit troubled by this because it seems to closely mirror the trope of “I am bravely questioning race-related-issue-X that the liberal establishment doesn’t dare to even consider”.

    2. You say you have doubts about the story. Yet your post title and your 2nd comment appears to take for granted that the letter has been *disproved* as a forgery (without you explicitly saying so). This is especially strange since there is now no reason to doubt the letter’s actual origin, (claims of ghostwriting being a separate issue).

    There’s a meta-thing going on there. While some may have a desire that the letter be true, some of your wording implies (to me) you have a similar desire to have it disproven. Could you be invested in a belief that those you consider “politically correct” (whatever that means) are ideologues who will “lap-up” anything?

  7. @ MichaelF
    Let me see, you are wondering:

    1) if I am a racist, right?
    2) if I think slavery is over-blown?
    3) if I doubted the letter based on no evidence?

    Curious: Why do you suspect I would want the letter proven false?

  8. Thought provoking post, for sure. I had seen the sentence about the back wages on a blog, but not anything else.

    I am naturally skeptical, but just to a point. I saw the back wage statement and immediately calculated the timeline (just short of 29 years of labor). Questions started popping up: How old is he? How did he learn to read and write, which probably would have been discouraged back then? How did he become free? If he escaped, how did his former owner track him down? If he was freed, why is his former owner seeking to get him back?

    In the end though, I just tentatively accepted it, because doing so required nothing of me. The same can’t be said of religions or politics of our day.

    On a side note, I was just recently exposed to that Chief Seattle speech, on a modern documentary which spouted it off like truth. I thought it seemed a little fishy too. But for things like that, I tend to focus on the essence, not the person. Who cares if it was Joe Schmo who said it instead of Seattle? Is it any good? Is it of value? Celeb quotes don’t do much for me as much as the actual content of the quote.

  9. The Wise Fool :
    Indeed, I had your same questions and thus kept looking. But unlike you, it seems, I really do feel it matters who said it and why — it matters a great deal!

  10. Sabio, from your questions it looks like we’re not on the same page in terms of what my comment was saying. I thought I’ve made myself pretty clear. I now see it’s worth adding a bit about point 1: I meant this as a trope about being the underdog etc. This is not necessarily about any specific view of anything but merely as a way of thinking that I find troubling in cases where this underdog view relies on a strawman of the “mainstream” consensus. In this case what I see as the strawman is the idea that in “politically correct” circles, it would be blasphemy to “even” question this letter’s authenticity. Of course there are individuals for whom this is true but I just don’t see this as an adequate view of the mainstream reaction to this letter. People certainly bought it without investigation but that’s not the same thing.

    This to me is related to the idea of both sides of the political spectrum somehow being “equally” dogmatic/rabid/anti-science/anti-facts/biased etc. I hope you’d agree that this is false and an example of the “false balance” dichotomy.

    If you still have an issue with my comment let me know — I have an idea that might be worth trying.

  11. MichaelF,
    It is late at night and my mind is tired. I will have to read your two comments more carefully to try to understand what you are saying to ME. I will have to read it another time, because the abstractions aren’t clear to my fuzzy mind just now. Hopefully it will clearer later. Thanx for your patience, though.

  12. Actually that was what my suggestion was going to (partly) be as well! I’m subscribed here so if you relook at this on another day and post again I’ll get notified. I think it’ll be an interesting discussion — on another day.

  13. Well, Sabio, you’re probably on the right side of this, and I guess I should probably care more about the propagation of a lie. I’m just still learning the best way to choose my battles with the limited time I have. The days already seem far too short for everything I want to accomplish…

  14. I mean, why bother tracking down the truth about mythical slave letters and Native American speeches when I could be learning to play WeiQi! 😉

  15. @ The Wise Fool,
    Oh, absolutely agree there!
    Hmmm, I wonder if that is another temperament thing.
    But I can decide something is important (like stopping water pollution, or famine in Africa) and do nothing about it because I don’t have an ounce of me that says, “If something is important and you aren’t doing it, you are a bad person.” Thus, cognitive dissonance is not even there to pressure me into a wrong conclusion on many issues.

  16. Hey MichaelF,
    I am now wide awake — for the better or the worse! 🙂
    After lauding this letter on your post, you quoted me as one of the people with probable biases who questioned it. I will respond to your post here. But first, as to your comment here where you said,

    you have a similar desire to have it disproven.

    You are very wrong there. I was actually very excited about the letter — I loved the style, what it exposed and more. The skeptic side slowly crept up on my mind as I began to doubt a cluster of items. I won’t go through the details of the doubt, because the brunt of your attack both in these comments and on your post is on my potential biases which I will address.

    The problem with such doubts is that they rely on our assumptions of how eloquent an illiterate person might be, how large their vocabulary might be and so on. All of these we probably don’t have a huge baseline on. I bet you, dear reader, don’t personally know even one illiterate adult. I don’t.

    This is humorously ironic:
    You assumed we don’t know illiterate people because you don’t know any.
    Well, I work with illiterate people frequently — as my patients. Also, I have been illiterate in a qualified way. When I lived in Pakistan, India, Japan and China, I was illiterate until I taught myself to read. I also knew precious little about their culture, their history, foods, hobbies, emotions and much more. So I was uneducated and illiterate. But, like your Mum (whose native tongue is Russian, right?) I wasn’t dumb. And neither are my patients — well most of them. It just took time for my language skills to catch up to my insight skills. And so I actually never doubted this in Jourdan Anderson.

    Second, I have several close friends who did not graduate High School and are brilliant.

    Third, I have studied religion and anthropology enough to see how the oral traditions (pre-reading and pre-writing), generated amazing literature. I lived in sections of India where stories and drama were told and yet the entire village was largely “illiterate”.

    But all of this is tangential to the main point of the letter. It is that P.H. Anderson actually wrote to Jourdan Anderson to ask him to come back. This part seems very well established indeed, even if you think the reply was ghost-written.

    Sorry, I missed that. Why is it “well established”?

    Actually, in your article you ironically seem to be wanting to go out of your way to certify the letter as genuine. And trust me, I wanted it or still want it to be genuine too — for all the ‘right’ reasons.

    If you knew me, you would probably not accuse me, as you did, of being suckered into the trope of: “I am bravely questioning race-related-issue-X that the liberal establishment doesn’t dare to even consider”

    OK, that is me wide awake. 🙂

  17. Sabio, it’s 10pm my time so my turn to sleep on it!

  18. Ok, back. Firstly, the post on my blog was address to a generic argument that an illiterate man couldn’t have written the letter, and I think it still works. I did assume you wouldn’t know any (a safe assumption I think), however, if you do then I’m not sure what you meant by the letter being too perfect?

    Now let’s get to the actual circumstances of the letter before considering anything else. Based on your take, what is the most probable state of affairs with regards to the letter and how probable is this state?

    Hypothetical examples (not saying you hold any of these!):
    1. The letter is fully genuine and written by Anderson himself — with confidence 100%
    2. The letter was made up entirely when it was placed into the anthology. It was never published in the historic newspaper — with confidence 70%.

  19. @ MichaelF,
    The points of my post are:
    (1) that it is difficult to determine authenticity of documents
    (2) that motivations of authors should be suspected
    (3) that motivations of readers should be suspected

    I don’t think these are debatable. Neither is your contention that illiterate people can compose fantastic literature.

    I don’t have the motivation or patience to go through the details of the probability of this letter’s authenticity. I would have to keep re-reading it to go through these arguments and I don’t care too. “The Wise Fool” mentioned points I agree with.

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