“Slaves had to be guarded as to what they said because they would be punished if caught critiquing or offending the master class — thus they developed sophisticated forms of indirection and other forms of masking,” says Glenda Carpio, a professor of African and African-American studies at Harvard University and author of “Laughing Fit to Kill: Black Humor in the Fictions of Slavery.”
Anderson’s letter is special in part, Carpio says, because it was written down. Until late in the 19th century, when Joel Chandler Harris’ Br’er Rabbit tales were first published, slave humor was essentially an oral tradition. And while newspapers sometimes printed letters to former masters, Finkenbine notes, few were “so challenging” as Anderson’s.
“Most were rather supplicating,” he says.
Powers finds the letter’s tone curious, because Anderson “seems to veer back and forth between irony and aching earnestness. ” Twain, he adds, would have given the letter a vernacular voice, as he did in such pieces as “Sociable Jimmy” and “A True Story Just as I Heard It.” Anderson’s diction, meanwhile, “is pretty much standard English.”
The letter was soon reprinted by Lydia Maria Child in her “Freedmen’s Book,” used by schools in the South for former slaves. Other anti-slavery newspapers in the U.S. published it, and Finkenbine says he has found instances of Anderson’s letter appearing as far away as Switzerland, where it was translated into French.
Notes on some of these publications state that Jordan dictated the letter verbatim to Valentine Winters, and that Winters is the one submitting it for publication.
Regarding questions about whether the letter was really Anderson’s, Finkenbine says: “It’s kind of a racist assumption … that when someone is illiterate, we make the assumption they’re stupid.” Enslaved people had deep folk wisdom and a rich oral culture, he adds. “Why would we think that he hadn’t been thinking about these things and couldn’t dictate them to willing abolitionists?”
“I think the letter is clearly his ideas and, for the most part, his own words” — though Winters probably had “some minor role in shaping the language.”
In a 2006 speech at a conference on slavery reparations, historian Raymond Winbush retold the story of Anderson’s letter. He also revealed that he had tracked down some of Patrick Henry Anderson’s descendants, still living in Big Spring.
“What’s amazing is that the current living relatives of Col. Anderson are still angry at Jordan for not coming back,” knowing that the plantation was in serious disrepair after the war, said Winbush, director of the Institute for Urban Research at Maryland’s Morgan State University.
As a boy, Jewell Wilson, Jordan Anderson’s great-grandson, lived with Jordan’s daughter Jane and remembers some of her stories from the plantation.
“She said that there was a (white) girl there who was about her age,” says the 87-year-old Wilson, who still lives in Dayton. “And they would whup her for trying to teach my grandma to read and write.”
Jane could have been talking about Col. Anderson’s daughter, Martha. Likely the “Miss Martha” to whom Jordan refers in his letter, she would have been around 14 when the black Anderson family left Big Spring.
“She said they came here one time looking for Anderson to take him back,” he says. “They wanted him because he was such a good worker and everything. But he said, ‘I’m free now. I don’t have to go back there.’”
According to probate records, Jordan Anderson died on April 15, 1905. While Wilson has no oral history about the letter’s authorship, he has no problem believing that it reflects his great-grandfather’s thoughts.
“They said he was smart.” And he succeeded in educating his children.
Jordan’s son, Dr. Valentine Winters Anderson, was a close friend of African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. The two collaborated on the Dayton Tattler, the city’s first black newspaper.
Among Dunbar’s works is a 1904 story titled “The Wisdom of Silence.” In it, a freed slave named Jeremiah Anderson rebuffs his former master’s attempts to woo him back to the plantation.
“No, suh, I’s free, an’ I sholy is able to tek keer o’ myse’f,” the freedman in Dunbar’s story declares. “I done been fattenin’ frogs fu’ othah people’s snakes too long.”
Hillel Italie reported from New York. Allen G. Breed is based in Raleigh, N.C. They can be reached at features(at)ap.org.