Sunday, November 5, 2017

Quaker dwarf slams slavery



Benjamin Lay was a victim of 'history from above', airbrushed out of the history of the abolition of slavery for being not only ahead of his time but awkward, cantankerous, impolite and, importantly, an artisan and a self educated autodidact who was, quite literally, a dwarf coming in at a little over four feet high.

He was decidedly not one of the saintly persuaders of the subsequent generation - middle class, well-educated men of property and station, heirs to the burgeoning Enlightenment. But, as Marcus Rediker, eloquently argues in his, 'The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf who became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist', he led in the 1720's and 30's, through his writings, his provocative theatre of protest and his general way of life to pave the way. It was in the year of his death that the Pennsylvania Monthly Meeting, who had expelled him, agreed that the trade in slaves was incompatible with membership. The first step on a long path but which, in his own sight, allowed him to die vindicated.

Rediker shows how both the manifold aspects of his life and the traditions and reading he engaged with shaped Lay's life, thoughts and actions. He was deeply influenced by his encounter with slavery in Barbados, where he and his beloved wife, Sarah, also a Quaker and a dwarf, ran a shop. So too his life as a sailor had given him a taste for mutual aid and the practical egalitarianism of the sea. And though self-taught, he was deeply read - in the strands of radicalism associated with the English revolution including the early Quakers, in Greek philosophy and especially the witness of the Cynics to a life of simplicity, equality and truthful speech and, most critically, in the Bible and that most complex of books that of the Revelation of St John.

In this last text, Lay saw his justification for imagining that in succumbing to the ownership of slaves, Quakers had lost their mission, been literally subverted by evil and needed to be confronted with the mark of their treachery. This he did both in print but more importantly by subverting meetings for worship. Most notably he once took a Bible, a bladder of red fruit juice and stabbing the latter while brandishing the former literally branded his fellow Quakers, many of whom owned slaves, with the blood of their injustice. No wonder he kept being expelled! But he reminds us that confronting injustice, even if always non-violently, does not mean politely or without confrontation.

He, also, reminds us that struggling for justice is not, never simply, working on one issue for much is connected. Slavery was born out of a search for wealth, the system of wealth creation exploited others beyond slaves - the poor and animals were also of central concern to Lay, who became a vegetarian following the logic of his own argument. Wealth created inequality and pride that corrupted life; thus, Lay ended his own life living in an altered cave and off the produce of his own labour (including weaving his own linen clothes - refusing wool and leather). His was a radicalism all of a piece.

It is a fascinating book, beautifully written, that restores Lay to his place of importance in history but also invites reflection on our present. What does it require of us to positively protest lives of change? It hardly suggests that signing an online petition or donating a fraction of our income is enough. Nor does it suggest that seeking justice now is simply a question of technocratic fixing at the end of history. Our 'ideologies' matter and they should matter across and through the whole texture of our lives. We may not be as radical as Lay but Lay's life is there to ask us: why not?

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