Israel Hill and the broken phone

I am currently reading a very interesting book called "Israel on the Appomattox". It describes the experiences of a group of Afro American Virginians who were freed by the will of their master in the early 1800s, and given land to make a living. This group of free "Afro-Virginians" made a mark with their hard work and their success; they even managed to make enough money to free other slaves (some of them their relatives). And yet, the example of "Israel Hill" (as their community was called) was used years later to justify pro-slavery arguments in Virginian before the Civil War.

How this use of a succesful African American community got started?. It seems that it started with an article describing Israel Hill in less than flattering terms on several Virginia newspapers and signed by "James Madison" (NOT the President). The article talked about the idleness and bad character of the "Free Negroes" of Israel Hill. Ironically, this James Madison who wrote the piece while serving on the Virginia Legislature, lived next to Israel Hill and did plenty of business every day with many of its residents. He even co-signed on loans to some of the "Israelites" (as residents of Israel Hill were known at the time) and even bailed them in some court cases. He even established a partnership with an Israelite who transported goods up and down the Appomatox on his Bateau.

So how or why would somebody who knew the reality of Israel HIll and its success write such a negative article which, as it happened, became reprinted many times and influenced the slavery debate in Virginia (in support of Slavery)? The authors of the book researched the County records anf followed the story. It seems that James Madison was having at the time an economic dowturn, which also affected his prestige among the local slaveowners which constituted the "High Society" of the time. His article was apparently intended to maintain his prestige and reputation among those whose opinion he cared about. He did this without a second thought to how it would affect the hard-working free Afro Virginians of Israel Hill and beyond.

The case of James Madison is, in many ways, a cautionary tale of what idle gossip can do. James Madison invented the contents of his article which went even aginst his own personal experience with the Israelites. He did it for the selish reason that he wanted to remain "important" among those he considered his social peers.

In Yiddish folklore there are many social archetypes used by Yiddish writers to mold the characters in their stories. Maybe the best known is "Menache Mendel" in the Sholem Aleichem stories. That character was based on the Yiddish folk-archetype of the "Luftmentsch", the person who lived off everybody else while fantasizing about great schemes that never com to fruition. James Madison could be seen as one of these characters, based on another Yiddish archetype, that of the "Klein Mentsch".

The Klein Mentsch (literally "little person") was seen as somebody who is narrow-minded, and prone to continuously "drop names" and behave like a "macher" (big wig) he/she is actually not. It puts airs of great wisdom while not knowing what he/she is talking about. But in most cases, a "Klein Mentsch" is seen as harmless. James Madison, however, created a false perspective which, much as the old game of the "broken phone" transformed the history of success of a group of free Afro-Virginians into an argument in favor of Slavery "because Blacks need White supervision to succeed".

A Medieval Egyptian Poet once said "When the words leave your mouth, they are not your words anymore"; James Madison (NOT the President) would have done well to heed those words...


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