GUEST CURATOR: Elizabeth Curley
Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“TO BE SOLD … A NEGRO LAD, about Seventeen Years of Age.”
As we know from the previous week’s advertisements, even the northern colonies embraced the slave trade. This advertisement has no information about the owner, only that if interested readers should inquire of the printer for more information. We do know that the boy is being sold for lumber or on “short credit.”
At about seventeen the boy had been owned by the advertiser for four years. He could “speak good English.” However, the advertisement goes on that he was not being bought for his “BEAUTY or GOOD QUALITIES.” He would have made a good worker or “labouring Servant.” This means that he would have probably worked outside, perhaps on docks or a farm or assisting with carpentry or masonry. If he had been pretty he could have been placed as a house servant, which might have included duties such as footman, general house staff, and, if the family was wealthy enough, a coach or stable man.
The comment about his looks and beauty go beyond what type of work he would be doing though. Those comments point to the view that his owner and many others had. They believed that African Americans were inferior and had only bad intentions. However much this makes me upset as a human being, this is an advertisement that needs to be brought up for the discussion that will follow. Many people believe that racism is not as relevant or present today, and, though African Americans thankfully are not property any more, as a nation we have a long way to go until we as a people are united in equality.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
As historians have worked since the era of the modern civil rights movement to better incorporate race, class, and gender into our narratives and interpretations of the American past, some critics (both within and, especially, beyond the academy) have accused us of so-called revisionism. Most historians agree that acknowledging our complicated past tells a richer and fuller story. Furthermore, it is a patriotic endeavor in that it challenges us as a nation to recognize when we have fallen short of the rhetoric of the Revolution so we can strive to do better. But in order to do better, we must be fully aware of both current events and the actions, attitudes, and ideas that have produced and shaped those current events over decades and centuries.
Yet there are other reasons to tell a story of the past that includes as many perspectives as possible. Earlier this semester, Elizabeth and her peers in our Public History course read this passage:
“Students’ lack of historical knowledge about the past results in an inability to see themselves, their families, and their communities as part of the larger process of American history. If students fail to see their own histories as important, they do not believe that they can have an impact on their environments. One of the ways in which people ‘learn to be members of society’ is to feel engaged in it. History is central to identifying, analyzing, and interpreting the values upon which civil society depends. All historians should remember that they are citizens as well as scholars and that they possess some responsibility to the larger civic community.”
Many critics of so-called revisionism yearn for historical narratives they consider patriotic. They envision history as a means of inculcating civics in students. Although I disagree with the shape of the narrative many critics wish to impose, I wholeheartedly agree that civic participation is one of the most important purposes of studying the past. As the passage above argues, we need history with as much breadth and depth as possible in order to empower ALL Americans to engage in thoughtful citizenship and compassionate service to their communities.
The advertisement Elizabeth selected for today is important in its own right for what it tells us about the history of slavery in America and the depictions of Africans and African Americans in colonial New England. There is so much more to say about an advertisement that denigrates a seventeen-year-old boy for a supposed lack of both “BEAUTY or GOOD QUALITIES,” but I appreciate that Elizabeth has challenged us also to think about why it is important that we analyze this kind of advertisement and include it in our historical narrative.
 Patricia Mooney-Melvin, “Professional Historians and the Challenge of Redefinition,” in Public History: Essays from the Field, rev. ed., ed. James B. Gardner and Peter S. LaPaglia, (Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing Company, 2006), 17.