Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Published 9:51 AM by with 0 comment

Freedom from Freedom Papers and Slave Passes

Freedom from Freedom Papers and Slave Passes | Yes, We Rise

A friend shared with me a very insightful blog post about a picture that was shown on facebook recently. When she first shared the link, I didn't want to read it because I assumed that it would upset me and I needed my mind clear so that I could write. But after scrolling past it a few times, I decided to dive in and read it. I am glad that I did.

I did get angry after reading it. But not at the blogger. She was dead on in her assessment of the situation and she broke things down like a champ. The fact that she had to break things down irked me deep in my soul. Read: Leigh Anne Tuohy, Racism, and the White Saviour Complex

Picture from Leigh Anne Tuohy's Facebook page

Link to this picture on Leigh Anne Tuohy's page
Leigh Anne's comment about the incident and this picture:
We see what we want! It's the gospel truth! These two were literally huddled over in a corner table nose to nose and the person with me said "I bet they are up to no good" well you know me... I walked over, told them to scoot over. After 10 seconds of dead silence I said so whats happening at this table? I get nothing.. I then explained it was my store and they should spill it... They showed me their phones and they were texting friends trying to scrape up $3.00 each for the high school basketball game! Well they left with smiles, money for popcorn and bus fare. We gave to STOP judging people and assuming and pigeon holing people! Don't judge a book by its cover or however you'd like to express the sentiment! Accept others and stoping seeing what you want to see!!! #LeighAnnesSundaySermon #BelieveInOthers

Why this is problematic

First, my disclaimer:  I am not a history professor. I am not a historian. I am not an expert. I am a regular chick who happens to enjoy learning about the history of her people in her own country. In other words, all that I've learned I did so on my own time simply because I enjoy learning about it. 

*deep breath*

When slavery was a "thing" in this nation (and by thing I mean a systematic, government-sanctioned effort to entrap and enslave people based on the color of their skin in order to give certain members of the nation's upper class the free labor they needed in order to build, maintain and grow their financial superiority in the fledgling nation that lasted for 245 years) it was illegal for slaves to be outside of the plantations where they were owned without permission from the owner. The permission to be seen in public spaces was granted via identification papers known as Freedom Papers and Slave Passes. 

Freedom Papers

Freedom from Freedom Papers and Slave Passes | Yes, We Rise

Freedom Papers were exactly what they sound like. Papers that were government issued to free men and women of color. Whether born free or manumitted (freed from slavery by their owners) a black person was not allowed to move about the world without these papers. If a black person was seen in public without the accompaniment of a white person (to validate their presence) they were under legal obligation to produce freedom papers to explain their presence.

Even with freedom papers, a black person was still vulnerable to being snatched off the street and sold into slavery (much like Solomon North, the subject of the movie 12 Years a Slave).

Slave Passes

Freedom from Freedom Papers and Slave Passes | Yes, We Rise

Slave Passes were similar to Freedom Papers. They gave permission for an enslaved black person to be seen away from the plantation without the accompaniment of a white person for the validation of their presence. Slave Passes were issued by plantation owners. And again, even with these passes, slaves were still vulnerable to being captured and sold to some other plantation owner or whipped/assaulted because... well, because they could be.

Slave codes were real laws with real repercussions

Slave codes were laws enacted by the states that established slaves as property and without any rights that their owners did not give them.  During the period when slavery was considered a legal status for a black person and a legal business transaction, black people did not have the right to move about the earth without permission from a white person. To be caught off the plantation without your papers could result in being whipped, sold into slavery or killed.

Killing a slave was a crime because a slave was property and to kill the slave would deny the owner the rights to their property. It wasn't a crime because it was heinous to kill another human being because of the color of their skin or the presumption that they were lesser than you though. Just to be clear.

Get that down in your spirit. We had to have PERMISSION from some person who did not birth us, to simply exist and move around the world. Okay... so on to this troublesome picture and effort to prove that these two young black men were not thugs who were up to no good by Leigh Anne Tuohy. 

Why Leigh Anne's movements were as terrible as her friend's comments

Slavery in America was abolished in 1865. Today is 2014. One hundred and forty-nine years ago, black people were released from the bondage of slavery. (I'll discuss the heinous period of Jim Crow segregation on another day.

As the blogger pointed out, these two young men were not bothering anyone. They were in a public space talking to each other. They were minors who were out without their parents and the presumption was that because they were talking to each other, they must have been doing something wrong. 



Where I live, teenagers often sit together and talk and share and text and play on their smartphones. Adults do it too -- sort of how Leigh Anne and her friend were sitting there talking to each other. But we're not going to talk about the hypocrisy of that...

Their actions did not sound dangerous or strange at all. On this, I agree with the blogger and with Leigh Anne. They were not doing anything wrong and the assumption that they were is racist. And egregious. But let's stop at racist.

Why is it racist? Because in 2014, black people do not belong to anyone but themselves. We do not have a legal nor a moral obligation to prove to anyone that our presence is allowed. These children were in a public space, where other free people were sitting and enjoying themselves. They were not being disruptive or negative in any way. 
Sitting at a table talking to your friend is NOT an act of aggression, terrorism or criminal behavior. Stop criminalizing black bodies and behaviors because you're afraid of black skin. 

When Leigh Anne pushed herself into their space and basically forced them to prove that they were not doing anything wrong, she did the modern equivalent of demanding their freedom papers or their slave passes. By establishing herself as the store owner, she attempted to exert authority over their presence in her establishment.  Much the same way that slave catchers did when they encountered black people away from the plantation. But, it wasn't necessary and they were not doing anything wrong. By demanding that they tell her what they were doing, she put them on the spot to prove that they were "good" young black people. 

*deep breath*

No. In 2014, this is NOT acceptable behavior. Those children belong to their parents and to themselves. And if Leigh Anne had been a police officer who did the same thing my response would be the same. But, let me add... I would have understood their giving in to authority and answering the questions asked of them. To refuse to answer and to stand on their truth that they don't owe anyone an explanation for existing in public, puts them directly in a position to be arrested or killed. So I am not blaming these teenagers for responding to her demands for proof of what they were doing.

I'm just annoyed as hell that she felt entitled to that information.

In our current tense racial climate where free black men and black boys have been killed time and time again by people in positions of authority based purely on the speculation that they were wrong because they were (seemingly) out of context, I can only imagine the fear that these young men may have felt when she sat there demanding that they respond to her.


I am happy that these two young men had a clear understanding of how to behave when confronted by someone who claimed authority over them. I am happy that they proved themselves worthy of being treated like human beings and not thugs or criminals. I am, in a way, glad that Leigh Anne felt compelled to prove to her friend that her judgment was incorrect. I am, however, horrified at the way that things went down. I am happy because they lived through this unnecessary intrusion on their lives.

See... this is the part of the game where I start calling people out on their foolishness. 

Rather than subject these two young men to proving their worth as human beings with the right to gather in a public place and simply be... I think that Leigh Anne should have confronted her friend on her racist assumptions and put her on the spot for believing anything negative about those young men. Using them to prove that they were regular kids and not "thugs"... is problematic for me. I understand why she felt the need to prove her point to her friend, but I am confused why their conversation had to include those young men at all. 

Since when can't we simply challenge our friends directly on their bullshit and that's that? At least, that's how my friends and I roll. Someone says something stupid or egregious or racist or classist... and they are challenged on the spot to prove their erroneous conclusions. 

This will not be a popular statement but... I need white people to challenge white people when they are being racist and wrong. These issues of racism and fear of the "angry black woman" or "thuggish black man" are figments of your imagination. Most black people are not criminals. Much like most white people are not criminals. However, the odds are greater that a white person will be victimized criminally by another white person than by a black person. And vice versa.

How many more decades and centuries have to pass where we have to prove that we have the right to exist without being criminalized? How many times do we have to be subjected to humiliation simply because of someone else's fear?

If anyone should be afraid of someone in this nation, black people should be terrified of white people based on our nation's history. Two and a half centuries of slavery. Another 100+ years of segregation and terrorism via Jim Crow... is a lot of experience of being mistreated, over and over and over again. And yet... black skin is still constantly scrutinized, villainized and made to feel like we're interlopers. It needs to stop.

To recap: We're all free now

People are free to exist in public spaces without proving to anyone that they are within their rights to be there. If the space is open to the public, then they did nothing wrong by sitting there talking to each other. Asking them to prove their innocence in being there is as racist as the thought that they must be up to no good (insert coded thug language here). 

Instead of using those children to prove that you're not racist and they are not criminals, turn to your confused friends and confront them on their perceptions.

I am disappointed. I am thankful that these young men were gracious enough to entertain this foolishness. But to be clear, they didn't have to. Black people are no longer required to carry freedom papers or slave passes to prove that they have the right to be off the plantation. Check the dates on your calendar and get your mind right.

Freedom is mine... and yours too.

** Nic Nac Paddywack **

Twelve Years a Slave

The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism


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