A recently resurfaced letter, dated 1865, from a former slave to his master is getting some well-deserved online news and social media attention.
According to Letters of Note, the letter comes from a formerly enslaved man by the name of Jourdan Anderson. In the missive, Jourdan appears to be responding to a petition made by his former master, Colonel P.H. Anderson, requesting that Jourdan and his family return to Tennessee to work as freed laborers on the same land on which Colonel Anderson had enslaved them for 30 years.
Trymaine Lee of the Huffington Post summarized the letter perfectly:
In a tone that could be described either as ‘impressively measured’ or ‘the deadest of deadpan comedy,’ the former slave, in the most genteel manner, basically tells the old slave master to kiss his rear end.
Jourdan’s letter brilliantly reveals the numerous injustices suffered by enslaved people at the hands of their white masters, as he compares the ways their lives had improved since their emancipation and migration to Ohio. In one exquisitely subtle example, Jourdan addresses the daily disrespect no doubt endured by his wife while enslaved by Anderson, writing “folks here call her Mrs. Anderson.” Similarly, he challenges the absurd promises made by Colonel Anderson to try to entice the family back with sarcastic genius, simultaneously revealing the tragic circumstances of their lives while living as the colonel’s “property.”
The horrors of the family’s enslavement notwithstanding, the letter is worth reading for its comedic richness alone.
(Indeed, how tragic there was no YouTube video in 1865, to capture the expression on Colonel Anderson’s face as he read the sharp-as-a-tack dismissal from his former slave – our full imaginations will have to suffice as we picture the colonel reading Jourdan’s calculations of past-due wages owed his family, along with directions as to how they should be sent!).
Beyond any amusement, however, Jourdan’s letter should put to rest narratives, old and new, of the so-called “happy slave,” showcasing the masterful insights that black Americans of the time had regarding the circumstances of their oppression by whites. Indeed, not only could black Americans like Mr. Anderson well-analyze such matters; as argued by Joe Feagin and others, these Americans of color also held a much more sincere and unsullied sense of justice than most white Americans have, in practice, ever embraced.