Quaker Theology #16  -- Fall-Winter 2009

Book Reviews

Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship, Quakers, African Americans, and the Myth of Racial Justice. Philadelphia: Quaker Press, 2008. 580 pages, paperback, $28.00

Reviewed by Chuck Fager

Winston Churchill was once told, regarding another politician, that "Mr. X is a very modest man." "Yes,"Churchill replied, "but then, Mr. X has much to be modest about."

Several times during eight years in North Carolina, I have been introduced as a Quaker to black persons of substance, mostly ministers.

To a person, when they heard "Quaker," their faces have brightened and they said something like, "Oh, the Quakers! They’re wonderful. They were with us when it really counted."

But such praise evokes in me a double reaction. One is the classic panic fear-of-discovery response:

Yes but, goes the voice in my head, would you still feel that way if you knew how much support for segregation there was, even among anti-slavery Friends? And how long segregation lasted in Quaker schools here and elsewhere? And how many Quakers even joined the Klan back in the day?

So far, I’ve managed to keep my mouth shut and simply thank them for their high opinion of Friends. But if any of them ever reads this landmark book, then, no question, the jig will definitely be up.

Or will it? At the same time as my panic tape starts playing, there’s another voice defiantly shouting back, "Damn right. We rock. Final score: Quakers (and America) 1; slavery 0. Can’t touch this."

Which is to say, my sense about Quakers and race is one of raging ambiguity. Compared to most other churches, Friends compiled pretty much an unexampled record of work for equality . . . but in many ways that’s only because our dismal performance was just a small slice or two less dismal than the others. That is, we too have much to be modest about.

So how do I sort all this out?

Well, one thing is clear: reading Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship: Quakers, African Americans, and the Myth of Racial Justice, won’t help much.

I don’t say that as criticism, though, rather as praise. Among many important achievements, the book does a good job presenting this ambiguous, light-and-shadow saga in all its glorious and depressing ambiguity.

Yet even that may be a letdown for some readers. The "myth of racial justice" in the title can be read at least a couple of ways: one is as the myth that U.S. society has been a place of continual progress toward equality for all; we pretty much know about the self-deceit in that one.

But that "myth" can also refer to widespread and long- lived smugness among white Friends, in my time at least, that we are and always have been on the side of the angels when it came to matters of racial equality: cutting edge, forefront, ahead of their time, and other phrases generally associated with an urgent need for a cold splash of humility.

The authors have been traveling among us for some time prior to the book’s publication, pointing out how this self-regard is highly exaggerated, or true only in a qualified and limited way. For that matter, just about any foray of serious research into American Quaker history since the Civil War would yield data to blow that myth to smithereens. Maybe that’s one of the reasons there has been so little serious research into this history among us.

Until now. Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship thus serves as a landmark in more ways than one. The too-common sense of satisfaction about race is but one of several self-serving Quaker myths exposed in their pages. This is so despite the fact that even the authors get tangled up in them at times.

For instance, on their first page they declare, "In the 1780s . . . enslavement violated the Golden Rule [and] Friends testimonies of equality, peace and simplicity . . . ."(3)

Yet in the 1780s, there were no such things as Friends testimonies of equality, peace and simplicity. Look for them in the old Disciplines; they’re not there. This list is a modern invention, owing most to Howard Brinton.

The authors know this; by page 12 they are citing scholars who make clear that Fox, Penn and other leaders down to 1780 definitely believed in the IN-equality of the races. Penn owned slaves, and many Quaker merchants were active in the slave trade for decades without rebuke. Fox and company likewise affirmed the subordination of women to men, servants to masters, and rank-and-file Quakers, such as thee and me, to the "weightier" elders and ministers, like themselves, especially those with money.

The authors’ testimonial confusion is not a major slip, but illustrates how much most Quakers today are prisoners of anachronistic notions -- notions that definitely don’t fit our past, and only imperfectly apply to our present. Like other believers, though, most Quakers are attached to our familiar myths. Which leads me to believe that this book will be one of the most bought, most widely-discussed – and least read – Quaker books of the decade.

That will be too bad, but there it is.

Nowhere is this disconnect more current than in matters of race. One of the book’s most sobering revelations relates to slavery and segregation only indirectly, by describing what a long, uphill struggle it was to change things, within our own ranks.

Prayer, patience, and an occasional letter to Congress -- this was long the official Quaker recipe for ending slavery. Until after its day had passed, "abolitionism" was a near curse-word, usually uttered with a shudder, widely denounced, and often serving as grounds for disownment. Meetinghouses were largely closed to antislavery meetings and speakers. Indeed, several schisms resulted from conflicts over anti-slavery issues, though they are rarely talked about outside of other thick, unread histories. And the Underground Railroad was often more underground among Friends than elsewhere.

Still, this gloomy record of quietism and even collaboration coexisted with many true stories of courage and sacrifice: Lucretia Mott facing down mobs; Levi Coffin hiding fugitives in his house; and a succession of heroic figures including the Grimke sisters, Isaac Hopper, and Abby Foster Kelley.

Err, well, the succession included some of them: the Grimkes and Hopper were disowned for their abolitionist activities; Foster resigned so she could continue them. For that matter, Levi Coffin had to suffer through an acrimonious anti-slavery separation in Indiana Yearly Meeting. Lucretia Mott, who wanted to stay among Friends, had to fend off half a dozen disownment attempts to do so. (Her children, in light of this treatment, couldn’t quit Quakers fast enough as they matured.)

Further, aside from producing many memorable true stories, and dozens more legends, the American Quaker antislavery saga suffers from one huge, and I would have to say fatal failing: when push came to shove, it could not prevent the matter of slavery from being settled by war.

This outcome is American exceptionalism at its bloody worst. Other countries afflicted with slavery managed to end it more or less peacefully. In England, Quakers played a disciplined, organized, and crucial role in this outcome.

Here, however, the record, beneath the crust of legend, is dominated by unseemly and debilitating internecine squabbles. So much so that it would have taken a boatload of miracles for the Society to have played anywhere near a comparable peacemaking role, in the nation where arguably it was most needed.

More to be modest about indeed, but again, there it is. Yetm, it’s not the end. After the war and slavery’s official abolition, many Friends, especially women, set out for the South to labor for "uplift" of the freed people, a saga well-treated in these pages.

Such work often enough took courage, especially in the early days. The authors tell (163) how one Friend teaching in North Carolina was attacked by the Klan for "teaching niggers and making them like white men." (Parenthetically, this quote like a couple of others, shows a refreshing attitude toward use of the dreaded "n-word"; the authors cite it sparingly and without comment. Its offensiveness is made evident, without need for either dwelling on it or making it an unspeakable shibboleth.)

Here again, however, the story of these "gentle invaders" is a mixed one. Yes, they were brave. But a reader could also be forgiven for thinking that Quakers must have invented paternalistic, moralistic, self-righteous, resentment-breeding charity, or failing that, at least took out many of the early patents. In truth, the more I read about these people and their invincible philanthropic arrogance, the less I liked many of them. (174f)

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