BGHB at 50: Revisiting Anthony Burns

In celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards, established in 1967, we will be publishing a series of appreciations of BGHB winners and honorees from the past. This is the fifth in the series to be published in The Horn Book Magazine (see Gregory Maguire’s article on Jill Paton Walsh’s Unleaving; Tim Wynne-Jones's personal recollection of Chris Van Allsburg's The Garden of Abdul Gasazi; K. T. Horning's "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Hamilton?": M. C. Higgins, the Great; and Carole Boston Weatherford on Brian Pinkney's The Adventures of Sparrowboy).

It’s been nearly thirty years since I first encountered Anthony Burns: The Defeat and Triumph of a Fugitive Slave by Virginia Hamilton. I was a member of the judges’ panel that awarded it the 1988 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for Nonfiction. At the time I found it informative, compelling, and an exemplar of Hamilton’s marvelous gift for words. My recent re-reading struck me the same way. Anthony Burns was Hamilton’s third BGHB Award; the first had been the 1974 fiction award for M.C. Higgins, the Great [see Kathleen T. Horning’s column in the July/August 2017 Horn Book]; the second, also fiction, for Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush in 1983. By 1988 Hamilton had established herself as a distinguished and versatile writer not only of realistic novels but also biography (Paul Robeson and W. E. B. Du Bois), fantasy (the Jahdu stories), and speculative fiction (the Justice Cycle). She had also re-awakened an interest in African American folktales with her groundbreaking collection The People Could Fly. So it is not totally surprising that Anthony Burns represents a hybrid genre. The New York Times reviewer called it a novel. The copyright page refers to it as biography. Back matter includes a bibliography and an index, features typical of nonfiction. The book also includes excerpts from the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which was central to Anthony Burns’s story. In her acceptance speech, Hamilton called the book a “narrative of historical reconstruction…neither a total life study, nor entirely history or fiction.”

It was necessary for Hamilton to reconstruct the early life of Anthony Burns — a man, born a slave around 1834, who became the center of a conflict between Boston abolitionists and pro-slavery sympathizers — because very little information exists about his life before 1854. Most of the scholarship pertaining to Burns centers on his capture in Boston, the resultant protests, and the hearing that led to his return to slavery. Hamilton noted in her BGHB acceptance speech:

If this were the life of any ordinary individual not of a parallel culture who had became enormously famous toward the end of his life, the factual chronicle of his whole life would have been sifted through and the empty places investigated, filled where possible and duly recorded.

But because Burns was born a slave and grew into a kindly, self-effacing server in bondage, no one seems to have had the inclination to look behind the extremely sketchy, biographical material of his early years once he became famous.

Of the twenty chapters of the book, five relate to Burns’s life before Boston, and thus before the historical record. Hamilton gives Burns the ability to mentally remove himself from a situation by going into a trancelike state, and taking himself back in time. This is the device by which Hamilton reconstructs Burns’s early life and humanizes him.

When, in Hamilton’s narrative, Anthony first revisits the past, he is five years old, enslaved by John Suttle of Stafford County, Virginia. Young Anthony, who is a particular favorite of Suttle’s, is excited about an expected pony ride; Suttle (called “he Mars” by the slaves) enjoys early morning rides around his property with little Anthony on the front of the saddle. In Burns’s recollection, this is the time when he learns that, in spite of being one of Suttle’s favorites, he is himself a slave, merely Suttle’s property.

“And now you know, don’t you boy?” he Mars said. “Anthony, you my property, you belong to me. You my own slave chile.”

…Anthony stared after him, half in longing and half in fear and wonder. The meaning of he Mars’ last words would come to him slowly, over time.

By the time Anthony was twelve, Suttle’s son Charles had inherited the Suttle property, including the slaves. As Anthony grew, his labor became more profitable to Suttle. He was hired out to various people, eventually landing in Richmond, where he worked for a druggist. He spent some of his free time at the docks, and one night early in February 1854 Anthony, heeding the siren song of freedom, stowed away on a ship. After a cold and miserable voyage, he arrived in Boston in early March.

* * *

One of the strengths of the book is that it paints a clear picture of the historical and political context in which Anthony Burns found himself in Boston. The federal Fugitive Slave Act had been passed in 1850. It permitted slaveholders to track down escaped slaves and obliged states to return the fugitives to their putative owners. The Boston Vigilance Committee, which had both Black and white members, vigorously opposed the new law. In 1851, the committee had made an unsuccessful attempt to free Thomas Sims, a fugitive who was tried under the Fugitive Slave Act and returned to slavery in Georgia.

One night in May 1854, Burns was snatched off the streets by a deputy U.S. marshal and placed under arrest in the same courthouse room where Sims had been held. When Charles Suttle learned of Burns’s whereabouts, he journeyed to Boston to retrieve Burns. The Boston Vigilance Committee was determined that what had happened to Thomas Sims would not happen to him. The bulk of the narrative relates the dramatic events of the ten days during which Suttle and the Boston Vigilance Committee contested the fate of Anthony Burns.

One of Burns’s attorneys was the writer and lawyer Richard Henry Dana, author of the popular book Two Years Before the Mast. Dana took the case pro bono, while other committee members worked diligently behind the scenes to find a way to free Burns. Among the abolitionists were a number of prominent white Bostonians, including Wendell Phillips, Theodore Parker, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and Samuel G. Howe. They worked alongside Black activists such as Rev. Leonard Grimes, pastor of a church attended by fugitive slaves, and Robert Morris, a lawyer who assisted in Burns’s defense. Throughout the story, though, Hamilton takes pains not to make Dana and the other abolitionists into the ultimate heroes. She does not diminish their good intentions or their good works, but she places Anthony Burns at the center of his own story.

As Hamilton portrays it, the ten days of Burns’s imprisonment were intense. Protest meetings, street demonstrations, printed leaflets, and a failed attempt to rescue Burns resulted in an influx of U.S. Marines and other military personnel, as well as local and state forces. Armed men were everywhere — in the courthouse, on the streets. The presence of the Marines was an indication that the federal government, led by pro-slavery President Franklin Pierce, was determined to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act by whatever means necessary. In addition, the commissioner who heard Burns’s case, Edward G. Loring, also seemed inclined to side with the slaveholders. Loring ruled in favor of Suttle and issued the certificate that allowed him to take Burns back to Virginia — hence the “defeat” of the book’s subtitle.

In a highly dramatic scene, Burns was escorted to a ship by two thousand armed men, marching through a crowd of about fifty thousand citizens, who lined the route chanting “Shame! Shame!” The chanting infuriated some soldiers, who proceeded to attack the crowd, injuring several protesters. Upon his arrival in Richmond, Burns was jailed and held in iron shackles for four months before being sold to a man from North Carolina. His supporters discovered Burns’s whereabouts by chance and contacted his new owner, who agreed to sell him to them for $1300. Burns returned to Boston, where he became something of a celebrity, telling his story to crowds in Massachusetts and New York. He also studied for two years at Oberlin College. Eventually he made his way to St. Catharine’s, Canada, where he served as a minister for a short time and died of consumption at the age of twenty-eight in 1862.

In telling Burns’s story, Hamilton displayed her ability to capture a reader’s attention with an apt description or an unexpected turn of phrase or choice of words. Here is young Anthony out at night in the slave quarters: “Night slid in around him and poured its inky black over him. It covered him, made him unseen. He was out with the dark.” And later, when Anthony boldly asks Suttle for money for his lodging, we are told that this effort to assert himself was a “small opening of freedom’s door.”

It must have been a challenge to produce dialogue that reflected a range of characters whose speech varied according to socioeconomic class, geographical region, and educational levels — Southern slaveholders, enslaved people, Boston abolitionists, hired deputies, attorneys, etc. Hamilton does not make an effort to render different dialects precisely, but she does provide a flavor of the different speech patterns depending on the social situation in which the speakers find themselves. Perhaps most important in a book centered on the life of a slave, she avoids the stereotyped speech that makes the slave characters seem stupid. When Anthony’s mother cries, “My own me don’t belong to me nohow,” it may be considered ungrammatical on the surface, but it is a profound statement of her understanding of her status in the world.

* * *

Anthony Burns was an exemplar of a genre that Hamilton introduced to the field as “liberation literature.” In her afterword she notes that she had “experienced an enormous sense of relief and satisfaction at having at last set free through the word one man’s struggle for liberty…By writing about him I found that he not only came to life for me, but that he lives again for all of us. In gaining a sense of who he was we learn about ourselves. As long as we know he is free, we too are liberated.”

This concept of liberating the reader through the liberation of the subject of the narrative is highly significant in literature related to the experience of slavery, especially literature intended for young readers. It elevates the slave from a pitiable victim of oppression to one who has triumphed in the achievement of freedom.

Anthony Burns remains all too relevant even now, as a reminder of some of the flaws in our justice system, both historical and contemporary. The Fugitive Slave Act was part of an effort to keep in place a race-based system of control and oppression of Black people for the benefit of what Hamilton called the “slavocracy.” I have recently been reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, which addresses the contemporary mass incarceration of Black people, especially young Black males. It is striking to read how laws are and have been used in the service of oppression. Alexander identifies the War on Drugs as the root cause of current mass incarceration; Anthony Burns identifies the Fugitive Slave Act as at the root of Burns’s legal defeat. Anthony Burns’s triumph, as Hamilton terms it in her subtitle, is not only in his liberation from slavery but also his success in being able to live the life he dreamed of — to live as a literate man of faith, able to be himself and to be of service to his fellow men and women.

From the November/December 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.
Rudine Sims Bishop
Rudine Sims Bishop
Rudine Sims Bishop, Professor Emerita of Education at Ohio State University, is the winner of the 2017 Coretta Scott King–Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement (practitioner category).

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