March 2007

Brian M. Dunn

nonfiction

The Great Negro Plot: A Tale of Conspiracy and Murder in 18th-Century New York by Mat Johnson

In which a group of Negro Slaves, cunning of mind and armed with both evil intent and a complete lack of gratitude, didst plot to Rise up against their Caucasian benefactors and commit acts of atrocious violence against decent God-fearing men, women and children.

Or rather, how they didn’t, and still paid with their lives.

A bit of background is in order.

In 1712 New York, two dozen slaves emerged from the woods of lower Manhattan armed with stolen muskets in a desperate bid to gain their freedom or die trying. Though the rebellion was short-lived and doomed from the start, it did put the slave-owning majority on edge for decades to come. Seems the Africans they whipped and raped weren’t those happy Zippety Doo Dah Walt Disney slaves. Perceptive bastards that they were, the white owners sensed their negro property might harbor a certain unhealthy resentment toward their masters.

On a fateful Saturday in February, 1741, Mrs. Hogg, shop proprietor, remembered seeing Wilson, a dim-witted soldier, eyeing her coins. Wilson, deciding to be a player in that fine old sport of Blame the Black Guys, pointed his finger at Hughson’s Public House where the occasional black man was seen drinking alcohol and consorting with <gasp!> other black men.

Amongst those taken in for questioning was a 16-year-old indentured servant named Mary Gordon. The magistrates promised her a hundred pounds in coin of the realm and her freedom if she told the story they wanted to hear: dark tales of theft and arson and plots for wholesale revolution. And tell tales she did. And by the time her lies stopped ringing true, by the time the court let its collective brain catch up to its bloodlust, 36 New Yorkers, the great majority of them black, had been either hanged or burned at the stake and more than a hundred others were imprisoned or simply disappeared.

Mat Johnson has written an entertaining, odd-duck of a book. He seems to have missed the memo that histories are supposed to be large, bloated affairs. The Great Negro Plot is a lean 200 or so pages, bibliography included. He doesn’t care about a Colonial Williamsburg-friendly version of life in the colonies. His interest is in the lot of the enslaved Africans, the backbreaking labor, the inhuman conditions and their inexorable fate in the face of the deranged fancies and fictions of their white captors, sadly illustrated in the abomination of injustice incurred due to the non-existent Great Negro Plot of 1741.

There is no pretense of detachment in Johnson. Rather than give us a rote retelling of characters and events as they did unfold, Johnson seems to take as his inspiration the detailed recounting of events written by one Daniel Horsmanden, judge and court recorder in old New York, who so diligently transcribed every moment of the trial, peppered liberally with the righteous idiocies of attitude and belief endemic of his times. Do the modernisms that occasionally creep in (for instance, Johnson refers to the white’s fear of a negro “sleeper cell,” ready to take action during the trial) distract the reader? Do we wish that there were more of a postscript to the fates of the survivors after Mary Gordon is paid her blood money, set free and hustled out of town when her pulling names out of the air becomes less convenient for the powers that be?

Perhaps yes to the former, but one is well sick of Mary Gordon and the men and women who gleefully encouraged her lies as easily as they accepted the brutality of slavery as the natural order of the universe. And why should they be given an extra moment of history and not the thousands who were denied a voice?

In his prologue, Johnson recalls a conversation with a student while teaching a G.E.D. class. The student tells Johnson if he were somehow transported back to slave times, he would kill himself. Johnson admonishes him with a cold, simple truth:

You are the descendent of the slaves that didn’t choose to end their lives. You are the descendent of the slaves that chose to keep their heads down, swallow their pride, and wait till the time was right. Even if it took centuries. You are the descendent of the slaves that chose to live.

To those martyred in the year 1741, Johnson gives them the voice and the dignity they were so sorely denied. Although not presented as a YA book, their story should be required reading in American History 101.

The Great Negro Plot: A Tale of Conspiracy and Murder in 18th-Century New York by Mat Johnson
Bloomsbury
ISBN: 1582340994
160 Pages