Crispus Attucks and Black Lives Matter

For day 6 of black history month, I’ve been thinking about Crispus Attucks, one of the few (maybe the only?) African Americans that white Americans learn about outside of black history month. No matter how white-focused you are, he is not someone who can be edited out of the story of American history. He was, it’s possible to say, the beginning of American history.

Thinking about him in 2017, it’s hard to avoid making parallels with Black Lives Matter. Attucks was a sailor and skilled rope maker in Boston; he’d escaped slavery as a young man and had been living free for about 20 years. (He was probably the son of an enslaved African and a Natick Indian, living in Framingham, Mass.) He was likely not enthusiastic about the possibility that British sailors might impress him into service (echoes of slavery right there), a sense of outrage which other colonists shared. After a fight between some ropemakers and soldiers on March 2, everybody was on edge. Three days later, there was a bar fight, and then a highly disputed incident in front of the Customs House which ended with five American colonists shot dead by British troops – Attucks one of them.

You can’t remember any of the other names. I can’t either. That’s partly because of an immediate media furor over whether the black guy was a violence-inciting ringleader or an innocent bystander who would never have hurt anyone. If that sounds familiar, you will not be surprised to hear that the soldiers’ lawyer, one John Adams, got six of them acquitted (and argued the last two down to misdemeanor charges with no jail time, just a mark in their permanent records by which I mean brands on their hands) by making a big deal of how these poor lawmen feared for their lives, although some depositions gave evidence of a policing culture looking for an excuse to crack down, and all the civilians who had supposedly attacked the soldiers were acquitted.

As for Attucks, his body was displayed in state in Faneuil Hall (at the time a meeting place and theatre, mere feet away from the Boston Massacre site) for a few days, and then buried with the other Massacre victims in the Old Granary Burial Ground even though he was black (which took a special waiver from city leaders).

(If you’ve wondered why I’m suddenly mentioning a bunch of place names it’s because I spend a lot of time in Boston so the geographical relationships between these places have resonance, and I think you might enjoy doing your own self-guided Crispus Attucks tour of Boston. Which could also include a Sam Adams brewery visit because…)

Sam Adams and other members of the Sons of Liberty talked a lot about how Attucks was innocent but ALSO implied that he was an active associate of the Sons of Liberty fighting for independence and the rights of man by whatever means neccessary, so it’s hard to know when to trust them – but it’s also possible these things were both true. There is no perfect victim, and there is no perfect patriot. Attucks’ death is often referred to as the event that kicked off the American Revolution, and out of respect we traditionally color one of the faces in Paul Revere’s famous commemorative engraving brown (although of course the original engraving, being an engraving, is just lines, which people at the time could and did color however, usually without a brown face).

Black lives matter. They matter so, so much to the freedom of every one of us.