Mary Bowser, Superspy

Day 12 of black history month, I want to applaud one of the best spies that ever worked for the USA – Mary Bowser. Bowser was a free black woman who moved back from Liberia when the Civil War broke out, and then got a job working in the Confederate White House, where everybody thought she was illiterate and generally uneducated. In fact, she was very educated and had a photographic memory, and she funnelled a huge amount of information directly to Ulysses Grant (via spymaster Elizabeth Van Lew, a quaker abolitionist and one of my favorite people in civil war history. You know how I am about spymasters.)

Although Bowser was a particularly accomplished and daring spy, who I think would have done remarkable work in any era and any situation, there were tons of other southern african americans feeding the north information during the Civil War, just as you’d guess. It’s baffling. I have read so many stories of Confederate military and political leaders having sensitive conversations right in front of black servants who were obviously not on the same side, and every time, it’s a head scratcher. It’s one of the things I mull over when I have trouble sleeping.

Like, I get that these were people who really liked having slaves and underpaid black servants, enough so to fight a war over it. But it seems like in order to have sensitive conversations while they were right in the room, refilling your drinks, you’d really have to convince yourself they had no internal lives. Or loved you loved you like your pet dog, even though you treated them inhumanely, like your pet dog (at a time when dogs were not fur babies). Or maybe it was just habit, like people forgetting to turn off cell phones in meetings?

Over the years of thinking about this puzzle (which are definitely not over, because among other things I like spy stories), it’s probably done more than anything else to help me remember that although anti-black racism in the US is sometimes about hate, it’s doesn’t have to be. It can be “not seeing race” in the sense that you don’t remember to count all the heads in the room. It’s often an assumption that dark faces are dumb or childlike or unable to feel pain completely. It’s one of the reasons the Confederacy lost resoundingly. And it’s a lesson some of us still haven’t learned.

You can read more about Bowser and Van Lew in today’s issue of the AV Club. Worth your time if you haven’t already heard a lot about them – and even if you have.


Sonya says: The best description I have ever encountered of the mindset that permitted people to converse in front of their slaves as though they had neither memory nor interiority was in context of classical Rome, but: “self-moving furniture.” Which elides a whole bunch of other uses of slaves, but gets across the assumption of useful non-humanity for me in a way that the more abstract “property” does not.

Rebecca says: In the book Black Like Me, a white guy disguised as a black guy describes being alone in a car with another white guy. The white guy divulges his secret sexual predilections because he has an ingrained sensibility that black men are sexual perverts and therefore this guy would understand his own perversity. I identified with that because people, especially 10 years ago, felt the same about lesbians and would tell me all sorts of things I didn’t care to know. I think it’s a related mindset to think that black people aren’t humans with the normal range of intelligence and emotions.

Incidentally, death row population disparities would support that. For both black people and lesbians (where it was brought up in the trial).

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