“That Friendless Child’s Noise Would Make You Glad”: Unremembered Slaves on Frederick Douglass Day
As a follow-up to a post I wrote earlier this year on Mark Twain’s friendship with Frederick Douglass (who is from Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where I live), I wanted to share the following excerpt from Chris Polk’s article in the Sunday edition of my local paper, The Star Democrat:
It was a day for Talbot County’s native son.
Frederick Douglass, the legendary former slave, abolitionist author, statesman and more has a day named for him every year in his native Talbot County.
Saturday, Sept. 23, in Easton, there was a parade and welcome ceremony on the courthouse green, near the statue of Douglass that was erected six years ago.
The courthouse green happens to be near the place where Douglass had been jailed briefly in 1836 for talking to a young slave about escaping, the jail being on the north side of the courthouse.
From his jail cell, perhaps Douglass could have seen where the ceremony was held.
Because I was busy researching Twain’s early years in Hannibal for a book I’m writing, I wasn’t able to attend the ceremony this weekend. Coincidentally, however, part of my research included reading Twain’s account in his autobiography of another Eastern Shore native that serves as something of a counterpoint to Douglass’s legacy.
We had a little slave boy whom we had hired from someone, there in Hannibal. He was from the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and had been brought away from his family and his friends halfway across the American continent and sold. He was a cheery spirit, innocent and gentle, and the noisiest creature that ever was, perhaps. All day long he was singing, whistling, yelling, whooping, laughing—it was maddening, devastating, unendurable. At last, one day, I lost all my temper and went raging to my mother, and said Sandy had been singing for the past hour without a single break, and I couldn’t stand it and wouldn’t she please shut him up. The tears came into her eyes and her lip trembled and she said something like this:
“Poor thing, when he sings, it shows that he is not remembering, and that comforts me; but when he is still, I am afraid he is thinking, and I cannot bear it. He will never see his mother again; if he can sing, I must not hinder it, but be thankful for it. If you were older, you would understand me; then that friendless child’s noise would make you glad.”
(from Autobiography of Mark Twain, vol. 1. Also quoted on the Huck Finn Freedom Center’s “Jim’s Journey” website).
Twain goes on to say that Sandy was the inspiration for one of the boys in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer whom Tom tries to con into painting the fence; however, he doesn’t recall the name he gave Sandy’s character in the book. According to Mark Twain and Youth: Studies in His Life and Writings (eds. Kevin Mac Donnell and R. Kent Rasmussen), Sandy “appears as Jim, ‘the small colored boy’” whom Tom ironically envies for his “freedom to fetch water while he must whitewash the fence.”
Although Twain recalls that during his childhood “all the negroes were friends of ours”, he also acknowledges that he and children like Sandy “were comrades, and yet not comrades; color and condition interposed a subtle line which both parties were conscious of, and which rendered complete fusion impossible.”
And that’s about all the background on Sandy’s story I’ve been able to find.
As I read the local newspaper’s inspiring account about Frederick Douglass, “the legendary former slave, abolitionist author, statesman and more,” who went from jail cell in Talbot County to revered American icon, I couldn’t help but wonder whatever happened to Sandy? Did he (along with William Faulkner’s Dilsey) “endure”?
Or did Sandy’s ““singing, whistling, yelling, whooping, laughing” grow still, as Twain’s mother dreaded, dissolving into memories of “his family and his friends halfway across the American continent”, memories that Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man lamented “were all such a part of that other life that’s dead that I can’t remember them all. (Time was as I was, but neither that time nor that ‘I’ are anymore.)”
If anyone knows the rest of Sandy’s story, I’d love to hear it—and celebrate it or mourn it appropriately.