Saturday, April 26, 2014

Samuel Bass

"I have given them your word, and the world [Greek: kosmos = world system, order of things, way of the world] has hated them because they are not of the world [kosmos], just as I am not of the world [kosmos]. I do not ask that you take them out of the world [kosmos], but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world [kosmos], just as I am not of the world [kosmos]. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world [kosmos], so I have sent them into the world [kosmos]." -- Jesus  (John 17:14–19)

I was in south-central Louisiana this past week.  Bayou country.  It's a place I have been to many times and have come to appreciate for its unique beauty.  This is a wild place of low flat land and high, brackish water, of mud and algae and alligators and cypress trees and sugar cane fields and intense humidity and oppressive heat.  One can easily imagine oneself in the Cretaceous period, when dinosaurs ruled.  The feats of human ingenuity and engineering and labor required to enable and maintain civilization here are astonishing.

Yet on this visit I could not escape memories of scenes from the film '12 Years a Slave'.  I recall the first time I came to Louisiana and wondered about what it must have felt like to have arrived as a slave at a place like this--so remote and harsh and intense.  After watching '12 Years a Slave' I have a better inkling of what that might have been like.  The film is closely based on the personal account of Solomon Northup, a free and educated African-American man who lived in upstate New York and who in 1841 was drugged, kidnapped, beaten, transported to Louisiana and sold into slavery.  In isolated rural Louisiana, Northup had little hope of escaping to see his wife and children again, at least not without the intervention of friends back home in New York state.  But no one had any idea what had become of him.  Years went by...

Enter Samuel Bass, a white Canadian carpenter whom Northup's "owner" had hired to build a barn.  Northup was assigned to assist in the construction.  Despite living and working in Louisiana, Bass was fearlessly outspoken against slavery. When Northup confided his predicament to Bass, he agreed to do all he could to get word back to Northup's hometown about his whereabouts. 

Northup wrote of Bass:

"Only for him, in all probability, I should have ended my days in slavery. He was my deliverer — a man whose true heart overflowed with noble and generous emotions. To the last moment of my existence I shall remember him with feelings of thankfulness. His name was Bass, and at that time he resided in Marksville. It will be difficult to convey a correct impression of his appearance or character. He was a large man, between forty and fifty years old, of light complexion and light hair. He was very cool and self-possessed, fond of argument, but always speaking with extreme deliberation. He was that kind of person whose peculiarity of manner was such that nothing he uttered ever gave offence. What would be intolerable, coming from the lips of another, could be said by him with impunity. There was not a man on Red River, perhaps, that agreed with him on the subject of politics or religion, and not a man, I venture to say, who discussed either of those subjects half as much. It seemed to be taken for granted that he would espouse the unpopular side of every local question, and it always created amusement rather than displeasure among his auditors, to listen to the ingenious and original manner in which he maintained the controversy. He was a bachelor — an 'old bachelor,' according to the true acceptation of the term — having no kindred living, as he knew of, in the world. Neither had he any permanent abiding place — wandering from one State to another, as his fancy dictated. He had lived in Marksville three or four years, and in the prosecution of his business as a carpenter; and in consequence, likewise, of his peculiarities, was quite extensively known throughout the parish of Avoyelles. He was liberal to a fault; and his many acts of kindness and transparent goodness of heart rendered him popular in the community, the sentiment of which he unceasingly combated.  He was a native of Canada, from whence he had wandered in early life, and after visiting all the principal localities in the northern and western States, in the course of his peregrinations, arrived in the unhealthy region of the Red River. His last removal was from Illinois. Whither he has now gone, I regret to be obliged to say, is unknown to me. He gathered up his effects and departed quietly from Marksville the day before I did, the suspicions of his instrumentality in procuring my liberation rendering such a step necessary. For the commission of a just and righteous act he would undoubtedly have suffered death, had he remained within reach of the slave-whipping tribe on Bayou Boeuf."

What Bass did on Northup's behalf was to write and send a series of letters to people in Northup's hometown, providing his whereabouts and situation.  Bass met secretly with Northup to provide status on his endeavors and planned on traveling to New York himself to seek help.  Before that happened, a response came and Northup's friends and relations in New York orchestrated a rescue via legal means.

In the film, Brad Pitt portrays Samuel Bass.  From what I understand, most of the dialogue Pitt spoke was taken directly from Solomon Northup's memoir.  Pitt's Bass looks and acts Amish or perhaps Quaker and this, coupled with the man's principled actions to help Northup, made me wonder if, in fact, Samuel Bass was a Friend or a Mennonite or some other "peace and justice" oriented Christian.  Unfortunately, not much is known about Bass and so he remains an enigma.

Samuel Bass seems to have been a Christian, but any further specificity of his affiliations is unfindable.  In a very brief account of his life he gave before his death, he confided that he had abandoned a wife and four daughters in Canada and had roamed for years as an itinerant carpenter.  He left his spouse because "she had such a temper as to preclude any man from living with her.”  Thereafter, he had “no permanent abiding place” but instead wandered "from one state to another, as his fancy dictated.”  He was, according to Northup, "popular in the community" because of “his many acts of kindness and transparent goodness of heart” but he was also outspoken and more than willing to challenge dominant views, be they political, social or religious.  Records have been found indicating that Bass died of pneumonia in 1853 in the Louisiana home of an African-American woman.  Little else is known about him.  Most of his descendents in Ontario, Canada had no idea about him up until the release of the film and the buzz that Brad Pitt would be playing an ancestor of theirs.

In pondering Mr. Bass, I don't want to diminish Solomon Northup's heroism.  To have endured so much, adroitly maneuvering within the brutal and soul-crushing institution that had entrapped him, and yet maintaining hope and courage: this was an incredible feat.

What haunts me is that while enslaved in Louisiana, Solomon Northup was surrounded by white Bible-believing "Christians" (his first "owner" was a pastor).  They were entangled and complicit in a system of oppression and their faith and humanity had become utterly twisted by it.  The only white person in the vicinity of Northup's captivity who seems to have been able to rise above and see the reality of the atrocity of slavery and speak the frank truth about it and take practical action was a man with little to his name: no plantation home, no wealth, no family, not much concern for social standing--just a working man with his carpentry tools and an indomitable conscience. 

An opportunity came unexpectedly to both men: for Solomon Northup it was a fleeting chance, after years of slavery, to get a message to his family and friends and perhaps be rescued.  For Samuel Bass it was a request to go against the system and do the right and good and human thing.  Actor Pitts says that after Northup had been betrayed so many times, Bass was "the one voice who did what he said he was going to do."  I am challenged by Samuel Bass to, in my own little way, engage with and speak truth to the 'powers that be' (including those which claim to be "Christian") about oppression and injustice.  I am challenged to be in the kosmos, but not of the kosmos and, in fact, to be alert and willing to subvert the kosmos when the opportunity presents itself.

What Samuel Bass did was a small thing.  In another sense--in that time and that place--it was a monumental thing.   



Blogger Liz Brown said...

My 3rd great aunt, Amelia Hodge, was the wife of James Bass, who was Samuel's brother. Her father and grandfather, both named Timothy, were associates of Barbara Heck, the founder of Methodism in Canada, as were many of the Loyalists who came to that area. So, if Samuel had a religious affiliation, he may have been a Methodist.
Liz Brown

7:15 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Thank you for your comment. This story is so interesting to me and Samuel Bass' part in it, what I think, is selfless and is an example of being a true Christian.

8:53 AM  

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