Slavery and Sleepy Hollow: A Revisionist Revolution

sleepyhollow11“…many Negroes and Mulattoes the property of Citizens of these States have concealed themselves on board the Ships in the harbor … and to make their escapes in that manner … All Officers of the Allied Army … are directed not to suffer any such negroes or mulattoes to be retained in their Service but on the contrary to cause them to be delivered to the Guards which will be establish’d for their reception …Any Negroes or mulattoes who are free upon proving the same will be left to their own disposal.”–General George Washington, October 25, 1781.

That time Washington had Patriot troops surround Yorktown to stop slaves huddled with the British from escaping. Wouldn’t know much of that watching Sleepy Hollow, where Washington wasn’t just a Founding Father, but a Savior of the Apocalypse and venerable Saint–“the good guys” in a war against evil where the Patriots are (literally) on the side of the angels.

I like this show. But sometimes it makes me wanna throw up in my mouth a little.

So I’ve been trying to be on team Abbie on Sleepy Hollow. The show is a hit. It’s especially a hit in many of the black spaces I navigate–among black geekdom, black nerds (blerds if you must) and more. And why not? There are three prominent black leads on the show, and none of them have died yet! Two of them are actually black women. And not some Mammy-Jezebel-Sapphire stereotype. Neither are they simplistic “positive” visions of black womanhood as “queens” or “goddesses” that demand unattainable heights of purity and perfection. Nope, they’re just remarkably *human,* with all the good and bad that comes with it.

You can’t watch that show and not cheer on Abbie and Jenny–who IMHO could hold their own in a spinoff without Ichabod Crane. Orlando Jones as the overdone 80s “angry black police captain” manages to pull off the role without becoming a caricature. Even the lone Asian guy (John Cho) is still alive. Well kinda. But you know, he’s still there. In the diversity department Sleepy Hollow gets a well-deserved fist-bump. It is in essence, revolutionary. When it comes to dealing with history’s more complicated matters however… Eh. Not so much.

103SH_scn33_0801.jpgDetective Abbie Mills

From the first episode, I knew things were going to hit a sore spot with me. So Ichabod Crane was now a fighter of the American Revolution, a British soldier converted over to the Patriots after becoming convinced they were fighting for freedom. Of course, I immediately thought–yeah, but not for slaves. It’s difficult not to see the great big stain of slavery soiling all that red, white and blue patriotic fervor. I see Liberty Bells, Declarations of Independence and Founding Fathers–and I can’t help but have slavery far from mind. It’s locked into the psychic DNA of my peculiar double-consciousness, my two souls and warring ideals. I don’t have the privilege to not see it.

[If by chance you’re now itching to tell me, “hey it’s just a TV show not a documentary,” you obviously don’t know what I do at this blog. browse around a bit. see also, this.]

Slavery is intertwined in the fabric of the American Revolution. Patriots repeatedly referred to themselves in fact as slaves–claiming that British laws were reducing them to a state of bondage. Thomas Jefferson called it “plainly proof [of] a deliberate systematical plan of reducing us [whites] to slavery.” George Washington charged that if colonists did not fight back the Crown would “make us as tame and abject slaves, as the blacks we rule over with such arbitrary sway.” But none of this freedom was meant for *actual* slaves. When white tradesmen in Charleston began shouting “liberty!”, the city’s slaves took to the streets yelling “liberty!” as well. Local whites were so shaken they called up armed patrols. The irony was hard to miss. British author Samuel Johnson sniped at the time, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”

Sleepy Hollow has so far dealt with this through Ichabod Crane, the most enlightened 18th century white male ever: abolitionist and friend to indigenous Americans. This gives him some personal absolution. Yet, beyond a few awkward moments, he’s just about mum on the fact that the freedom loving Patriots he joined were deeply invested in slavery.

194769Patriot Ichabod Crane

But that’s because in Sleepy Hollow, the American cause and the Patriots are saints–angels on the side of divine justice. Jenny calls them “the good guys,” fighting a holy war led by George Washington against the forces of evil. In the episode “The Sin Eaters” Crane is forced by a British superior named Tarleton to torture a freed slave working for Washington. Tarleton soon reveals himself to be a demon, killing the free slave and exposing the evil the Patriots are up against. Crane is made a believer of a righteous cause, as are we all.

A nice use of history. There was indeed a British officer named Tarleton–an unsavory character who made his wealth in part from slave trading. But the freed slave is who’s most interesting. He would have been a peculiar confidant for Washington, who banned the presence of blacks in the Continental Army in 1775. Despite this, many still joined the Patriot: slaves hoping to gain their freedom; others conscripted to fight in their owners place; free blacks seeking greater rights. Some observers called the Continental army “speckled” with blacks. But that was not the choice most made. The majority of blacks in the 13 colonies actually went over to the “bad guys.”

sleepyhollowThe “Hessian” who will later become the feared Headless Horseman

In response to revolutionary rhetoric, the British made several veiled threats of “arming slaves” against any rebellious colonies–instilling fear and panic among whites.These fears became reality when in 1775 the Royal Governor of Virginia Lord Dunmore, under siege by an encroaching colonial militia (spurred on in great part by rumors the governor was indeed arming slaves and disarming the white populace), issued in desperation his famous proclamation granting freedom to those slaves who would rally to his side.

Weighing the option of their masters or their masters’ enemies, many slaves chose the latter. Throughout the colonies slaves flocked to the British in droves. At least 18 fled George Washington’s plantation. Slave mothers even named their children Dunmore. Watching the growing tide, Washington declared the British governor had to be stopped: “If…that man [Dunmore] is not crushed …he will become the most formidable enemy America has… if some expedient cannot be hit upon to convince the slaves and servants of the impotency of his designs.” The Apocalypse that saintly guy from Sleepy Hollow greatly feared involved rebellious slaves, not headless horsemen.

This is not to say the British were “good guys.” Far from it. Britain after all ran the slave trade at the time and owned vast slave colonies in the Caribbean. Many runaways ended up in deadly disease-ridden camps, were made to perform menial tasks and endure hard labor. Others were returned to their Loyalist owners. Some were even traded as prizes of war. Still, the British were offering freedom. And for many that was worth the risk.

Over 100,000 fled their owners during the war. Some joined British armies and navies, becoming fighters who wreaked havoc on American forces. Among the feared German Hessian mercenaries, those uber-baddies of Sleepy Hollow, escaped slaves were enlisted into nearly every rank. Yeah. Black Hessians. As if to taunt the Patriots and show their own understanding of freedom, runaways fighting for the British had the words “Liberty to Slaves” sewn onto their uniforms.

One of the most well-known was Colonel Tye, an escaped slave who led an elite British guerrilla unit known as the Black Brigade. By 1780 Tye and his band were feared by American forces: capturing and killing Continental militia members, destroying military equipment and raiding former plantations. As news of Colonel Tye’s exploits reached an excited slave community, the governor of New Jersey invoked martial law – hoping to stop runaways from going over to the British.

reneactors colonial williamsburgreenactors of escaped slaves fighting for the British, courtesy Colonial Williamsburg

In Sleepy Hollow’s hyper-patriotic allegory we must imagine the majority of black people in the Americas haven’t just joined “the bad guys,” they’ve thrown in their lot with EVIL. Colonel Tye? Waging a war on the side of EVIL. Those slaves who found refuge with the Hessians? EVIL. In irony, Abbie and Jenny’s ancestors might have allied themselves with, you guessed it, EVIL. Their masters on the other hand? Godly. Divine. Singing with the angels.

The show does make some stabs at nuance. In one episode, while Ichabod Crane is extolling the virtues of Thomas Jefferson, Captain Irving and Abbie ask how a man who wrote “all men are created equal” could also own slaves. This got me on the edge of my seat. Were they finally going there? But those crafty writers came up with a clever dodge, having Crane point out Jefferson called for abolition early on. Yeah, true. But it was to stop the importation of slaves into Virginia, not slavery: part an economic boycott of British trade during the war. It also helped stem the flow of fresh recruits for the British. Jefferson had long feared slaves would be induced to join the colonists enemies (right on that count) and printed it right into The Declaration of Independence, declaring the Crown had “incited domestic insurrections amongst us.”*

What happens next in that scene is most telling. As we now have Jefferson the alleged “abolitionist,” Abbie suggests that maybe Sally Hemings inspired him. This shocks Crane, who is unaware of the relationship. He denies it, until Captain Irving tells him Jefferson fathered children with Hemings. Boom goes the dynamite! The show received accolades for its brave stance. But in light of all else, it’s hard to cheer. Sally Hemings is brought in simply to revise Jefferson into an abolitionist, and then his sexual relationship with a 14 year girl he owned as his chattel property is reduced to a scandal-laced punchline. If this exchange was supposed to display the show’s willingness to stretch its boundaries, it also revealed its limits.

sleepy-hollow-104-thelesserkeyofsolomon-01Ichabod, Abbie and Jenny out to save the world

It’s not like there’s no good to talk about on the Patriot side. In the North some colonists struggled with the paradox of freedom during the war, challenging the legitimacy of slavery. Slaves also wrote petitions and used revolutionary rhetoric to press for freedom. Some of these seeds bore fruit. After the war, slavery gradually receded in the North. The show could even have found a way to depict a desperate Washington eventually backing an idea to raise a regiment of free blacks and slaves in the famed 1st Rhode Island Regiment.

But it’s hard to delve into America’s “original sin” when the Revolution and Washington have been put up on a pedestal of divine virtue. What’s a little slavery when you’re waging a war against the Apocalypse? Even the act of “Mohawk red-face” at the Boston Tea Party is conveniently whitewashed away to avoid any non-PC “awkwardness.”

At the war’s end, slaves who had allied with the British found themselves in dire straits. Many fled to New York, seeking refuge with the British forces. But the treaty signed with the colonies demanded the return of slave property. And George Washington again sent out his army to close off the city, so that none of these slaves might flee with the British.

Escaped slave Boston King, who fought for the British, recounted the panic:

…peace was restored between America and Great Britain, which diffused universal joy among all parties, except us, who had escaped from slavery, and taken refuge in the English army; for a report prevailed at New York, that all slaves… be delivered up to their masters, although some of them had been three or four years among the English. This dreadful rumor filled us all with inexpressible anguish and terror, especially when we saw our old masters coming from Virginia, North Carolina, and other parts, and seizing upon their slaves in the streets of New York, or even dragging them out of their beds.

In Southern ports, desperate slaves swam out to British vessels–and were met with cutlasses to hack their arms away. A few of the English attempted to keep their word. General Guy Carelton, calling the British agreement to return slaves a “breach of faith,” drew up a list of some 3,000 blacks for rescue. Many were resettled in Nova Scotia, where they eventually faced poverty, starvation and neglect.

For all its fantasy, Sleepy Hollow remains tightly wedded to a popular “historical” image of the American Revolution–right versus wrong recast as good versus evil. But for many of the time, things were a lot more complex. Saintly Founding Fathers and evil Hessians can’t begin to tell the tale. I don’t expect a show about a guy with no head who goes around lopping off other people’s heads to examine all these contours; it’d be nice though if it didn’t whitewash our national past with one hand while offering up some much-needed diversity with the other. Great to see the fresh faces in front of the camera. But it’s clear we need fresh diverse minds imagining and creating behind the scenes as well.



*Jefferson does propose a plan for gradual emancipation in 1784 after the war, under the Articles of Confederation. In part, this was out of a principled belief that slavery conflicting with ideals of liberty. It was also part of a colonization scheme. Believing that blacks were an inferior race who could not live in compatibility with whites (Jefferson was an early purveyor of biological racism), he advocated their eventual removal from the country. He would make no other public denunciation of slavery for the rest of his life.

10 thoughts on “Slavery and Sleepy Hollow: A Revisionist Revolution

  1. Thanks for the post. Can’t watch it without thinking about the contradictions and realities which lay in the grey areas of G vs. E. But, as so it must go.
    BTW, I do get annoyed by the gloss over argument that if the white male patriarch has a black wife or concubine, he can’t be all that bad. He must be enlightened. As if her place as a woman in a patriarchal society is erased or inconsequential.

    • you’re welcome! thanks for reading. i think its often like that with a lot of speculative fiction when you’re a PoC–you watch it and try to ignore the contradictions and grey areas. SH however has managed to deflect some of this by featuring a diverse cast. props for that, but imho not enough. on the Sally Hemings and Jefferson thing… yeah, I get that the show was trying to actually give Hemings a voice and purpose beyond a mistress. there was a movie that tried to do the same, claiming Hemings worked to help runaway slaves. all of that is purely speculative. in this case, Hemings is given some agency as a possible leverage towards Jefferson regarding abolition. but that is built atop a misreading/misreporting of Jefferson’s motive. it was like they wanted to bring him down the Earth, but wanted to still keep him perched on his pedestal by revising him as an abolitionist. some have found praiseworthy to me, it just came off as exploitative.

  2. I don’t even know if America is ‘ready’ for that. If they went full-tilt, they might be afraid to lose some of their audience. But it would certainly be worth it.

    AND! The idea of black body/beauty as persuasion of humanity has always irked me. You need dangly bits to realize an entire people should be free? Or you just want to be free to get some? Hmph.

    • no. likely we aren’t. not sure we ever will be. but i’m not even asking for them to go “full-tilt” and include all those contours. my larger point is that they’ve managed to go “full-tilt” in the *other* direction–by evoking dualist themes of good and evil, and imbuing the Revolution with a stark morality. a more moderate and realistic stance would have allowed them to do something more cutting edge. but if Georgie is leading the forces of God to stop the Apocalypse…well…not too much room for nuance there. slavery will almost always have to be revised, whitewashed or (when a kernel of truth is tossed out) a convenient awkward punchline. it’s an almost 1950s take on American history (albeit, with monsters) for a show that touts itself as an example of 21st century progress. the paradox is just kinda glaring. waiting for Abbie or Jenny to point out to Crane when he goes into his mantras of freedom and liberty–“dude, your blues ain’t exactly like mine.”

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  4. I love the show too, but I’m glad someone is calling it on the revisionist slant it’s using. Almost everytime there’s a scene where abolisionism and class equality are passed as the norm (like the part where Ichabod and his not yet wife are chatting at a society event), I grate my teeth. Not only is it a bad narrative to be building, but it fuels the already terribly crafted and often erroneous narratives surrounding the American Revolution and its players.

    • Thanks for the comment. You hit some of those revisionist issues (of class, gender, etc) head on. There’s something off-putting, almost “jingoistic” in the tone the show sets when it comes to retelling American history. Be interesting to see where they take it in the end.

      • You’re quite correct, the show is jingoistic. Every part of the show that has to do with history, with the notable exception of the museum scene about Paul Revere, has very carefully tread a revisionist and heavily biased line. While I understand its fiction, the unfortunate blowback is that it will act towards confirmation bias for a lot of viewers.

        What I’m curious about is how they’ll handle Loyalists, the events with freed slaves you mention, and the other less savoury and less heroic parts of the American Revolution and the resulting aftermath. I’m surprised that Washington’s orders about Loyalist First Nations villages and lands hasn’t come up yet, or his less than flatters nickname Conotocaurious, “town burner”.

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