Citizen G!

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Citizen G!

Jonathas Granville on the New Brunswick, NJ, incident.
Jonathas Granville on the New Brunswick, NJ, incident.

This is a remarkably revealing and yet amusing news document. The context is Jonathas Granville’s visit to the United States to offer Blacks social dignity through the extraordinary political right of citizenship. He was sent in a hurry with the mission of luring at least 6000 immigrants to Hayti (Haiti). He was arguably the first Haitian (unofficial) ambassador to the United States. The incident in reference took place just days after arriving to the US.

In early July 1824, as Granville traveled from Philadelphia to New York, he stopped in New Brunswick, NJ, precisely a few miles from Staten Island. Here, a US Southern military officer made a horrid spectacle when noticing that Granville, a person of color, was sitting on the same table. His tirade made it known, in no uncertain terms, how he felt about eating with a non-White.

The startled Haitian visitor wisely replied, not to the argument of racial inequalities that underpinned the southerner’s reaction, but to his demeanor instead. Granville calmly explained that the aggressor’s shameful manners were unknown to him and his people back in Haiti. He had never been mistreated in public like this, but since he was in a foreign country, he would follow the customs of the land. So, rather than to continue an open public confrontation, Granville simply moved his plate to another table.
His group of White companions, in defiance, immediately abandoned the racist offender and deliberately joined Granville’s table. The story promptly hit the Northern newspapers to become fodder for Southern bashing. The abolitionists’ vocal minority also used this scene to showcase what they perceived as evidence of nobility and humanity in Blacks, which contrasted with southerly arrogance and intolerance. For Granville, this painful experience gave him an insight into the struggles of the so-called free Blacks living in the northern states.

The attached news story, dated a few days. The attached news story, dated a few days after the incident, is Granville’s reply to a previous piece published in the same paper to defend his public honor. Much is explained here about Haiti, US abolitionists, and of Granville himself. What I find amusing is how the translator struggled to convey Granville’s French prose into English, a fact admitted on a note on the bottom of the article. What might pass inadvertently is the way the translator referred to Granville, a refined and high-ranking officer of the Haitian Government. The translator called Granville, Citizen G!

It is hard not to wonder if this renaming of Granville was the result of the already common US practice of shortening names, an expression of endearment, or perhaps just an example of the pervasive (“subtle” in this case) contempt towards persons of color. It could also have been an editorial restrain since the story was running out of space. Certainly, a combination of some of these factors could have played a role in thrusting Granville’s name into the future. As Citizen G ,,G, Granville seems more like a present-day stylish figure with a trendy name, a pop star, a media darling. Or, perhaps, today he could have been a special government agent. But in fact, in 1824 he was both: a special agent of the Haitian government and the new darling of the US northern press (particularly of the abolitionists’ papers).

InIn the coming months, Citizen G would, in fact, become the center of attention among some Northerner readers. The sympathizing White press would admire his genteel manners, eloquent speech and the broad knowledge he appeared to command, and some would see in him the Black “messiah” that could spark an enthusiasm for self-improvement among the less refined US Blacks. The subtext was the conviction that slavery and the pernicious White racial prejudice have rendered US Blacks phlegmatic and unambitious. Little did they seem to know of the more numerous Black leaders among them. These unnamed US Blacks have long struggled against a racial oppression to which Granville could only relate partially.

Citizen G may have remembered how in Saint Domingue White colonists considered gens de couleur like him as inferiors, and how Napoleon Bonaparte’s 1802 scheme would have relegated him to a secondary-level citizen. But the Haitian emissary had never been enslaved or even a potential kidnapped prey for mercenary enslavers. His formal education, military training, and experience in high government posts placed him apart from the bulk of population in any Atlantic city of the time. Citizen G was used to command respect from Blacks and Whites alike. And his message to the US was indeed going to attract the attention and elevate hopes among African Americans. But not because US Blacks needed to be prodded for self-improvement. Citizen G’s message stroke cords among US Blacks because it was their own message too.

Reference: Boston Recorder (1817-1824); Jul 10, 1824; 9, 28

This is the link to the full news article:

Granville Forgives

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About Dennis R. Hidalgo
I am a historian of the Atlantic World. I am passionate about people, those alive in the present and those who left little trace of their past.

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