Fit For Freedom: A Weekend at Pendle Hill and My Own Self-Discovery

How would you react if you were told that George Fox did not condemn slaveholding outright? That William Penn, like many other of the original settlers of Pennsylvania, owned slaves? That it took John Woolman more than 20 years to make meetings in our area reach clarity about slaveholding? That it took 30 years for Mount Holly (N.J.) Meeting to accept a freed African American man into membership during colonial times? That a quarter of the members of Richmond (Ind.) Meeting were members of the KKK at the beginning of the 20th century? That many abolitionist Friends were disowned by their meetings because of their political activities in favor of emancipation? That the Emancipation Declaration of 1863 did not abolish slavery in the states remaining in the Union (like Delaware, Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky), but only in the states in rebellion? That Quaker schools, with few notable exceptions, were slow to integrate, and many Quaker parents took their children away from these schools once they were integrated? That it was not until 1967 that the U.S. Supreme Court ended all race-based legal restrictions on marriage in the United States?

These and many other issues were addressed in the workshop I attended at Pendle Hill called Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship. Organized and facilitated by the authors of the book of the same title, Donna McDaniel and Vanessa Julye, the workshop took place from October 8 to 10, 2010. I read the book during the previous summer, along with Jan De Hartog’s trilogy: The Peaceable Kingdom, The Peculiar People, and The Lamb’s War. Hartog’s novels gave me a deep insight into the history of Quakerism in the United States, but it was Fit for Freedom that dispelled many myths I had believed about Friends’ involvement in racial justice. Many people are under the impression that all Quakers were involved in the abolitionist movement, but the reality is that, as in any other religion, only a handful of people were active in fighting for justice during the long slavery nightmare and during the struggle for civil rights for African Americans.

This workshop was a laboratory of enlightenment and education about a subject that is embarrassing for most contemporary Friends. Although it is true that the first Christian church to condemn slavery in the colonial era was Germantown (Pa.) Meeting in 1688, it is also true that most Friends did not do anything to stop the slave trade, and once slavery was abolished, African Americans were not welcomed in most monthly meetings. In addition, the dominant racial/racist attitudes of U.S. society at large were also imprinted on the Society.

The richness of the workshop was the result of not only the knowledge McDaniel and Julye shared with the group, but the diversity the group itself brought to the discussion. The three-day workshop seemed too short, and we wanted more. The group, composed of people who in one way or another have been marginalized—several African Americans, women, one Asian, members of the LGBTQ community, and one Hispanic person— brought to the table a plethora of experiences, insights, and narratives that made this weekend unforgettable.

During the first evening, the group set a tone of total openness and honesty about the issues we were going to raise. It worked, and the rest of the weekend was an exercise in self-discovery and what Brazilian pedagogue Paulo Freire described as concientiçao. One of the highlights of the Fit for Freedom workshop was considering to what point one is part of the discourse of power and how we understand the role we take in the structures of oppression. One of the most important pedagogical points of the workshop was then to consider how to liberate ourselves from these structures in order to understand where the Other is coming from.

I, too, come from a society that was formed by slave labor, and one where these oppressive structures lasted longer than in the U.S. The first slaves arrived in Puerto Rico during Columbus’ second voyage in 1493; slavery wasn’t abolished until 1873. However, the former slaves had to work three additional years on their ex-masters’ plantations, and during that period the Spanish government compensated the masters, not the ex-slaves. Meanwhile, Cuba waited until 1886 to free its slaves. Cuba dragged its feet in abolishing slavery because it was big business (half a million slaves were working on the island).

In 1815, the Spanish Crown, fearing that Cubans and Puerto Ricans were going to start wars of independence like the rest of Spanish America, opened the doors to European commerce, which needed the hand of skilled slaves. Through the Decree of Graces of 1815, Cuba and Puerto Rico, the last remnants of the Spanish Empire in the Americas, received thousands of white people who needed to meet only two requirements to become residents and/or Spanish citizens: to be Catholic and to establish businesses. In addition to the Spanish loyalists who fled Mexico, Argentina, Chile, and Venezuela, among other new republics, Puerto Rico became populated by Basques, Galicians, Catalonians, Navarrans, Cantabrians, Canarians, and Asturians. The era of everyone being Andalucian or Castilian was gone. Eventually, large numbers of Corsicans, Germans, French, and Irish came to the island in hordes to look for a better future.

This is where my people came from. My father’s family was Galician, of modest origin, and my mother’s family came from Cantabrian bourgeoisie. My great-great-grandmother, Ramona Molinari, was Corsican, and my great-great-grandfather, Emilio Gil de Lamadrid, came from the outskirts of Santander. They settled in the city of Arecibo and owned land and slaves. By the time my great-grandparents, Joaquín Gil de Lamadrid and Justina Padilla Iguina, married in 1874, slavery had been abolished in theory, but it is undeniable that it was part of my family history. Some of my relatives even brag about how our ancestors owned slaves. One of the things I never understood as a child was the high degree of racism stemming from my maternal lineage. Little by little, I have been discovering my family’s long and contradictory story.

I come from a country where there has never been an Afro-Rican governor. From Juan Ponce de León in 1508 to our present governor, Luis Fortuño Burset, every one of them has been of European origin, on an island that is about 70 percent mulatto. This is something to think about. Although I grew up in a lower middle-class environment (like many members of the creole bourgeoisie on the island who lost everything to the new U.S. corporations, my family lost their resources), my education was middle class and my skin and eye color opened a lot of doors that were not open to other children. Being or looking Spanish in Puerto Rico and Cuba is permission for happiness.

Puerto Rico operated (and to some extent still operates) like the old states in the U.S. South. Despite the fact that the abolition of slavery is celebrated as a holiday with no work or classes, and in spite of official government propaganda that states that we are a mix of Tainos, Europeans, and Africans, the truth is that the closer we are to Spaniards in terms of looks, the closer we are to power. It’s as simple as that. I think Hillary Clinton won the primaries in Puerto Rico because people were not going to vote for a mulatto man to become the Democratic nominee in the presidential election. This is called self-denial, and it shows to me the extent to which the racist structures of the Spanish colonial era are still present in our population.

Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship (both the book and the workshop) have helped me understand this. Since I am Hispanic, a leftist, a Quaker, and a queer man, my narrative has many voices, and adding the knowledge gained by this book enriches them all. One of the things I learned is that there are other Latino Quakers in the Northeast who want to meet and address the issue of race relations in the Religious Society of Friends. I also learned that not all of them are welcoming to a Queer Friend, but that is also the reality in Anglo- America. In this postmodern world of pluralities, there are oppressed people who oppress others.

The Pendle Hill group has a task: to spread the word about this book, to dispel myths about Quakerism, and to address issues of racism seriously. Sometimes I think that Friends are more comfortable protesting wars abroad than our own wars at home. Racism is one of them. Why aren’t there more people of color in most meetings? In Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship: Quakers, African-Americans, and the Myth of Racial Justice, we have many answers to this question. We can start by exploring the text in our adult First-day classes.

Alvin Jaquín Figeroa

Alvin Joaquín Figueroa, a member of Westfield (N.J.) Meeting, is associate professor of Modern Languages, Gender Studies, and Religious Studies at College of New Jersey.