Since white colonization of this continent, Black and Native lives have always been valued less than other people. The story of Crispus Attucks was an early illustration of how there seems to always be a reason why black and Native people get killed that somehow exonerates the authorities of guilt when they harm us. “Self-defense.” But, perhaps most importantly, the story of Crispus Attucks is about combined Native and black lineages that resisted, suffered, but through that resistance caused a revolution.
The year was 1770 and the scene was the Massachusetts Colony. Boston was hot with anger and resentment toward England. 150 years after Pilgrims originally occupied the homelands of the Wampanoag people, the descendants of those Pilgrims felt like they were losing control of the land they called “home.” At that time slavery was legal in the Massachusetts Colony—white colonists enslaved Natives and blacks alike in Massachusetts. For example, in 1638 during the so-called “Pequot Wars,” white colonists enslaved a group of Pequot women and children. However, most of the men and boys, deemed too dangerous to keep in the colony. Therefore white colonists transported them to the West Indies on the ship Desire and exchanged them for African slaves.
The British Parliament was taxing the colonies something vicious. The Sugar Act set a tax on sugar and molasses imported into the colonies and also taxed additional foreign goods including wines, coffee, cambric and printed calico. Timber and iron were included in the products that could be traded only with England. Additionally, there was the Stamp Act, where Parliament taxed everything from newspapers to liquor licenses, to diplomas, contracts, legal documents, calendars, wills and bills of sale. Shortly thereafter, Parliament forced Quartering Act down the colonists throats. The Quartering Act required the colonies to provide housing, food and drink to an additional 40,000 British troops in the American colonies. “We gotta feed and house these people who are taking all our money?? Awwwww hell naw…!”
Life was hard for a colonizer. But it also made life hard for the Indigenous people and the black folks in the Massachusetts colony who were also subject to those taxes.
Crispus Attucks was both Indigenous and black and a product of the slave trade. He was brilliant in the survival skills that is common and necessary amongst both Indigenous people and black people since the brutal regime of white supremacy came to power on Turtle Island. His mother’s name was Nancy Attucks, a Wampanoag Native who came from the island of Nantucket. The word "attuck" in the Natick language means deer. His father was born in Africa. His name was Prince Yonger and he was brought to America as a slave.
Attucks was himself born a slave. But he was not afraid to actively seek his own (or others’) liberation. For example he escaped from his slave master and was the focus of an advertisement in a 1750 edition of the Boston Gazette in which a white landowner offered to pay 10 pounds for the return of a young runaway slave.
"Ran away from his Master, William Brown of Framingham, on the 30th of Sept. last, a Molatto Fellow, about 27 Year of age, named Crispas, 6 Feet two Inches high, short curl'd Hair...,"
Attucks was not going back though—he never did. He spent the next two decades on trading ships and whaling vessels.
The next time history speaks on Attucks, this Native and black escaped slave, he was in Boston in 1770. Tensions were peaking and the colonies thinking “revolution.” It was more than a little bit ironic that the person who sparked revolution for the colonies was a product of Indigenous and black lineages. On March 2, 1770, a fight erupted between some Boston rope makers and three British soldiers. Three nights later, a British soldier looking for work entered a Boston pub and was verbally chided by some Bostonians, including Attucks. In today’s terms we would say that Attucks was engaged in non-violent direct action. All of the Bostonians were unarmed.
The situation quickly escalated. A group of of British redcoats came to the defense of their fellow soldier; that caused more Bostonians to join the verbal altercation and they began throwing snowballs at the troops. The British troops returned snowballs with musket fire, (it was called a “brown bess.”)
Attucks endured and escaped from slavery. That was horrible and shameful enough. Yet it was when Attucks was killed that we truly see that much of white supremacy is almost unchanged from centuries ago. Like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, John T. Williams, Sandra Bland, the people of Flint Michigan, the people of Standing Rock, etc., etc., Attucks essentially became a martyr for white outrage and change. Brown-skinned people have historically been that—a spark for outrage that is co-opted by white causes. With Attucks, he was "the first to defy, and the first to die." Attucks was not only unarmed, but he was also not fighting. History says that Attucks “was leaning upon a stick when he fell.” Yet, when the British opened fire he was the first of five men killed. Although Attucks was not a commissioned soldier, he died for freedom and his murder made him the first casualty of the American Revolution.
John Adams later defended the armed soldiers in almost exactly the same way that white prosecutors defend police officers when they shoot a brown-skinned or black-skinned person. Acknowledging that Attucks was unarmed, Adams nonetheless said that Attucks “very looks was enough to terrify any person” and that should be enough to acquit the soldiers. Six of the soldiers were acquitted of all charges and two of the soldiers were found guilty on manslaughter. Those guilty soldiers punishment was to be branded on their thumbs.
The story of Crispus Attucks is powerful. Native and black people have been facing the same tribulations and common enemies for a very long time. For most of the time since white people have been on this continent, black folk and Native folk have had no choice but to work together and have. If we look at statistics today—from expulsion/suspension from schools, to the blacks and Natives going to prison, to getting killed by law enforcement—not a lot has changed. We still share very common narratives and need each other.
We still need to work together.
Gyasi Ross, Editor at Large
Blackfeet Nation/Suquamish Territories
Breakdances With Wolves Podcast, available on Soundcloud, iTunes