'Great Negro Plot' Tells of Manhattan on the Edge

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In 1741, Manhattan's white elite lived in constant fear of a race revolt. When the homes of several prominent New Yorkers mysteriously burned, nearly half of Manhattan's male slaves were jailed, and dozens had been hanged or burned alive. Author Mat Johnson recounts the tragic events of 1741 in his book The Great Negro Plot.

TONY COX, host:

I'm Tony Cox and this is NEWS & NOTES.

In a moment, Bill Withers. But first, the revolt that shook New York City. In 1741, Manhattan was an outpost on the edge. African slaves accounted for nearly one in six residents and the island's white elite lived in constant fear of a race revolt.

When the homes of several prominent New Yorkers mysteriously burned, nearly half of Manhattan's male slaves were jailed. Before the witch-hunt was over, dozens had been hanged or burned alive. Author Mat Johnson recounts the events of 1741 in his new book "The Great Negro Plot." He joins us now from the studios of WHUD and WSPK in Beacon, New York. Mat, nice to have you.

Mr. MAT JOHNSON (Author, "The Great Negro Plot"): It's even nicer to be here.

COX: Let's start with this. The story that you have chosen to tell is based on the truth but how much truth seems to be one of the questions. Can you settle, Mat, for us once and for all, what is actually known about the infamous New York slave conspiracy of 1741?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, it's difficult to say because the information we get comes from the society that was enslaving. But the exciting thing is that they were so unconscious about the immoral act that they were committing that they were incredibly honest.

So we have a lot of things that we know about that period, and whether or not they were intentionally trying to burn down the entire city or whether they had other motivations, that's something we can guess at. But we do know that something happened that there was some, sort of, an attempt to have, sort of, what we would call the 18th century terrorist attacks in New York City.

COX: Now, your book refutes prior accounts of the trial and court case. Talk about the angle or the approach that you took in your book.

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, the story has been told before. It's been told before by historians. So my primary approach was to come in and tell the story as a storyteller. To try to make the actual events come alive. But the other part of coming into it was coming in with an African-American perspective. Looking at this people, these Africans, and trying to bring their humanity to the forefront and make the story about them for the first time.

COX: To that end, your voice does come through clearly in the book, condemning both the whites, who spearheaded the witch-hunt, as well as the slaves and poor whites who fueled it to save themselves. In this story, who, if anyone, do you most admire or respect?

Mr. JOHNSON: When you look at their daily life - of what the African slaves had to endure, the respect I have for them is immense. You know, I'm in part the descendant of slaves, and just seeing what they had to go through so that I could live, so that my children can live just makes me respect them immensely.

But it's an ugly time in history and in ugly times, people act ugly. And it's -kind of, because of that hard to find the best in humanity. I think the bigger lesson is to learn where we can think to and how to avoid it.

COX: What would you describe Manhattan as being like in 1741?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, I guess the closest thing we could come to is the wild West, but instead of the wild West being in Colorado or Texas, the Wild West was the upper Westside, you know. It was lawless, in many regards. It was dangerous. It was violent and there was an immense amount of ignorance.

New York was known as a place where people didn't have books. People came to make money. And because of that, culture was kind of lost.

COX: Now, the homes of several prominent white New Yorkers burned in the plot but their destructive response seemed to far outweigh the destruction of the plot itself. Why was that?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, they were completely and utterly terrified - and that you need to understand that all of you have to do is be in America in 2001 in September and October and through probably the two or three years after that. That's actually what interests me first about this book, was looking at a point in time where America was scared and how we dealt with this outside, unseen fear.

COX: This genre is called historical fiction. Talk to me a bit about writing fiction based on fact and what the appeal of that was for you.

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, with my fiction, I take pieces of reality and twist them around and turn them into collage and make them a fictional tale. So what I wanted to was look at a real event and apply a narrative strategy to - that we used in novels and short stories to a real event.

The book, you know, I classified as fiction but it's also really heavily non-fiction. Almost all the discussions and dialogue in the book happens, taken from actual court trials. Every scene that happens in the book happens from actual court trials. I didn't go off and create a story here. The story itself was so rich that I didn't have to.

COX: Are there any lessons that we can learn from this particular story?

Mr. JOHNSON: I think one of the most important things to remember is when we have a time of terror, when we have a time that people are scared and there's been an attack. The most dangerous thing to our culture is usually not the initial attack but the reaction afterwards, which tends to multiply and be the real effect of what terrorism can do.

COX: We began this conversation, Matt, talking about the validity and the voracity of the account of what actually happened in New York in 1741. And I'll end it with this question: are there other slave revolts that could and should be written about that have some question in their basis?

Mr. JOHNSON: I think because the African slaves were not writing their own stories, almost all of them would leave us with tons of questions as to what they were thinking. Because most of the times when they revolted, they really had no chance for survival. I think one of the attractive things and what I might look at the future is the Stono Rebellion, which was another revolt that was doomed to fail and many people took part in this revolt and they knew that the sentence was going to be murder when they were caught and yet they did it anyway.

So I think it's fascinating to discuss why. And sometimes I think rebelling is something that just has to happen in itself.

COX: Matt Johnson, thank you very much. Good luck with your book.

Mr. JOHNSON: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

COX: Matt Johnson is the author of "The Great Negro Plot." He teaches at Bart College at Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.

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