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Book Review: ‘Devout,’ by Anna Gazmarian - The New York Times

She Trusted God and Science. They Both Failed Her.

"In “Devout,” an author who grew up in the evangelical church recounts her struggle to find spiritual and psychological well-being after a mental health challenge.

By Carlene Bauer

Carlene Bauer’s most recent book is the novel “Girls They Write Songs About.”

When you purchase an independently reviewed book through our site, we earn an affiliate commission.

DEVOUT: A Memoir of Doubt, by Anna Gazmarian

The photo portrays a woman with short brown hair, seated, wearing a green-and-black flocked velvet top, with hands folded over her knees. She is wearing green nail polish.
Anna Gazmarian did everything that millennial evangelicals were supposed to do: She wore a purity ring, listened to sanctioned bands and avoided Harry Potter. And yet, she believed, her faith was inadequate.Jo Lindsay Co

In “Devout,” Anna Gazmarian writes of being given a Christmas present she found impossible to keep: a pendant necklace holding a tiny seed. It was a reference to the passage in Matthew where Jesus tells his apostles that faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains.

Gazmarian, struggling with bipolar disorder and an accompanying affliction of doubt, threw the necklace into the trash. It didn’t matter that it had been a gift from her well-meaning mother — what it symbolized was of no use to her. “I wanted a faith as large as a deeply rooted oak tree,” she writes, “the kind where you had to lean back to see the highest branches in the sky.”

The evangelical Christianity Gazmarian had been raised in, which had taught her to see depression as a symptom of spiritual weakness — possibly even the work of the Devil — could not help her realize this vision, and in “Devout” she tells of how she eventually found healing for both mind and soul.

In this, her first book, she does not condemn what wounds her. “I’ve been breaking down and rebuilding my concept of faith, searching for a faith that can exist alongside doubt, a faith that is built on trust rather than fear,” she writes in the preface. “A faith with room for prayer and lament.” “Devout” is both of these, “offered in the hope of restoration.”

The memoir begins shortly after Gazmarian, having started college in her native North Carolina, receives a diagnosis of bipolar II disorder. She takes this as yet another sign that her faith is at fault — despite having done all the things that millennial evangelicals were told to do. She’d worn a purity ring, listened to the sanctioned bands and stayed away from the supposedly occult- glorifying Harry Potter books.

But obedience does not stop her mind from turning against itself. Her daily prayer journals contain lists of all the ways she hopes to die. The next years contain five different psychiatrists’ offices, eight different mood stabilizers and two kinds of A.D.H.D. medication. Throughout, she tries desperately to hang onto her faith.

Pastors are patronizing, and her friends are no better. She’s prayed over, told to pray more herself, quoted to from Scripture and referred to a book titled “Praying for Your Future Husband: Preparing Your Heart for His.”

That all of this does not lead to a complete renunciation of her faith might be hard to fathom — even for those who mourn the loss of their own. It’s especially hard when the author reveals that, before the diagnosis, her pastor had removed her from a leadership team because he worried she’d be a distraction to the boy appointed church intern.

But Gazmarian isn’t failed only by a Christianity that, when it’s not teaching her that men and their sexual purity matter more than any woman ever will, teaches her to be skeptical of science. She’s also failed, again and again, by science itself. This is perhaps the most heartbreaking aspect of the story: watching a young woman desperate to be well hand over her hope to a medical-industrial complex that shows itself to be no more deserving of her credulity than the evangelicalism that broke her spirit.

Nearly every drug she’s prescribed leaves her reeling from side effects, and nearly every psychiatrist she sees seems to be just as clueless and unsympathetic as the Christians who surround her. Until, that is, a compassionate doctor suggests she try ketamine. That, a liberating poetry class, marriage and motherhood all converge to bring her stability and even joy.

This is perhaps the real story she’s telling. It’s tempting to say that you don’t need to be religious and suffering from a mood disorder to relate to such a narrative — you just need to be American and suffering from one.

That said, those raised in a restrictive religious tradition themselves may well relate to “Devout.” But while Gazmarian’s writing is marked by an elegant clarity that suggests a close communion with Scripture’s commanding simplicity, there’s not much insight offered into what makes faith worth holding onto — especially when it’s so often weaponized.

Some who have read widely to heal a religiously traumatized self or an unquiet mind could wish that the author engaged with the long history of Christian thinkers who have grappled with despair. This recovering evangelical (Gen X edition) kept fervently hoping that someone was going to show up and prescribe Gazmarian some Kierkegaard.

The most receptive readers, ultimately, might be those who believe relatability is the primary gift authors owe their audience. And if such readers feel seen by this book and thus saved from the stigma they, like Gazmarian, might have carried like a cross, that’s no small accomplishment.

DEVOUT: A Memoir of Doubt | By Anna Gazmarian | Simon & Schuster | 192 pp. | $27.99"

Book Review: ‘Devout,’ by Anna Gazmarian - The New York Times

Condemnation Slows, but Does Not Stall, Israel’s Assault on Rafah - The New York Times

Condemnation Slows, but Does Not Stall, Israel’s Assault on Rafah

"Despite fierce criticism, Israel insists it must take control of Rafah and the border with Egypt to prevent future arms smuggling.

Two people can be seen wearing black and walking along an otherwise deserted road.
A camp, once overwhelmed by displaced people from around Gaza and now mostly deserted, on Wednesday in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip.Eyad Al-Baba/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Despite an international court order to stop its assault on Rafah, Israel says it will continue its operation, trying to walk a line between not angering its American allies too much while trying to achieve strategic aims that it considers too important to abandon.

For now, after many weeks of admonitions from the White House, both the Israelis and the Americans are characterizing this as a “limited operation,” allowing the Israelis to proceed, though more slowly and cautiously than they had in other parts of Gaza.

But as the fighting pushes masses of panicked civilians toward areas near the sea with inadequate housing or medical aid, and the closing of the Rafah border crossing dims hope for speedy delivery of humanitarian aid, Israel’s critics abroad condemn the toll on civilians and are unconvinced by what the Israelis have called restraint.

On Friday, the International Court of Justice ordered Israel to immediately halt its offensive in Rafah, saying it endangered the civilian population there, but did not call for a complete cease-fire. Israel says it will not halt its military operation.

For Israel, taking Rafah and the border would effectively complete the reconquest of Gaza and could mean a move to a different phase of lower-intensity raids. Rafah has in and under it the last four relatively organized Hamas battalions, a major tunnel infrastructure and rocket launchers, the Israelis say. More important, Israel wants to try to seal the border with Egypt to reduce the smuggling of weapons for the future.

“The airstrikes are continuous and intense, and the smell of smoke doesn’t leave the air,” said Mohammad al-Masri, 31, an accountant who has been sheltering in a tent in Rafah for months. “At night, they advance a few meters at a time, and the people flee immediately.”

Representatives for Israel, right, attending a hearing on Friday at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, as part of South Africa’s request for a cease-fire in Gaza.Koen Van Weel/ANP, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

He spoke from western Rafah, where residents and other Gazans who took refuge there have not yet been ordered by the Israeli military to leave. Even so, all around him many of the tents that had been sheltering families for months are gone as people have fled elsewhere. “They shoot and bomb us constantly,” he said, “but what scares us the most are the drones.”

Israel’s military aims remain unaltered, however. It wants to secure the entire border with Egypt, destroy the smuggling tunnels that had fortified Hamas, dismantle the last Hamas battalions, bring its remaining hostages home and break Hamas’s administrative control over the entire Gaza Strip.

After months of delays, as negotiations over a cease-fire and a limited hostage exchange ebbed and flowed, Israel has put five brigades, the military has said — an estimated 10,000 troops — into the operation.

Israeli troops have concentrated initially on securing the border, which is lightly populated, circling around Rafah city and pressing the nearly one million people displaced from other parts of Gaza to move to areas that are supposed to be safer but where conditions remain dire.

Pushing slowly from the east, the Israeli military said on Thursday that troops were fighting in the neighborhoods of Brazil, near the border, and Al-Shaboura refugee camp, their deepest penetration into Rafah. But they insist that they have not yet tried to enter the central city, which in normal times has a population close to one million people.

Palestinians sitting in a room in a damaged building on Wednesday in Rafah.Eyad Baba/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Analysts say that the anger and warnings from the Biden administration and other close allies of Israel have had an effect in moderating Israeli tactics, even if the assault remains devastating.

In interviews, officers who have just left the fighting in Rafah say that Israel is moving more deliberately and that it is using less airpower and artillery, and fewer, smaller bombs, forcing Israeli soldiers to engage in urban guerrilla warfare with Hamas fighters.

With the Americans insisting that Israel evacuate civilians as much as possible from planned zones of operation, in the past two weeks, as many as one million panicked civilians have moved west toward the sea and safer areas, even if facilities to house, feed and care for them are inadequate.

An Israeli officer in the reserves, who has just returned from southern Gaza and is not authorized to speak to the news media, said that the military was using noticeably less air bombardment, and that troops were advancing slowly west in a pincer movement, with one division working near the border, and the other moving into Rafah’s outskirts.

The Biden administration had refused to support Israel’s move on Rafah unless it saw a credible plan to evacuate and protect civilians. Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, said after his trip last weekend to Israel that, so far, the Israeli Army was not violating American red lines in Rafah.

“What we have seen so far in terms of Israel’s military operations in that area has been more targeted and limited, has not involved major military operations into the heart of dense urban areas,” Mr. Sullivan said. “We now have to see what unfolds from here. We will watch that, we will consider that, and we will see whether what Israel has briefed us and what they have laid out continues or something else happens.”

Palestinians who fled Rafah arriving this month in Deir al Balah, in central Gaza.Said Khatib/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Israel insists it has heeded American criticism and is trying to warn civilians to move out of the way of the fighting. But even if the civilians are not in the line of fire, the threats to them remain grave with little or no aid crossing from Egypt.

Israel seized the Rafah crossing in what it said was a limited operation against Hamas, effectively closing it. Israel has said it would like to reopen it, but its move on Rafah was not sufficiently coordinated with Egypt, which has demanded that Israel abandon its attack and pull back from the crossing before it can be reopened.

Tamir Hayman, the executive director of the Institute for National Security Studies and a reserve major general and a former head of military intelligence from 2018 to 2021, said that Israeli negotiators misread their Egyptian counterparts and thought Cairo would not object so strongly to its takeover of the crossing. Cairo has now said it will join South Africa in petitioning the International Court of Justice to find Israel guilty of violating the Genocide Convention.

Some Hamas fighters are believed to be evacuating along with civilians, hoping to fight again in areas that Israel had conquered and then abandoned, as in Jabaliya, where renewed fighting is intense, said Kobi Michael, a senior researcher with the Institute for National Security Studies. The Israeli military’s spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, said this past week that the army had killed 180 fighters in the Rafah area.

But Mr. Michael and Israeli officials agree that the four Hamas battalions still in Rafah are not as well trained as those in the north and are not an urgent problem. Strategically, it is far more important for Israel to seal the border with Egypt, Mr. Hayman said.

Smoke rising above the skyline near the border wall between Egypt and Rafah this month.Ramez Habboub/Associated Press

Despite Egyptian denials of any tolerance of smuggling into Gaza, Mr. Hayman said, Israeli intelligence believes that most of Hamas’s weapons and components came from Egypt, either through smuggling tunnels or through the crossing itself, often carefully hidden over the years in regular commercial truck traffic.

Israel said publicly in mid-May that in and around Rafah it had already discovered some 700 tunnel shafts leading to 50 larger smuggling tunnels into Egypt. Mr. Michael said that the army had chosen not to blow up the tunnels yet because it would cause damage inside Egypt.

For the same reason, he said, the army is not revealing photographs of the tunnels to try to avoid embarrassing the Egyptian government, which has in the past acted aggressively to find and destroy such tunnels.

Unless smuggling into Gaza from Egypt can be controlled, Israel argues, Hamas or another militant group would be able to resupply over time. But how the crossing can be reopened, and under whose auspices, remains one of those deeply political questions that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has refused to answer.

Mr. Netanyahu insists that Israel must dismantle Hamas’s military and administrative control over Gaza while refusing to engage with his allies and the Palestinian Authority, the main existing alternative to Hamas, about who will govern Gaza in the future and care for its citizens.

To many, that implies a lengthy Israeli military occupation that senior military officers have said they want to avoid.

Israeli military vehicles gathered this month near the border fence with the Gaza Strip in southern Israel.Abir Sultan/EPA, via Shutterstock

Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, the Israeli chief of staff, has been quoted as saying he does not want to see Israeli soldiers conducting traffic in Gaza, and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has called on Mr. Netanyahu “to make a decision and declare that Israel will not establish civilian control over the Gaza Strip.”

But in the broader picture, said Gabi Siboni, a reserve colonel and a fellow of the conservative-leaning Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, the main problem is that the army is only dealing with dismantling the Hamas military system and not the civilian one. Hamas’s control over the civilian sphere will be its launchpad for rebuilding its military, he said.

In his view, there is no alternative to an interim period of Israeli military rule in Gaza that could last several years.

Mr. Hayman said that while the military effort to take Rafah city at this pace could last another two to three weeks, the process of dismantling Hamas’s structures there could take much longer. “The choice is to withdraw or deepen your control and try to get Hamas underground,” he said. “You could stay there for years.”

But now, Mr. Hayman argues, the Rafah crossing could serve as a model or test case for governing Gaza. Israel, he suggested, could negotiate with Egypt and the United States and regional partners a deal whereby the Palestinian Authority takes at least symbolic sovereignty over Gaza’s side of the crossing. It could then invite the United Arab Emirates, for example, to help create a more efficient, faster border screening for people and for goods with U.S. assistance and technology.

A cooperative international architecture like that, he said, “could be a test case for all of Gaza, to be expanded over time, to answer the question of the day after.” But he stopped, then laughed. “These are just my dreams,” he said. “Nothing happens right now.”

Mr. Netanyahu and his far-right coalition allies have firmly rejected Palestinian Authority involvement in Gaza, he noted, and so far rejected the possibility of a regional solution to the war. “That is a great mistake,” Mr. Hayman said.

Raja Abdulrahim contributed reporting.

Steven Erlanger is the chief diplomatic correspondent in Europe and is based in Berlin. He has reported from over 120 countries, including Thailand, France, Israel, Germany and the former Soviet Union. More about Steven Erlanger"

Condemnation Slows, but Does Not Stall, Israel’s Assault on Rafah - The New York Times

Friday, May 24, 2024

WATCH: Congresswoman's Quick-Witted Response to Racism by Rep. Marjorie Greene

A Furious, Forgotten Slave Narrative Resurfaces After Nearly 170 Years - The New York Times

A Furious, Forgotten Slave Narrative Resurfaces After Nearly 170 Years

"John S. Jacobs was a fugitive, an abolitionist — and the brother of the canonical author Harriet Jacobs. Now, his own fierce autobiography has re-emerged.

An oil portrait shows a man in formal wear.
“The United States Governed by Six Hundred Thousand Despots,” a denunciation of slavery by a formerly enslaved man named John S. Jacobs, was published in an Australian newspaper in 1855, and then forgotten. Above, a 1848 oil portrait that may depict Jacobs.Amani Willett for The New York Times

One day in 1855, a man walked into a newspaper office in Sydney, Australia, with an odd request.

The man, later described as a “man of color” with “bright, intelligent eyes” and an American accent, was looking for a copy of the United States Constitution.

The text was procured, along with a recent book on the history of the United States. Two weeks later, the man returned with a nearly 20,000-word text of his own, bearing a blunt title: “The United States Governed by Six Hundred Thousand Despots.”

The first half offered an account of the author’s birth into slavery in North Carolina around 1815, his escape from his master, his years on a whaling ship and then his departure from “the land of the free” for the shores of Australia, where he went to work in the gold fields.

The second half was a long, blistering condemnation of the country he had left behind, in particular its revered founding document.

“That devil in sheepskin called the Constitution of the United States,” the man wrote, is “the great chain that binds the north and south together, a union to rob and plunder the sons of Africa, a union cemented with human blood, and blackened with the guilt of 68 years.”

The newspaper published the narrative anonymously, in two installments, attributing it only to “A Fugitive Slave.” How it was received is unknown.

The man’s words then sat, unread and forgotten, until a few years ago, when an American literary scholar came across them while digging around one night in an online newspaper database.

Scholars say that the narrative, published outside the network of white abolitionist gatekeepers, is unique for its global perspective and its unflinching indictment of the United States.

Now, it is being published for the first time in 169 years by the University of Chicago Press, under its unflinching original title, with the author’s name — John Swanson Jacobs — emblazoned on the cover.

The rediscovery of a long-forgotten slave narrative would be notable enough. But this one, scholars who have seen it say, is unique for its global perspective and its uncensored fury, from a man living far outside the trans-Atlantic network of white abolitionists who often limited what the formerly enslaved could write about their experiences.

And it comes with an uncanny twist: Jacobs was the brother of Harriet Jacobs, whose 1861 autobiography, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” the earliest known account of the experience of American slavery by a woman, is now seen as a cornerstone of the 19th-century literary canon.

Today, John Jacobs is remembered mostly as a footnote to his sister’s story. But Jonathan D.S. Schroeder, the scholar who rediscovered the narrative, said he hopes the book will restore Jacobs to history, placing him in the tradition of Black radicalism from David Walker’s incendiary “Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World” from 1829 to the Black Lives Matter movement today.

The narrative is a “spectacular performance of autobiographical freedom,” Schroeder argues. And it raises a deeper question: How would other formerly enslaved people — including Jacobs’s more famous sister — have told their stories if they had been truly able to write freely?

A Homegrown American Genre

Slave narratives have been called the United States’ only homegrown literary genre, if also a complicated one. Well into the 20th century, they were dogged by questions about their authenticity, and the degree to which they had been shaped, or even fabricated, by white editors.

But today, the roughly 200 known to survive are prized both as direct testimony of enslavement and as the seedbed of a literary tradition that stretches from Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth to Toni Morrison and Colson Whitehead (whose novel “The Underground Railroad’ was partly inspired by Harriet Jacobs’s book).

Schroeder came upon John Jacobs’s 1855 narrative by an odd back door. Back in 2017, he was fresh out of graduate school in English, and trying to turn his Ph.D. dissertation about the history of nostalgia into a book.

Today, we may think of nostalgia, a term coined in the 1680s by a Swiss physician, as a pleasantly wistful state. But it originated as a medical diagnosis, which was often applied to despondent prisoners, soldiers and others seen as “irrationally” homesick, including enslaved people.

One night, after a day of working on a job application, Schroeder was digging around on the internet, trying to blow off “stress anxiety.” He had been reading the 2004 biography of Harriet Jacobs by Jean Fagan Yellin and was fascinated by the fact that both her brother and her son, Joseph, had gone to Australia — “physically pretty much the farthest away from America you could get,” as Schroeder put it.

Jacobs’s narrative originally appeared in April 1855 in The Empire, a newspaper in Sydney, Australia, credited only to “a Fugitive Slave.”

Joseph died in Melbourne, apparently by suicide, around 1860. Had the cause of death been listed as “nostalgia,” Schroeder wondered? Looking for more information, he started plugging various spellings (and misspellings) of both men’s names into Trove, a database of digitized Australian newspapers.

Almost immediately, two articles popped up, published on subsequent days in April 1855, with the same striking title: “The United States Government by Six Hundred Thousand Despots: A True Story of Slavery.”

“It felt like getting hit by a bolt of lightning,” Schroeder said. But he also didn’t want to get too excited. “I know how often these things turn out to not be what they appear to be.”

The narrative begins with the anonymous author’s birth in Edenton, N.C., where Harriet Jacobs was born. As he read the first installment, Schroeder noticed many other details that lined up with those in Harriet Jacobs’s as-yet unpublished book.

Then, two-thirds of the way through, there was a description of a letter the author had left for his enslaver in 1839, shortly before escaping from their hotel in New York City and fleeing by ship.

“Sir, I have left you not to return,” he wrote. The letter was signed, “No longer yours, John S. Jacob.”

The editors had left a letter off the surname. But this was clearly Jacobs.

“Then, I allowed myself to be hit with the full force of it,” Schroeder said.

Jonathan D.S. Schroeder, a literary scholar, found the text during a search of an online database of newspapers. “It felt like getting hit by a bolt of lightning,” he said.Amani Willett for The New York Times

The next day, Schroeder contacted Caleb Smith, an English professor at Yale, to ask for advice. Smith, who in 2013 drew headlines for authenticating the earliest known memoir by an imprisoned Black American, from the 1850s, called Jacobs’s narrative an “exciting” find.

“We are accustomed to thinking about slavery in terms of silenced voices, lost stories, lives that left only cryptic traces in the archives,” Smith said in an email. “But the voice here is loud and clear in its rage.”

Manisha Sinha, a leading historian of abolition at the University of Connecticut, called it “a major discovery” and “a wow,” which adds to our understanding of the evolution of Black antislavery activism.

Historians have known John Jacobs as a barely documented player in radical abolitionist circles of the 1840s, who sometimes lectured alongside Frederick Douglass, his neighbor in Rochester, N.Y.

In 1851, Douglass broke with the white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, rejecting his view of the Constitution as an irredeemable “covenant with death.” But unlike Douglass, Sinha said, “Jacobs doesn’t give up on his radical indictment of the United States.”

Scattered in the Archives

Schroeder, now 43 and teaching at the Rhode Island School of Design, was initially uncertain what to do with the discovery. A literary agent recommended he research a full biography to publish alongside the text. So Schroeder transformed himself from an interpretive literary scholar into an old-fashioned archive hound.

Schroeder used ship records to trace John S. Jacobs’s voyages to India, Egypt, the Black Sea and elsewhere. Here, an account book shows his name and place of birth.Amani Willett for The New York Times

Today, many scholars of slavery emphasize the silences and biases of the archive. “It’s important to know that the records you are looking at weren’t set up to preserve the life of the person you are writing about, and often quite the opposite,” Schroeder said.

Most scholars had assumed that Yellin, who spent three decades researching Harriet Jacobs, had tracked down most of what could be found about the Jacobs family. (Yellin died in 2023.) But Schroeder found many previously unnoticed records, including a forgotten oil portrait from 1848 that he believes depicts John.

In Boston, he uncovered court documents describing Jacobs’s great-grandparents’ attempt to escape slavery in the 1790s. In London, he found ship logs that allowed him to trace Jacobs’s wanderings after he left Australia for London in 1856.

From his base in London, Jacobs spent the next 15 years working on ships carrying sugar from the Caribbean, oranges from the Black Sea, cotton from Egypt. He also helped finish the trans-Atlantic telegraph line and, in 1869, sailed to Bangkok on a gunboat delivered as a present for the new king of Siam.

Jacobs, Schroeder writes, “lived a life that was even more incredible than his narrative.” But his traces, he said, were “scattered to the wind.”

Harriet Jacobs, John Jacobs’s sister, shown in 1894. Her 1861 autobiography, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” is now recognized as a cornerstone of 19th-century American literature.Gilbert Studios

In 1860, as Harriet’s book was about to appear, John decided to republish his own narrative. Before a voyage to Brazil, he entrusted the text to a London magazine called Leisure Hour.

The editors chopped it nearly in half, excising most of its political arguments and turning it into a more conventional tale of suffering and escape. And gone was the original title, with its blast at the 600,000 American “despots” who owned fellow human beings.

“They cut out the radical contract that Jacobs asks the reader to submit to,” Schroeder said, “which is to pay attention not to enslaved people in pain, but to the people and laws that create the pain.”

Brother and Sister

John Jacobs died in 1873, a few months after returning to the United States. Today, few of the literary pilgrims who go to Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass., to visit Harriet’s grave are likely to pause over the small marker set into the grass nearby, labeled simply “Brother.”

But Schroeder hopes his research will prompt a rethinking of the siblings’ interconnected stories.

Harriet’s book, which includes harrowing descriptions of sexual abuse, borrowed conventions from the sentimental novel, to better appeal to the target audience of antislavery Northern white women. John’s narrative, Schroeder writes, is “unsentimental to its core.” But were their stories originally intended to be so different?

Both siblings, Schroeder writes, began thinking about their books in the period when they lived together in Rochester, in the late 1840s, and possibly “intended for their stories to be read together.” And in the late 1850s, Schroeder writes, John seemed to encourage Harriet, who visited London, to publish her book there.

John S. Jacobs is buried near Harriet Jacobs in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass., under a simple stone reading only, “Brother.”Mount Auburn

In her biography, Yellin describes how Harriet spent three years trying to get her book published, which meant getting the imprimatur of white benefactors. Twice, she asked Harriet Beecher Stowe for an endorsement, and was rebuffed. When “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” was finally published in 1861, in Boston, the white editor revised it heavily, and cut a closing tribute to the radical abolitionist John Brown.

At the end of her book, Harriet describes John’s departure for California. What would her finished book would have been like, Schroeder wonders, if she had joined him — and then, like him, continued even farther?

“There were invisible constraints on formerly enslaved authors who remained in the United States,” Schroeder said. Without the two versions of John Jacobs’s narrative, “we wouldn’t see that as clearly.”

A Furious, Forgotten Slave Narrative Resurfaces After Nearly 170 Years - The New York Times

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Supreme Court Justice Alito’s Beach House Displayed ‘Appeal to Heaven’ Flag - The New York Times

Another Provocative Flag Was Flown at Another Alito Home

"The justice’s beach house displayed an “Appeal to Heaven” flag, a symbol carried on Jan. 6 and associated with a push for a more Christian-minded government.

A flagpole displaying a white flag with a pine tree and the phrase “An Appeal to Heaven,” a blue “2022” flag and a multicolored flag with a yellow sun in the center.
The “Appeal to Heaven” flag flew outside the Alitos’ New Jersey vacation home last summer, along with a “2022” Phillies flag and a Long Beach Island flag.

Last summer, two years after an upside-down American flag was flown outside the Virginia home of Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., another provocative symbol was displayed at his vacation house in New Jersey, according to interviews and photographs.

This time, it was the “Appeal to Heaven” flag, which, like the inverted U.S. flag, was carried by rioters at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Also known as the Pine Tree flag, it dates back to the Revolutionary War, but largely fell into obscurity until recent years and is now a symbol of support for former President Donald J. Trump, for a religious strand of the “Stop the Steal” campaign and for a push to remake American government in Christian terms.

Three photographs obtained by The New York Times, along with accounts from a half-dozen neighbors and passers-by, show that the Appeal to Heaven flag was aloft at the Alito home on Long Beach Island in July and September of 2023. A Google Street View image from late August also shows the flag.

The photographs, each taken independently, are from four different dates. It is not clear whether the flag was displayed continuously during those months or how long it was flown overall.

An “Appeal to Heaven” flag and other flags flying outside a beach house owned by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.
A Google Street View photo taken in August 2023 shows the flag flying at the Alitos’ house.

Justice Alito declined to respond to questions about the beach house flag, including what it was intended to convey and how it comported with his obligations as a justice. The court also declined to respond.

In commenting for the Times report last week about the upside-down American flag at his Virginia home in 2021, Justice Alito said that it had been raised by his wife, Martha-Ann Alito, during a clash with a neighbor.

The revelation about that flag prompted concerns from legal scholars and ethicists, and calls from dozens of Democratic lawmakers that the justice recuse himself from cases related to Jan. 6. The news also drew criticism from some conservative politicians, including Senator Lindsey Graham, who said that displaying the inverted flag was “not good judgment.”

During the period the Appeal to Heaven flag was seen flying at the justice’s New Jersey house, a key Jan. 6 case arrived at the Supreme Court, challenging whether those who stormed the Capitol could be prosecuted for obstruction.

In coming weeks, the justices will rule on that case, which could scuttle some of the charges against Mr. Trump, as well as on whether he is immune from prosecution for actions he took while president. Their decisions will shape how accountable he can be held for trying to overturn the last presidential election and his chances at regaining the White House in the next one.

The flag was a presence at the Jan. 6 attack on the capitol.JT/STAR MAX/IPx, via Associated Press

The disclosure about the new flag is troubling, several ethics experts said in interviews, because it ties Justice Alito more closely to symbols associated with the attempted election subversion on Jan. 6, and because it was displayed as the obstruction case was first coming for consideration by the court.

Judges are not supposed to give any impression of bias, yet the flag could be seen as telegraphing the Alitos’ views — and at a time when the justices were on the cusp of adopting a new ethics code. “We all have our biases, but the good judge fights against them,” said Charles Geyh, a law professor at Indiana University Bloomington. “When a judge celebrates his predispositions by hoisting them on a flag,” he added, “that’s deeply disturbing.”

Records show that the Alitos have owned the beach house since 2014, and he is a well-known presence in the waterfront community. Residents said they recalled seeing the justice last summer, though it is unclear how much time he spent there. Neighbors said that once they realized what the flag signified, they were surprised to see it displayed, particularly in a prominent spot where many boaters glide by. The six people who shared their accounts and photographs asked not to be identified because they didn’t want to antagonize a longtime neighbor. When The Times visited the house on Wednesday, the flagpole was bare.

Until about a decade ago, the Appeal to Heaven flag was mostly a historical relic. But since then it has been revived to represent “a theological vision of what the United States should be and how it should be governed,” said Matthew Taylor, a religion scholar at the Institute of Islamic, Christian and Jewish Studies. He is also the author of a forthcoming book tracing how a right-wing Christian author and speaker who repopularized the flag helped propel Mr. Trump’s attempt to overturn the election.

That figure, Dutch Sheets, has led a yearslong campaign to present the flag to political figures, including Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and vice-presidential pick, and an Indiana gubernatorial candidate whom Mr. Sheets wrapped in the flag at a recent rally. Republican members of Congress and state officials have displayed the flag as well, among them Doug Mastriano, a Pennsylvania state senator and a leader of the “Stop the Steal” campaign. The highest-ranking elected official known to show the flag is Representative Mike Johnson, who hung it at his office last fall shortly after becoming speaker of the House.

A spokesman for Mr. Johnson said that the speaker “has long appreciated the rich history of the flag, as it was first used by General George Washington during the Revolutionary War.” It was a gift, the spokesman said, from Pastor Dan Cummins, a guest chaplain for the House of Representatives.

“An Appeal to Heaven” is one of three flags outside the office of the House speaker, Mike Johnson. Kenny Holston/The New York Times

Since its creation during the American Revolution, the flag has carried a message of defiance: The phrase “appeal to heaven” comes from the 17th-century philosopher John Locke, who wrote of a responsibility to rebel, even use violence, to overthrow unjust rule. “It’s a paraphrase for trial by arms,” Anthony Grafton, a historian at Princeton University, said in an interview. “The main point is that there’s no appeal, there’s no one else you can ask for help or a judgment.”

In 2013, Mr. Sheets, a prominent figure in a far-right evangelical movement that scholars have called the New Apostolic Reformation, discovered the nearly forgotten flag and made it the symbol of his ambitions to steep the country and the government in Christianity, he wrote in a 2015 book also titled “An Appeal to Heaven.”

“Rally to the flag,” he wrote. “God has resurrected it for such a time as this. Wave it outwardly: wear it inwardly. Appeal to heaven daily for a spiritual revolution that will knock out the Goliaths of our day.”

He placed the high court at the center of his mission. In 2015, the court’s ruling that states must allow same-sex marriage had galvanized the movement and helped it to grow. In a speech three years later, he said, “There’s no gate that has allowed more evil to enter our nation than that of the Supreme Court.”

But Mr. Sheets and fellow leaders described Justice Alito, the member of the court most committed to expanding the role of faith in public life, as their great hope: a vocal defender of religious liberty and opponent of the right to abortion and same-sex marriage.

Dutch Sheets, a right-wing Christian author and speaker, repopularized the flag and helped propel Mr. Trump’s attempt to overturn the election.Gary S. Chapman

“You can’t say that marriage is a union between one man and one woman,” the justice said in a 2020 speech. “Until very recently that’s what the vast majority of Americans thought. Now it’s considered bigotry,” he said, a point he had made strongly in his dissent to the ruling.

The religious leaders cast Mr. Trump as another of their heroes. A few weeks before the 2020 election, at a Las Vegas megachurch prayer service for his second term, a pastor from the group presented Mr. Trump with an “Appeal to Heaven” flag from the stage. When he lost, Mr. Sheets and a team of others formed an instant, ad hoc religious arm of the “Stop the Steal” campaign, blitzing swing state megachurches, broadcasting the services at each stop and drawing hundreds of thousands of viewers.

On Jan. 6, the “Appeal to Heaven” flag was prominent: at the Washington Monument, where throngs gathered to hear President Trump deliver a speech contesting the election results, and later above the angry mob that surrounded the Capitol. The flag was visible above clashes with law enforcement on the building’s west terrace, as rioters breached police lines underneath the scaffolding set up for President Biden’s inauguration, and finally, inside the building.

By that day, scholars say, the flag had become popular enough to sometimes be used by a few other groups, including militia members. But most often, they said, it is tied directly to Mr. Sheets, his contemporaries and adherents and their vision for a more Christian America.

Last October, soon after the flag was last documented at the Alito beach home, Mr. Sheets devoted a prayer session to the court, this time sounding triumphant. He cited the Dobbs decision, overturning the federal right to abortion, in which the majority decision had been written by Justice Alito.

“We have reached another phase in the process of shifting the Supreme Court,” he announced. Through the justices, he said, “God’s intent for institutions of government can now be fulfilled.”

Alan Feuer contributed reporting."

Supreme Court Justice Alito’s Beach House Displayed ‘Appeal to Heaven’ Flag - The New York Times