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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

African Serpent-Drama in America

By Moncure Daniel Conway (1832–1907)

[From Demonology and Devil-Lore. 1879.]

ON the eve of January 1, 1863,—that historic New Year’s Day on which President Lincoln proclaimed freedom to American slaves,—I was present at a Watch-night held by negroes in the city of Boston, Mass. In opening the meeting the preacher said,—though in words whose eloquent shortcomings I cannot reproduce:—“Brethren and sisters, the President of the United States has promised that if the Confederates do not lay down their arms, he will free all their slaves to-morrow. They have not laid down their arms. To-morrow will be the day of liberty to the oppressed. But we all know that evil powers are around the President. While we sit here they are trying to make him break his word. But we have come together to watch, and see that he does not break his word. Brethren, the bad influences around the President to-night are stronger than any Copperheads. The Old Serpent is abroad to-night, with all his emissaries, in great power. His wrath is great, because he knows his hour is near. He will be in this church this evening. As midnight comes on we shall hear his rage. But, brethren and sisters, don’t be alarmed. Our prayers will prevail. His head will be bruised. His back will be broken. He will go raging to hell, and God Almighty’s New Year will make the United States a true land of freedom.”

The sensation caused among the hundreds of negroes present by these words was profound; they were frequently interrupted by cries of “Glory!” and there were tears of joy. But the scene and excitement which followed were indescribable. A few moments before midnight the congregation were requested to kneel, which they did, and prayer succeeded prayer with increasing fervor. Presently a loud, prolonged hiss was heard. There were cries—“He’s here! he’s here!” Then came a volley of hisses; they seemed to proceed from every part of the room, hisses so entirely like those of huge serpents that the strongest nerves were shaken; above them rose the preacher’s prayer that had become a wild incantation, and ecstatic ejaculations became so universal that it was a marvel what voices were left to make the hisses. Finally, from a neighboring steeple the twelve strokes of midnight sounded on the frosty air, and immediately the hisses diminished, and presently died away altogether, and the New Year that brought freedom to four millions of slaves was ushered in by the jubilant chorus of all present singing a hymn of victory.

Far had come those hisses and that song of victory, terminating the dragon-drama of America. In them was the burden of Ezekiel: “Son of man, set thy face against Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and prophesy against him and against all Egypt, saying, Thus saith the Lord Jehovah: Behold I am against thee, Pharaoh, king of Egypt, the great dragon that lieth in the midst of the rivers…. I will put a hook in thy jaws.” In them was the burden of Isaiah: “In that day Jehovah with his sore and great and strong sword shall punish Leviathan the piercing serpent, even Leviathan that crooked serpent: he shall slay the dragon that is in the sea.” In it was the cry of Zophar: “His meat in his bowels is turned, it is the gall of asps within him. He hath swallowed down riches, and he shall vomit them up again. God shall cast them out of his belly.” And these Hebrew utterances, again, were but the distant echoes of far earlier voices of those African slaves still seen pictured with their chains on the ruined walls of Egypt,—voices that gathered courage at last to announce the never-ending struggle of man with Oppression, as that combat between god and serpent, which never had a nobler event than when the dying hiss of Slavery was heard in America, and the victorious Sun rose upon a New World of free and equal men.

The Serpent thus exalted in America to a type of oppression is very different from any snake that may this day be found worshipped as a deity by the African in his native land. The swarthy snake-worshipper in his migration took his god along with him in his chest or basket—at once ark and altar—and in that hiding-place it underwent transformations. He emerged as the protean emblem of both good and evil. In a mythologic sense the serpent certainly held its tail in its mouth. No civilization has reached the end of its typical supremacy.