A mixed-race man who began life as an indentured servant, served in the army during the War of 1812’s Quebec campaign, and became a traveling Methodist minister. The author of the first published Native American autobiography, A Son of the Forest (1829). A passionate advocate of Native American rights who helped foment the groundbreaking Mashpee Revolt of 1833-1834 and then documented its legal and cultural triumphs in the book Indian Nullification of the Unconstitutional Laws of Massachusetts (1833). A potent orator who delivered, at Boston’s famous Odeon, the historically revisionist 1836 “Eulogy on King Philip” (the Wampanoag chief against whom the Puritans waged a brutal late 17th century war).
William Apess was all of these things and more. But while they’re all worth remembering, Apess also published (as an addendum to his edited collection of conversion narratives The Experiences of Five Christian Indians of the Pequot Tribe) an essay that distills much of his unique life, impressive work, and potent voice into a concise, very readable form: “An Indian’s Looking-Glass for the White Man” (1833).
The first sentences of “Looking-Glass” establish the conversational style and tone, pointed social and spiritual arguments, and audience engagement that are hallmarks of the essay. “Having a desire to place a few things before my fellow creatures who are traveling with me to the grave, and to that God who is the maker and preserver both of the white man and the Indian, whose abilities are the same and who are to be judged by one God, who will show no favor to outward appearances but will judge righteousness. Now I ask if degradation has not been heaped long enough upon the Indians? And if so, can there not be a compromise? Is it right to hold and promote prejudices? If not, why not put them all away?”
In early American literary history, Apess was matched in his skills at argumentative and persuasive rhetoric only by Tom Paine and Frederick Douglass. And in the 14 paragraphs that follow this striking opening, he deploys a wide and convincing range of evidence and logic in support of his goal of social and political equality between the races: historical details such as tribal treaties and the conditions on Native American reservations; scriptural quotations and theological queries; pointing out the hypocrisies and logical fallacies of his opponents; autobiographical reflections from his own experiences and communities; and emotional appeals to his audience’s sympathies and compassion, among other strategies.
Yet Apess’ essay offers more than just facts and arguments—it also presents precisely what it claims, a looking glass in which white Americans could and can examine their own perspectives and actions. “By what you read,” he succinctly puts it, “you may learn how deep your principles are.” And while he knows full well that many are but “skin-deep,” he concludes instead with an appeal to “ye noble-hearted” of his readers: “pray you stop not till this tree of distinction shall be leveled to the earth, and the mantle of prejudice turn from every American heart.”
Such goals remain before us in 2016. Through Apess’ looking-glass, then, American readers can find not only a singular voice and a vital part of our national histories, but also and just as importantly a powerful reflection of contemporary society and issues—and a continuing call to action.