By David Zabliski '17
Both literally and metaphorically, the story of Benjamin Banneker's life is the first thing that draws one to his 1793 almanac. The first page of the almanac prominently features Banneker's biography; a free black born to freed slaves, Banneker attended some school as a child where he learned "the few rules of arthimetic" that would lay the foundation for his life’s occupation. With the help of one Mr. George Ellicott who kindly provided Banneker with resources such as "Ferguson's Astronomy, Leadebeater's Lunar Tables, and some astronomic instruments," Banneker made a name for himself in "astronomical researches" (Banneker). Banneker's career as an astronomer would culminate in public success in the last decade of the eighteenth century. His work would come to the attention of Thomas Jefferson, six installments of an annual almanac were published under his name, and he would help to survey the site for the construction of Washington. D.C. During a time in which most African Americans lived as slaves, Banneker became a minor scientific celebrity.
The 1793 iteration of Benjamin Banneker's almanac contains a mixture of astrological, religious, and political material. After the first page of the almanac gives a celebratory account of Banneker's life, the second page of the almanac provides a diagram relating the twelve astrological signs to the different parts of the human body. The mathematical tables and calendars that follow throughout allow the reader to practice astrology, in addition to identifying the phases of the moon and predicting the Christian holidays. Unlike the reputation it holds today as a pseudo-scientific practice, in late eighteenth century America the practice of "natural astrology" intersected with mainstream Christian theology in significant ways (Tomlin 290). The almanac also contains Christian religious writings and devotions, such as "Peace on Earth-- Good Will to Man...Why Will Men forget that they are brethren? (Banneker). Finally, a large majority of it is full of political treatises lamenting the ills of slavery or supporting abolitionism, such as "Extracts from the Debates...of British Parliament...on...the Abolition of the Slave-Trade," writings displaying Thomas Jefferson's anxieties about slavery, and "Extract from Wilkinson's appeal to England on behalf of the abused Africans" (Banneker). Like the astrological tables, the arguments laid out by the abolitionist treatises rely on Christian rhetoric and intersect with core beliefs of Christian theology.
In 1806, shortly after Banneker's death, a fire at his home destroyed most of his personal papers (Gillispie). This gap in substantial archival material has hardly hindered the development of the Benjamin Banneker legend; perhaps it has even aided its growth. An entire Wikipedia page exists devoted to the mythology of Benjamin Banneker. His name can be found on many neighborhoods, community centers, museums, and scientific and technical schools throughout the mid-Atlantic. The narrative that tells of Banneker's life as one of mythical success and unprecedented exceptionalism easily draws an audience, but it washes over what might be more intellectually rewarding questions about the man's life. What was Banneker's relationship to the almanac publisher, and how much agency did he have in publishing the almanac and choosing its contents? Is Banneker representative of larger African-American scientistific traditions that have been overlooked? To what degree did the early eighteenth century context of Baltimore shape Banneker's struggles and accomplishments? For now, the legend of Benjamin Banneker will continue to exist in his old almanacs and in present culture, serving as an inspiring enigma for those who wonder what lies beyond the surface-level stories of the past.
Banneker, Benjamin. Banneker's almanack, and ephemeris for the year of our Lord 1793. Philadelphia: : Printed and sold by Joseph Crukshank, No. 87, High-Street., 1792. Print.
Gillispie, Holmes, Koertge, Gale. "Banneker, Benamin." In The Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Detroit, Mich: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2008. Print.
Swartz, Ellen E. "Removing the Master Script." Journal of Black Studies.2013, 31-49. Print.
Tomlin, T. J. "'Astrology's from heaven not from Hell': the religious significance of Early American Almanacs." Early American Studies. 2010, 288-321. Print.