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The Fearless Benjamin Lay—Activist, Abolitionist, Dwarf Person

By Eugene Grant

Benjamin Lay, portrait painted by William Williams in 1790
Benjamin Lay, portrait painted by William Williams in 1790

I didn’t learn of Benjamin Lay until I was thirty-one years old. This is important, because I myself have dwarfism. There is a shameful absence of books documenting the lives of important historical figures with dwarfism. Just as Game of Thrones and Tyrion Lannister alone cannot compensate—as many average height people seem to think he does—for centuries of ridicule and abuse, so Marcus Rediker and The Fearless Benjamin Lay cannot make up for this dearth of representation, but the book is a significant step forwards.

Who was Benjamin Lay? Born in England 1682, Lay was one of the first white radical abolitionists. An autodidact, he was a sailor, glove-maker, book-seller, and author. He wrote one of the world’s first abolitionist texts, All Slave-Keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates. A devout Quaker, Lay loudly called for the church to cast out slave-owners. He boycotted slave-produced commodities.  

His time at sea, and particularly his experiences in Barbados, fuelled his hatred of slavery and he later became notorious for theatrical protests at Quaker meetings. In one spectacular demonstration, in 1738 at the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, he hid a bladder, filled with red juice, inside a book, before running his sword through the text and spattering ‘blood’ on the stunned slave-keepers present.

At the time, many Quakers resisted Lay’s abolitionist views. Just as Lay had called for slave-keepers to be cast out of the church, they cast him out of his. They disowned him. They denounced his book. They stopped him speaking at meetings—often physically removing him from the premises. They even withheld his marriage certificate to his wife, Sarah.

While talking and tweeting about Lay’s life, I encountered those who—in good will, I’m sure—thought it best to celebrate Lay’s achievements without mentioning his dwarfism. Such views take shape in a world where so many are taught that dwarfism is, at best, undesirable, and, at worst, to be feared or loathed. To erase Lay’s dwarfism would be, some might think, to “make him normal”.  

But life in a dwarf body shaped Lay’s beliefs. At times he struggled to be considered equal—a battle many dwarf people still face today. In one incident, Rediker records how an average height man tried to humiliate Lay by approaching him and announcing: “I am your servant”. With razor-sharp repartee, Lay stuck out his foot and replied, “Then clean my shoe”, embarrassing the bully. To erase his dwarfism would limit our view of his life. It would sever a connection between Lay and his wife, Sarah, herself a dwarf person. And it was life in a dwarf body that led to some historians, Rediker notes, to dismiss Lay as “a little hunchback”, sustaining his obscurity.

There is another vital reason why we must keep Lay’s dwarfism at the heart of discussions about him: because pernicious stereotypes dominate representations of dwarf people. A film about Lay’s life is yet to be made, but movies like Austin Powers and Wolf of Wall Street—which sustain the spectacle of dwarf bodies and condone violence towards them (violence then re-enacted in real life)—gross hundreds of millions of dollars. Growing up as a dwarf person myself, by ten I had heard of the Seven Dwarfs; by thirteen the vile Mini-Me character hit our screens, and three decades went by before I learned of Benjamin Lay.

One of the defining features of Rediker’s book is how he addresses Lay’s dwarfism. Other authors of historical biographies of defiant, gentle, and inspiring dwarf people have claimed to celebrate their subjects’ lives while simultaneously insulting their bodies and diminishing their extraordinary struggles—without reviewers noticing or caring. Rediker does no such thing, seeking advice from the excellent Little People of America organisation and explicitly acknowledging the “discrimination based on size and an often tyrannical normative image of the human body” our community experiences on a daily basis. As a proud and conscious dwarf person, as I finished reading that passage, it felt like a corset had been removed and oxygen filled my lungs.

Lay is not just a role model; he is a dwarf role model. When I have children—who are likely to have dwarfism too—I will tell them bedtime stories of Lay’s life and deeds. And, on our bookshelves, a copy of Rediker’s book, The Fearless Benjamin Lay, a celebratory and evidenced record of this great man, will await them.

 

The Fearless Benjamin LayLearn more about The Fearless Benjamin Lay, Marcus Rediker’s biography of the eighteenth-century Quaker dwarf who fiercely attacked slavery and imagined a new, more humane way of life.

 

 

 

About the Author 

Eugene GrantEugene Grant is a writer and activist in the UK dwarfism community. He tweets @MrEugeneGrant.

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