Some quick thoughts on Colson Whitehead’s recent novel “Underground Railroad”

I just finished reading Colson Whitehead’s recent novel Underground Railroad. This is from the book review on Amazon.com

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, the #1 New York Times bestseller from Colson Whitehead, a magnificent tour de force chronicling a young slave’s adventures as she makes a desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hell for all the slaves, but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood—where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned—Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. Though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.

In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor—engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.

Like the protagonist of Gulliver’s Travels, Cora encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey—hers is an odyssey through time as well as space. As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre–Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.

The book is a very inventive and ingenious blend of fact and fantasy. Crafted based on historical events that informed readers will recognize, part of the “fun” of the book is seeing how the author takes disparate elements of the past and creates an imagined whole that is at once odd and eerily familiar.

Underground Railroad is both a hard read, due to the subject matter, and a fast read, because it’s so easy to become invested in the main character that readers really really really want to see how her journey finally ends. For the most part, the story is relentlessly bleak and sad. So many bad things happen that I wanted and almost needed the main character Cora to have a happy ending. And I don’t know if she has one, although the author has called the ending “hopeful.”

For me, the only relief is knowing that, there but for the grace of God, go I. That, and the knowledge that things do get better, and we should be thankful that they do.

– Alan

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Voting with their feet: “This day ran away from my premises, servants…”


Voting with their feet: document from Virginia’s Nancy Rowe, dated June 1862, which lists African Americans who fled her enslavement during the Civil War. Per the blog Spotsylvania Memory, “Rowe filed an affidavit with the Corporation Court of Fredericksburg documenting the loss of her slave property. Slave owners throughout the south routinely filed such paperwork in the hope of some day being compensated for their loss. In her affidavit, Nancy listed the names, ages and values of those who ran away and did not come back.”
Image Source: From the blog Spotsylvania Memory

During the American Civil War, tens of thousands of enslaved people gained their freedom by fleeing their slave quarters and escaping to the Union lines. In the blog Spotsylvania Memory, Pat Sullivan discusses the story of a group of southerners who fled captivity in June 1862, south of the area that is famous as the location of the battles of Bull Run (see here and here). Sullivan goes on to discuss how some of these freedom rebels lived after the war. It is a wonderful read and you can see it by going here.

Sullivan’s research fleshes-out the stories of African Americans who liberated themselves during the war and gained refuge with the Union army. One of the most famous pictures of slave liberation during the war is this one, which shows a group of runaways entering Union lines along the Rappahannock River, southwest of the Bull Run battles. This picture was apparently taken a month or so after the slaves mentioned above made their escape.

[​IMG]
Fugitive African Americans fording the Rappahannock River, VA; July-August 1862; Timothy H O’Sullivan photographer; taken in the vicinity of the Battle 2nd Battle of of Bull Run, Virginia., 1862, .
Source for Image, description: Library of Congress, Reproduction Numbers LC-DIG-cwpb-00218 (digital file from original neg.) LC-B8171-518 (b&w film neg.)

The fact that so many enslaved people – thousands of them – were able to flee to freedom in this part of Virginia is an illustration of how the war disturbed and stymied the local slave patrol and control machinery; and also, of how enslaved people were coming to see the Union as an ally for freedom. Recollect that a preliminary version of the Emancipation Proclamation was not announced until September 1862, and the final version of the proclamation was not issued until January 1, 1863. But by this time, the so-called Contraband policy, which gave asylum to slaves so they could labor for the Union army, had been established in Hampton Roads and was certainly known by many enslaved people in northern Virginia. Additionally, the Union had by then abolished slavery in Washington, DC (on April 15, 1862); the city of Washington was just  65 miles from Spotsylvania, and of course Union soldiers had been in the area. For many enslaved people, it probably appeared that the time of Jubilee was at hand.


Current map of Northern Virginia. The Bull Run Battles, AKA the Battles of Manassas, were fought in Prince William County. Note that Fredericksburg City and Spotsylvania County are further south of Prince William County.
Image Source: YardiMatrix.com


Current map of the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers, and counties in northern Virginia.
Image Source: Shared Vision Planning.com 

 

An Easter Remembrance by John Thompson, Fugitive Slave


Late 19th century photograph of former slave quarters at St. Mary’s Manor, St. Mary’s County, Maryland. John Thompson, whose slave narrative is discussed below, worked on tobacco plantations in Maryland prior to liberating himself from bondage.
Image Source: National Council on Public History, Project Showcase: “All of Us Will Walk Together” at St. Mary’s City, Maryland

John Thompson was born into slavery in Maryland, in the early part of the 19th century. He escaped captivity and wrote a slave narrative, published in 1856, titled The Life of John Thompson, a Fugitive Slave; Containing His History of 25 Years in Bondage, and His Providential Escape. Written by Himself. Slave narratives were a popular type of non-fiction during the antebellum period of the United States; this Wikipedia article discusses the genre:

The slave narrative is a type of literary work that is made up of the written accounts of enslaved Africans in Great Britain and its colonies, including the later United States, Canada, and Caribbean nations. Some six thousand former slaves from North America and the Caribbean gave accounts of their lives during the 18th and 19th centuries, with about 150 narratives published as separate books or pamphlets.

From the 1770s to the 1820s, North American slave narratives generally gave an account of a spiritual journey leading to Christian redemption. The authors usually characterized themselves as Africans rather than slaves, as most were born in Africa.

From the mid-1820s, writers consciously chose the autobiographical form to generate enthusiasm for the abolitionist movement. Some writers adopted literary techniques, including the use of fictionalized dialogue. Between 1835 and 1865 more than 80 such narratives were published. Recurrent features include: slave auctions, the break-up of families, and frequently two accounts of escapes, one of which is successful. As this was the period of the forced migration of an estimated one million slaves from the Upper South to the Deep South through the internal slave trade, the experiences of auctions and break-up of families were common to many.

In his book Thompson says that “my parents had seven children, five sons and two daughters. My father and mother were field hands. My younger sister was house girl and ladies’ maid, while the elder was given to one of the sons… The first act of slavery which I recorded in my memory, was the sale of my elder sister, who belonged to Henry Wagar, brother to J. H., and who lived three miles from our plantation.”

Thompson goes on to talk about an especially memorable Easter day during his enslavement. This excerpt touches on such topics as: the slaves’ religious beliefs; the impact that differences in denominational belief (in this case, Protestantism versus Catholicism) could have on the relations between slave and master; slave resistance; the use of the court system to resolve cases of slave resistance; and differences between master and slave concerning the nature of God and justice. This is from chapter IX of his book:

The following year, I was hired to Mr. Wm. Barber, a Catholic himself, as were also his slaves, all except myself. He adhered strictly to his religious profession, praying three or four times each day, and every Sunday morning calling up his slaves to attend prayer, to which call I refused to respond. This refusal in me, caused in him a strong dislike to me, insomuch that he seemed to dislike me, and hate to see me worse than the devil, against whom he prayed so devoutly.

I was very fond of singing Methodist hymns while at work, especially if I was alone, the sound of which threw him into spasms of anger. He accordingly treated me worse than any other slave upon the plantation, all of whom were treated bad enough. Our allowance was a quart of meal and two herrings per day. Our dinner was sent to us in the fields, both in hot and cold weather. None of our friends were ever permitted to come to the farm to see us.

On Easter, it being holiday among the slaves, a negro belonging to Mr. Charles Gardner, not knowing our master’s rules, called to see his mother and sister, whom Mr. Barber had hired, and whom he had not seen for a long time. Our master happening to get a glimpse of this negro, pitched upon him and endeavored to collar him. The black, being a strong active fellow, and understanding what we call the “Virginia hoist,” seized and threw his assailant over his head to the distance of five feet, where he struck the ground so that his nose ploughed the earth some distance! Before the discomfited master could rise from the ground, the slave had effected his escape.

But poor David’s back must smart for his dexterity. Master imagined that I invited David to our plantation for the purpose of retaliating some of my grievances, so I must share his fate. A difficulty now arose, for as master professed to be a Christian, he could not consistently whip without a cause, which he could not readily find, since he could not prove that I was in any way implicated in David’s crime. Continue reading

Quotable: Patrick Rael on Men, Lions, and History

On a warm afternoon in Newcastle, England, in 1863, the British Association for the Advancement of Science met to hear papers presented by scholars in its Ethnological section. Before a rapt audience, one of its distinguished members, Dr. James Hunt, lectured lengthily on the superiority of the white race over its darker cousins. In the middle of the lecture, from the midst of the audience, a long black man rose to challenge Hunt.

Arguing for the innate ability for African descent people to “rise,” the man engaged the learned racial theorist on none of the grounds of the new racial science. Instead, he told a tale taken from Aesop, of a man and a lion both walking down the street, arguing over which represented the superior species. According to the story, hard pressed to prove his case, the man was delighted to spy a public house, the sign for which depicted a man wrestling a lion to the ground. Considering his arguments won, the man pointed to the picture as evidence of men’s superiority over lions. The lion, however, simply asked, “Ah, but who painted the picture?”

The meeting errupted. Defenders and challengers of black capacities descended into verbal melee, and the session adjourned prematurely.

– From Black Identity & Black Protest in the Antebellum North, by Patrick Rael, P1.

According to Rael, the black man in the audience was William Craft. Craft has gained some measure of fame for his daring escape from slavery with his wife, Ellen Craft. Notes Rael, “(Ellen), lightly complected, had posed as a young white master traveling north with his slave, William.” They resided in New England for a time, but were forced to flee the United States. According to Wikipedia,

Threatened by slave catchers in Boston after passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the Crafts escaped to England, where they lived for nearly two decades and reared five children. The Crafts lectured publicly about their escape. In 1860 they published a written account, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom; Or, The Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery

The story of the Crafts is detailed here.

Ellen_and_William_Craft
Ellen and William Craft, wife and husband, circa mid 1800s. Ellen, a “light skinned slave,” posed as a male slave owner, and William posed as her slave, in a daring plot to escape from the South to gain their freedom.
Image Source: Wikipedia Commons

Tragic Mulatto: Thomas Satterwhite Noble’s The Price of Blood


The Price of Blood, by Thomas Satterwhite Noble (1835–1907); 1868; Oil on canvas
Image Source: Morris Museum of Art

This is how these men, born in the 19th century, remembered their fathers:

Frederick Douglass wrote, “My father was a white man. He was admitted to be such by all I ever heard speak of my parentage. The opinion was also whispered that my master was my father; but of the correctness of this opinion, I know nothing; the means of knowing was withheld from me. My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant—before I knew her as my mother. It is a common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age.” [1]

William Wells Brown wrote “I was born in Lexington, Ky. The man who stole me as soon as I was born, recorded the births of all the infants which he claimed to be born his property, in a book which he kept for that purpose. My mother’s name was Elizabeth. She had seven children, viz.: Solomon, Leander, Benjamin, Joseph, Millford, Elizabeth, and myself. No two of us were children of the same father. My father’s name, as I learned from my mother, was George Higgins. He was a white man, a relative of my master, and connected with some of the first families in Kentucky.” [2]

• Henry Bibb wrote

I was born May 1815, of a slave mother, in Shelby County, Kentucky, and was claimed as the property of David White Esq. He came into possession of my mother long before I was born. I was brought up in the Counties of Shelby, Henry, Oldham, and Trimble. Or, more correctly speaking, in the above counties, I may safely say, I was flogged up; for where I should have received moral, mental, and religious instruction, I received stripes without number, the object of which was to degrade and keep me in subordination. I can truly say, that I drank deeply of the bitter cup of suffering and woe. I have been dragged down to the lowest depths of human degradation and wretchedness, by Slaveholders.

My mother was known by the name of Milldred Jackson. She is the mother of seven slaves only, all being sons, of whom I am the eldest. She was also so fortunate or unfortunate, as to have some of what is called the slaveholding blood flowing in her veins. I know not how much; but not enough to prevent her children though fathered by slaveholders, from being bought and sold in the slave markets of the South. It is almost impossible for slaves to give a correct account of their male parentage. All that I know about it is, that my mother informed me that my fathers name was James Bibb. He was doubtless one of the present Bibb family of Kentucky; but I have no personal knowledge of him at all, for he, died before my recollection. [3]

Henry Bibb’s father was Kentucky state senator James Bibb.

3 Abolitionists Douglass Brown Bibb
African American Abolitionists Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, and Henry Bibb
Image Source: From their Narratives; see book citations at the bottom of this post
Continue reading

William Wells Brown’s Fugitive Slave Lament: “Where art thou, mother?”


“The author and his mother arrested and carried back into slavery.” From Narrative of William W. Brown, an American Slave. Written by Himself., first edition published 1847, in London, England. The image shows the capture of Brown and his mother after their unsuccessful escape from bondage in 1833.
Image Source: from the Narrative of William W. Brown, an American Slave. Written by Himself. The book is online at Docsouth.org and is available for all users.

LAMENT OF THE FUGITIVE SLAVE
by William Wells Brown, from the Narrative of William W. Brown, an American Slave. Written by Himself.

I’ve wandered out beneath the moonlit heaven,
Lost mother! loved and dear,
To every beam a magic power seems given
To bring thy spirit near;
For though the breeze of freedom fans my brow,
My soul still turns to thee! oh, where art thou?

Where art thou, mother? I am weary thinking;
A heritage of pain and woe
Was thine, — beneath it art thou slowly sinking,
Or hast thou perished long ago?
And doth thy spirit ‘mid the quivering leaves above me,
Hover, dear mother, to guard and love me?

I murmur at my lot: in the white man’s dwelling
The mother there is found;
Or he may tell where spring-buds first are swelling
Above her lowly mound;
But thou, — lost mother, every trace of thee
In the vast sepulchre of Slavery!

Long years have fled, since sad, faint-hearted,
I stood on Freedom’s shore,
And knew, dear mother, from thee I was parted,
To meet thee never more;
And deemed the tyrant’s chain with thee were better
Than stranger hearts and limbs without a fetter.

Yet blessings on thy Roman-mother spirit;
Could I forget it, then,
The parting scene, and struggle not to inherit
A freeman’s birth-right once again?
O noble words! O holy love, which gave
Thee strength to utter them, a poor, heart-broken slave!

Be near me, mother, be thy spirit near me,
Wherever thou may’st be;
In hours like this bend near that I may hear thee,
And know that thou art free;
Summoned at length from bondage, toil and pain,
To God’s free world, a world without a chain!
*******************

“My child, we must soon part, to meet no more this side of the grave. You have ever said that you would not die a slave; that you would be a free man. Now try to get your liberty!” — William Wells Brown’s Narrative

William Wells Brown may never have forgiven himself. All he could was lament.

Wells, enslaved in Missouri in 1833, had just lost his sister to the slave trade. Perhaps angered by this loss, he convinced his mother to join him in fleeing north to “liberty.” An escape party of two would make things more difficult than if he had fled alone, but he did not want to leave his mother behind. But Brown and his mother were captured; and as a consequence, she too was “sold down the river.” That was when Brown was 19 or 20; he lived to be 70, and never saw his mother again. Continue reading

Drunk History: Harriet Tubman leads slaves to freedom during the Civil War

Harriet Tubman, a conductor on the Underground Railroad, was a spy for the Union during the Civil War, eventually leading raids on plantations in South Carolina that freed over 700 slaves.

Comedy Central’s Drunk History show does a hilarious take on her wartime heroics:

While it is hilarious, it is based on a true story. Much of this seems based in part on the book Harriet Tubman, Secret Agent: How Daring Slaves and Free Blacks Spied for the Union During the Civil War, by Thomas B. Allen, which is a good read.

Crissle West of The Read does most of the voice-over for this video.

“It” can speak!: Frederick Douglass and the “brand new fact” of the articulate slave

Frederick Douglass at Age 29
Frederick Douglass, perhaps at age 29.
Image Source: By Unidentified [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) is well-known as a 19th century runaway slave, abolitionist, author, publisher, orator, and civil servant. After escaping from bondage in Maryland at the age of 20, he gained early fame in the 1840s as a speaker for the abolition movement, working with abolitionist luminaries such as William Lloyd Garrison, editor of The Liberator, and John Collins of the Massachusetts anti-slavery society.

Writing in his book My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) – one of his three autobiographies – Douglass recalled his early experiences as a speaker for the abolitionist movement in the northern states. It’s useful to note that large portions of the North had few if any African American residents, much less enslaved African Americans; but white northerners were aware of all kinds of (stereotypical) representations of slaves and negroes in the media of the day.

In that environment, Douglass felt himself something of an oddity in front of white audiences. In the book Pictures and Progress: Early Photography and the Making of African American Identity, Maurice Wallace suggests that Douglass was seen as “circus curiosity” by white audiences.

Douglass observes that many whites simply refused to believe that an articulate person like himself could be of “very low origin”; perhaps to them, enslavement meant that the man or woman was culturally irredeemable. Eventually, Douglass felt the need to establish his bona fides as a former slave; in doing so, his status as a runaway slave was exposed, and he left the country to avoid re-enslavement. But Douglass was driven to prove that the slave could yet be a man; or perhaps, his honor demanded that he put to rest any rumors about the facts of his life. (While in exile in Britain, enough money was raised so that Douglass could buy his legal freedom, and return to the Unites States.)

This is Frederick Douglass, from My Bondage and My Freedom, from the website Documenting the American South (DocSouth):

Among the first duties assigned me, on entering the ranks (of the abolitionists), was to travel, in company with Mr. George Foster, to secure subscribers to the “Anti-slavery Standard” and the “Liberator.” With him I traveled and lectured through the eastern counties of Massachusetts.

Much interest was awakened–large meetings assembled. Many came, no doubt, from curiosity to hear what a negro could say in his own cause. I was generally introduced as a “chattel”–a “thing”–a piece of southern “property”–the chairman assuring the audience that it could speak. Continue reading

Request to the Confederate Army: Treat runaway slaves as traitors – so they can be summarily executed

On to Liberty, Edited
On to Liberty, Theodor Kaufmann, oil painting, 1867; see here for a higher resolution image. (Highly recommended)
Image Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession Number: 1982.443.3, Gift of Erving and Joyce Wolf, in memory of Diane R. Wolf, 1982
Source Description: Before coming to the United States in 1850, the German-born Kaufmann studied painting in Düsseldorf and Munich and fought in the 1848 popular uprisings in favor of national unity for Germany. As a Union soldier in the American Civil War, he may have seen retreating Confederate troops take their adult male slaves with them, leaving behind the women and children. Here, his portrayal of a group of fleeing figures suggests the lack of a clear route to liberty. They emerge from darkness into light but must traverse a rockstrewn path before arriving on the smooth road leading to the Stars and Stripes, which, however, remains frighteningly close to the ongoing battle.

In November 1860, on the eve of secession and Civil War, Georgia governor Joseph Brown confidently predicted that “we (white southerners) have… little cause of apprehension from a rebellion of our slaves.” He was responding to concerns that a civil war might provide opportunities for slaves to rebel for their freedom.

Governor Brown, who strongly advocated for secession and a confederacy of slave states, was undaunted. Second, he cited what I call the “anti-insurrection infrastructure,” that is, the policies and practices used to prevent an effective slave resistance movement: “The slaves,” he argued, “are usually under the eye of their masters or overseers. Few of them can read or write. They are not permitted to travel on our Railroads, or other public conveyances, without the consent of those having the control of them. They have no mail facilities… and no means of communication with each other at a distance. They are entirely unarmed, and unskilled in the use of arms.” Brown concluded that a “general revolt would therefore be impossible.”

Additionally, he noted, “nine-tenths of them are truly and devotedly attached to their masters and mistresses, and would shed in their defense, the last drop of their blood.” For all to these reasons, Brown saw no reason to worry about the slaves. That was in November 1860, six months before the Civil War began at Ft. Sumter, South Carolina.

A year and six months after the attack on Ft. Sumter, during which the Confederacy and the Union were engaged in a bloody war, a group of Georgians sent a letter to the Confederate government that, if he saw it, would certainly have caused governor Brown great concern. Writing from Liberty County, which is positioned along the Atlantic coast near Savannah, the concerned citizens complained that by August 1862, 20,000 slaves had fled to Union lines. The runaways were giving “aid and comfort” to the enemy by “erecting fortifications and raising provisions” for the Union, acting as spies and guides, even by being “pilots to their vessels on the waters of our inlets and rivers.” This was not only a loss of labor and assets, but it “demoralized” the remaining slave population.

One problem as some whites saw it was that laws for the protection of slave property and the slaves’ lives made it difficult to appropriately punish these fugitives from labor. So, they proposed a solution: the Confederate military should treat these runaways as traitors, and summarily execute them. Continue reading