Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Underground Railroad

We have all heard of the underground railroad, but weren't too sure what it really was.  My understanding is that it was really a network of volunteers guiding escaped slaves up north to freedom.  I once visited a black museum in Amherstburg, Ontario where they commemorated escaping over the river that separated Canada from The United States.

The book, which won a 2017 Pulitzer prize really uses the concept of an actual underground railroad as a vehicle to tell a story and make some points.  The railroad is dug out where whites cannot see and uses conductors.  This allows a series of stops and side stories.  Whites are aware of the underground railroad, but for some it is just a figure of speech.

One point in a short side story was about body snatchers in Boston.  Medical students are required to disect dead bodies which were in short supply.  One depicted body snatcher discovered that if he grabbed dead negro bodies there would be no fuss, unlike with some white bodies with loud self-righteous relatives.  A more relevant point was that the students realized that black bodies were the same as white bodies, thus attaining a sort of equality.  Some Africans were conscious that the whites had stolen land from the native Indians, but in this book at least there was almost no interaction.

At the African beginning and also during American transfer of slaves was that slavers were careful not to spread language facility by mixing different language speakers.  Slaves were not to be taught reading.

Whites range from cold hearted cruel owners detached from the reality of what they are doing to the guilt ridden to do-gooders to the fearful.  Slave catchers are a big part of the story as they get paid to retrieve escaped slaves.  For many it is just a job.

Many of the slaves are accepting of their fate and fearful of change.  One young black boy orphaned and fearful becomes a helper to a slave catcher.  Mulattoes also appeared in the story and although they were usually treated like slaves, they did enjoy some privileges that resulted in ambiguous relationships with other slaves.

There was real fear concerning what the slaves could do if they got free.  In fact education was a concern as a weapon against whites.  Abolitionists could be punished if circumstances allowed as they could precipitate a rebellion.

To many white Americans this is all history and they do not think of it much and certainly don't feel it is much of an excuse for poor behaviour today.   The Holocaust also fades in memory and we also need to remind ourselves the effects do indeed carry on, despite our loss of consciousness.

Earlier read "Underground Airlines" by Ben H. Winters  which was really an extension of earlier conditions with the adjustment that the Civil War never happened.  America evolved without the violent disruption.  The author was really suggesting that slavery could have survived if Lincoln failed to make it to the White House after his election.  Read more:

The key link in both books was that de-humanizing of people was an outcome of ignorance and greed.  Once de-humanizing had progressed enough, cruelty was a tool to benefit other humans (investors).  As both books make plain as someone once said, for evil to prevail it only required many to stand by and watch.

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