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The Underground Railroad Records [Book Review]

Summary

The Underground Railroad Records by William Still is an important book to read. It’s vitally important because the book shares the experiences of people who escaped or attempted to escape slavery via the Underground Railroad. It recounts some of the experiences of people who passed through the Philadelphia area and had some contact with the Vigilance Committee of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, of which William Still was the chairman.

Media

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Show Notes

I first learned about The Underground Railroad Records while reading The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates and added it to my reading list after doing research for a Black History Short about William Still. In the past, I used to skip over forewords, prologues, etc. but since I began reading audiobooks, I find that I now listen to these extras for greater insight. Sometimes they’re useless but oftentimes they explain the inspiration for and give a behind-the-scenes look into the making of the book. They can also add a bit more context and depth to a story, or at least give you a better frame of mind for approaching the book. The Underground Railroad Records with an introduction by Ta-Nehisi Coates fell into this group.

I agreed with a lot of Coates’ perspective where he delved into the idea that slave narratives are not a new topic but are still vitally important. The Underground Railroad Records was first published back in the 1800s and in the time since then, there have been books and movies about slavery as an institution as well as about enslaved people as individuals. But quite often, while a book or movie might be about a Black person or event it’s created and/or developed by a White person. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with that depending on the intent and delivery.

Yet, as well-intentioned as those books and movies might be they would offer a different perspective in comparison to a book or movie created by a Black person, especially if it’s about the Black person’s life. For example, let’s go back to the time of slavery when you would have abolitionists, the formerly enslaved, and free Black people writing about slavery.

First, no matter how well-informed or well-intentioned, it’s one thing to write about a topic based on research versus writing based on your personal experience or consequences that affect you. Second, there’s a tendency when books are written about Black people by a White person for the story to center on White characters. Often the character is positioned as a White savior or in historical terms using the character to represent that not all White people of the time were racist, violent, etc.

The excuse offered is that this is a way to help White audiences connect with the story as the unspoken part of that sentence is they have a hard time connecting with Black characters. I don’t think that’s true and it’s more a matter of falling into the lazy trope of centering media on Whiteness because it’s easier and expected rather than necessary. Even in the case where there’s a story primarily about a Black person, it might be told through the lens of a White character or narrator. Instead of the focus being on this Black person telling their story and giving voice to their experience, the attention shifts to interpreting or presenting the narrative for White audiences.

In America, the ills, shortcomings, and inhumanity of people in other countries are widely broadcasted in the telling of American and world history. If you look at the history of World War II, the Holocaust, and other terrible incidents they’re openly discussed. I believe in part because America gets to position itself as a hero on the right side of history in those stories. But when you contrast that, with the telling of Black history, especially with regards to slavery and its aftermath in America, it’s often brushed aside or toned down. In efforts to make this domestic system of oppression and exploitation more palatable for the masses, euphemisms are used and the true horror of the institution is downplayed.

This is how we get nonsense where textbooks describe slavery simply as work or enslaved people as workers or servants. It all plays into history being written by the victors. When people who either directly enslaved people or indirectly benefited from slavery are the ones writing and telling the stories, it’s told differently. The introduction and the book itself explained why it was so important for these enslaved people regardless of their education level or complete lack thereof, to give testimony to their experiences.

In the telling of history, we all have our own biases which affect how we experience and recount events. With the option for formerly enslaved people to tell their stories in their words, it gets us that much closer to having an accurate historical account. The best option is always to see and experience things for yourself but in the absence of that option, the next best thing is to get someone else’s first-person account. With nothing to gain and quite often a lot to lose, the formerly enslaved would be credible witnesses for recounting what took place.

I’m not sure about other versions but the version that I read did not contain Still’s complete records but rather a selection of testimonies. With each testimony, you would learn about the enslaved person’s means of escape but also a bit of background information. When possible, you’d learn a bit about where they were born, their family situation, the person that owned them, and the circumstances that led to their escape. Still made a point of noting the disposition of the slave owners and overseers which was to be expected.

But, I thought it was especially interesting that he also included commentary about the mistresses on these plantations. The mistresses might not have exerted authority in the fields and typically didn’t have the strength needed to directly carry out physical punishment. Yet they could be just as vicious and using their position of privilege within these households could be unreasonably and unnecessarily demanding which contributed to the burdens of slave life. What was particularly ironic about this arrangement is that the false genteel of the South made a big deal of the supposed piety and fragile femininity of these women. In calling attention to this, it drives home the point that these so-called Christians were un-Godly hypocrites.

Some of the men and women are incredibly pious and supposedly Christians but they’re barbarians. They claim moral superiority but then turn around and whip, beat, and otherwise abuse human beings for financial gain. The people are portrayed as being chivalrous and high mannered. Yet, they’re working people to death, abusing people, taking advantage of people, enslaving people, and more. It’s not surprising that people who are okay with enslaving and profiting from the labor of other people would then go to great lengths to try to keep the individuals that they deem as their property in bondage.

The stories that made me shake my head were when individuals or groups of people would be trying to escape and someone they thought was an ally would turn out to be working against them. Instead of helping another human being get to freedom, the traitor would instead try to deliver them back into the hands that sought to keep them in bondage. Reading about someone trying to escape was stressful enough but then imagining the terror of what it must have felt like to realize that someone is working against you had me on the edge of my seat.

The stories of being torn away from family members were heartbreaking. I’ve always felt that this was likely one of the most emotionally damaging aspects of being enslaved. Having to toil and struggle for someone else’s benefit under the threat of violence was bad enough. But to then also deal with the trauma of being torn away from family and loved ones would threaten your most basic resource for comfort. Just imagine a child being torn away from your parents, a parent torn away from your child, a wife or husband torn away from their spouse, or any other combination. It showed how relationships, family ties, friendships, etc could be precarious. There was no guarantee that the people you love and spend your time with today would be around tomorrow.

In escaping you might have to leave your loved ones behind in bondage for a chance at obtaining your freedom and having a shot at freeing your loved ones. It’s easy to say what you would or wouldn’t do without having to face such decisions. But these were people with few options doing what they felt they had to at the time.

It’s like imagine you and I are in quicksand and we’re both trying to escape. If I get the opportunity to get out at the very least we both won’t die but I might also be able to throw you a vine or rope to help to pull you out. It might be scary for me to leave you behind, if even temporarily, but that might be what’s required to help get you to safety. Whereas, if we both remain in the quicksand, we’ll both get pulled under.

We’ve all heard stories about families being broken up because a person has been sold away or sent to work on a distant plantation. But the reality is that having to run away and leave everything behind in the process also tore families apart. This speaks to the horror of slavery in that the system was designed to try to strip the enslaved of everything. Even in trying to secure something as basic as their freedom, they might have to give up their family along with everyone and everything else they might have known in their lives.

It’s infuriating when you read or hear accounts of people back then and even now trying to rewrite history to make it seem like people enjoyed being enslaved. But these testimonies speak to the very human desire for freedom. Because even in the face of all this opposition and having to make incredibly difficult choices and sacrifices some people were still willing to risk everything for freedom.

And yet there’s this incredible sadness because enslaved people who had escaped weren’t fully free. After all, so much of what they loved might still be in bondage. It’s like, imagine your mind and body has crossed the line into freedom and they’re now in what’s regarded as the promised land. But your heart and soul are back in the land of slavery because that’s where your family and loved ones are. To read these accounts is incredibly eye-opening and heart-wrenching at the same time.

But one of the downsides to books like this is that when you have these multiple short stories, they can begin to run together. You don’t have enough time to form a bond with each person that shares their experience so it’s harder to build individual connections. To be quite honest, I couldn’t remember specific names and came to see them as a group rather than as individuals. The only name I remembered was Henry “Box” Brown and that was because I was familiar with him before reading The Underground Railroad Records and the way that he escaped was unique. To be clear, the testimonies were compelling while I was reading them but because they were so short, I’d forget some of the details by the time I moved on to the next account.

But there was one record in particular that stands out in my memory and it wasn’t really because of the person who escaped but rather the aftermath of their escape. There was a man whose last name I think was Green but I can’t remember his first name. He escaped and arrived safely in Canada without any problems along the way but had left his father, mother, and sister behind.

Green’s father was an older man who had previously managed to purchase his freedom and as a free man decided to visit his son in Canada. His goal in visiting Canada was to see for himself that Green was safe and comfortable in his new country. Finding his son and everything in order, he returned home.

He had lived in the area for a long time and having worked as a preacher was generally considered inoffensive and harmless. But his son’s escape drew attention to him from the slave-owning class in the area. When he then visited his son in Canada, they came to regard him with suspicion and began looking for an opportunity to get revenge.

Shortly after his return, some men showed up to search his house and found a copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a map of Canada, and train schedules along with other documents. A group of slaves had recently escaped to Canada and they viewed the items they found as indications that he’d helped them to escape. Pointing to this flimsy “evidence”, they arrested him.

He was put on trial but was found not guilty or at least the charges were dropped for aiding in his son’s and the other slaves’ escape. But, looking for a reason to keep him in prison as punishment, they held up the copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin as being contraband. He was then sentenced to 10 years in prison for having a copy of the book. This showed how ridiculous things were at that time and the precariousness of Black people’s freedom, whether enslaved or free. The fact that a supposedly free Black man could have his home searched, be put on trial, and be sentenced to 10 years in prison for having a book.

It’s unlikely that I will ever join the camp of people who think there are too many movies or television shows being made about slavery or slave narratives. If anything, we need a more accurate telling of these stories in addition to more diverse stories from Black history as well as just the Black experience in general. I think The Underground Railroad Records would make a great television/streaming show or miniseries. And given that these are real stories, such a show might help get people interested in this particular book and maybe broader Black history as well.

The amount of detail that would be needed to do it justice wouldn’t be able to fit into a 2-hour movie. It works pretty well as a book. But some of the book’s shortcomings concerning the flow of the stories and how they can at times run together, with some expansion, could work very well for TV. The stories have a lot of action and drama as well as tension and intensity. You also don’t get detailed physical descriptions of the individuals who are giving testimony but putting faces with the stories could help to better differentiate between the different testimonies.

A few years ago, there was a television show Underground which was about an enslaved couple who escaped and then began working on the Underground Railroad. The two main characters were fictional but came into contact with some of the real participants and conductors on the Underground Railroad. But the show’s creators added some of the typical characteristics of a television show and tropes that are often used when discussing and portraying slavery in the media. A show based on The Underground Railroad Records that instead stripped away all of the nonsense and just focused on telling the stories of these people would be incredible.

The Underground Railroad Records alludes to some of the abuses experienced by enslaved women. Underground the television show addressed it to some degree but in an arguably inaccurate manner. One of the show’s leads had several children, some of whom were the offspring of the slave owner. Yet, the show didn’t portray her interactions with the slave owner as her being abused or raped. Instead, they changed the context of the situation to where she and several of the other enslaved female characters had relationships with slave owners and other slave traders that where if not fully consensual, the woman controlled.

If a man claims to own a woman and assumes complete control and decision-making rights over her body, the man she can love / mate with, her children, and all other matters in her life they are not on equal footing in a relationship. If she is deemed to not have rights to control and ownership over her body with regards to this man or any other man for that matter, how can it be deemed a consensual relationship?

On the show, they are portrayed as seductresses which is quite dangerous because it plays into the stereotypical lies about enslaved Black women. Instead of regarding these encounters and what was being done to enslaved women as rape, they were being accused of seducing these White men. This is part of the origin of the concept of Black people being “over-sexed” where Black women are “un-rapeable” nymphomaniacs seducing slave owners which is the ironic flip side of Black men being portrayed as rapists hell-bent on ravishing White women.

To be clear, I’m not saying that there was never an enslaved woman who seduced a slave owner or there was never an enslaved man who raped a White woman. But rather, if it ever did happen, it was not a frequent or widespread occurrence as portrayed during that time or in the years after slavery for that matter. And books like The Underground Railroad Records are important because they help to tell the other side of the story, casting aside stereotypes and outright lies that are often told to obscure the reality of slavery.

Beyond working in the fields or as a domestic within a house, some enslaved people also learned trades. They might perform these jobs within the household of the person that claimed to own them but could also be hired out to other people in need of their services. The slave owner might hire them out or they might be expected to hire themselves out and all or X amount of the money would go to the person that owned them. I’d heard of that before and it’s bad enough. But learning the additional details that an enslaved person might be expected to provide themselves with clothing, food, medical treatment, etc. out of the money they earned blew my mind.

Most often we hear accounts of people who escaped from slavery because they were being severely mistreated or faced the threat of being sold away. Those stories are terrible but some of the accounts that stood out to me were from people who weren’t being abused. They simply wanted to escape because they were human beings who felt they had a right to liberty like anyone else. Whether they were working in the fields, as a blacksmith, doing laundry, etc. The profit from the work they were doing should have benefitted them and their family. They did not think it was fair to work hard and then have to turn that money over to the slave master.

And really, when you get down to it, does anyone need a reason to want to be free? We should all be the center of our own lives. Nobody was born into this world to live and work for anyone else’s benefit while neglecting our own.

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