How to be a runaway slave in 2007
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There's something very American about slave narratives. Nothing testifies to the resilience and ingenuity of a once-enslaved people like first-person accounts detailing a harrowing run to freedom.
Besides the emotional adrenaline these narratives provide, they also contradict the lingering national myth that the evils of slavery were greatly exaggerated.
David Blight's "A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom" is the latest entry in the expanding literature of slave narratives.
The prologue to Mr. Blight's book about ex-slaves Wallace Turnage and John Washington opens with a well-known quote by Frederick Douglass that sums up the dilemma of staying versus running:
"No man can tell the intense agony which is felt by the slave when wavering on the point of making his escape. All that he has is at stake; and even that which he has not is at stake also. The life which he has may be lost, and the liberty which he seeks, may not be gained."
Because the slave's quest for freedom violated all of society's norms, self-emancipation was considered an unforgiveable sin along with education, political autonomy and a spirituality that dared to challenge white supremacy.
It wasn't just white folks who considered runaway slaves ingrates; there were plenty of blacks who resented those who were willing to follow the northern star beyond the familiar confines of plantation life. More than a few escapes were foiled by "faithful servants" for whom freedom was an unconscionable burden.
While reading David Blight's book, I thought about the men and women for whom one more day in slavery was too appalling a fate to imagine.
Wallace Turnage and John Washington had a different outlook on life than their contemporaries who feared the possibilities of freedom more than the dismal certainties of slavery.
Ninety years after both runaways died, the tension between those who wanted freedom enough to risk their lives to obtain it and those who were fine with diminished circumstances continues to work itself out in the politics of the black community.
Chattel slavery officially ended in America in April 1865, but it gave birth to a century of Jim Crow, an era of legalized discrimination straight out of the slave plantation handbook.
Today, there's a lot of debate within and outside the African-American community about the cumulative legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.
How many generations have to pass before the iron fist of white racism ceases to be an excuse for black failure? How many generations had to pass before the Irish were considered "white" and Jews were allowed to enroll in Ivy League schools with no regard to quotas?
There are more middle- and upper-class African Americans today than there have ever been in the history of this country. Still, the percentage of those who occupy the bottom rungs of the nation's socio-economic ladder is an indictment of both structural racism and black complacency.
What would Wallace Turnage and John Washington make of the indifference of black students to education when so many of their antebellum contemporaries risked their lives to learn the rudiments of reading and writing?
For black folks, life in 19th-century America was far more horrific and stressful than anything the 21st century can throw at us; but for the sake of argument, let's imagine that the American underclass and slavery are analogous. If written today, a runaway slave narrative might deal with the misery of lower class black life this way:
"My name is D'shaun. My mother was 14 when she had me. She dropped out of ninth grade and has never had a job that could pay the rent. My pops was too immature to face up to his responsibilities like a man. He's so good at 'keepin' it real' he'll be in jail for the next 25 years for armed robbery.
"Every day, I run to school through a gauntlet of dope dealers and gangbangers. Everyone -- including the teachers -- want me to stop raising my hand in class and asking questions. They say 'real niggas' know better than to act like they're white.
"I could care less about Biggie or Tupac. They're dead. My heroes are alive and providing for their families. I admire Dr. Ben Carson, the pediatric neurosurgeon who grew up poor in inner-city Detroit. I figure that if he could become a doctor, so can I.
"So I keep running to and from the library. I'm running for my life because the alternative is jail, the morgue or spending the rest of my days in this godforsaken neighborhood dodging crackheads.
"They say I'm stuck up because I don't hang out on the corners. That's because I know the doors of opportunity are closing and white folks couldn't care less about propping it open for me. I'm going to keep running because I have no choice.
"I'm going to keep running until I'm dead."
First Published December 4, 2007 12:00 am