Tag Archives: slavery

The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

Underground RailroadHer mother ran away when Cora was still a little girl, leaving her to fend for herself on the Randall plantation. After a few years had toughened her, Caesar asked her to escape with him on the Underground Railroad. At first, Cora said no, but when she shielded a little boy from a beating, and was beaten and whipped as a punishment, they waited for an opportunity to flee. It was not that simple, though. Even slaves who escaped their masters could not walk freely in the United States, and each destination brought new horrors and unimagined dangers.

Whitehead portrays the Underground Railroad as an actual railway with stations in cellars and caverns, and rails that run under our feet for thousands of miles. His narrative spans Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and Indiana, and each state highlights a different facet of the huge, tentacled evil of slavery. The scene in Georgia is the one that most of us picture: a large plantation with slave cabins and cotton fields. However, as she travels, Cora sees medical experimentation, forced sterilization, lynchings, and relentless pursuit by slave catchers. White people who shelter runaways or even speak about abolition are in mortal danger, as well. As escaped slaves and free blacks move north, those towns grumble about the incoming wave of blacks, and begin to segregate their businesses and cooperate with the slave hunters. Cora finds herself in a never-ending struggle to break free.

The Underground Railroad has recently won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. I have always considered the Pulitzer and the National Book Award to be the most dependable prizes for real readers. Except for Hilary Mantel’s novels, the Booker Prize seems to go to the “Most Esoteric” works of literature, and the Nobel Prize winners can be equally obscure. Others are narrow in focus, such as the Edgar and the Hugo. However, starting with Annie Dillard’s A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (General Nonfiction, 1975), I have read through many Pulitzer Prize winners with great appreciation, and Whitehead’s latest is no exception. It is by turns tragic, hopeful, breathless, horrifying, and beautiful, and reading it should disabuse anyone of the belief that legality and morality are synonymous. Any law that makes it legal for one human being to hold the power of life and death over another human being warps our society so that even those who do not participate, but only make the laws or vote for them, perhaps those who approve of the laws or help to enforce them, or even perhaps those who do or say nothing to fight for those who are weak and perishing are complicit in the same evil.

Very highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Amazing Grace, by Eric Metaxas

As you know if you’ve been paying attention, I reviewed Eric Metaxas’ biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer last year around this time. After I read Bonhoeffer, I bought it, which is my typical order of business (I never buy a bad book that way), and while I was at it, I bought a couple of books by Bonhoeffer himself, plus Metaxas’ other biography, one about William Wilberforce.

Image Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery was timed to coincide with the movie that was coming out to commemorate the bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade in England in 1807. Let me tell you, even though I have always had an interest in Wilberforce, I could not make it through that movie. I tried twice, and I somehow came away with the impression that William Wilberforce was sanctimonious, tortured, and boring.

How delighted I was that Mr. Metaxas returned my hero to me. In actuality, Wilberforce was cheerful and witty and had crowds of friends and admirers. To be sure, he was a serious Christian, scandalizing his nominally Anglican parents by becoming Methodist in a day when the word “Methodist” might as well have meant “radical terrorist.” Religious fervor of any kind was frowned upon by the upper classes, just as it is today, and Wilberforce’s parents encouraged him to party hearty and ignore his education as much as possible. Just meet all the right people and move in all the right circles.

Happily, Wilberforce’s aunt and uncle were not so inclined. They were devout Methodists and introduced young William to the luminaries of the evangelical movement of the time, including John Newton, a former slaver who wrote the beloved song that gives this book its title. Although he continued to stray throughout his adolescence, after his early graduation from Cambridge and astoundingly young election to parliament, Wilberforce came under the influence once again of religious intellectuals, and in his twenties he underwent what he always called the “Great Change.” From that time forward, he devoted his life to “two great objects: the suppression of the Slave Trade and the reformation of manners.”

“The reformation of manners” may sound trivial to us today, but, as Metaxas describes, Wilberforce lived in a society where the masses would witness bear baiting, bull baiting, hangings, burnings, and public human dissections. These were considered entertaining to the lower classes and instructional to would-be criminals. Wilberforce put forth bills to stop the burning of convicted female prisoners, but they failed, since the other MPs couldn’t see the harm. After all, the women were already dead by hanging. He also introduced a bill to have the corpses of the men sold to scientists, rather than publicly dissected, but the MPs thought that the horror of dissection would be a deterrent to crime that couldn’t be achieved in a private laboratory. Eventually, Wilberforce was able to enact some laws that he felt would stop the coarsening of society, and that he hoped would, in time, curb the violent tendencies of the crowds of London.

As for his most famous achievement, Wilberforce introduced a bill to stop the slave trade every year for twenty years before it passed. You may be thinking that there couldn’t have been that many slaves in England, and you would be right, but remember the saying, “The sun never sets on the British Empire.” In those days, the British controlled possessions all over the globe, and there were 800,000 African slaves in the West Indies working on sugar plantations. Wilberforce and his friends, who lived in a community called Clapham, showed the members of Parliament the diagrams of the terribly crowded slave ships and described the diseases and death that awaited a large proportion of the kidnapped Africans. They appealed to the ministers’ sense of morality, asking whether one person can rightfully own another human being. They were winning more and more of the members to their side, and it looked as if abolition would win the day.

Then came the French Revolution. As the cries of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité! rang out from their ancient enemy, the English people decided that they wanted nothing that smacked of the values of this violent movement. In their minds, the abolition of slavery, which would hurt the British landowners and aristocracy in the New World, was equated with the execution of the nobles and royalty in France. It was absurd, but it went on for years. Thousands upon thousands of slaves died horrible deaths because the British House of Lords and House of Commons self-righteously clung to tradition, rather than looking at the reality of slavery. Lest you think this never happens today, look at how the moral outrage of abortion has become tangled up in women’s rights. Every single day in America, we take 52,000 of our own children, rip their limbs off, poison them, burn them, suck out their brains, and push them down industrial garbage disposals. Most of them are little girls. How can we self-righteously ignore the fact of their deaths in the name of any political right? But we do. And they did.

Well, as you may know, Wilberforce hung in there and was able to pass the abolition of the slave trade after twenty years of work. He and his friends believed that when the plantation owners realized that there were no more slaves to be purchased, they would treat the ones they had better, rather than work them to death as they had previously. Unfortunately, this was not the case, and so they pushed even more boldly for the abolition of slavery altogether. This did not come to pass until mere days before Wilberforce’s death, but he was tremendously blessed to be one of the few who live to see their fondest dream come to fruition.

Woven into this narrative of England’s abolition of slavery a full generation before America’s Civil War are tales of Wilberforce’s friendships and his marriage. He was a tiny, little man and did not marry until he was 37, when he fell in love at first sight with his 20-year-old wife, Barbara, with whom I greatly sympathize because she was a happy, wonderful wife but a miserable hostess. The Wilberforces had famous people passing through their house at all hours, and the family was always in chaos. Cheerful, loving chaos, but enough that people noticed and commented to others about it. Barbara bore six healthy children in quick succession, and soon they had to move to the country in order to have more space. This did not stop the Claphamites, who merely widened the circumference of their community. Wilberforce was in the center of it all, laughing, singing, and working, always working.

So that you will know how enjoyable reading a biography by Mr. Metaxas can be, I will share with you a part of his passage describing the wedding and estrangement of George IV, when he was Prince of Wales, and Princess Caroline of Brunswick. Neither of them was pure as the driven snow, and they hated one another heartily right from the start, but the Prince decided to marry because he needed to pay off his atrocious gambling debts, and he would receive a greater income if he were married.

Though there are likely worse reasons to marry, few leap to mind. The prince arrived drunk at the royal wedding, and things tobogganed speedily downhill from there. He made no secret of finding his bride stout and tedious, not to say hygienically unschooled. Nor did Caroline think her lothario prince much in the way of a catch either. … But a daughter was born the following year, at which point the unhappy couple bade each other adieu and accelerated in opposite directions. Caroline eventually settled in Italy, like seeds in an appendix, and the prince remained in England to return to the never-ending fox hunt, as it were. (Page 257.)

ImageThis is an informative, solid biography, and I have only been able to touch on the barest surface in this review. At less than 300 pages of Mr. Metaxas’ witty writing, it is certainly an accessible read, and I was happy to revive the character of one of my heroes. However, Amazing Grace is not the masterpiece that Bonhoeffer is. The latter work was a life-changing book for me, even though I knew about Dietrich Bonhoeffer before I read it. So take your pick: the Brit or the German, the 19th or the 20th century, slavery or Nazis. I say: take them both.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. My opinions are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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