Reading Is Fundamental

I had planned to bring 3 books on my vacation to continue my education about what it means to be Black in America, which I have been neglecting. I wanted to finish 2 books I had already started, Toni Morrison’s The Source of Self-Regard, and Some of my Friends Are… by Deborah Plummer, PhD. The 3rd book I found when it was referenced in another book I was reading, as in, all Black people know or should know this book — Drylongso: A Portrait of Black America by John Langston Gwaltney. Drylongso is such an interesting word that I never heard before. It’s considered an African American idiom that means the average African American way of being, doing, and thinking. I saw the word again from the Boston chapter Of Community Change Inc., which gives a Drylongso Award to everyday anti-racism activists. And just now, I discovered there is a movie called Drylongso. I’ll have to check that out.

Anywho, the books sound great, right? Except that about 30 minutes into the trip, too far to turn back, I realized I had forgotten to pack all of them. Shit. Luckily, I don’t mind reading on my phone, which I know a lot of people think is crazy. I actually read the Count of Monte Cristo, which clocks in at 640 paper pages, on my phone. Bring it on!

True confessions, I was in vacation mode, so did I look for electronic versions of the books I forgot? Of course not. I defaulted to historical romance, but the universe was looking out for me. I wanted something well-written — I do have my writer’s pride — and in a recommended list, I came across an author’s name I was familiar with, Beverly Jenkins. I have written before about how much I have learned about how free Black people lived in the 1800s from reading her romance novels. I thought I had read them all, but this title was new to me, Indigo. I borrowed it from the library and downloaded it. Phew. One book down. Then the next day, I got a notice that a book I had been waiting for (I had been 47th in line) was ready for download, yay! Whatever happened to all those people in line before me, I don’t know and I don’t care. To be on vacation without books is unthinkable. Sacrifices must be made. I had two solid books to get me started.

The main characters in Indigo are conductors on the Underground Railroad in Michigan. I’m fairly sure we did not cover the Underground Railroad when I was in school, and all I really know is what I learned from the Harriet Tubman movie. There was only the focus on the Civil War, and the Underground Railroad was active long before that. And we focused on the battles and how the war was fought, but precious little about why it was fought, and the human beings who were at stake. So that leaves a knowledge gap as big as the length of the Mississippi River.

From Indigo, I learned that most Black slaves who got as far as Michigan got a choice to stay in the “free” north or head to Canada. Because slaves are smart people, nearly all of them chose to go to Canada, which as part of the British Empire abolished slavery in 1834. Like really abolished it, not, “abolish” it and then enact 40eleven laws that undermine the rights of Black people. The Fugitive Slave Act, which was passed in 1793 and strengthened in 1850, pretty much ensured no Black person was safe in the U.S., if indeed they ever were. Slave catchers could kidnap any Black person, whether they were born free or had been freed legally or even if they had escaped and had been living free for years. The kidnapped slaves were brought before a judge who would decide on their case. But the judges received $10 for every Black person they sent back to slavery (because of all the “paperwork” and extra expense to send them south) and $5 if they sided with the Black person and their freedom. So how do you think that worked out?

Canada, if you could get there, and the south if you couldn’t.

According to Wikipedia (trust, but verify — I double checked the footnote), “Estimates vary widely, but at least 30,000 enslaved people, and potentially more than 100,000, escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad.The largest group settled in Upper Canada (Ontario), called Canada West from 1841.[36] Numerous Black Canadian communities developed in Southern Ontario.”

That is a lot of people heading into Canada, and I had no idea whatsoever. And I can have a bit of a feel good moment reading about these everyday heroes, sheltering runaway slaves and moving them on to the next station until they are free. But here’s the thing. In 1860, the census recorded 3,953,762 slaves, which is very close to the population of Los Angeles today, or the population of the entire state of New York in 1860. That’s a big number, and if I do a little math, I realize only about 1.6 % were able to escape.

The other thing I love about Beverly Jenkins is she lists many of the books she used as sources for her story. In this one she called out a book by William Still, Underground Railroad. First published in 1872, it’s a collection of recorded narratives of how the people escaped from slavery in the 1850s. Still was born to a free father and fugitive slave mother who had to leave several of her children behind in slavery. This was fairly common as I understand it. We talk all the time about sacrificing for freedom, but we have no idea what that actually means. She did escape with Still and he became a clerk at the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society. There he recorded the stories of the slaves who came through to freedom. It’s fascinating, upsetting, and ultimately a testament to how much a human will endure to be free. The narratives record the name, age, and description of the person, how they felt about being a slave and their treatment, and briefly how they escaped. The entries also include letters the newly freed slaves wrote back to Still from Canada, thanking him and saying they were safe. (there is also a PBS documentary about William Still.)

The details are important. It’s easy for me to hear the word “slavery” and think of it as a giant, bitter, sweeping kind of thing that happened to other people long ago. More compelling is to read these individual stories of escape, often in the person’s own words. Here are a just a few examples of what people had to endure to be free. Kinda makes all the COVID precautions seem easy, doesn’t it?

William Peel, 25. William put himself in a box with straw and shipped himself by steamer to Philadelphia. During the trip he couldn’t stretch out, he got cramps, fainted for a time, and then suffered through a freezing chill. When he arrived in Sunday, he had to wait several more hours for his friend to come get him because freight was not usually delivered on Sundays. All the while, any indication that he was in the box would give him away and he’d be sent back. He was in the box for 17 hours.

William H. Gilliam, 25, and James Mercer, 32. William and James stowed away in a steamer near the boiler, “where the heat and coal dust were almost intolerable,” and there was little air and no light. They took turns navigating a narrow space to get a few minutes of fresh air.

Clarissa Davis, 22. Clarissa from Portsmouth, VA, hid in a coop for two and a half months, just a few weeks shorter than the Massachusetts shut down. When she finally received word she could stow away, she dressed as a man to disguise herself, and then was placed in a box for the trip to Philadelphia.

Anthony Blow. Anthony had tried to escape 3 other times and was beaten and shot. He hid for 10 months and continued to try to find a way to the Underground Railroad. It’s not like they posted signs and he had already lost $30 to a man who claimed he could help him on the railroad, but just absconded with the money. When he finally was able to hide on a steamer, the trip should have taken a day, but weather and other delays turned the trip into 8 days.

A similar book I was able to download is called Bullwhip Days: The Slaves Remember, and oral history edited by James Mellon. I haven’t started that one yet, but I was able to get both for free on the Boston Public Library supported Hoopla platform.

My two weeks off from work helped me pay less attention to COVID and remember that reading is always virus free, whether it’s an oral history or a historical romance, and I learned a thing or two, just like the Reading is Fundamental (RIF) people promised. If you remember the the RIF character, you’ll enjoy this PSA from 1973.




  1. Thanks Chrissy! I don’t think I have–I will add to my list! And thanks for the free link! I am in the middle of Drylongso and it is fascinating and very eye opening.

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