Two streams of media combined for me in the last few days. I finished reading The Underground Railroad last week, and I found The Year of Jubilo on Dust to Digital. Both brought an immediacy to some of what I’ve been thinking and learning about my country and the South in the years before (and during) the Civil War.
The Underground Railroad dramatizes the already-dramatic-enough role that some Southerners played in helping escaped slaves to safer (but not safe) destinations in the North, by mythologizing it. Sort of.
Colson Whitehead preserves a lot of things that really happened in the Underground Railroad, such as concealing runaways in attics and under haybales in wagons, but mythologizes the motivating spirit by envisioning a vast, mysterious underground network of tunnels with real trains running beneath barns and sheds. When Cora the runaway slave asks in astonishment “Who built it?,” the reply comes “Who builds anything in this country?” “Who do you think made it? Who makes everything?”
The unspoken secret: We built it. We built everything in this country. As Whitehead’s messianic Lander says later in the book, “Black hands built the White House.” The secret Whitehead tells is that the Underground Railroad wasn’t made up of well meaning whites with their attics and trap doors; it was built by the slaves themselves who decided they would fight for their freedom.
The flip side of that self determination? “The Year of Jubilo.” This is a Civil War song, written in 1862 by Henry Clay Work as “Kingdom Coming,” and familiar to fans of Tex Avery by its inclusion as the tune whistled by the “Confederate wolf” in “The Three Little Pups.”
Knowing it’s a Civil War era tune doesn’t exactly prepare modern ears for the lyrics. Even without the dialect, lines like “Say, darkies, have you seen the massa with the moustache on his face” are jarring to modern ears. But listening closer, the inversion that the song depicts, with the master running away from the arrival of the “Lincoln gunboats” and pretending to be a runaway slave himself to await capture, while the slaves avail themselves of his wine, is a different facet of the Civil War experience and captures part of the feeling that the world was turning upside down.