The Year of Jubilo

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.

“Well, God is in his heaven, and we all want what’s his…”

Somehow in the past fifteen years I’ve been blogging (!), I missed writing about “Blind Willie McTell.” Ever. This despite the fact that the song made the playlist of one of the first mixtapes I ever made back in 1991. And I don’t know that I ever connected the dots on the song’s meaning, in all that time, beyond the vague sense of prophetic dread conveyed by the slowly more intense vocal and piano performance.

It’s twenty-five years since I put that mix tape together, and I’ve spent the last few years feeling as though “this land is condemned.” If the response to the Obama presidency has taught me anything, it’s that slavery was the original sin of this land, and that its repercussions still play out today. So on the heels of writing about the Underground Railroad in my town, about misattribution of black collegiate spirituals by white a cappella performers, about the bureaucracy of slavery, of carefree use of the symbols of the Confederacy a hundred (or 150) years after the end of the Civil War, and of minstrelsy, listening closely to the song again bears dividends.

And I am left feeling that amid revival tents, amid the attempts to dress up the past betrayed by cheap hooch, and despite the otherwise redemptive charge of the blues, we are left with this: an arrow in the doorpost, the ghosts of slavery ships, and the promise of our life in these United States undercut by power, greed, and the inevitable corruption and decay of our descendants.

Lexington, Massachusetts and the Underground Railroad

I mentioned a year ago in passing that our new house in Lexington, Massachusetts was on the site of the old Robbins house, rumored to be a former Underground Railroad station. This week as I thought about the Civil Rights movement, I wondered about the Underground Railroad in Lexington and did a little more research.

Judging from the National Park Service’s list of sites on the Underground Railroad by state, there aren’t any NPS-listed sites in Lexington on the UR, though Concord’s Wayside House was. In fact, the town’s historic places brochure only lists the Robbins House as an Underground Railroad site.

The stronger, historically verifiable association is between Lexington and abolition. The grandson of Minuteman John Parker, the abolitionist minister Theodore Parker, lived at the Parker homestead, formerly located at 187 Spring Street; he was not only outspoken on abolition but was one of the Secret Six who funded John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. But my immediate neighborhood has a strong claim to being an epicenter of abolitionism in Lexington. The Stone Building, located two doors down Mass Ave from us, often hosted speakers on various topics, including abolition. Next door, Follen Church, whose first minister was the abolitionist Charles Follen, frequently hosted abolitionist messages from the pulpit.

So there may be no firm documentary evidence of an Underground Railroad site in Lexington, on my property or not, but there is certainly plenty of evidence that I live in a historic hotbed of  abolitionist thinking.

The machinery of slavery

Out of the Box: Virginia Untold: Certificates of Importation. Out of the Box, the blog of the archives of the Library of Virginia, has consistently been one of my favorite reads for the windows it offers into the state – er, commonwealth – of my birth. And, honestly, into the past of our nation. Today’s post, by Greg Crawford, is a good illustration of why.

What is both fascinating and revolting about the history of slavery (and its descendants, white supremacy and institutionalized racism) is the level of legal, statutory, bureaucratic, and judicial machinery required to keep the enslavement of human beings “orderly” and “civil.” The example in this post, certificates of importation, were a bureaucratic invention that sought to ensure compliance with the law barring importation of slaves for sale into Virginia. Said law was enacted in 1778, not for humanitarian reasons, but apparently to ensure that England and British ships would not profit from the slave trade during the Revolutionary War.

(It’s worth noting that the original draft of the bill would have explicitly linked the barring of importation of slaves to the suppression of slavery more broadly. The final language of the bill contained no such linkage.)

An exception in the 1778 law permitted slave owners permanently relocating to Virginia to import their slaves to the commonwealth, provided they swore an oath that they did not intend to sell any of them. The oath became part of a legal document, the certificate of importation, that provided names, ages, and physical descriptions of the slaves, where they were acquired, and from where they were being relocated. The certificate was filed in court. (The Library of Virginia is in the process of digitizing these court documents, and they’ve made a spreadsheet of the digitized records.) If a slave was illegally brought into the commonwealth, they could sue for their freedom; the presence of the certificate of importation was a closed door to a slave seeking to escape an unfair master, but failure to file the paperwork gave the slave grounds to file a freedom suit.

To summarize: slaves imported into Virginia had to have paperwork documented by a local magistrate containing an oath from their owner and filed in their county courthouse so that they were in compliance with a Revolutionary War era law preventing British profiteering, and the absence of such paperwork allowed a slave to sue for freedom. The amount of bureaucracy devoted to the peculiar institution, of which this is only a small piece, must have been completely mindboggling. And it gives me a renewed appreciation for the artifacts of history.