Unlike the Black History Month blurbs that petered out as soon as February ended, the legacy of slavery still reverberates. But beyond the vague impressions of oppression and inhumanity are stories that speak to the endurance of the human will in the most trying of circumstances. Author Lorene Cary C’78 G’78, who also teaches creative writing at Penn, sifted through more than 700 accounts of slave-escape from The Underground Railroad, an extensive volume published in Philadelphia in 1872 by abolitionist William Still. The result of her research is Free! Great Escapes from Slavery on the Underground Railroad (Third World Press), a young-adult book featuring 12 of the more stirring tales of flight from bondage. The School District of Philadelphia has ordered 2,000 copies for use in African-American studies courses. (See excerpt here.)
While intended to shed light for younger readers, Free! is also illuminating for adults whose knowledge of slave-escapes may come from a few paragraphs in history books. The Gazette’s Carter Johns C’07 recently spoke with Cary.
What was your intent behind writing Free! ?
It’s written for young people. However, because of the “One Book, One Philadelphia” experience [in 2003, for her first novel The Price of a Child], I talked to a lot of alternative-education sites that included older people who, for various reasons, had up to a sixth-grade reading level. I wanted to write stories that would be like blues, simple language with complicated emotional content. So it’s for young adults, but my hope is that older people can read it and not get bored. What I’m learning is that some parents with even younger children are reading it to them. They edit bits of it, but they want to know those things too, because we don’t learn that stuff.
How were you able to render the complex emotional themes within slavery and liberation through simple words?
I don’t think it’s my words; I think it’s the stories. To pick the right story [from Still’s book] meant that it had to have enough details so you can see it and feel it. Very few of them did, because he would clip this from a newspaper or that from a letter, and he would write an account. But some of the accounts would have the color of somebody’s bow … or the man who was strapped onto the ship and was going up and down for 24 hours, almost drowning each time. Those details give people a sense of how much folks wanted to get out of this. In our age of hype and violence, you know, they have these numbers about how many shots a child has seen by the age of 12; we’re so inured to that. So you don’t have to tell children about the whippings and the rapes and the thumbscrews and the knocking the teeth out. Those things are all true and awful, but way too much for little children.
How did you perform your research and craft the book?
A lot of it I did during The Price of a Child. That required a lot of work at the Library Company of Philadelphia, the Free Library, and the Penn library, mostly with documents that told me about slavery and all the laws so I could understand the institution, the ways we changed it, and all the people who fought against it. Then I read Still’s stuff over and over, getting information that would fill in the gaps. Some was actual legislation or court cases or personal accounts, but most was first-person or primary sources.
How did you filter the 12 stories you used from the 700 in Still’s volume?
The criteria were, first, a successful ending. Everybody had to live. There were some amazing stories that were too tragic for young people. Stories had to be complete, with a beginning, middle, and end. The stories had to give a sense of temperament so a strong sense of character would emerge. The other thing was to find stories that didn’t trigger the African-American overly developed sense of shame, nor the white American overly developed sense of guilt. Then I wanted some diversity, so I had categories of stories: boys and girls, groups and individuals, modes of transportation, whether they had help or did it alone. I wanted much of this to be about African-American people. The book was not supposed to be about all these white people saving Negroes, but a lot of them did, and I wanted to get in some of them. I put in one or two accounts that were familiar so people would say, “I know that,” and then they’d read others and be surprised.
Why was the subject important for you to bring to light?
I wanted an Underground Railroad book that would give a sense of the whole community of people that would be fair to the glory of human diversity. One of the nasty facts of racism is that our culture picks out representative black people in a way that we don’t pick out representative Europeans. Culturally, when we tell stories about ourselves, we’re much more likely to ask what kind of a person was that white person than we are to ask what kind of a person was that black person. If you say he was enslaved, people don’t say, “Was he funny, depressive, mean-spirited, happy?” We just say, “Oh, he was a slave,” and that closes the question. We close the door on his humanity. So it wasn’t just about segregation, it’s about understanding their humanity.
What has been the reception?
So far it’s been very strong. People have been moved by these stories; there’ve been readings where people have cried, or where people have said, “I didn’t think I wanted to hear about it,” but they were open to it.
The other thing that I was happy about was when the North Stars performed it at Arts Sanctuary [a program that Cary runs showcasing African-American arts and letters in North Philadelphia, “Profiles” July/Aug 2000]. Watching those young people’s interpretations of these stories was extraordinary. For instance, a young rapper worked with his mother, a jazz guitarist. He did this wonderful piece where he had these videos behind him of streams and forests and the camera moved like somebody running. His mother was playing off to the side and he was on the stage, gasping and panting, saying, “Can’t turn back now.” I loved that that connection would get into his mind, and the way it was reflected through his media was amazing.