The (Underground) Railroad in African American Literature

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The Underground Railroad has achieved an historic high in its popularity as a site of American history. Its attractiveness lies in a combination of adventure romance, the theme of freedom, and its adaptability to local history. Darcy Zabel’s new book raises questions about railroads, modernism, and stereotypes.
Darcy A. Zabel
Reviewed by Joe Lockard

The Underground Railroad has achieved an historic high in its popularity as a site of American history. The attractiveness of the Underground Railroad lies in a combination of adventure romance, its theme of freedom, and its adaptability to local history. Most county historical societies east of the Mississippi – including in a significant number of former slave states – can locate sites associated with the Underground Railroad, and so can a number in Texas and California. As grade school students tour local or regional sites, an entire new imaginative geography of history emerges as the romantic ghosts of fugitive slaves endlessly steal away into freedom.

Cover image with Robert West's 'Black Thunder'This is an appealing vision, especially because it invites a multiracial United States to join in African American history and to recognize within that history a major origin of contemporary US ideological emphasis on individual freedom. The stories that emerge from the new re-telling of the Underground Railroad create a counter-history of national unification, one that emphasizes pursuit of freedom as part of the US national character. There is undeniable appeal to that counter-history, and even some truth. It is due to this comparative ideological palatability that the US Congress has provided appropriations to sponsor the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, yet it has never funded a national historical museum on slavery.

The problem with employing the Underground Railroad as a national ideal is that it constitutes misrepresentation of a larger history. Although it is a contested number, like many numbers associated with slavery, from 1850-1860 only an estimated 10,000 fugitives escaped via Underground Railroad routes. By contrast, approximately four million slaves were emancipated as a result of the Civil War. A marginal fraction of one percent of enslaved African Americans, most from border states such as Maryland or Kentucky, were able to effect escapes from slavery. This was a crucially important group in the history of US slavery, since the aggravation caused to Southern slave-holders helped keep the issue boiling and gave rise to the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. Moreover, the existence of the Underground Railroad was an incomparably important symbol of African American communal resistance and hope.

It remains, however, deceptive sleight-of-hand to substitute the history of a relatively small fugitive population for the histories of the overwhelming mass to African Americans who remained in slavery. There is an identifiable rhetorical politics of white privilege that offers long overdue honors to select historic black figures from in order to continue overlooking the condition of the mass of African Americans, both past and present. If we tell the dramatic adventures of a few, then we do not have to spend overmuch time discussing the everyday harshness endured by the many. This approach contributes nothing to either accurate knowledge or social and racial justice.

There is another contemporary agenda at work. Stories of the Underground Railroad are re-told as a meeting point between blacks and whites, one where they worked together in a common project in behalf of freedom. While this has its contemporary political advantage towards fostering a multicultural consciousness, it creates another historical distortion. In fact, the great majority of fugitives relied on assistance from free black communities and especially black churches. White assistance, while always present and of instrumental help — sometimes even heroic, as with figures like Isaac Hopper, Seth Concklin, Thomas Garrett, or Passmore Williamson — represented a minority. Even Quaker abolitionists reported being isolated by the disapprobation of the majority within their congregations. This assistance created a deep reciprocal set of black-white friendships, one that had abiding consequences for interracial US politics. Philadelphia’s major Underground Railroad manager, William Still, wrote in praise of the white widow Abigail Goodwin, who wore ragged dresses in order to save money for fugitives, that “She worked for the slave as a mother would work for her children. Her highest happiness and pleasure in life seemed to be derived from rendering acts of kindness to the oppressed.” Nothing of this changed the fact that African American fugitives looked first to their own community for shelter and assistance.

A critical appreciation of the role of the Underground Railroad emphasizes its primary location within African American history. Darcy Zabel’s The (Underground) Railroad in African American Literature, as its title indicates, locates the Underground Railroad exactly at this juncture. Her work is especially important because it provides a first elaboration of an historically-based motif that traces the emergence of African American modernism through technology. Two images instantiate the development of that motif. The first appears in William Still’s 1872 volume The Underground Railroad, where appears an illustration of John Thompson engaged in an 1857 escape from Alabama to Virginia, then northwards. Thompson effected his escape by hanging onto the roofs of railway cars at night and concealing himself in the woods by day. The second appears in Zabel’s choice of a cover image, Robert West’s “Black Thunder,” that features a streamlined locomotive roaring through the early dusk, full of unstoppable speed and power. In that initial image, a wily black fugitive is hanging on atop a white-driven train; in the second image, the train itself has become black and an apparent force to itself. It is these transitions between simultaneous metaphors and histories attaching to railroads and African Americans that Zabel explores so well.

African American and railroad histories are intertwined, as Zabel points out. The nineteenth-century American railroad was a symbol of progress for all, not only the white commercial elites who profited most from the growth of railroad systems. Moreover, railroads represented a symbolic contest between Northern industrialism and Southern agrarianism: Southerners frequently viewed railroads as potential infringement on states rights no less than the outlawing of slavery proposed by abolitionist “ultras”.

Railroad trains began to appear in both gospel music and antislavery songs as a symbol of freedom and progress. Metaphorical railroads became literal when fugitives took them northwards to Canada, aided by Underground Railroad agents and supporters. When the Civil War arrived, the same railroad tracks provided means for Union troops to invade the South and suppress its rebellion. The railroad was a two-way deliverer of freedom.

Railroads became the site of contest during the Reconstruction between resurgent forces of white racism and black demand for equal accommodation. This was a contest decided by the end of Reconstruction, an 1889 Interstate Commerce Commission decision permitting segregation, and eventually the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case. The very definitions of ‘race’ and social equality, since Homer Plessy was a very light-skinned black man who made a test case by choosing to sit in a whites-only car, came to be decided on the railroad.

In the early twentieth century, railroads provided Southern blacks with an escape route in the form of ‘Exodus trains’ that provided low-cost transport to jobs created by labor shortages during World War I. The flight of African Americans from the South became so heavy that some states passed Jim Crow laws banning “Negro migration” and giving local authorities powers to remove black passengers from trains. Pullman porters became the new symbols of black upwards mobility, as well as assisting in the Great Migration northwards.

Zabel’s project lies less in re-telling this social history; it lies more in examining its re-visioning through such historic and mythic figures as Harriet Tubman and John Henry. Tubman has attracted some excellent recent scholarship in Kate Gifford Larson’s Bound for the Promised Land biography (Ballentine, 2004) and Jean Humez’s Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories (University of Wisconsin Press, 2003). Zabel, however, is able to trace a line of literary treatments of Tubman, who has for the last several decades been the subject of unending juvenalization. Many of these youth books have been predictable re-tellings of Tubman’s biography, although some like Faith Ringgold’s Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky (1992) have made appealing use of historical materials and motifs. Zabel’s discussion includes Leon Forrest’s novel There is a Tree More Ancient than Eden (1973), Robert Hayden’s poem “Runagate Runagate” (1960), and Nikki Giovanni’s “One More Boxcar” (1999), all of which use Tubman and trains, creating a symbolic lineage.

The John Henry chapter treats the encounter of black men and machines embodied within his legend. The John Henry legend emerges from a variety of sources and there is controversy as to whether the story even related to a railroad man, since in some telling he was a cotton-picker. Zabel takes issue with the view that John Henry’s development since his character’s major emergence in the 1930s has been from a medieval Everyman to an African American cultural hero. Instead, she argues that a symbolic order that locates John Henry alongside such regional legends as Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan engages in making black masculinity ‘safe’ for the American public. A more convincing cultural location, she suggests, would be in popular re-telling that converted Roark Bradford’s racist novel John Henry (1931) from a cotton-picking man to a steel-driving man, one who refuted white assumptions about both black technological capacities and technology itself. James Baldwin’s Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone (1968) with its gay character of Leo Proudhammer carried this contrarian tradition forward by drawing on the John Henry legend to re-imagine the role of black masculinity in shattering of stereotypes, and Colson Whitehead’s John Henry Days (2001) continues that critical engagement with stereotypes of African American men.

In Zabel’s final chapter of Albert Murray’s novel Train Whistle Guitar (1974) she writes “black men and women, and students of African American literature need not be railroaded into an acceptance of any stereotypes about black life in America, even when those stereotypes are reinforced by the well-intentioned inclusion of black slave narratives into textbooks or history courses that focus on the repeated victimization of minorities in America.” Railroad trains – whether of the underground or above-ground variety – have been repeatedly employed to break such stereotypes, particularly where modernism itself has been stereotyped as white.

Published by Peter Lang.

Joe Lockard is assistant professor of English at Arizona State University. He teaches early American and African American literatures.

Copyright © 2005 by Joe Lockard. All rights reserved.

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