Escape to Freedom Analysis
by Ossie Davis

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Escape to Freedom Analysis

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

Escape to Freedom works on several important levels. As history, it challenges some assumptions about American slavery. Literature for young people often ignores the key questions of this period in U.S. history in an attempt to avoid villainizing Southern slaveholders. Davis’ work, however, clearly demonstrates and states that the system dehumanized both the slave and the master. Moral issues arise in each scene as the various characters attempt to find comfortable explanations for the actions that they must take. Sophia has difficulty reconciling the contradictions between her Christian beliefs and her responsibility to her husband and community. The play suggests that, for many slaveholders and supporters of the system, the question of morality was overshadowed by the need for economic stability, and that stability was based on the continuation of slavery.

Escape to Freedom pulls no punches in its depiction of American racism, but it also tells the audience that, even during this harsh period in history, liberation was achieved through interracial cooperation. At every step of his journey to freedom, young Fred was helped by sympathetic individuals of both races.

The playwright presents young Fred Bailey as an avid student, learning from books but also taking his lessons from life. When he and Jethro are reprimanded by a female slave for stealing the master’s fruit, Jethro tells her that the fruit is his to eat by right, since it is the work of slaves that produced the harvest. In the next scene, Fred overhears his master claiming that “the worst thing you can do for a slave . . . is to teach him to read.” From this statement, Fred begins to unravel what he calls “the greatest puzzle,” how white people are able to keep black people enslaved. He determines that as long as Africans are kept ignorant to the ways of the West, they will always be slaves.

In the fourth scene, Fred learns another important lesson in how slaves are controlled when, on holidays, they are encouraged to dance, sing, and get drunk. “The slave masters knew,” he says, “. . . that if they could keep us singing and dancing and cutting the fool like a bunch of idiots we wouldn’t be angry anymore—would lose our desire to fight back—to escape.” From these and other situations, young Fred learns that to escape a bad situation, one must first understand it. Liberation is achieved only when the individual stays...

(The entire section is 612 words.)