Get on Board Analysis
One of Haskins’ intentions in his book is to recognize the active role of African Americans in the history of the United States. On a couple of occasions, he states directly that most historical accounts have been written from a white point of view, and he wants to remedy this situation. One could say that Haskins wants to rewrite American history from a black perspective, and the story of fugitive slaves is a logical point of departure for such an enterprise. For example, Haskins observes that the first person to die in the events leading up to the revolutionary war was Crispus Attucks, an escaped slave who was killed in 1770 in the Boston Massacre. Haskins relates this anecdote in order to compel the reader to think of the American Revolution as something other than a rebellion by white colonists of European descent. The revolutionary war was also the beginning of organized abolition movements. Haskins further forces the reader to question the generally accepted version of American history by calling to attention the racist attitudes of a famous white American who is usually considered to be the hero of the revolutionary war: He notes that George Washington complained in 1786 about the Quakers, who had helped one of his slaves escape to freedom.
Haskins mentions numerous forgotten books, many of them narratives written by escaped slaves who participated in the Underground Railroad. He cites so many such books that Get on Board becomes something of a history about the writing of the history of the Underground Railroad. Haskins tries to re-create the dramatic circumstances that led certain escaped slaves to write their memoirs, thereby encouraging his reader to read these primary historical texts. For example, he cites Wilbur H. Siebert’s The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom (1898) as a source of maps of the Underground Railroad. Haskins also tells how the publication of the autobiographical The Rev. J. W. Loguen as a Slave and as a Freeman (1859) led to Loguen’s being located by his former owner. Haskins then reproduces long excerpts from letters between Loguen and the owner, each accusing the other of Christian hypocrisy. Haskins quotes a long passage from Reminiscence (1876), by Levi Coffin, the “President of the Underground Railroad,” which offers a realistic account of how the author was occasionally awakened by fugitive slaves, to whom he would offer food and lodging.
Haskins acknowledges that his own book is really an effort to revitalize interest in contemporary accounts of his subject matter when he recognizes William Still’s Underground Railroad Records (1872) as the first history of the Underground Railroad. Still was one of the leaders of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee and kept its records. It is clear that the first step in Haskins’ attempt to rewrite American history from a black perspective is simply to recognize the already existing tradition of African American writers, dating back to America’s colonial era and proceeding through the times of slavery. Ironically, the immediate popularity of these slave narratives resulted in increased danger to the remaining slaves who were contemplating escape. Frederick Douglass complained in his autobiography My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) that many abolitionists had unwittingly compromised slaves by alerting slaveholders to the imminent danger of the slaves’ flight.
Get on Board also suggests that the Underground Railroad made a lasting impression on African American culture. Many Negro spirituals acquired double meanings, not only expressing religious devotion but also offering slaves directions to free territory. The slaves also played traditional African drums to send messages until their masters outlawed their use, whereupon the slaves devised dances by which to send messages with their feet against the floor. Another result of the Underground Railroad was the hush puppy, a corn stick laced with strychnine that fugitive slaves set out for the slave catchers’ hunting dogs.