Passages to Freedom

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Passages to Freedom

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Bondage in “the land of the free” still seems like tasteless humor, not shameful fact, more than 140 years after emancipation. But this “sweet land of liberty” was where some people enslaved others, bought and sold them like prized cattle—or worse—and subjugated them in the many ways oppressors can use.

Fortunately, historians such as Yale University’s David W. Blight do not permit what happened to be forgotten—and do so with vivid tales that capture modern readers’ imaginations and emotions. From the Foreword (in which Spencer Crew of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati recalls slaves seeing the Ohio River as the contemporary Jordan) to the final essay (in which Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. explains that in African-Americans’ Exodus story, the United States was not the Promised Land, but ancient Egypt), inspiring stories inform readers and prevent revisionists from denying evils of the past.

Blight edited fifteen essays by prominent historians who collectively lay out the wonderful legends as well as the verifiable reports about the crude network of hiding places and temporary shelters, of black leaders and white abolitionists who together—and apart—helped brave slaves escape their chains to territories where slavery was already illegal. The material starts in the Colonial period and continues through the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the Civil War and emancipation, and includes not just familiar figures, such as Harriet Tubman, but lesser-known people, such as Philadelphian William Still, the son of freed slaves.

Packaged as an effective complement to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Passages to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in History and Memory is quite readable, sometimes to the point of seeming juvenile. However, that could stem from the hundreds of photographs and maps, paintings and illustrations that accompany the text with powerful visuals, while not detracting from the substance. The book also features twenty pages of handy footnotes but no appendix where a list of places where border-state and Northern Americans collaborated with the slaves of the South might be found. Still, it is a fine, worthy book appealing to a variety of ages.