Being born in the semi-south (northern Virginia) and raised during the 50ties, I had a brush with segregation. I use the term brush because when compared to my more southern counterparts, my life was a piece of cake. I recall that I could not try on hats at the local Woodrow and Lothrop department store. I could not go to the movie theater one block from my house, and could not eat in local restaurants. Nor could I attend local swimming pools, skating rinks, and schools and neighborhoods were segregated. These were just a few of the many things that were part of my life in the semi-south. It was easy to view these things as “the way life is”. Then 40 years later my education about the system of slavery began.
My mis-education about the system of segregation and slavery was based upon the minute information disclosed during elementary school history class which was buttressed by the sanitized movies about the wonderful lives of slaves (aka Gone with the Wind). Even Bill O’Reilly said slaves at the white house were “well fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government.” Whitehead’s book, Underground Railroad, turned my thinking about the institution of slavery upside down and inside out.
I read Whiteheads’s book during an intersection of events. First, was a couples vacation to Charleston, South Carolina, which I learned was ground zero for the slave industry. The second event was the receipt of a Smithsonian magazine titled Black in America prompted by the opening of the African American Museum. The third occurred because I was desperately looking for a good book to read, which led me to the New York Times book review where The Underground Railroad was listed. Finally, I joined a book club and naturally the book being read this month is The Underground Railroad.
I probably would have overlooked any one of these events and filed it away under miscellaneous knowledge soon to be forgotten. It was the convergence of the four events that has thrown me into a tailspin.
While visiting Charleston, I was able to view the history of the major center of the slave industry from a purely business perspective. How well organized it was with great record keeping systems.. At one point, there were 40 different auction businesses housing brokers with jail cells for the “enslaved Africans.” It was in Charleston that I learned the term “enslaved Africans” as the correct new terminology that acknowledges the humanity of people considered property. The auction houses were the terminus for a network of slave catchers, slave thieves, and brokers ranging across the southern states. When someone needed money they would simply sell some of their “property” through this network. Viewing this from a business perspective allowed me to ignore the emotional impact of selling children away from their parents and wives from their husbands.
When I returned home from Charleston, the Smithsonian magazine was there to continue my education. It was filled with stories from the new African American museum which addressed the contributions of Enslaved Africans to the development of the United States. It described the migration of enslaved Americans after the 13th Amendment was passed (12/6/1865) and the effects of that migration. Then when I picked up the Underground Railroad all the emotions began to flow as I read of the degradation, beatings, hangings, maiming, rape, and psychological damage inflicted upon my ancestors. His book is based upon “slave” oral histories captured by the Library of Congress wrapped in incredible creative writing skills. The “business perspective” barrier that I had erected came crashing down around my ankles.
Now I am faced with book club where I will be the only brown skinned person in the room. This should be interesting.