Category Archives: Writers

Underground Airlines’ Effect

ben_h_winters_undergoundYou know how taxi drivers are about Uber and by “are” here I mean “feel.” That’s how a lot of Americans still feel about slavery having been outlawed.

Some lost their livelihoods, some their actual property, their profit margins.

For a long time I’ve felt that we as Americans have this long wait while everyone gets up to speed on the fact the the United States’ wealth was established with stolen labor on stolen property. Once you mix in White guys impregnating enslaved dark skin (darker than White) women so that they could have more slaves to sell and to work their land, it’s pretty tough to see it as a happy story. It just is.

I have direct lineage to the enslaved and enslavers in Georgia and I’ve known that for some time. I recall being in Third Form (in my private school, ninth grade in most U.S. schools) and seeing “Roots” and that drama having a profound effect on me. The whippings, the violence. I knew Avon Long, Chicken George, as a New York actor and possibly my understanding of the mini-series as a piece of art based on a true story somehow gave me more distance then than reading this piece of speculative fiction did this year. Something about the way a book gets into your head.

All I know is that the experience of “reading” Ben H. Winters’ Underground Airlines as an Audible book somehow put me more in touch with the experience of being enslaved than any previous reading had. The story is built on the premise that legal slavery continues in some parts of the United States to these days or some contemporary period.

I slogged through it. I would set it aside and sometimes take a couple of weeks before returning to it.

A part of my experience of reading it was something that I’d never before experienced. You know when you have time travel questions? Like in college applications and various quizzes and games: If you could travel back in time and meet anyone…? Those kinds of things. From high school on, I think I had only ever listed famous inventors or philosophers, politicians, political leaders, artists.

The effect of Underground Airlines was to make me ashamed that I had never once thought of my enslaved ancestors here in the U.S. (and in the West Indies for that matter) and I had never once thought before that I would seek them out and get them to safety and freedom. There’s a lot I like about Benjamin Franklin’s spirit and ingenuity, but family first, you know.

For all the Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Dubois and slave narratives and everything else related that I’ve seen or read through the years, Underground Airlines now, perhaps because of building on top of those other reading and viewing experiences, but this Audible experience now took me to a different place.

Another thing was acknowledging that prison break stories’ appeal to me is probably also related to that. I mean prison break fiction like Stephen King’s Shawshank Redemption but also any news of people escaping from prison. Of course those understood to have been “wrongly imprisoned,” but also people who just say, “This is bullshit,” and find a path to freedom.

If you’ve never received a free Audible share and would like to get Underground Airlines, let me know. I can probably “share” this with you.

And if you haven’t yet seen Ava DuVernay’s “13th” on Netflix. Check it out. The prison system is one way that slavery is still legal in all 50 states right now. I watched that during one of my “Underground Airlines” breaks and I’m sure that on some level that added to my experience.


February 9th is Alice Walker’s Birthday

alice walker picIt’s still February 8th on the West Coast, so I’m considering this a February 8th post and an early birthday greeting to Alice Walker. I don’t know if I’ll have any other living people on this BHM blog, but I’m going with Alice Walker for this day.

In this Q&A we discuss sexuality, identity, the writer’s role, and our rapidly changing society.

Alice Walker Q&A

James Baldwin, Race Violence, “A Lover’s Question”

I went to UMass Amherst to find James Baldwin, but he was gone before I got there. Baldwin had taught very well-regarded writing class that was open to students of all class years. Students were admitted entry based on the strength of their writing. Some time in the spring of 1986 after I had committed to enroll at UMass, I learned that Baldwin would not be returning, but I still went. That fall an unprecedented race riot broke out on campus. It was, on the surface, about Major League Baseball and the Boston Red Sox losing the World Series to the New York Mets in October, 1986. A Black student wearing a Mets cap was chased by a large group of white students and beaten unconscious with a golf club. It was estimated that 2,000 students, nearly all white were involved.

It was a horrible ordeal for me as a new transfer student and for the entire campus to some degree. Black students organized and occupied an Africana Studies building. If I recall correctly, the objectives at that time were for a thorough investigation, that the attackers be punished, and that UMass take steps to make the campus a safe and welcoming environment. Months later an official report was released. Here’s a mild New York Times accounting of the situation.

In 1989, UMass would roll out a “Week of Civility” as a step toward improving all race relations on campus. This New York Times article about the “Week of Civility” includes detail on the riot of October, 1986.

I wonder if Baldwin may have known that he was ill in ’86. He would die of stomach cancer a year later. He spent September, 1986 to September, 1987, collaborating on the spoken word project “A Lover’s Question.” Scroll down to listen: here.

If I was looking to experience some kind of racial awakening at UMass in 1986, it worked, even though Baldwin was gone when I got there.

On this first day of February, I honor James Baldwin as a force in my life.

The photograph at top is cropped from a Carl Van Vechten portrait of Baldwin, 1955. SOURCE: The Beinecke Library at Yale University where you’ll find Baldwin photographs, personal papers and type-written drafts online.