Slavery Is a Love Song

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"Emancipated Slaves" Photo by Myron H. Kimball

For the past week or so, I've been posting stories, with primary documents, using Fergus Bordewich's Bound For Canaan as my text. I can't really say enough about the book. I think its ultimate success lies in its total disinterest in self-pity, white guilt, and slavery torture porn. There's a school of thought that says the best way to discuss the black experience is to dye everything sepia, put on a old Negro Spiritual, and then force-feed everyone broccoli. This is the "Black Facts" school of history.

Fergus' book is a gem mostly because it rejects that approach. He loves the story of the Underground Railroad and he sees it as just as important as the facts of slavery itself. Let me push this point even further -- slavery is not simply the accumulation of horrible stories, and saintly ultra-moral slave resistors; it is our national epic poem, our great American romance. 

This is about the sanctity of family, and the great measures with which human beings will go to in the quest to protect their own. Dangerfield Newby was not an outlier. You see a similar theme in Frederick Douglass's forced parting from his mother and grandmother; in Henry Bibb, who repeatedly escaped and returned to slavery in hopes of saving his wife; in Eliza leaping across the ice; in Josiah Henson carrying his kids in a backpack across the wilderness of North America; in Harriet Tubman liberating her brothers; in Margaret Garner, who killed her child rather than send her back into bondage. Garner's last words to her husband are chilling -- "Never marry again in slavery."

Bound For Canaan is a book about black men and women parted from their loved ones, and about the radicalizing affect of that partition upon the blacks who suffered through it, and also upon the whites who are forced to watch. It is about how that violation of family ceded the Underground Railroad, the greatest and most successful campaign of civil disobedience in American history. Having finished it, I think there is a very, very strong argument to be made for the movement as a provoking force on the road to the Civil War, and thus the ultimate freeing of the slaves.

Slavery is not what they did to us, but also what we did for each other. 

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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