Mr. D’s History Bookshelf # 3: Many Thousand Gone: African Americans from Slavery to Freedom

VirginiaHamilton2The more we peel the layers of a topic, the deeper we penetrate, and the more confused we become.

This is the conundrum of many themes, but none more so than the tragedy of human slavery.  In the United States, slavery pulses like a raw nerve because its lingering effects exist today, right in our faces.  This rawness, this immediacy makes slavery difficult to examine with a clear eye.

Years ago, historians and educators only touched on slavery as a cursory issue to other themes—the American Revolution or the Civil War, for example.  If it was examined at all, it was with the soulful eye of a guilty conscience: 400 years of kidnapping, bondage, hard labor and cruel mistreatment. 

None of this is in dispute, nor is the overall evil of slavery.  Yet it has only been recently that classrooms have the ability to put a human face on the slavery issue. 

The more we peel the layers of a topic, the deeper we penetrate, and the more confused we become.

This is the conundrum of many themes, but none more so than the tragedy of human slavery.  In the United States, slavery pulses like a raw nerve because its lingering effects exist today, right in our faces.  This rawness, this immediacy makes slavery difficult to examine with a clear eye.

Years ago, historians and educators only touched on slavery as a cursory issue to other themes—the American Revolution or the Civil War, for example.  If it was examined at all, it was with the soulful eye of a guilty conscience: 400 years of kidnapping, bondage, hard labor and cruel mistreatment. 

None of this is in dispute, nor is the overall evil of slavery.  Yet it has only been recently that classrooms have the ability to put a human face on the slavery issue.  Many Thousand Gone: African Americans from Slavery to Freedom  by Virginia Hamilton, while not a definitive history, offers an excellent collection of narratives, letters and primary sources that deal with slavery in North America through to Reconstruction.

The narratives of enslaved Africans used to be the exclusive business of academia.  Even in most classrooms today, we hear the most prominent success stories, such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman.    Hamilton offers to young readers the exploits of others like Douglass and Tubman who have rich stories to tell.  Each tale tells of individuals or groups which add layer upon layer of detail to the narrative of American slavery.

Gabriel Prosser, for example, led an unsuccessful slave revolt in Virginia in 1800 and was hanged for his efforts.  Tice Davids led an escape in 1831–the same year Nat Turner led his famous slave uprising–that coined the term “underground road”, later to be modernized as “underground railroad.”  Olaudah Equiano, an African prince sold into slavery in the 18th Century, bought his freedom and became an important early abolitionist with his best-selling account of his live in bondage.  It was probably the first time whites in Europe and America bought so many volumes penned by an author of color. 

There are even moments of humor and laughter among the dark stories.  Henry “Box” Brown, for instance, decided to mail himself away from his master disguised in a wooden mail crate.  His story almost reads like a Three Stooges short, as he is bounced around his box by the wagon rides from Virginia to Philadelphia, where he finally gained his freedom.  It seems so funny until you realize how deadly serious the stakes were for runaways.

Two areas of special importance addressed in Hamilton’s work are the horrors of the Middle Passage and the Canadian role in slavery.  The Middle Passage, the harrowing kidnap and voyage from Africa to the slave markets in Brazil, the Caribbean and North America are given fresh voices from previously unknown sources.  Besides Equiano, one of the earlier stories is of a young African boy who winds up in a bad situation and gets sold to a Dutch slaver–showing how something as innocuous as bad luck can have devastating circumstances.

I, for one, am particularly pleased that Hamilton did not let Canada off the hook when it came to slavery in the British dominions.  For decades, Canada has lorded its role as the terminus of the Underground Railroad for enslaved Africans fleeing the United States.  Its own issues with slavery have been kept in the dark until now.  Remember that the British Empire did not outlaw the slave trade until 1807, and slavery itself was not abolished until 1833, when the monetary needs of the great sugar planters in the Caribbean colonies were met.  British North America had a full two centuries of experience with slavery, and several stories–including accounts of runaways–show that slavery was indeed alive and well in present-day Canada.

 This makes a wonderful narrative account for a classroom.  In the pictures and facts about the period, the study of slavery can often be as brutal as the institution itself.  These accounts make for magnificent storytelling, which can accent any social studies lesson.  More importantly, Hamilton’s work adds flesh and blood to a tragic era of our history.  

That flesh and blood, no matter how confusing or jarring it may seem, is the essence of this story.

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