Next stop freedom
MINTY. By Alan Schroeder. Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney. Hamish Hamilton, Pounds 12.99
The struggle against slavery showed the human spirit at its most heroic. It has provided material for compelling stories which can inspire all ages. James Berry celebrates two stirring examples.
Two Tickets to Freedom was always going to be graph-ic historical material. This true story, about an African-American who ran away from slavery with his common-law wife, who passed for white, is set in Georgia, US, in 1848, 10 years after slavery had been abolished in the British West Indies.
Subjected to the whip, the demeaning and psychologically destructive slave laws, the grisly slave-catchers and their bloodhounds, Ellen and William had choked on their concealed pains and griefs. They had watched their parents, brothers and sisters sold to unknown owners and taken away to unknown destinations. Deciding enough was enough, the couple prepared secretly.
For slaves, they had some advantages. Ellen's father was her mother's owner. She worked as a house slave, talked like her owner-mistress and was readily taken for white. Her husband William was a skilled cabinet-maker; his owner allowed him to work overtime and keep those earnings for himself, which enabled him to save for their escape. And, considered good and reliable, they were not suspected.
The couple left with Ellen disguised as a young white man, Mr Johnson, dressed in a man's hat, but ill, with right arm in a sling, face bandaged for toothache, and eyes hidden behind green glasses. William was to be Mr Johnson's attentive slave.
Meeting at the railway station, arriving from different directions, they had done well. The train was soon to leave. The well-dressed young Ellen rushed up to the ticket window and said, "Tickets for myself and my slave! And can my slave ride with me? You can see I'm helpless."
"Sir, other passengers would object. Let him sit with the others, and come and serve you when you need him."
Other situations did not go their way that easily. Stopping at a hotel, unable to read or write, "Mr Johnson" was faced with having to sign the hotel register. He boldly showed his disability arm bandage and won over the hotel attendant to write his name for him. Sitting with whites who befriended him, he could not bear their anti-abolitionist talk and found it convenient to pretend he was also deaf.
Their first place of refuge after travelling hundreds of miles was Philadelphia. But thousands more miles would be demanded of them; zealous abolitionists, free black men, told them Philadelphia was unsafe. They needed to get further north.
When they arrived in Boston, Quakers and other abolitionists so celebrated them that their story was published in the newspapers and attracted slave kidnappers from Georgia. Their protectors put them on the "Underground Railroad" freedom route to England, via Canada.
Two years after escaping, William and Ellen arrived at Liverpool. They would return to America to dig in with new resistances, but not as anybody's slaves.
This researched material is well organised, with an easy flow towards its stages of dramatic impact. The writing makes you sense a racial majority's ongoing violence - reinforced by law - against helpless others who are radically different. And it poses questions about psychological aftermaths on both sides, after the shackles of slavery had been removed.
Showing the human spirit in battle against a mangled life of dispossession, this is a story for all ages, a kind of story still not getting the celebration it deserves, a story of special non-submission for Spike Lee to treat with full cinematic intensity, as he did with Malcolm X.
Minty, with illustrations by the distinguished artist Jerry Pinkney, deals with the childhood of Harriet Tubman - the famous African-American slave who escaped from slavery and set up the Underground Railroad to help others to escape.
The challenge here is in resurrecting the early life of an important subject who left no records. Yet, with imaginative explorations, some interesting glimpses are offered. And the illustrations express a keen eye, highlighting particular moments of a slave culture in childhood.