Two recent books and a movie about the Underground Railroad are bathed in historical fact. The enslaved ran away. They were helped by many others. Their journey was difficult. In each of these modern tellings, this very real history is informed with a bit of myth.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (2016) follows a single character through time and space while commenting upon several generations of racial animus. The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2019) evinces the understandably desperate notion that escaping slavery required a miracle. Harriet starring Cynthia Erivo (2019) presents the Underground Railroad’s most famous conductor in rather direct communication with the Almighty.
While grounded in historical realities, the mythical aspects of these tales enrich the actual history upon which they are set. They are sometimes inspired as if told from the point of view of someone who has just stumbled along the path—perhaps after being chased and hounded by dogs through the night—and wakes to discover a trickle of blood on her forehead, unsure of what has just happened. Yet, these storytellers, through the deployment of myth, suggest that the knock on the head may have enlightened as much as it confused.
Mythology and history are both tied up in the human struggle to explain our existence and to give purpose to our lives. History certainly requires a factual foundation, but the record often offers only fleeting glimpses; a scribbled diary entry, a faded photograph, a crumbling bill of sale. Mythology, on the other hand, teeters between faith and fact, often back and forth between what we know and what we don’t know.
Of course, associating “myth” with a period of history has the potential to muddy the waters a bit, carrying with it, as it does, a sense of make-believe. However, “myth” also offers the potential to illuminate our understanding by posturing history in a manner that reflects the hopes, dreams, fears, and antagonisms of those who experienced it.
I see it as no coincidence that these near-mythical stories follow in the wake of the 2004 opening of The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. Over 1.3 million people have visited the Freedom Center hearing many stories based upon the written records of black abolitionist William Still. He interviewed as many as 800 runaways while aiding in their escape and then put these narratives to paper in 1872.
Sitting upon a bluff overlooking the Ohio River, visitors to the museum can gaze south across the Mason-Dixon Line into Kentucky. The predominant theme in many of the exhibits is that these flights to freedom—perhaps involving as many as 100,000 souls crossing that line—were fueled by the passionate desire to undo one of the slave-owner’s most pernicious deeds; separating black families.
In the end, the goal of our history is to inform the record in a manner that assists us as we move forward. Today, the renewed interest in the Underground Railroad reflects our own society’s interpretation of slavery as we increasingly pursue the passions that guided those who resisted it. I see this as a grand opportunity for myth to assert itself.
For skeptics, it might be helpful to consider that the entire foundation of Western civilization is built upon myth, upon Homer and his Odyssey, Zeus and Apollo. We are all too aware that these tales contain a bit of the other-worldly, but this does not diminish their significance. Indeed, Greek and Roman efforts to explain the unknown illustrate the curiosity that exemplified these ancient cultures. The myths may evidence the limits of their understanding while their curiosity explains the depths of their accomplishments.
The myths we create for ourselves today reflect the nature of our own curiosity. In this case, our curiosity finds us now in pursuit of the travails of the oppressed; a challenging task within a history documented largely by the oppressor.
We are all familiar with Negro spirituals and the melodic manner in which they conveyed the human desire to be free. One interpretation of songs like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” that has the “angels comin’ fo’ to carry me home,” is that this freedom was to be found only upon death when, as the slave master encouraged, those who toiled away in this world would be rewarded in the next. In this iteration, the hope of heaven was a tool of oppression; an ethereal medicine for the soul but also an opiate of control.
Another spiritual, “I Got My Ticket,” speaks directly to more earthly desires of the enslaved who, perhaps more than we once imagined, were inventing for themselves a way out. As we today begin to examine more closely the metaphor that represents that escape, those toiling away in the field were clearly pronouncing that: “Yes, ‘I got my ticket’ to heaven. But, until that day arrives, I also ‘got my ticket’ for a ride on that mythical freedom train to the North.”
When seen in this light, indeed, when seen as it is now being portrayed by a new generation of historians, writers, and artists, we can begin to affirm that the historical effort to portray slaves as loyal, passive, and content to accept their condition, is simply another device the oppressor has deployed to justify his misdeeds.
By reconsidering the human realities of the Underground Railroad, we are not only learning more about our nation’s past, including its shameful record on race, we are revealing ourselves to be a people struggling mightily to move beyond that shame.
With the stakes so high, who’s to say there’s any harm in sprinkling in a little myth dust to drive the point home?