never caught book cover alice walkers garden 2017-09
It is a delight to know that Never Caught is being taken up by readers as food for the merciless journey of our people in these United States.  Erica Armstrong Dunbar has pulled off a feat of major proportions.  So much so that I just learned her book was long listed for a National Book Award.  All awards are suspect, but I’m glad this has happened because it shows courage and a belief that we can learn from history.  If only we find out about it!  Once you know the truth about your history, a few facts, thank you very much, then watching something like Hamilton, which I adored, can be critiqued when it wanders into the land of distorted myth: i.e. when Washington (played beautifully by a big black man with great legs) seems to be remotely concerned with the concept of freedom.  Never Caught: The Washington’s Relentless Pursuit Of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, is such strong, long needed medicine for the spirit, that it stopped me in my tracks.  I have been wanting to write something about it for months but the profound meaning of it simply took my breath away.

The Washingtons (and is Denzel really related to these people?  I think not) both madame and man pulled out every stop to recapture a poor black woman they owned, a slave, named Ona Judge, but let’s just go ahead and call her Mother, and she, with an indomitable will and brave and innately free heart, evaded them even as Our Commander in Chief, still coughing out instruction on how his slave catchers might find her, transpired to that other, one hopes, more just world.  Leaving Madame Martha Washington to carry on the hunt as only a certain kind of absolute fiend would do.

There is a scarily wonderful line up of all previous white presidents and their wives on YouTube that is well worth studying.  Really look at these people.  Especially Martha and George.  See if you see a heart in there anywhere.  And now you know why.

As soon as I recovered from the suicidal state into which penniless and unwanted pregnancy placed me, while I was a student holding down two jobs, I wrote what it felt like to find myself poor, alone, and trapped by my own body, about which I had been taught almost nothing. I could not even imagine that one day a black Southern gentleman of enormous empathy and courage would stand up with folks like me and help us attain the abortions we need.  Life’s Work: A Moral Argument For Choice by Dr. Willie Parker is one of the most necessary books ever written because it proves that there are men, as well as women, who are compassionate enough to understand the woman who simply cannot endure bringing another being into this world of meanness, scarcity, cruelty and stupidity. With no one to help, but only to criticize and blame.

What I most love about this book is that Dr. Parker is a Southerner and a Christian.  It is from these roots that his compassion has grown.  He has seen countless young girls like the girl I once was: scared, alone, without two dollars to pay anyone to do anything.  Not knowing anyone to ask, in any case, abortion being illegal at the time.  Suicide the only hope.  And he has stood up, with us.  When this sinks in, if you are a man or woman reading this book, you will feel I think, as I do, that men like this, books like this, and another one with a similar brave and steady heart,  A Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson, prove that our striving to remain human in a world of inhuman oppression, has not been in vain.

The victory is plain.

And then there is Black Ink: Literary Legends on the Peril, Power, and Pleasure of Reading and Writing, edited by Stephanie Stokes Oliver.

My own idea of my after life is that it will be wonderful. Hell we’ve already had.  I expect to merge into the general Is-ness and be perfectly content. But.  It would be nice to be able to “meet” and recognize Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. DuBois and of course Solomon Northrup “Nine Years Deprived of a Sheet of Paper.” Reading and writing was illegal for black people in our “free” country for over two hundred years. And yet, our ancestors braved every suffering, every abuse, to snatch literacy from the same hand that held the bullwhip. In fact, I read these ancestors with tears of love streaming down my face, because this experience of their great courageous and determined beauty is one of the ways I, so prone to not being present there, can still experience church.  Which is to say I rarely go to actual church, I hate dressing up for anything; but the feeling of transcendence (“how I got over!”) that I recall from attending the homely church I loved as a child in back country Georgia, is what these determined kinfolks of ours provide in spades.

Just the title of Booker T. Washington’s piece:  ”A Whole Race Begins to Read” about the eagerness with which former enslaved persons strove to educate themselves, after the Civil War, well, just the thought of it, might bring us to our knees.  We were liberated by literacy! And always will be.   If Douglass and Washington and others had neglected to learn to read we might still be enslaved.  Which should remind us today that television isn’t the same as reading.  Reading demands the inner work that true liberation requires, while television is more like being passively fed someone else’s version of a reality you realize is not likely to be true:  lying made visible.  A kind of magic, yes, but frequently  bad for you.

Song that goes well with this enlightenment: ” I Am Feeling My Body Fulla Yes” by Rachel Bagby and Linda Tillery and others. From the album Full.  By Rachel Bagby.