Tag Archives: bondage

Thoughts on “The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead

This is a book that was selected to read for the book club to which I belong. Because it’s a book that deals with slavery, the subject matter is disturbing, as well it should be. It is a disturbing topic and demands a brutality in language in order to capture the horrors of slavery.

She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to stop theft. She had seen boys and girls younger than this beaten and had done nothing.

(p. 34)

At one point in the book, Cora, a runaway slave, is hidden by a couple in their attic. The scene reminded me of Anne Frank. But the internment in the attic space is used to  explore the question of what constitutes freedom.

What a world it is, Cora thought, that makes a living prison into your only haven. Was she out of bondage or in its web: how to describe the status of a runaway? Freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from the outside, from the empty meadow, you see its true limits. Being free had nothing to do with chains or how much space you had. On the plantation, she was not free, but she moved unrestricted on its acres, tasting the air and tracing the summer stars. The place was big in its smallness. Here, she was free of her master but slunk around a warren so tiny she couldn’t stand.

(p. 183)

Shortly afterwards, Cora considers the Declaration of Independence, and how it relates to her concept of freedom. She comes to the conclusion that freedom in America is an illusion, based upon the shadow of an idea that existed in the past.

… the Declaration of Independence was an echo of something that existed elsewhere. Now that she had run away and seen a bit of the country, Cora wasn’t sure the document described anything real at all. America was a ghost in the darkness, like her.

(p. 184)

The last thing I want to mention regarding this book is the symbolism of the underground railroad. On the surface, it represents the possibility of freedom from bondage; but it also symbolizes something deeper. The underground railroad is a metaphor for the private self, the deeply personal aspects of your story that remains hidden from view. Additionally, it symbolizes the black collective consciousness, a collective story of a people forged from the individual stories of those who struggled from their freedom.

“We’re not supposed to talk about what we do down here,” Royal said. “And our passengers aren’t supposed to talk about how the railroad operates—it’d put a lot of good people in danger. They could talk if they wanted to, but they don’t”

It was true. When she told of her escape, she omitted the tunnels and kept to the main contours. It was private, a secret about yourself it never occurred to you to share. Not a bad secret, but an intimacy so much a part of who you were that it could not be made separate. It would die in the sharing.

(p. 272)

Overall, I really liked this book. It was disturbing, thought-provoking, and inspiring. While I sadly considered how much has remained the same, I also had to acknowledge that much has changed too, which provided me with hope. We still have a lot of healing to do as a society, and that healing has to start by honestly looking at the problems we face and not forgetting the darker aspects of our collective past.

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“Infant Sorrow” by William Blake

InfantSorrow

My mother groand! my father wept.
Into the dangerous world I leapt.
Helpless, naked, piping loud;
Like a fiend hid in a cloud.

Struggling in my father’s hands,
Striving against my swaddling bands;
Bound and weary I thought best
To sulk upon my mother’s breast.

For a short poem of only eight lines, there is a lot going on here and there are multiple ways that this poem can be interpreted. First, we can take the poem at face value. During the Industrial Revolution at a time when poverty was rampant, having another mouth to feed would have certainly been a hardship for two parents. In addition, I can only suspect that the infant mortality rate was quite high, which would add another level of sorrow for a child.

There are some images that lead me to consider another interpretation of this poem. In the first stanza, the baby is described as “a fiend hid in a cloud.” And in the second stanza, we have images of bondage and struggling against the father. This leads me to wonder if the infant in this poem is a symbol for Lucifer, an angel who struggled against god, was cast down into this “dangerous world,” and is ultimately bound here. If one considers Lucifer to be another manifestation of the Prometheus myth, then the images of bondage definitely work to support this idea.

Finally, there is one other possible interpretation; that the man and the woman are Adam and Eve, and the infant is their first-born son, Cain. Being the first human born into the world according to Judeo-Christian belief, he would have been born into a world infinitely more dangerous than Eden. Cain would ultimately murder his brother, Abel, and spend the rest of his days in sorrow. It is also worth noting that Adam and Eve are depicted as weeping and mourning the death of Abel, so the imagery of the groaning mother and weeping father can be tied into this interpretation.

Blake’s poems are so rich and fascinating; I am always in awe at how he managed to include so much in so few words. Hope you enjoyed this post. Have a great and inspired day!!

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“London” by William Blake

LondonBlake

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear

How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls

But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse

This poem is a strong criticism against government and corporations. In the first two lines, Blake describes the London streets and the Thames as both being “charter’d.” It’s not clear whether this is a political or a business charter. What is clear is that he feels all of London is owned and controlled, and that humans are suffering as a result. My personal feeling is that Blake was referring to both the government and the corporations, both of which held an oppressive hold on the citizens during that period.

In the second stanza, we have the image of “mind-forg’d manacles.” For me, this is the most powerful metaphor in the poem. On one hand, it symbolizes the mental oppression inflicted upon individuals by a repressive society, where a person’s creativity and intellectual freedom are restricted. But I also see this as self-inflicted bondage, too. We are all slaves to our own thoughts, fears, and obsessions. It is most often our own thoughts that keep us trapped in our misery. If we could just free our minds from fear and resentment, we would find the freedom and courage to become fully enlightened individuals.

The final stanza was the most challenging for me. After reading it several times and thinking about it, I believe that Blake is describing poor, young women who are forced into a life of prostitution, likely because they had sex out of wedlock and got pregnant, which would be the “youthful Harlots curse.” I suspect that these women were often visited by married men, who would then contract venereal infections, such as syphilis, which they passed on to their unsuspecting wives. As a result, the marriage bed becomes a coffin; sex ultimately leads to death.

This is an extremely dark and viscerally wrenching poem. There is no glimmer of hope in here. In fact, even God appears weary and sick. At the top of the illustration, God is being led through the London streets by a boy. God appears hunched, ailing, about to die. Essentially, government and industrial society is not only killing humanity, but is also destroying the Divine spirit.

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“The Power of One” by Bryce Courtenay

PowerOfOne

This is an extremely powerful book. I found it both uplifting and disturbing. The book was written in 1989 and is the story of a boy named Peekay who grows up in South Africa during WWII. He witnesses the seeds of apartheid take root and turn into racial hatred. In spite of this, he manages to develop both intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually by drawing from what he calls the power of one, which is essentially self-reliance and believing in yourself. It’s a fairly long novel, but it never gets dull and it held my interest from cover to cover.

There is a lot that I can say about this book, but for brevity’s sake I’ll just focus on a few key points. I want to start on a personal note—this book hit very close to home for me. As a young boy, Peekay finds himself the target of brutal bullying. He tries various ways to placate his tormenters but at best he gets only a temporary reprieve. He carries these experiences with him and those experiences directly impact the decisions he makes. As someone who was bullied as a child, I am painfully aware of how this feels. For years I carried my pain and resentment, playing out imaginary scenarios where I confronted my tormenters and finally got even. Thankfully, I eventually realized how toxic this attitude is and learned how to let go of my resentment. But reading this certainly brought back the feelings for me. Anyone who has ever suffered the anguish of being bullied knows how this feels and will always remember it.

A significant portion of the story takes place in a prison setting. There is a great passage where Peekay describes his impression upon first seeing a prison. It is almost like the structure itself is an archetype for bondage, suffering, and the loss of freedom.

My eyes followed a long line of purple that led beyond the houses clustered on the edge of the town to a square of dark buildings surrounded by a high wall perhaps a mile into the valley. The walls facing me stood some three stories high and were studded with at least 150 tiny dark windows all of the same size. The buildings too were built in a square around a center quadrangle of hard brown earth. On each corner of the outside wall was a neat little tower capped with a pyramid of corrugated iron that glinted in the early morning sun. I had never seen a prison, nor had I even imagined one, but there is a racial memory in man that instinctively knows these things. The architecture of misery has an unmistakable look and feel about it.

(p134)

This book is rich with mystical metaphors and symbolism. One of these that I found inspiring is the cactus as a symbol for the manifestation of God. It’s a somewhat long passage but worth including in this post.

The Almighty conceived the cactus plant. If God would choose a plant to represent him, I think he would choose of all plants the cactus. The cactus has all the blessings he tried, but mostly failed, to give to man. Let me tell you how. It has humility, but it is not submissive. It grows where no other plant will grow. It does not complain when the sun bakes its back or the wind tears it from the cliff or drowns it in the dry sand of the desert or when it is thirsty. When the rains come it stores water for the hard times to come. In good times and bad it will still flower. It protects itself from danger, but it harms no other plant. It adapts perfectly to almost any environment. It has patience and enjoys solitude. In Mexico there is a cactus that flowers only once every hundred years and at night. This is saintliness of an extraordinary kind, would you not agree? The cactus has properties that heal the wounds of men and from it come potions that can make man touch the face of God or stare into the mouth of hell. It is the plant of patience and solitude, love and madness, ugliness and beauty, toughness and gentleness. Of all plants, surely God made the cactus in his own image?

(pp. 154 – 155)

Probably the single most powerful symbol in this book is the cave, which is called the crystal cave because of the mineral deposits within. It conjures images of the crystal cave from the Merlin mythology. The cave represents the inner self, a sanctuary within, a secret place of hidden beauty. It is also a place of transition, the passage between life and death. There is also an emphasis on the importance of keeping the cave secret, since your inner self and the source of mystical power must be protected. There is a great passage where Peekay uses visualization, in the same way that a shaman would, to enter the crystal cave.

I took a deep breath and launched myself from the rock; the cool air mixed with spray rushed past my face. I hit the pool at the bottom of the first waterfall. The sound of the splash drowned in the roar of the water. I surfaced to be swept over the second of the falls and then again over the third, landing in the deep pool of swirling green water. I fought my way to the surface and struck out toward the first of the black stones. Pulling myself up onto it, I hurriedly jumped from one stone to another, finally leaping for the pebbly beach beyond. I felt my toes and the ball of my foot touch the smooth round river pebbles, and as I landed I found myself inside the crystal cave of Africa.

(p. 471)

As I said, this is an incredible book and one that is worth reading. In addition, while I was in a bookstore recently, I saw that The Power of One was on the “banned books” shelf, and I have always felt that any book that is worth banning is worth reading.

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Time and Bondage in Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors”

ComedyOfErrorsI read Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors while in college and have seen it performed twice within the last several years by a local theater group, so I was familiar with the play before reading it this time. The play is an adaptation of The Menechmus Twins by the Roman playwright Plautus. Basically, it is the story of two pairs of estranged twins who end up in the same city, which leads to a series of mishaps based upon mistaken identity. The play is very funny and accessible. You do not have to be a Shakespearean scholar to thoroughly enjoy this play.

Even though this play is not as complex as other works by Shakespeare, there are still some interesting themes woven into the text that are worth examining. The two that stood out for me on this reading are the themes of time and bondage, and personally, I see a connection between these two themes.

Time is a key component in this play. All the confusion that occurs is the result of poor timing. But the issue of time also figures prominently in the text itself, for example, in Act II, Scene ii, Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse engage in a discussion about time and assert that “There’s a time for all things,” which hints at Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8. Later in the play, Adriana and Dromio of Syracuse also discuss time, and Dromio states:

Time is a very bankrupt, and owes more than he’s
worth, to season.
Nay, he’s a thief too: have you not heard men say
That Time comes stealing on by night and day?
If Time be in debt and theft, and a sergeant in the way,
Hath he not reason to turn back an hour in a day?
Act IV, Scene ii

The other theme that recurs throughout the text is that of binding or bondage. It’s nearly impossible to read a scene that doesn’t have a reference to binding in some form, whether it is the bond between a husband and wife, the bondage of the servant to his master, bonds as a guarantee of credit, or actual physical binding by rope or chain. There is also the bond between the twins, where their fates are bound together.

Finally, it is worth considering the relationship between time and bondage. Since we are mortal, we are all bound by time. Time is the chain from which we can never be free.

This play is short, funny, and engaging. If you have never read it, I strongly encourage you to do so. If you have not read it in a while, read it again, and when you do, think about how time and bondage figure in to the plot.

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