Underground Railroad


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Know your value and you know your place in the order. To escape the boundary of the plantation was to escape the fundamental principles of your existence: impossible. It was her grandmother talking that Sunday evening when Caesar approached Cora about the underground railroad, and she said no. Three weeks later she said yes. This time it was her mother talking.


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The white man in the book, Gulliver, roved from peril to peril, each new island a new predicament to solve before he could return home. That was the man’s real trouble, not the savage and uncanny civilizations he encountered— he kept forgetting what he had. That was white people all over: Build a schoolhouse and let it rot, make a home then keep straying. If Caesar figured the route home, he’d never travel again. Otherwise he was liable to go from one troublesome island to the next, never recognizing where he was, until the world ran out.


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Poems were too close to prayer, rousing regrettable passions. Waiting for God to rescue you when it was up to you. Poetry and prayer put ideas in people’s heads that got them killed, distracting them from the ruthless mechanism of the world.
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Cora started working her second day, thoughts in a knot over Valentine’s motto: “Stay, and contribute.” A request, and a cure. She contributed first in the washhouse.
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Lander’s talk verged on a sermon, concerning the dilemma of finding your purpose once you’ve slipped the yoke of slavery. The manifold frustrations of liberty. Like the rest of the farm, Cora regarded the man with awe. He was an exotic prince, traveling from a far land to teach them how people conducted themselves in decent places. Places so far away they eluded all maps.
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“I’m what the botanists call a hybrid,” he said the first time Cora heard him speak. “A mixture of two different families. In flowers, such a concoction pleases the eye. When that amalgamation takes its shape in flesh and blood, some take great offense. In this room we recognize it for what it is— a new beauty come into the world, and it is in bloom all around us.”
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The sky was a sheet of slate but it was still warm, an August afternoon that let you know its kind was running out.
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How could such a bitter thing become a means of pleasure? Everything on Valentine was the opposite. Work needn’t be suffering, it could unite folks. A bright child like Chester might thrive and prosper, as Molly and her friends did. A mother raise her daughter with love and kindness. A beautiful soul like Caesar could be anything he wanted here, all of them could be: own a spread, be a schoolteacher, fight for colored rights. Even be a poet. In her Georgia misery she had pictured freedom, and it had not looked like this. Freedom was a community laboring for something lovely and rare.
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“Valentine farm is a delusion. Who told you the negro deserved a place of refuge? Who told you that you had that right? Every minute of your life’s suffering has argued otherwise. By every fact of history, it can’t exist. This place must be a delusion, too. Yet here we are. “And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes— believes with all its heart— that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are.
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“I’m supposed to answer Mingo’s call for gradual progress, for closing our doors to those in need. I’m supposed to answer those who think this place is too close to the grievous influence of slavery, and that we should move west. I don’t have an answer for you. I don’t know what we should do. The word we. In some ways, the only thing we have in common is the color of our skin. Our ancestors came from all over the African continent. It’s quite large. Brother Valentine has the maps of the world in his splendid library, you can look for yourself. They had different ways of subsistence, different customs, spoke a hundred different languages. And that great mixture was brought to America in the holds of slave ships. To the north, the south. Their sons and daughters picked tobacco, cultivated cotton, worked on the largest estates and smallest farms. We are craftsmen and midwives and preachers and peddlers. Black hands built the White House, the seat of our nation’s government. The word we. We are not one people but many different people. How can one person speak for this great, beautiful race— which is not one race but many, with a million desires and hopes and wishes for ourselves and our children? “For we are Africans in America. Something new in the history of the world, without models for what we will become. “Color must suffice. It has brought us to this night, this discussion, and it will take us into the future. All I truly know is that we rise and fall as one, one colored family living next door to one white family. We may not know the way through the forest, but we can pick each other up when we fall, and we will arrive together.”