“It is a strange kind of fire, the fire of self-righteousness, which gives us such pleasure by its warmth but does so little to banish the darkness.”
“Now I see things differently. It took me some time, but I know the secret now. Freedman Town serves a good purpose -- not for the people who live there, Lord knows; people stuck there by poverty, by prejudice, by laws that keep them from moving or working. Freedman Town's purpose is for the rest of the world. The world that sits, like Martha, with dark glasses on, staring from a distance, scared but safe. Create a pen like that, give people no choice but to live like animals, and then people get to point at them and say 'Will you look at those animals? That's what kind of people those people are.' And that idea drifts up and out of Freedman Town like chimney smoke, black gets to mean poor and poor to mean dangerous and all the words get murked together and become one dark idea, a cloud of smoke, the smokestack fumes drifting like filthy air across the rest of the nation.”
“Freedom is a matter of logistics.”
“Sometimes it's possible, just barely possible, to imagine a version of this world different from the existing one, a world in which there is true justice, heroic honesty, a clear perception possessed by each individual about how to treat all the others. Sometimes I swear I could see it, glittering in the pavement, glowing between the words in a stranger's sentence, a green, impossible vision--the world as it was meant to be, like a mist around the world as it is.”
“What the slave wants but can never have is not only freedom from the chains but also from their memory.”
“It is remarkable, when you consider it, all the complicated worlds we construct to avoid anything that might disturb us or cause us pain. The bulwarks and baffles we build up, the moats and the mazes.”
“I bore silent witness, thinking, There is no army of abolition. This is what the world has for heroes. Ordinary men, squabbling and prideful. Hassling each other, doing their best, busting the world free. And men like me, behind fake papers and clear-glass spectacles, keeping it chained.”
“Sometimes it's possible, just barely possible, to imagine a version of this world different from the existing one, a world in which there is true justice, heroic honesty, a clear perception possessed by each individual about how to treat all the others. Sometimes I swear I could see it, glittering in the pavement, glowing between the words in a stranger's sentence, a green, impossible vision - the world as it was meant to be, like a mist around the world as it is. The real world was a trap, though, and I couldn't escape it.”
“Freedman Town serves a good purpose - not for the people who live there, Lord knows; people stuck there by poverty, by prejudice, by laws that keep them from moving or working. Freedman Town's purpose is for the rest of the world. The world that sits, like Martha, with dark glasses on, staring from a distance, scared but safe. Create a pen like that, give people no choice but to live like animals, and then people get to point at them and say 'Will you look at those animals? That's what kind of people those people are'.”
“I do it even now, you see? I play false, I dance and dance. I murmur the stories in shadow or half shadow; I pretend to myself that I don't remember the names, the details, when in fact I do. I did and I do - I remember all their names.”
“The other thing to remember, of course, is that most people get no help at all. I sure didn't, oh, no: it was just me and Castle, charging, desperate, through the country darkness, and that's how it is for most people who dare to run - no help from no Airlines, no help from no one. They just go, man, after years of planning or in the heat of a sudden moment they go, hurl their skinny bodies over a cyclone fence or purge themselves into a moat, break free of a chain line or a guard's hard grip and run, brother, run, sister, run along back roads and through forests. No planes and no cars or trucks, either. Just brave souls darting across open fields and wading in and out of rivers and stumbling along deer paths through dark woods. Find the star and follow it, as runners have done all the way back to the days of Old Slavery.”
“My own eyes were wide open, waiting to see all the ways the world would change now that we had crossed through, past the limit of civilization and into the dark land, where whites keep their rule by savagery and fear. I waited for the sky to darken, for the crows that would wheel across the clouds. But it was the same winding road, the same spreading green countryside, the same taffy-blue sky. Same on either side of the Fence.”
“Time makes things worse. Bad is faster than good. Wickedness is a weed and does not wither on its own. It grows and spreads.”
“La liberté,” Cherie was fond of saying, in that charming Montreal accent of hers, “est une question de logistique.” Freedom is a matter of logistics.”
“I'm not a slave, man. I just gotta sign out, say where I'm going, what time I'll be back and then I gotta sign back in.”
“What she was doing was, she was letting it be his idea. She was walking him along, holding his hand tightly enough to lead him, loosely enough for him to be unaware of it. She was an absolute natural. Or maybe all women could do that to all men, if they wanted to.”
“Under the Fugitive Persons Act, those who escape from service are to be captured and returned, anywhere they are found in the United States, slave state or free. All law enforcement agencies are obliged to assist in these operations when called upon (as, indeed, “all good citizens” are so obliged), but it is the US Marshals Service that is specifically charged with the job. This law was passed in the ancient year of 1793 under its old name, but it’s been updated repeatedly: strengthened in 1850, reinforced in 1861, revised and strengthened a half dozen times since. When, in 1875, Congress at last ended slavery in the nation’s capital, the slaveholding powers were appeased by the raising of fees for obstruction. When President Roosevelt, in 1935, proposed the creation of a “comprehensive regulatory framework” for the plantations (and the Bureau of Labor Practices to enforce it), he quieted howling southern senators with a sweeping immunity bill, shielding US marshals from zealous northern prosecutors. Tit for tat. Give and take. Negotiation and conciliation. Compromise. It’s how the Union survives. People”
“The problem was that those old bad times, once they got keyed up, were hard to quiet. It was all around me in the air now, all those miserable fucking memories, the terrified lowing of the cattle and the ka-thunk of the bolt gun. The heat and stench of the workroom, my cramped grip on the saw, the cows' slow turning in the air, bloated and dripping gore. My brother Castle, his big eyes in the darkness. I was trying to go along now and get on with my work, and all these snatches of vision hovered like bits of ash or motes of dust, flickering glimpses of an old world, my old world, floating around me and settling on my skin as I came out onto Central Avenue, breathing hard.”
“Six amendments and four resolutions, preserving slavery where it was, preventing its extension elsewhere; balancing northern sentiment and southern interest, northern principles and southern economic welfare. And the clincher, inscribed here in marble as it is inscribed in the Constitution: the Eighteenth Amendment, marking the whole rest of them permanent and everlasting. Eternal compromise. The great legislative Hail Mary: No future amendment of the Constitution shall affect the five preceding articles...”
“Underground Airlines is a figure of speech: it's the root of a grand, extended metaphor, "pilots" and "stewards" and "baggage handlers" and "gate agents." Connecting flights and airport security. The Airlines flies on the ground, in package trucks and unmarked vans and stolen tractor-trailers. It flies in the illicit adjustment of numbers on packing slips, in the suborning of plantation guards and the bribing of border security agents, in the small arts of persuasion: by threat or cashier's check or blow job. The Airlines is orders placed by imaginary corporations for unneeded items to be shipped to such-and-such a place at such-and-such a time.”
“Something was piercing through me, some kind of heat burning the raw layer under the skin. Something I couldn't then explain and that even now I have trouble transforming from thought into words. But something was happening. A dial was turning. You can imagine a compass needle twitching to life - the smallest pulse - the barest movement - struggling for north.”
“I had spent so much of my life costumed and posing, turning and changing myself, like changing the channels on a television set, that sometimes when I was caught as I was now, in a silent moment, just waiting, nothing to do but sit and wait and think in a white and airless room, I felt like a blank screen. I felt like a dead teleision. I was myself. I was nothing.”
“I'd been here before. Not to this Freedman Town, but to plenty of others. I've been all over the North, and every northern city has a Freedman Town. New York City's got a few, and Chicago's got more than a few. Baltimore, Washington. The manumitted have got to go somewhere, and the world doesn't give them a lot of options. The details are different - some of 'em are built on a high-rise model, bent towers clustered around courtyards, crammed to the gills with the poorest of the poor, living hard, the forgotten children of forgotten children. Some are like this one, blocks and blocks of small ramshackle homes, no sidewalks along narrow roads with the concrete worn and blasted through, the yards between the houses as weed-choked as vacant lots. Ivy growing in wild overlapping networks, engulfing the lower stories and sending menacing tendrils into upstairs windows. Gutters dangling or cracked, porches falling.”
“I didn't feel it anymore. I had long since stopped feeling it, that feeling you get coming into Freedman Town the first time, the surreal astonishment that such a place can exist. A not inconsiderable swath of a major city, in a wealthy industrialized country, in the twenty-first century, in such a grievous state of disrepair. An indivisible city, floating like a dead island, in the wide water of civilization.”
“You have to tell me your name. Your real name. That's my only condition.' It took me a minute. I had to fish around to find it. Castle called me honey and Bridge called me Victor. I've hung so many names on myself, one after another. And I actually have a name, a real human name that my mother whispered in my ear when I was four years old, before I was taken from the breed lot and put into the school. Sweet and secret private name. I almost told it to Martha, but then I decided to give her my service name instead. My Bell's name. That was fine. That was close enough.”
“And I could not see them, not from this height, but I knew they were out there, hundreds of Persons Bound to Labor too small to be seen, lost in among the long white lines of cotton. For a second or two I stared out into those distant fields, stared at the fact that when this was over, once I talked to that driver and he pointed me to the next place I had to go, I would walk out of here, and those people I could not seen but knew to be suffering, they all would be here forever.”
“And I could not see them, not from this height, but I knew they were out there, hundreds of Persons Bound to Labor too small to be seen, lost in among the long white lines of cotton. For a second or two I stared out into those distant fields, stared at the fact that when this was over, once I talked to that driver and he pointed me to the next place I had to go, I would walk out of here, and those people I could not seen but knew to be suffering, they all would be here forever. What do you do with that fact? Do you hold it like a stone in your hand? Pitch it away from this great height and watch it fall? Do you swallow it and feel it in your throat till the day you die?”
“They'd been improving the machinery of slavery for two centuries, inventing new tortures to make people work harder and longer. Stripping slaves of their names, their families, their spirits. This is where it went next: people with no bloodline, people with no past and no future, people with no claim to freedom.”
“The song just started again, and now I sang it, too. "These strong hands belong to you..."
I found a place between two men. The first was about my age, maybe a little younger, with high cheekbones and small eyes. The other was middle-aged, with a wide forehead and bulb nose, and beside him was a man with a striking face, a square, dimpled chin and high cheekbones... and then there was another, and another--all the kinds of faces in all the colors the world calls black: brown and tan and yellow and orange, copper and bronze and gold.
"These strong hands belong to you..."
They sang--we sang--with no enthusiasm or joy. We used to sing at Bell's, crossing the yard or working on the pile, just like slaves used to sing in Old Slavery, spirituals and work songs, sly lyrics, silly lyrics, yearning for freedom or roasting Massa in nonsense words he couldn't understand. This, though--this was a different kind of singing. I looked from man to man, and they were singing mechanically, eyes front, mouths moving like puppets. Singing this dumb refrain about how much they loved their bosses and loved their work.
Nothing spiritual about this. This was something else altogether.”
“[...] no slaves down here, all that abstraction torn away like skin coming off a body, and these were people -- human fucking beings, each with the one life he was given, and this was the life they had.”
“This wasn't the person he'd thought he was, or would have chosen to be if he'd been free to choose, but there was something comforting and liberating about being an actual definite someone, rather than a collection of contradictory potential someones.”
“The rapidity with which one can completely change one’s ideas . . . and accommodate ourselves to a state of barbarism is wonderful.”
“He rode through the streets of the city, down from his hill on high, O’er the wynds and the steps and the cobbles, he rode to a woman’s sigh. For she was his secret treasure, she was his shame and his bliss. And a chain and a keep are nothing, compared to a woman’s kiss.”
“The idea of spending another six hours with Leon and his farts was more than I could take.”
“It was very still. The tree was tall and straggling. It had thrown its briers over a hawthorn-bush, and its long streamers trailed thick, right down to the grass, splashing the darkness everywhere with great spilt stars, pure white. In bosses of ivory and in large splashed stars the roses gleamed on the darkness of foliage and stems and grass. Paul and Miriam stood close together, silent, and watched. Point after point the steady roses shone out to them, seeming to kindle something in their souls. The dusk came like smoke around, and still did not put out the roses.”
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