Friday, June 24, 2016

New books: Behind the Scenes, by Elizabeth Keckley

In addition to writing about books that I'm reading (books in progress), I thought I might also write sometimes about new books (new to me anyway) as they arrive.

When I was at the Barnes & Noble site the other day, ordering a copy of Catherine Clinton's Harriet Tubman, another book that popped up on the screen caught my eye.

I knew Elizabeth Keckley's name from reading about Abraham and Mary Lincoln. She was an African American dressmaker who became Mary Lincoln's friend and emotional support during her troubled years in the White House and after. According to some historians, Keckley played a part in educating Lincoln on the realities of race and slavery, helping move him toward emancipation. I had no idea though that Keckley wrote an autobiography. The subtitle of her book, "Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House," intrigued me so much that I immediately added it to my order.

The blurb on the back of this neat Penguin edition intrigues me even more:
The remarkable - and, in its time, fiercely controversial - memoir of the former slave who became an intimate witness to the Lincoln presidency.

Born a slave in Virginia, Elizabeth Keckley bought her freedom at the age of thirty-seven and set up a dressmaking business in Washington, D.C. One of her clients was Mary Todd Lincoln, whose husband had recently been inaugurated President of the United Sates. In time they became close friends. Their intimacy informs this extraordinary book, which is at once a slave narrative, a candid private view of the Lincoln White House during a violent turning point in American history, and the story of a friendship that continued after Lincoln's assassination. Condemned at its publication as an "indecent book" authored by a "traitorous eavesdropper," Behind the Scenes remains a poignant, revelatory work that belong on any shelf of Civil War or African American literature.
This book ticks so many boxes for me: a slave narrative by a woman, who emancipated herself, and then made her way to the center of political Washington, and into the heart of the Lincoln family, during the Civil War. Plus dressmaking! And apparently it was the publication of letters from Mary Todd Lincoln that made the book so "indecent" and "traitorous." (It's a safe assumption that a good part of the outrage over the book was because its author, the friend and confidant of Mary Lincoln, was African American.)

This is next on my reading list, despite the tall stack of library books due tomorrow - hopefully I can renew most of them.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

I am reading: Harriet Tubman, by Catherine Clinton

I find myself stymied lately when it comes to writing about books I have read. So I thought I would borrow an idea (from Audrey and JoAnn among others), to write about books that I am reading, as I am reading them, as something strikes me. Today that is Harriet Tubman, The Road to Freedom, by Catherine Clinton.

When the announcement came that Harriet Tubman will be featured on the re-designed $20 bill, I realized how little I remembered about her. I was surprised to that a suggested design showed her posed with a gun:

I didn't associate her with active rebellion, but then I knew or remembered so little. In the discussion of the new bill, Catherine Clinton's biography was mentioned several times, so I added it to my reading list. I was happy to find a copy in the library, and I think I will be adding this to my own shelves.

Harriet Tubman was born into slavery in Maryland around 1820, in the same section of the state as Frederick Douglass. Like him, she escaped to the north and freedom. But then she returned to the south, over and over again, to bring her family to freedom, and then scores of others, friends and strangers. She made at least one raid a year, working the rest of the time in domestic service and farm work to fund her missions. She was never captured, and she brought her people safely to freedom every single time.
     This is what makes Harriet Tubman's accomplishments so remarkable, as she was certainly the lone woman to achieve such a prominent role within the [Underground Railroad]. Also she was one of only a handful of blacks publicly associated with these extensive clandestine operations to shepherd slaves to freedom. Again, she was the lone fugitive to gain such widespread fame. Her unique vantage point - being black, fugitive, and female, yet willing to risk the role of UGRR abductor - is what allowed her to become such a powerful voice against slavery during the years leading up to the Civil War.
    When she spoke out against slavery, she was not attacking it in the abstract but had personally known its evils. She risked the horror of re-enslavement with every trip, repeatedly defying the slave power with her rescues and abductions. These risks elevated the significance of her contributions to the UGRR movement.

Catherine Clinton explains that the term "abductor" was used for "the very few who ventured into the South to extract slaves . . . to distinguish them from the vast majority of the conductors, who guided fugitives on very limited segments of their journey."

And the gun? "Tubman even carried a pistol and was prepared to use it, which earned her a reputation for toughness. . . Her fearlessness was legendary."

Now back to the book. Harriet Tubman has just been raising funds to support John Brown's ill-fated raid on Harper's Ferry. And I'm sure she didn't sit on the sidelines during the Civil War either.