A century and a half after the abolition of slavery in the United States, the Underground Railroad, the formal and informal network of routes and people that helped fugitive slaves escape from the slaveholding South to freedom between the end of the 18th century and the Civil War, still draws considerable scholarly attention, whether it be through investigating its history or debating its many representations in public memory, literature and various art forms (Schulz, 2016). Considered “a model of democracy in action,” “the nation’s first great movement of civil disobedience since the American Revolution,” and “an epic of high drama” (Bordewich, 2005, p. 4-6), the Underground Railroad has offered many fruitful opportunities for scholars and artists to deepen, question and even contest knowledge of the institution of slavery and understanding of abolitionism, as well as the representations of various aspects of the “color line” in the United States and North America more generally.
In this issue of LISA-ejournal, we would like to survey the ongoing research on the Underground Railroad since the turn of the 21st century, in order to highlight the plurality of the concept itself by encouraging transdisplicinary dialogue between history, memorialization strategies and fictionalization in the arts and literature.
The history of the Underground Railroad has long been characterized by its permeability to mythic language. Early works on the issue, often written by abolitionists, evinced an interest in showcasing the heroic acts of men (and sometimes women) involved in a network primarily depicted as focusing on helping fugitive slaves escape from the slaveholding South to reach the Northern free States or Canada. Wilbur H. Siebert’s groundbreaking /The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom/ (1898) is a case in point: its approach emphasized a national conception of the network, glorified white abolitionists by collecting their personal memories, and promoted the view of an essentially northward route of the Railroad. When, in 1961, Larry Gara published /The Liberty Line: The Legend of the Underground Railroad/, the book was hailed as a successful attempt to alter this perception by establishing more firmly the mythical dimension of the Underground Railroad, which basically relied on the supremacy of white heroes to the detriment of free Blacks and the fugitive slaves themselves, on a tendency to overestimate the number of fugitives who actually fled using the Railroad, and on the silencing of the voice of the slaves who remained captive in the South. Forty years later, David W. Blight’s /Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory/ expanded on Gara’s argument by presenting the history of the Underground Railroad as told by Siebert and his disciples as an opportunity for white abolitionists in the Northern United States to seek an “alternative veteranhood,” while their “homespun tales of helping slaves escape may have been a kind of white alternative slave narrative” (Blight, 2001, p. 234). In 2015, Eric Foner’s masterly /Gateway to Freedom/ on the Underground Railroad in New York State was published to critical acclaim, as its author’s historical expertise “dispels the lingering aura of myth surrounding the Underground Railroad” (Varon, 2015).
We thus encourage contributions dealing with the historiography of the Underground Railroad, by showing the various ways in which history and myth have continued to interact or, conversely, disassociated themselves in the past fifteen years, through renewed interest from historians in writing a history of the Underground Railroad that is altogether more complex, nuanced, and ostensibly more scholarly. The following list provides possible topics for discussion, including:
– an evaluation of how historians have recently reassessed the role of the Underground Railroad both inside the major centers of abolitionism like Philadelphia, Boston or New York as well as outside, in a periphery that proved essential over such a vast territory;
– an appraisal of the current trend toward a more transnational perception of the Underground Railroad, as exemplified by the publication in 2016 of /The Fluid Frontier/ which focuses on the borderland between Detroit and Canada;
– an assessment of the efforts recently made to document other “geographies” of the Underground Railroad, which include Florida, Mexico and the American West for example;
– an analysis of new insights into unconventional guises of the Underground Railroad, such as the “reverse Underground Railroad” that sent kidnapped Northern free Blacks to Southern slavery or, for example, the early escape of fugitive slaves from Upper Canada towards the Northern United States between 1770 and 1793 (Simcoe’s Bill);
– a review of how gender issues as well as issues related to intra- and inter-ethnic relationships have altered the more recent writing of the history of the Underground Railroad.
Meanwhile, we invite submissions that will explore the ways in which the evolution of historiography mentioned above has influenced or not memorialization strategies regarding the Underground Railroad and its various representations in literature and the arts. Though David W. Blight’s Passages to Freedom (2004) has already tackled some aspects of this question, new material and new topics have emerged since then and remain to be addressed. We thus welcome any scholarly writing on research dealing with:
– the heroes and heroines of the Underground Railroad and their role in shaping the United States’ collective memory, with special emphasis laid on the many implications of the induction into the Underground Railroad’s hall of fame of its most famous “conductor”, Harriet Tubman. We welcome scholarly work on her many biographies (from Sarah Hopkins Bradford’s 1869 version to Seith Mann’s upcoming biopic), the various versions of her story published in YA literature in both the United States and Canada, the string of memorials dedicated to her, the diverse works of art her life has inspired, and the forthcoming reproduction of her portrait on the back of the $20 bill;
– recent documentaries dealing with the Underground Railroad such as /Underground Railroad : The William Still Story/ (Laine Drewery, 2012) or /Dawn of Day : Stories from the Underground Railroad/ (Rusty Earl, 2016);
– TV series like /The Book of Negroes/ (Clement Virgo, 2015) and /Underground/ (Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, 2016);
– recent literature like /The Underground Railroad/ by Colson Whitehead (2016, National Book Award), /Underground Airlines/ by Ben H. Winters (2016), /The Last Runaway/ by Tracy Chevalier (2013) or /Song Yet Sung/ by James McBride (2008). Though belonging to genres as diverse as sci-fi, roman noir, romance and historical fiction, these works all use the Underground Railroad as a powerful motif to reinvent and distort the past while inviting contemporary North American readers to face the dark sides of their common history and confront the moral, social and political ambivalences apparent in the ways in which diversity is perceived and practiced there today.
Proposals (abstract and bio, not exceeding 500 words) should be sent to Sandrine Ferré-Rode (firstname.lastname@example.org) by November 1st, 2017. The deadline for completed articles will be May 1st, 2018. Articles should be between 6,000 and 8,000 words in length and follow the editorial style presented on the peer-reviewed Revue LISA / LISA e-journal website (https://lisa.revues.org), ISSN: 1762-6153, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, Revues.org.
BLACKETT, Richard J. M., /Making Freedom: The Underground Railroad and the Politics of Slavery/, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2013.
BLIGHT, David W. /Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory/, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2001.
BLIGHT, David W., ed., /Passages to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in History and Memory/, Washington, DC, Smithsonian Books, 2004.
BORDEWICH, Fergus M., /Bound for Canaan: The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad, America’s First Civil Rights Movement/, New York, Amistad, 2005.
FONER, Eric, /Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad/, W. W. Norton & Company, 2015.
FROST, Karolyn Smardz and Veta Smith Tucker, eds., /A Fluid Frontier: Slavery, Resistance, and the Underground Railroad in the Detroit River Borderland/, Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 2016.
HUDSON, J. Blaine, /Fugitive Slaves and the Underground Railroad in the Kentucky Borderland/, Jefferson, McFarland & Co., 2002.
SCHULZ, Kathryn, “The Perilous Lure of the Underground Railroad,” review of /The Underground Railroad/ by Colson Whitehead, /The New Yorker/, August 22, 2016.
VERON, Elizabeth R., review of /Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad/ by Eric Foner, /The Washington Post/, January 23, 2015.