A Mommy Slave Makes a Baby Slave

When our son Sky was 2, he started to obsess about a place in the Irish Sea called the Island of Sodor. To some of you parents out there, the singsong name of this fairytale land may sound familiar: It’s the place where Thomas the Tank Engine, that relentlessly sunny train with the slightly creepy eyebrows, rides the rails all day long.

For two-and-a-half solid years, Thomas ruled our world. There were interactive DVDs, books with sound buttons simulating 11 variations on the train whistle, pilgrimages to the local railroad village about an hour’s drive from here whenever Thomas came to town. And of course, there were countless, countless trains. Wooden and metal and plastic trains and train accessories that represented, if one website is to be believed, about 140 locomotive friends chugging cheekily across the isle. At the height of our railway frenzy, Sky could name every single solitary one without hesitating. If I had a toddler’s memory banks as a college freshman in organic chemistry, I’d be a neurosurgeon by now.

As desperate as I was to be liberated from Thomas’ reign, it taught a fundamental lesson of childhood: Boys love trains. Which makes for a tricky and sad situation when, a few years later, your son bounces in the room asking what the Underground Railroad is, where its tracks run, and whether we can go visit it sometime. The night that happened, I learned a fundamental lesson of parenthood: There is no sugarcoating the story of slavery. Even if you’re armed with a gorgeous picture book filled with dream-like visions of children flying over Canada, even if Harriet Tubman appears in a candy-cane petticoat telling you she never lost a passenger, at some point, the surreal savagery of the subject matter is bound to burst in on your bedtime routine.

I’m sure other parents have had this feeling. As I turned the pages, and the tale of a brown-skinned girl crouching in a cemetery to escape white bounty hunters unfolded, I felt insecure. Do I keep going? Do I close the book and pull a tried-and-true Star Wars distraction? Am I about to tear Sky’s Thomas-and-friends love of trains to shreds? And if I shut down this particular railway line tonight, do I wait for a well-meaning but not fully culturally competent teacher to re-open it later, with his or her own ideas of what it means to be the conductor?

I don’t remember when or how I learned about the Underground Railroad. But I do know the lasting impression it left on me: that it involved mostly enlightened white people, plus one or two black heroes sprinkled in, rescuing helpless black slaves. I continued to believe that until recently, when I got an assignment to write about the history of slavery in New England. At which point I discovered that the story of white saviors and black victims is just that: a story, a myth. It’s a myth that emerged from mostly white accounts of that period, and one that speaks to the North’s deep desire to be on the right side of the race question. But in reality, scholars have found, the Underground Railroad was a complex network of interracial cooperation in which free blacks played a major role.

Since the night I broke out the book, Sky hasn’t asked for it again, although he has developed a tendency to blurt out slavery references at strange moments. That’s a story that will have to wait for another blog post, but for example, here’s one recent, two-part question I have yet to address to his satisfaction: “Mama, if a mommy slave and a daddy slave had a baby, was the baby a slave too? And how old did a baby slave have to be before they made him do baby slave work?”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s