The craving for liberty is a universal human trait, explains EFT author Christy Coleman.
Lloyd Dobyns: Hi. Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. This is “Behind the Scenes” where you meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns and mostly I ask questions.
When slavery was introduced to the colonies in 1600, the reaction was a struggle to become free. Writer Christy Coleman is here to tell us more about the creation of a new Electronic Field Trip, “Freedom Bound.”
Christy Coleman: I think there is an interesting dynamic that takes place whenever we as human beings begin to subjugate others. The first thing that you do when you’re doing that is that you strip away their humanity. When you strip away the humanity, it begins to, in some’s mind, make the inhumane things you do excusable.
So, you know, the notion that these enslaved people couldn’t possibly want to be free and that their being brought to the Americas was somehow divine providence to bring them out of some savage state or what have you, really speaks more to the lack of knowledge Europeans had of various African nations and ethnicities and groups. You know, it’s an interesting thing. But from the beginning, you see from the historian’s perspective, you see runaway ads almost immediately.
Humankind, we inevitably have a desire to be able to make our own way, whatever that way is. And yes, there are people that fall to the wayside, or it might get a little tough and they might want to look for a way to ease the load. But ultimately, there is this desire for self-determination. I think that’s as old as humankind.
Lloyd: What gave you the idea to write this?
Christy: Well actually in this particular case, I was asked. The producers contacted me and said, “Look, we want to do, focus a field trip on the desire of enslaved people to be free, and we want to look at it over time. Can you help?” And so I started, because I’ve been in the museum business for 25-plus years and have done a lot of historic writing, historic dramas as well as some scholarship, I said ok, well let me just put my hat on here and try to find the most creative stories.
But I also wanted to find historically documented events. And that’s what led to it. You know, the first sequence about the young woman who decides to try to take a legal route to gain her freedom, I thought was wonderful, you know, it’s 1600s. And she is able to do so because of her parentage, because her father, in fact, was English. That was intriguing to me.
Then, as we move forward, in the Virginia Gazette there was a runaway ad where a Scotsman and an African run away together. I thought, “Now here’s a wonderful combination.” These two men run away, and the ad basically says that they’re heading essentially in the same direction, trying to get downriver. I said, “I’d like to see these guys run into each other, actually. And so we did that.
Then we moved into, you know, the latter part of the 18th century. We move into the 19th century, and I think most people were aware of the Underground Railroad phenomenon, so we have a little story about that. But one of the things that really intrigued me was when I learned that not only was there a route north, there was a southern route into Mexico.
Lloyd: Didn’t know that.
Christy: It was a story that I hadn’t learned about. The route south didn’t have all of the assistance that the northern route had. In fact, the word spread in places like Texas and Louisiana and others that if you get to Mexico, the Mexicans will take you in. They will protect you. I thought that that had not only historic significance, but that given the demographic makeup and changes in our own nation, to be able to introduce that idea was really important as well. So that one was a lot of fun. But I had to do a lot of extra research on that, because it wasn’t as readily available. Most of the information of what happened to people once they got in to Mexico of course are in Mexican archives and papers and things of that sort.
Lloyd: Not all runaways were welcome when they got to the North.
Christy: Well, it was, when you add to the fact that the federal government enacted the fugitive slave law, that made it extraordinarily dangerous, not only for people who would help, but obviously for the runaway themselves. So, yes, it could have been, after journeying and risking so much to get to a place of freedom, and then to arrive and discover that, in fact, you may be captured and taken back is incredible.
Lloyd: And put in chains.
Christy: And put in chains and sold back. There’s a story of a woman named Margaret Garner, which is not included in the field trip, but who faced that exact situation. She had made it to freedom with her children, her young children. And just as she was stepping on freedom’s shores, the slave catchers found her, caught her.
They were preparing to take her back, and she did what many would consider the absolute unthinkable: she turned, managed to get a hold of a knife, and she slit her children’s throats. She killed them immediately so that they would not be taken back into slavery. She said, “I’d rather them be dead in the arms of God than to go back to what I have endured in my life.” What made that case, that in and of itself was such a horrific event, but what made it even more interesting is that she was actually put on trial for destroying her master’s property. It’s just an amazing sequence of events.
So again, back to this question of, or the original concept here, that freedom is something that people have always sought, and it is born out of a very simple desire to determine one’s own fate. It’s just that simple. The other atrocities that people faced – even if they didn’t face atrocities, even in those few cases where people actually had benign ownership – the bottom line is, self-determination was not there. That, in an of itself, is compelling enough to say, “It’s time for me to go, or at least to try to go."
What’s even more remarkable about that is the fact that people actually endured this, and endured it, tried to find where they could, their own sense of maintaining their humanity. And so, even from the midst of this dreaded situation, that they are still forming families, and they are still raising children, and they are still finding ways to laugh, and they are still finding ways to create music, and ways of expressing themselves culturally.
That, I think, speaks volumes. For the people who endured this system, they were able to endure because of what they created in this environment. It’s an environment that lasted, at least on these shores, for over 350 years. And even after that, you’re having to deal with the legacies of Jim Crow and segregation and all of those other things that still didn’t permit people to self-determine. So it’s important to understand those lessons, it’s important to understand this history, and it’s important to understand that human will.
Lloyd: Well, asking a leading question, and then you can tell me how brilliant you are as a writer: have you captured all that in this, when somebody tunes in to your Electronic Field Trip, “Freedom Bound” do they come away with this knowledge?
Christy: I hope so, I hope so. Just in the few minutes that we’ve been able to share together, I’ve been able to talk more explicitly about it. But when you’re dealing with drama, you’re also dealing with pictures, and you’re dealing with imagery, and you’re dealing with the performance of the actors, and you’re dealing with roughly 23 to 24 minutes of film.
So no, you’re not going to be able to capture the whole realm of that, but one of the things that runs through all of these vignettes of the piece is this idea that here are people who have chosen to self-determine. If nothing else, that is the lesson that I would want folks to walk away with, and hopefully, raises enough questions about each of those sequences that they’ll want to pursue learning more about it on their own.
Lloyd: Would you want to write more about it?
Christy: Probably, probably. I am a huge fan of history, and I am a huge fan of drama. So I am, God willing, I will be able to continue to have opportunities to do that, because there are so many amazing stories that history provides us, and the lessons that they can give us that there’s plenty of information to write about. So whether I’m doing that as, with my hat on as a museum administrator public historian, or I’m doing that as a writer, I suspect that it will always be a part of my work life.
Lloyd: I have the feeling that writing “Freedom Bound” could have been difficult. I mean, you are looking at historical accuracy, and you want it to be accurate, you want to tell true stories, but they can be very sad.
Christy: Yes, they can. But you know, maybe it’s because I have been doing this so long that it doesn’t have the same level of despair for me, because I do understand a lot better the resiliency behind these stories. But again, as I learned more, and I really started to process this, especially when I started reading narratives written or recorded about enslaved people and they’re talking about their experiences and then seeing in their talking about them, that there would be these breaks, if you will.
Where again, that idea of finding small ways to define oneself, finding small ways to overcome all of that. It put it all in a much different perspective, and it made it a whole lot easier for me to do the work that I was doing, in fact, to make me even more a champion of the importance of public history and our responsibility as museums to tackle issues that sometimes are really, really tough for the audiences.