Never Caught – The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave Ona Judge

never-caught-9781501126390_lg   With every day exposing another revelation about someone famous – now infamous – Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s National Book Award Finalist, Never Caught, adds to the list of politicians who are not who they seem.  If you think of George Washington as the stalwart leader of the Revolutionary troops, the fatherly first President, or even the boy who chopped down the cherry tree and would not lie about it, Dunbar’s story of Ona Judge may change your impression.

Modern accounts of history sometimes conveniently forget the founding fathers used slaves to run their households and, in the case of Southern aristocrats, kept thousands to run their plantations and farms.  Ona Judge was born into slavery and came to Mount Vernon with Martha Custis as part of her dowry.  When the Washingtons moved to the Philadelphia White House, she was among the trusted household slaves who came with them as Martha’s personal dresser and attendant.  Ever the politician, Washington maneuvered around Pennsylvania’s 1780 gradual abolition law, sending his slaves back from Philadelphia to Virginia every six months to prevent them from claiming freedom.  Pennsylvania law required the emancipation of all adult slaves who were brought into the commonwealth for more than six months.

On May 21, 1796, as George and Martha Washington ate their supper in the Philadelphia Executive Mansion, their twenty-two year old house slave, Ona Judge, walked out of the house and into freedom. With the help of the free black community in Philadelphia, Judge made her way to Portsmouth, New Hampshire where the free black community and white supporters provided refuge.

Dunbar’s history exposes the Washingtons as slave holders who adamantly believed in keeping their human property, and she notes their shock at the “ingratitude” of Judge; the President wrote she had fled “without any provocation.” Later, Judge recounted she had “never received the least moral or mental instruction” while with the Washingtons, and had been treated as property, just like all her family.  Despite being viewed as a privileged household slave by the Washingtons,  they determined how and where she lived.  Martha Washington’s gift of the slave to her newly wed granddaughter triggered Judge’s escape.

When Judge runs away before the group returns to Virginia at the the end of the Presidency, Washington uses his political influence and substantial power, sometimes illegally, to find her and bring her back.  Washington was willing to abuse his office and power to hunt another human being, while Martha Washington’s outrage fueled her husband’s pursuit of Judge.

Amazingly, Judge is able to negotiate with one of Washington’s abolitionist friends when she is first found in New Hampshire, but ultimately she must run again, always living in fear of being found. Judge remained firm that she would “‘rather suffer death’ than return to slavery” as Dunbar exposes the emotional toll of separation from family and the physical and economic realities of day-to-day living for black women.  Her life of freedom costs her security and left her in poverty, but her progeny are finally rewarded with a better life.

As a fugitive, Dunbar remained hidden throughout her life, and she protected the people who gave her refuge. Dunbar’s account uses Judge’s 1845 interview in the Granite Freeman and 1847 interview in the Liberator, the only recorded interviews Judge gave about her life, after many who had helped her had died.  Well-referenced manuscripts, letters, journals and approximately 130 secondary sources add to her documentation as she convincingly immerses the reader in the life of Ona Judge and changes the perception of George Washington.

 

 

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Time To Think

hourglass-fancyAlthough the two-hour rule has been applied to politics and food, its connection to creativity gave me pause. In his article for The Business Insider, Zat Rana proposed implementing a two-hour rule: just thinking with no distractions for two hours a week.

In politics, the U.S. Senate gained attention last year when Sen. Schumer from New York refused to waive the rule for a nomination.

In food, five seconds may be the time you allow to pick up a tasty morsel dropped on the floor, but two hours rules when leaving some refrigerated foods at room temperature.  It takes time for food poisoning bacteria to grow to unsafe levels.

In prompting imagination, Zat Rana cites the two hour rule – read the article here – to nurture creativity.  All this time I thought lying on the sofa staring at the ceiling was my avoidance technique when it was the same application of the two-hour rule used by Einstein and Darwin, among other great thinkers.

Rana suggests a few questions for reflection during those two hours:   a few caught my attention:

  •  “Am I excited to be doing what I’m doing or am I in aimless motion?
  • What’s a small thing (that I could do?) that will produce a disproportionate impact?
  • What could probably go wrong in the next 6 months of my life?”

Probably best not to dwell on that last one.
“Time to think” is not a new idea.  My mother often ranted she had none; my graduate students claimed they needed more. Like setting aside moments for meditation, hours for thinking may seem easier for some, a worthwhile pursuit, but wasted moments for others.

For those of us who easily fall into quiet reflection, now there is a better excuse.images-1

 

Degrees of Separation

Using a fellow writer’s suggestion of six degrees of separation connecting books, authors, and articles, I started with the travel section of the New York Times and found 1) an artist, who led to 2) an author, 3) a new book, 4) a reminder of a novel reviewed, 5) an obituary, and ended with 6) a slight deviation off course to books on psychology.
content   Starting with Suzanne MacNeil’s description of Vancouver Island’s lush beauty, I found Canadian artist Emily Carr, whose famous work documented the beauty of the region.  Her book Klee Wyck (“Laughing One”) was published in 1941 to document her efforts to sketch and paint the totem poles found on the Queen Charlotte Islands.

“And, who, you might ask is Emily Carr?…Painter, writer, admirer of forests and totem poles…environmentalist before the word was popular…an ardently independent woman at a time when women weren’t necessarily applauded for striking out on their own…Besides the statue and all the things named after her, including a university in Vancouver, she has been the subject of biographies, films and a novel (by an American, no less — the late Susan Vreeland). “

fl-cover-2-200   I wondered about the mention of a novel based on the artist,  and found Forest Lover by Susan Vreeland, historical fiction based on Carr’s life as a Canadian artist.  The book includes some of Carr’s paintings.  Had I read anything by Susan Vreeland? Why did her name sound familiar? A quick search led me to my review of Clara and Mr. Tiffany. 225x225bb   MacNeil referred to the author as “the late Susan Vreeland”?  Her recent obituary from this past August noted her breakout novel in 1999 – The Girl in Hyacinth Blue, and another I’d read – Lisette’s List.

51ZfXSH8Y-L._AC_US218_  MacNeil described Carr as “an ardently independent woman at a time when women weren’t necessarily applauded for striking out on their own…” diverting me to Penelope Green’s article in the Style section on Gretchen Rubin’s new book The Four Tendencies.   Rubin’s theory proposes that everone falls into one of four personality types (the new Myers Briggs categorization), depending on their answers to a short quiz asking how they respond to expectations.   I wondered how Emily Carr fit into Rubin’s classifications. Would Emily Carr be a Questioner, an Upholder, an Obliger, or a Rebel? Maybe a little of the first and last, or maybe leaning to the label I received after taking Rubin’s test – Questioner.

51np2MaD5FL._AC_US218_  Rubin’s mention of the Harry Potter sorting hat led to Carol Dweck’s Mindset, a book advising readers of their possibilities when they change their view about themselves – “rigid thinking benefits no one, least of all yourself.”  According to Dweck, everyone has the ability to change their minds about what they can do and who they are, no matter what the personality test label or the sorting hat has identified them as,  and Bill Gates’s review of the book offered more insights.

The article in the Style section was right above an article by Gabrielle Zevin. Hadn’t I just read snd reviewed her new book Young Jane Young? This article had a funny and inviting title – The Secret to Marriage is Never Getting Married.

And so I ended my degrees quest connecting with:

  1. Klee Wyck by Emily Carr
  2. Forest Lover Fby Susan Vreeland
  3. Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland
  4. The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin
  5. Mindset  by Carol Dweck
  6. The Secret to Marriage is Not Getting Married by Gabrielle Zevin

Related Links:

Suggestions for Next Year’s Book Club

unknownLooking forward to next year, some books clubs have already finalized their monthly reading list. Others are having parties to discuss possibilites, or desperately asking their members to host a book – any book.  As I reviewed the books I’ve read in 2017, I thought about those I would be willing to reread for a discussion, and which would offer some value for expanding knowledge, nudging introspection, or just be fun to revisit.

 

With its inherent possibilities for comparison to what really happened, historical fiction is strong on my list.  Requiring the host to research (but google is so easy), the fictionalized lives imagined by the author compared to facts recorded in history could make for a lively discussion.  Kate Manning’s My Notorious Life adds the possibility of comparison to the popular PBS series “Call the Midwife,” based on its own memoir.   Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate opens a hornet’s nest but also addresses foster care.  News of the World by Paulette Giles, set in post Civil War Texas and nominated for the 2016 National Book Award, with its “True Grit” flavor, is an easy and direct tale of a young girl and her gritty escort but with surprising twists.  All four books are easy to follow and carry the weight of information worth knowing.  Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders is another of my favorites based on historical fact and is well worth reading, but may be too ambitious for some book clubbers (there – I’ve thrown down the challenge).

Meeting new authors, especially if the book is short, a little frivolous, but with a smattering of philosophy, is always good for mixing up the list.  Joanna Trollope, an author new to me but who many already have read, has a new book – City of Friends.  Lisa Allardice describes Trollope’s books as “tales of quiet anguish and adultery among the azaleas; Trollope created the original desperate housewives.” Kathleen Rooney’s Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk will be welcomed by readers who enjoyed The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper.  Rooney adds a dash of New York City as she reminisces on her New Year’s Eve walk through the city.

Not a big fan of nonfiction, I still feel compelled to include one on my list.  Alan Burdick’s Why Time Flies offers enough scientific inquiry with relatable anecdotes to  be readable.  The National Book Awards recently published their longlist for best nonfiction, but they seem too political for me.  You can decide for yourself – National Book Awards nominees for Nonfiction.  I have yet to read Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977-2002) by David Sedaris, but I expect to like it – more a memoir, but could fit the nonfiction category.

When bestsellers are not in the library system, classics are usually available, and this year I reread Edna Ferber’s So Big – with an amazingly contemporary message.  Wallace Stegner’s books Crossing to Safety and Angle of Repose should be required reading for everyone, but this year I read one of his earlier, shorter books – Remembering Laughter – a good book to start a discussion of this famous author.

For my final two, I nominate a coming of age story – Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger, and a story about an abandoned child – Leaving Lucy Pear.  

My list has 11 books, one month off the year for the annual luncheon or decision-making party.  If you click on the title, you will be directed to my book review.  What books are on your book club list for next year?  What books would you recommend?

MY LIST:

  1. My Notorious Life
  2. Before We Were Yours
  3. News of the World
  4. Lincoln in the Bardo
  5. City of Friends  
  6. Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk
  7. Why Time Flies
  8. So Big
  9. Remembering Laughter
  10. Ordinary Grace
  11. Leaving Lucy Pear

Books from 2016:

I have not included books from earlier years, but, if not yet discussed, I would point to:

A Brief Detour into Nonfiction

 

9780374156046_p0_v2_s192x300  Flâneuse

After wandering around New York City with Lillian Boxfish in Kathleen Rooney’s novel, Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse seemed a natural follow-up.  In a series of essays, each targeting a city – Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London, Elkin introduces the concept of the Flâneuse  – a woman who is “determined, resourceful…keenly attuned to the creative potential of the city and the liberating possibilities of a good walk.”  Whether or not you are familiar with each city, her attention to the idiosyncrasies of the neighborhoods connects you to the landscape. As she addresses famous women who have walked the cities – Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf, and others – a connection between creativity and the dangers of women’s striving for independence in a man’s world emerges.  I have not yet finished the book – had to take time out to take a walk.

9780062300546_p0_v6_s192x300   Hillbilly Elegy

I was determined not to read this book, but too many like-minded friends urged me to try  J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.   Although Vance’s conversational style makes the book easy to read, the misery detailing the violence, poverty and addiction in poor white communities makes it hard to digest.  So much has been written about the book, both as social commentary and political influence (see reviews in The New Yorker and  major newspapers), but basically the memoir is sad and depressing – despite the author’s rise from poverty to the Marines and finally Yale Law School – yet, raising awareness and asking questions.

61eioJoO+wL._AC_UL160_  The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down

The English translation of Korean Buddhist monk Haemin Sunim’s The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down offers a series of short essays followed by short messages based on his 140 character tweets about faith and mindfulness.  The book reminded me of a gift I received years ago when I was in the throes of career building – Meditations for Women Who Do Too Much.  Open either book at any page to get a short fortune cookie message with advice. Sometimes it is amazingly appropriate.