Nothing like a trip far north, to the shores of Lake Superior, where you can almost see the earth curve, to clear the mind of minutiae and pour in new food for thought. Waking at 5 a.m. with the sun just blushing over the rim, sends the mind looping far and wee (lifting a tiny phrase from ee cummings). And I’m in South Africa in the 1950s and 60s when the struggle against apartheid sends a white, British/South African couple, the Bernsteins, fleeing across a barbed-wire frontier into Botswana. Or I’m in Nantucket–the New England Island off the coast of Cape Cod, one of the strangest hooks in world geography. It’s the 1850s. Several abolitionist white families are hiding an African-American couple escaped from slavery in the U.S. south. The escaped slaves have been living in the “Guinea” island community for several years before slave owners with a U.S. marshal come after them under the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act.
The Bernsteins’ story was told by the wife, Hilda, in a book republished recently by Persephone, dedicated to reprinting forgotten modern British classics. “The World That Was Ours” recounts an extraordinary South African family who function in many ways as ordinary citizens: husband an architect, wife a journalist, four children who romp in a swimming pool, resist going to bed, learn to read. The Bernsteins have joined the Communist Party, she explains, because it is the only party that bring blacks and white together as equals. I stop for a moment and contemplate this: Communism in the United States was so tainted in the 50s by the McCarthy witch hunt and the Cold War that many Americans lost an awareness of its earlier, wider appeal. Many prominent American intellectuals joined the Communist Party before World War II because it was a world-wide organization that stood for equality and economic justice among all peoples.
In South Africa economic and political justice were essentially the same thing: The Afrikaner government trampled black workers’ economic rights by segregating them into all-black communities, then sending police to dispossess families of their homes (often what we’d call shacks) and herd male workers into camps where the food and living conditions were substandard and the pay abysmal. Many protesters, including Randy Bernstein and Nelson Mandela, were held in solitary confinement for 90 days without a hearing, before these trials. Though the case against Bernstein was not made sufficiently to keep him in prison–there was actually a rather dispassionate judge–Bernstein was immediately apprehended again, but released on bail. Mandela’s sentence of life-imprisonment was confirmed. Escape for the Bernsteins was a desperate last-act, fraught with the possibility of recapture as they waited in parched Botswana, having left their younger children with their oldest, married daughter. In Botswana, the Bernsteins were still dependent on the alert care of strangers to snatch them from capture by the Gestapo-like South African police.
In South Africa under apartheid, many whites remained apathetic, fearful, and uninvolved. It was dangerous, as the Bernstein’s story discloses, to act on behalf of a group of people whom the regime of Dutch-South Africans was systematically determined to reduce to slavery in all but name. Likewise in the Nantucket of the 1850s, many god-fearing and law-abiding residents upheld the Fugitive Slave Law and delayed integrating public schools (despite a legal ruling by state courts against segregation). The local mail carrier delivered the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator with tongs. He would not touch it.
I find it very salutary to revisit the controversy around fugitive slaves who had escaped from slavery and moved to states where blacks were not immediately impounded into slavery. Reviewing some of this history points out for me the enormous divide not only between slave-owners and non, but between those who used religion (often Quakers and Unitarians) to resist enslaving other human beings and those (almost all Christian denominations in the slave-holding South) who used religion to support slavery. Looking back also emphasizes that the battle for freedom was also fought in the courts: The Fugitive Slave Law allowed a slave owner to “track down” with the assistance of a U.S. marshal any so-called slave reputed to have escaped. It opened up to capture many freed slaves who had moved North. Then, the Missouri Supreme Court got into the conflict, ruling in 1850 that any slave, voluntarily transported by his or her owner into “free territory” was free. This was eventually overturned by the US Supreme Court in 1859, on the eve of the Civil War.
Nantucket because of its enormously important whaling industry attracted many black men who escaped slavery, but didn’t care to try their freedom by living on American soil. They took to the sea, where as Herman Melville’s richly evocative novel “Moby Dick,” 1850 makes plain, the crews of whaling ships came from around the globe. In fact, Ishmael, Melville’s main character, signs on as a whaler from Nantucket. With this wind-swept history, far from shore, it’s not surprising that many fugitives from slavery found a supportive black community, nor that well-to-do white ship-owners, merchants, and retired seamen chose to black people who were plagued by the Fugitive Slave Law.
As we struggle through a period of intense partisanship, economic trouble, and extreme political behavior, I muse about how often in our history appeals to “higher laws” have come from both sides of a debate, how the path to change almost always has occurred through wide swings among divergent positions, and how individuals with courage and commitment to equality and a broad definition of human good have ultimately made an enormous difference.