Immigrant families from the Black Diaspora are familiar with this passage: moving to countries with thriving economies to make a better living, and leaving their children behind in the care of trusted relatives and friends. Of course, the separation is never permanent. Just long enough for the mom or dad to get working papers and authorization to bring his or her spouse and kids to where they are. The idea of making such a choice for economic reasons seems hard enough, but what if one’s humanity were in the balance?
What if it was the late 18402 and you were a young slave woman, say Mary Walker, visiting Philadelphia with your master? With three young children back on a plantation in North Carolina, you might not be tempted to succumb to the urgings of abolitionists to get away. But if you and that master argued so fiercely about something that he threatened to sell your kids away from the only home they’ve ever known, then what?
Mark Walker made a choice given those terms, and you can read about it in “To Free A Family,” by Sydney Nathans. The story is drawn from letters and lots of other documents to piece together Walker’s life and what it was like for her to live through those times. I’m not sure if I could bear to be separated from Baby, but if it were inevitable and I had to make a terrible bargain, I’d at least want to scrape up an ounce of my own humanity by booking passage on the Underground Railroad, instead of waiting around helplessly until someone tore her out of my arms.
Walker was a literate slave, and was articulate enough to impress northern whites, apparently. I prefer to read stories about slaves like her, honestly, because tales of brutality meted out on field workers always leave me emotionally zapped and near tears. Judging by this book review in The Wall Street Journal, Walker’s story had a more uplifting end.