Close Panel


Emancipation of the Finite Mind

One hundred and fifty years after the Emancipation Proclamation, it is easy to think of slavery in black and white. Yet, the strongest chains still grip the mind.

Five-year-old Josiah Henson, a slave on a Maryland farm in the 1800s, fainted at the thought of losing his mother on the auction block.

Moments earlier his mother had watched while five of her children were sold, to be carted away to distant plantations. Maryland farmer Isaac Riley purchased her next, leaving only Josiah; she could not bear the thought of losing him too. He was still so young. Falling at his feet, she begged Riley to purchase the boy so they could be together. Riley kicked her groveling body out of the way, and the sound of her heart breaking proved to be too much for Josiah.

Henson, after fainting, appeared too weak to be any use to anyone, so Riley snapped him up for cheap. By age 36, however, Henson was Riley’s brawny slave manager. Henson had determined that to survive, he would be better than everyone— enslaved or free—that worked under Riley’s cruel thumb. Henson farmed more, baled more, lifted more. When he could, he stole the best sheep to feed to women and men who were too weak to work. They loved his kindness, and Riley, apparently unaware of his thefts, valued Henson’s industry and loyalty.

Henson was such a “good slave” that Riley trusted him to travel from Maryland to Kentucky to transfer his 18 slaves to his brother’s plantation with no other overseer to accompany them on this mission. Henson led the way, privately realizing the golden opportunity blossoming before him. More than once, their little boat, on the Ohio River, waded in freedom’s territory. More than once, free men and women beckoned them, and when they stopped in Cincinnati, free people begged him to stay.

“Now was offered to me an opportunity I had not anticipated. I might liberate my family, my companions, and myself without the smallest risk, and without injustice to any individual, except one whom we had none of us any reason to love, who had been guilty of cruelty and oppression to us all for many years, and who had never shown the smallest symptom of sympathy with us, or with anyone in our condition. But I need not make the exception. There would have been no injustice to [Riley] himself—it would have been a retribution which might be called righteous—if I had availed myself of the opportunity thus thrust suddenly upon me” (from The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself [Boston: Arthur D. Phelps, 1849], p. 24; neh/henson49/henson49.html.

“If” was the operative word. Whether it was because of loyalty, a sense of duty, a sense of inertia, a sense of false comfort, or just his plan to simply save the money to purchase himself, Henson rejected the opportunity. He woke up the next morning, delivered himself, his family, and the rest of the slaves on time, as promised.

Henson’s choice haunted him for years. That by turning over his fellow servants to continue a life of bondage, thereby inflicting the same suffering as he had experienced, caused him much internal conflict. He had thought he had done the right thing at the right time. He came to realize that his bonds were more than physical, and he now appreciated the true danger to which he had exposed himself, his family, and friends. It was years later, after raising money, after negotiating with Riley, after trying to buy his freedom, after being tricked out of all of it, that Henson finally got his ticket on the Underground Railroad and escaped to Canada.

The historical lens of history makes it easy to place bondage in black and white, the physical and temporal. Yet some of the strongest chains grip the mind. And, like Henson, most people ignore the first light of an opening. Victims of domestic violence, for example, may leave seven to 12 times before leaving the abuser permanently: (Mark Rosenberg and Mary Ann Fenley, eds., Violence in America: A Public Health Approach [New York: Oxford University Press, 1991]). Robbers, burglars, larcenists, and motor vehicle thieves who have been released from prison go back 70 percent of the time (Patrick A. Langan, David J. Levin, Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 1994, [Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of Justice, 2002]). Up to 80 percent of alcoholics drink again, 60 to 90 percent of smokers light up again, and 90 percent of gamblers bet again. “Even minor bad habits are hard to break: People make the same New Year’s resolution for an average of five years running before they maintain the change for even six months” (Kathleen McGowan, “The New Quitter,” Psychology Today, July 2010).

The people who are tethered to habits and memories, the influence of the powerful, and the enticement of status make their choices to remain where it is comfortable. Not so for the real people in the following pages. For them the shame of victimization or the luxury of status, or the drive of the addiction, did not provide a comfortable place to hide any longer. They have been liberated through God’s grace.

Leave Your Comments