Last night I am watching American Idol with Jamie who is irritated because I am giggling like a five year old at Instagram Reels or TikTok while he is trying to have a lovely sentimental moment. What stops me is this ginormous black kid with the voice of an angel who starts Stand Up!, the Oscar winning song from Harriet, the biopic of Harriet Tubman, undisputed heroine of the Underground Railroad. I tried to watch the movie but the first scenes were of vicious white people being extra vicious and Lord knows I am tired of those scenes. How many have I seen? How many have been written or filmed? Ten thousand? A hundred thousand? A million?
Together we are going to a brand new home
Far across the river
I hear freedom calling?
Calling me to answer
Gonna keep on keepin’ on
I can feel it in my bones
I go to prepare a place for you
“That “place” he was singing about?” I say to Jamie. “That was Canada, and specifically the land that my four times great grandfather, Oliver Phelps donated to the fugitives for their village”. Oliver and his 17 children and his cousins formed a line of shelter from the Connecticut Valley where they’d settled in 1650 through upper New York State where in 1823, Oliver started to build the fourteen locks at Lockport on the Erie Canal. He then moved to Canada to dig the Welland Canal, which opened the West to desperate hordes seeking freedom and a new life or really, just enough to eat. William Hamilton Merritt, the great projector of the Canadian future, the god/king of the region at the time, was also an Officer on the Underground Railroad. The canal tunnels were used to hide the fugitives and smuggle them across the border. Oliver’s housekeeper, a black woman, was their liaison with Harriet.
While we were at it, Oliver built schools in the Niagara and would get up in the morning to drive round the farms in a buckboard picking up little girls to go to school, paying their parents for the loss of field labor. TWO HUNDRED YEARS AGO.
I do not begrudge American blacks their heroine and their interpretation of their story, which is tragic, which is profoundly moving, which has created some of the greatest art of our age. I do begrudge their demagoguing it into a race war. 500,000 people died to free them. Not all white people are evil sons-of-bitches. We would do well to remember that.