Selma Burke, American (1900 – 1995), “Sadness,” 1951, bronze, 18½ x 17 x 11 inches, Bequest of Selma Burke, 1998.1
Selma Burke, American (1900 – 1995), “Sadness,” 1951, bronze, 18½ x 17 x 11 inches, Bequest of Selma Burke, 1998.1. Spelman College

A serious, thoughtful, and careful examination of lived experience undergoes perpetual distortion because of the unique American obsession with happiness. In the United States, sadness, tragedy, crisis, or despair routinely lead to vigorous pursuit of a silver lining, a happy ending, an upside that makes life’s crushing dismay, pain, and sorrow a nearly impossible occurrence. Even as a lifelong citizen of this country, however, I startle upon encountering sanitized violence and smoothed over cruelty for the purpose of finding fictive happiness.

Driving my son to school this morning, we listened to Ellen Levine’s children’s book Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad. Unlike an ebook that might include images, the audible version of this book did not include the Kadir Nelson illustrations that can make any reading experience worthwhile. Listening to the story, without the pleasure of viewing Nelson’s illustrations, probably made me more attuned to this fairytale like narrative of enslavement that Levin offers. As the narrative opens, my ears peaked when Levine writes that “Henry’s master had been good to Henry and his family.” The slaveholder who withheld liberty and freedom from Henry and his family may have been less sadistic than many slaveholders, but the notion of a “good” slaveholder is pure Gone With the Wind fantasy. Though far different, calling someone a “good” slaveholder shares certain affinities with casting a woman who leaves an abusive husband to later marry a much better beater as much better off; it’s absurd!

The “good” slaveholder Levine describes, decides that upon his death Henry would become the property of his son; in other words, he would remain enslaved instead of free. Henry later finds a woman he loves, Nancy, and they have children. Henry felt fortunate that his family remained together, but Nancy, more wisely worried about the stability of their lives together. Unfortunately, money became one factor that motivated the slaveholder who owned Nancy and her children to sale them. The sale of his family becomes the catalyst for Henry’s plan to escape. With the help of those opposed to slavery, Henry was put inside a box and shipped to Philadelphia as mail.

The Author’s Note Levin reads differs in length and detail from the one in the book. In the audio version, she notes that Henry never again found his family, possibly married in England, and was wanted as a fugitive. In the audio version, Levin addresses the difficulty that arrises when offering tales of true and historical misfortune to children. Levine contends that given the horrors of slavery, what inspired her to write Henry’s Freedom Box was recognizing, “the incredible courage, the imagination, and the strength to overcome that kind of disaster.” How does she know that Henry overcame “that kind of disaster?” How does she know that he did not carry buckets of grief everyday in mourning for all that he lost?

Americans aren’t going to like this, but this is the truth: Some people live terrible lives; they die alone and unmourned; they never recover or overcome. Maybe if we stop deluding ourselves, we might be able to offer meaningful comfort, companionship, and support for those so broken that “all the kings horses and all the kings men” couldn’t put them back together again.

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