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Subterranean Pass Way

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Color 16mm film with sound ca. 20 minutes (work-in-progress)
"Some things, one might say, have to be remembered because they cannot be imagined."*

"Subterranean Pass Way" is a 16mm film that looks at the anti-slavery Underground Railroad movement in the US in terms of "moral community," implicitly suggesting a comparison with our own sense of moral identification today.

The Underground Railroad was a self-organized network of individuals, groups, institutions and safe houses that aided and facilitated slaves in their effort to escape to freedom in the northern states, Canada, Mexico and overseas. The network was most active from about 1810 until the end of the Civil War and not only freed thousands but was also a vital and practical interracial political movement forming the base of the abolition effort—the single sustaining force of resistance against the institution of slavery.

The individuals in the network were primarily black and worked with the help of Native Americans and European Americans. Very few, if any, participants had broad knowledge of the overall network. Without central leadership it was made up of intersecting and overlapping “moral communities” composed of separate socially integrated groups holding shared beliefs who were sympathetic with each other. A person’s enslavement, escape and freedom carried enormous consequences not only for that person, but also for the individuals in each moral community to which that person belonged.

The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 meant that escape to a northern state was no longer a guarantee of freedom. Canada, and the Ontario province in particular, became the new objective. New York and Michigan became conduits to destination towns at the east and west ends of Lake Erie.

Rather than attempting an impossible re-telling of the entire Underground Railroad narrative, or following a single narrative thread, my project will examine the American 19th century quotidian social conditions and relations through which the Underground Railroad emerged, inviting the spectator to consider what moral communities they belong to and how these communities effect our actions, decisions and response to need today.

The qualities of moral community that subtended the Underground Railroad will be further highlighted by looking at a contrasting strategy that emerged from within the movement: John Brown’s ambitious, radical and potentially destructive attempt to centralize and militarize the Underground Railroad. Brown’s plan, which he called the "Subterranean Pass Way," or SPW, would have transformed the movement into a quasi-militia, ending the semi-anonymity of the network by exposing individuals to the public sphere. The extremism of the proposed Subterranean Pass Way prefigured the violence of Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, a major catalyst of the American Civil War.

The project will materialize in the form of a 16mm film that emphasizes temporal and spatial aspects of these narratives. The viewer will be addressed directly by the questions raised, including all that is implied looking at the moral communities of the Underground Railroad in light of our own times, and the question of slavery itself in the 21st century. Today the equation of slavery and freedom has been inverted. While in some sense civil and human rights have emerged into the open, the slave trade has gone underground. At present there are an estimated 27 million people enslaved world wide, and up to 17,000 in the US.

This project will also foreground Canadian / US political relations stemming from the 19th century allowing this to resonate with our own time. The project will be developed in collaboration with the museum, The Power Plant in Toronto and other institutions in regions with strong connections to the subject such as Massachusetts, Michigan, New York and other relevant sites. Initial support has been provided by Art Matters, New York City.

* Paul Hamilton, "Historicism," London & New York: Routledge, 1996, p. 8.

Photo: Annette Thomas