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Steal away, steal away

Steal away to Jesus!

Steal away, steal away home;

I ain’t got long to stay here.

Yesterday’s choir honored Junteenth by singing the African American spiritual, Steal Away, composed around 1862. Its yearning to make a radical change, in secrecy, smarts the senses, provokes shortness of breath, enhances identification. Repetitious lyrics and the melodic line afford rapid learning and lodge in the heart-memory. Such is my take on this spiritual, in my present circumstances.

Although Steal Away was composed by Wallace Willis, a field slave of a Choctaw freedman in the old Indian territory, Doaksville, Oklahoma, its widespread use among enslaved Africans is questioned by Frederick Douglass, freed slave and African American social reformer, and other current critics.

The spiritual’s use, as code for fugitives on the Underground Railroad, is also questioned as little evidence substantiates this claim. Douglass maintained only small groups planning escape to the North found courage in singing Steal Away. Such singing the white populace regarded as the “many silly things they do.”—Viewing them as less than human.

I ain’t got long to stay here.

So, the declaration concludes, impacted by strong metaphors: home: realm of freedom and eternal life; thunder and lightning: sources of dangerous energy; the trumpet: instrument of authority used in Old Testament for worship services, teaching, correction, and announcing war; call: a summons that demands immediate compliance, thunder, lightning, and green trees bending that suggest nature’s influence. At work here is the redemptive power of the Lord among sinners, falling short of the mark.

I include myself among them as I wait…

The arctic freeze continues creating havoc in our country, even into late February. Stories abound of utility outages, food shortages, and health issues, even death. Necessary errands present challenges.

In such circumstances, I reach for the slim novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich written by the Nobel Peace Prize winner Alexander Solzhenitsyn; its protagonist is drawn from the author’s experience as a bricklayer in one of the Gulag slave labor camps in Karaganda, northern Kazakhstan.

The novel begins in 1951, five o’clock in the morning—Twenty-seven degrees below zero and another work day, outdoors, for Ivan and the five hundred prisoners in Hut 6. The ragged noise of the hammer awakening them was “… muffled by ice two fingers thick on the windows.” From then until lights out, the reader follows Ivan’s efforts to survive.

Extremes of stale black bread and gruel in the mess hall, extremes of ragged clothing triple-wrapped around emaciated bodies, extremes of frostbite and blinding snow, extremes of cutting winds with no shelter, extremes of armed guards and attack dogs, extremes of multiple roll calls—all described in terse words, with no respite for the killing chill.

Aside from its gripping story, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, its 1962 publication by the Russian literary magazine Novy Mir is significant. Until then, the atrocities of the Gulag system had been kept hidden from the world. With Stalin’s death in 1953 and with the de-Stalinization programs instituted by his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, this novel revealed its egregious secret. Solzhenitsyn continued writing from his Russian heart, until his death in 2008.

“Thanks to be to Thee, O God, another day over!” Ivan says as the novel ends.

A closer look at the language, used in John McCline’s narrative, Slavery in the Clover Bottoms (Knoxville, University of Tennessee Press, 1998), warrants a deeper look than yesterday’s blog. True, his beginnings at the Clover Bottom Plantation, near Nashville, Tennessee, and his two-and-a half years with the Thirteenth Michigan Volunteers supply readers with his adventures. But what about their written expression: so crimped and cleaned up?

That slavery shrunk-wrapped the psyche of John McCline seems to be the issue. Early on, he bore significant scars: his mother’s death, his father sold to another plantation, pervasive fears of the Mistress’s cowhide whip, the overseer’s brutal beating, the killing of the shoemaker, hunger, and extremes of weather. John never let on that there was something very wrong, never questioned about unwiped tears as he lay upon his mat, though he must have felt deeply. Only his love for animals, especially mules, afforded him release from disconnectedness that scored his innards and released joy.

As new friendships evolved among his Union pals—even teaching them the game of marbles—his quick, some say photogenic mind, began loosening the shrink-wrap of his psyche. Battlefield horrors, foraging edibles from passing plantations, rigors of handling his team of six mules through dense forests and soggy creek beds—all, and so much more, he dismissed as freedom’s price, that he would readily pay with his last ounce of blood. 

His two years of schooling at the Nashville Institute, established to train black ministers and teachers after the war, found him seeking more words to describe his world of work in order to participate more fully. An avid reader of newspapers and the English novels of M. E. Braddon, his vocabulary in Slavery in the Clover Bottom is surprisingly limited—with nothing to offend anyone, in my perception.

Should you pick up this telling narrative, remove the outer lens and look more deeply at John McCline’s character. Such a treasure you’ll discover …

Available on Amazon

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