January 25, 2018
(+++) THE LIVING PAST
Streetcar to Justice: How Elizabeth Jennings Won the Right to Ride in New York. By Amy Hill Hearth. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $19.99.
Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad. By Ann Petry. Amistad/HarperCollins. $16.99.
Hagiography in the service of a cause is perhaps inevitable. Certainly those who are deeply committed to a specific set of beliefs, to seeing specific things in a specific way, may be unlikely ever to tire of hearing the same stories about the same perfect people again and again. Unfortunately, the more frequently those stories are told about those same people, the less likely it becomes that anyone outside the inner circle, the absolute core group, will pay attention. Drawing people who are not group members into understanding, appreciation and support of a cause is therefore better done by reaching out to find new contributors to the cause – ones whose stories are not already familiar. That is what Amy Hill Hearth has done in Streetcar to Justice, the story of an African-American woman named Elizabeth Jennings who, in 1854 – seven years before the start of the Civil War – was refused a streetcar seat, insisted on taking one anyway, was bodily removed, and ended up at the center of a celebrated but now little-remembered court case that helped desegregate public transportation in New York. This is not at all a well-known story, and for that reason it is intriguing and definitely worth exploring. It is also not a story of perfect African-Americans against evil white people: Jennings’ defense lawyer was none other than a future president of the United States, Chester A. Arthur. Yes, Hearth tends to make Jennings seem somewhat too good to be true: “The same woman who had made the first major breakthrough in ending the segregated streetcar system in New York remained dedicated to progress, justice, education, and equality.” But that is the way of books designed not only to take note of heroism based on societal norms of its time but also to try to make people seem larger than life and worthy of celebrating centuries later. Streetcar to Justice is a fascinating time capsule that will help interested young people – the target age range of readers is 8-12 – learn how things were done before the Civil War and what factors began to change in the years leading up to that conflict. A reasonable question, however, is what cause the book is intended to further for today’s young readers. The time, the laws, the society in which Elizabeth Jennings lived are all long, long gone, and if modern American society is scarcely perfect, it is so different from that of Jennings’ time as to render Streetcar to Justice essentially valueless in any specific way – although its general message of being willing to stand up to injustice, using the legal system to do so rather than engaging in vandalism, riot and murder, is certainly one that people of any age can take to heart in any era.
Ann Petry’s Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad is a less-interesting book even though it is quite well-written and well-paced. It would have been far more effective when it was originally published, in 1955, because the civil-rights protests and problems of that 70-plus-years-ago era would have seemed to possess a connection, indirectly if not precisely, to Tubman’s determination to help slaves escape their captivity by using the Underground Railroad to freedom. The issue today, when the book is being reissued in an edition with a new cover, is that Tubman hagiography is so common and so over-the-top that the woman seems more an evanescent saint than a real-world character, and the anti-slavery battle that she fought so bravely has no direct relationship whatsoever to any legal or social circumstances in the United States today. This certainly does not mean that race relations in the country are perfect or that there does not remain a great deal to do in order to ensure equality of opportunity for the 13% of Americans who are black. But as Petry herself was aware, Tubman “in many ways…represented the end of an era, the most dramatic, and the most tragic, era in American history.” Tubman was in fact a multifaceted woman, involved in history in many ways – as nurse, scout and Civil War spy, all of which roles Petry discusses. But she was also very much a woman of her time, one determined to usher in a new and better era for people sharing her skin color. There is little doubt that she contributed hugely to doing just that. Still, her story is one that has been told and retold so many times, and she has been so idolized and made to seem so impervious to criticism of any sort, that Petry’s book comes across today as a kind of celebrity biography – not the serious study of a major pre-and-post-Civil-War figure that it would have been when Petry wrote it. Young readers – this book too targets those ages 8-12 – will find much to admire in Tubman if they do not already know who she is and what she did. But this book in no way reaches out beyond the African-American community and in no way tries to show ways in which Tubman’s heroism in her time (she died in 1913) connects to the people and events of the 21st century.