Escape; or, a Leap for Freedom Analysis
The play Escape; or, a Leap for Freedom explores the subject of slavery in the history of the United States and the kind of treatment the society accorded slaves. It unravels a complex religious and racial conflict among the Southerners. The play also substantially focuses on sexual and emotional exploitation of slaves by slave masters in a manner that is not only inhuman, but also antisocial. In so doing, slave masters meticulously planned separation of families of their slaves in a bid to manipulate them. William Wells Brown, having suffered a similar fate, understands too well what it implied to lead slaves’ social lives. The play also dwells on what he terms a leap for freedom when the Northern states took a bold stand against slavery. It was an irony of sorts given that the Northerners were less religious and were expected to be less human as compared to highly religious Southerners. In the play, William Wells Brown describes the use of whips, chains, and beating sticks as the hallmark of suffering in slavery. Any slave who dared to escape from slavery received the most ruthless treatment ever witnessed in the society (Ernest 1110). In order to get the attention of his audience, William Wells Brown intelligently laced his message with themes that resonated well with the general white population. This did not just make him stand out as a prominent African American antislavery crusader, but also gave his message a lot of impetus.
William Wells Brown was born of a slave mother, Elizabeth, who was at the time working for Dr. John Young. His father, supposedly a relative of Dr. Young, was a white man. It goes without mentioning that his birth was a result of sexual exploitation of slaves by slave masters. Slave masters sexually exploited their slaves, but never turned up to claim their children. It shows the degree of moral decadence in the society at the time. According to the religion that Southerners claimed to respect so much, sexual relationships were supposed to be practiced primarily by married couples (Ernest, 1110). The subject also questions the stability of racial lines in as far as sexual relationships are concerned. At one point, race was used to limit their rights and several other activities in America and at other points it seemed meaningless. The subject of sexual exploitation of female slaves appears particularly attractive for William Wells Brown. William’s birth was a result of sexual exploitation of slaves by their masters. Unfortunately, his mixed heritage did not give him any social advantages. The society treated him like any other African American, i.e. a slave without dignity.
In the play, Melinda has to avoid the temptation of falling into her master’s trap for sexual exploitation. Dr. Gaines, her master, offered to find her a separate cottage to keep her as his mistress several times. It is important to note that these sexual advances started when Melinda was only a little girl. Thus, it was not only an affront to her status as a slave, but also an affront to her gender. William Wels Brown mainly intended to rope in the idea of gender in order to give his play more attention from the society. Melinda only represented several ladies who lost their innocence to their slave masters (Ernest 1110). More importantly, her curse would be her God-given beauty in this case. The author also includes marriage in the story to show how vulnerable female slaves were in the society. Unknown to Dr. Gaines, Melinda and Glen are secretly married. Thus, when Dr. Glen insists on seeking to exploit her sexually, she confronts him with the reality of her marriage. Marriages were to be respected and Melinda expected this revelation to keep Dr. Gaines away from her. It was her last point of defense after several years of exploitation (Brown 324).
Sexual exploitation was one of the severe forms of emotional torture that slave masters exposed their female slaves to. It was planned and executed without their consent and women slaves were expected to keep silent about it. It goes without mentioning that sexual exploitation of female slaves showed a great deal of moral decadence in the American society. The whites did not just lack respect for their slaves, but also for their families. It is the reason why William Wells Brown mocks whites of their deeds that resulted in his birth in his later lectures. Slaves who refused these sexual advances were treated with untold cruelty. According to the play, the Southerners did not match their religious beliefs with concrete actions. While their religious beliefs forbade them from having extra-marital sexual affairs, they willingly seduced female slaves. Besides, these acts of sexual violence were meted against female slaves due to the account of their God-given beauty. Brown sought to portray sexual exploitation of slaves as an outright act of hypocrisy among the Southerners, who were mostly of the Christian faith (Brown 324).
Northerners against Slavery
In the play, William Wells Brown uses Mr. White to depict the antislavery mood in the North. Unlike in the Southern states, the Northerners mainly condemned slavery and occasionally slammed Southerners for insisting on it. Mr. White had traveled to the South where he talked about slavery in public. As a result, Southerners attacked him and he had to hide and escape back to the North for his safety. This incident showed the heightened tension between the South and the North (Ernest 1110). This tension threatened to explode into a civil war by every passing day. While the Northerners opposed slavery, they also denied Blacks their fundamental rights and freedoms. It was arguable that they had no moral authority to lecture the Southerners on slavery. In fact, the Southerners interpreted their opposition to slavery as an act of economic sabotage. The Southerners were mainly agriculturalists who depended on manual labor for their farms. Slavery seemed to provide the cheapest source of labor. In turn, Northern states were industrialized and did not entirely rely on manual labor. As a result, Blacks were dangerously caught up in the political tension between the Northerners and the Southerners (Brown 324). The Northern anti-slave crusaders came to the aid of Southern slaves. However, most of it was lip service because they also participated in violation of the rights f Blacks, albeit in a different way.
Conflict of Religion and Race
Slavery is closely intertwined with the history of the United States right from the American Revolution to the Civil War (Neely Jr. 457). The American founding fathers fronted the Revolution to bring liberty to the American soil only to form a nation founded on slavery. Indeed, antislavery crusaders often cited this as a proper justification for cessation of slavery. In their argument, they maintained that Blacks had also contributed immensely in the Revolution in pursuit of liberty (Ernest 1110). Thus, they needed to be granted freedom by totally abolishing slavery in the United States of America., When drafting the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson gave slavery a prominent coverage. He listed slavery as one of the social evils that had been forced upon the United States by the British. The American founding father, renowned for his immense contribution to the liberation struggle, was deeply concerned about the moral consequence of America’s reliance on slavery (Brown 324). According to him, the liberation struggle was anchored in the conviction that liberty was a precious gift from God and that those who violated it were bound to face the wrath of God Himself. Again, Brown brought in the “American Dream” as well as America’s religious inclination to condemn the atrocities meted against blacks in slavery.
As slavery became commonplace in the Southern states, it increasingly became a subject of confrontation in the Congress as well as periodicals and articles. It is instructive to note that while most Northerners and indeed Southerners understood Jefferson’s moral argument against slavery, they still supported it either economically or politically. It was characteristic of a nation torn between total human liberty and the system of slavery (Ernest 1110). Essentially, the Northerners used the fate of Southern slaves to define labor relations in the North. By making sensational claims regarding white slavery, the Northern labor movement made successful arguments in relation to labor relations. In fact, labor movements were born around this time as most whites took up jobs in industries. It was a complex conflict of religion and race between the North and the Southern states. Although Blacks in the antislavery movement used the confusion to advance their agenda, most scholars contend it was a tricky balance. For instance, William Wells Brown was intelligent enough to hide the fact that he was speaking for black slaves in his public lectures across America after his escape. In most cases, he would add gender and religious issues to deflect attention from race and slavery. He understood that gender and religious issues resonated well with the entire American society. At the time, women in America did not have voting rights and finding meaningful employment was a tall order (Brown 324).
Separation of Families
Separation of families is another manner in which slave masters intimidated and inflicted emotional torture on slaves. William Wells Brown faced this fate when he attempted to escape with his entire family. As a result, they were chained, severely whipped, and separated as a family. They were individually sold to different slave masters, never to see one another again. According to William Wells Brown, this was the ultimate punishment for daring to escape from slavery. However, William found opportunity to escape and fled to the North where he adopted a more meaningful career of lecturing. The same fate befalls Melinda and Glen in their new-found love. Although the two are in love, their slave master would not allow them to marry. Instead, all barriers are erected on their way of being together in order intentionally to discourage them. After all, their being together is a major hindrance to Dr. Gaines’ lusty relationship with Melinda. Essentially, separation of families was used intentionally to manipulate slaves and prevent them from fronting a joint action plan against slavery. Slave marriages survived on the whims of their slave masters. A slave master could decide to end them any time through the sale one from a slave couple. It is a tool that slave masters used quite ruthlessly to manipulate and humiliate their slaves (Brooks 112). Instructively, Christianity advocates for sanctity of the family and emphasizes on non-interference with what God has put together. Thus, Brown sought to make a religious appeal to make his point.
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In conclusion, the play explores the evil of slavery in the American society and how slaves were treated in the society by unraveling the complex religious and racial conflict among the Southerners. Besides, rampant cases of sexual exploitation of slaves showed the degree of moral decadence in the American society at the time. Slave masters had no respect for families, which is perhaps the reason they separated families in a bid to manipulate and humiliate them. Although Northern states did not fully support slavery, they did very little to stop it. In most cases, they used it to advance interests of their labor movements. On release, William Wells Brown embarked on a mission to champion for the abolition of slavery. He used immense courage and intellect to communicate with his audience so that they found his antislavery message important. Perhaps, this makes him stand out in history as one of the greatest pioneers in the antislavery campaign.