Book review: The Underground Railroad

It was Black Man that first introduced me to the notion of the underground railroad, and of the work of Harriet Tubman. Utterly compelling from the first line of the vocal, Black Man, co-written by Stevie Wonder and Gary Byrd (who seems to get a writer’s credit, these days) was one of the stand-out songs on Songs in The Key of Life (coincidentally released 42 years ago this weekend) – a major credit in a very crowded field – and it identifies Harriet Tubman as a black woman who lead countless slaves to freedom via the underground railroad.

A film is being made, with shooting starting next month, of Harriet Tubman’s life and, probably more than Stevie Wonder, it is Colson Whitehead‘s 2017 novel which is the sparking point not least because – while his novel is emphatically not about Harriet Tubman – there are certain parallels between her early life and that of Cora, his heroine.

The star of the work, though, is the underground railroad itself. Given here a physical form (it was not, in reality, an actual railway but a network of sympathisers, determined people and incredibly brave, and frequently terrified, risk-takers), Whitehead uses the physicality of the railroad to pinpoint allegorical lessons about the un-noticed and unheralded contributions of slaves to the growth of the US. In taking such an approach, he is also able to pay tribute to those ‘station masters, conductors and sympathizers’ who built the railroad and whose pride in doing so thereby restored their humanity:

The ones who excavated a million tonnes, of rock and dirt, toiled in the belly of the earth for the deliverance of slaves like her. Who stood with all those other souls who took runaways into their homes, fed them, carried them north on their backs, died for them… Who are you after finishing something this magnificent – in constructing it, you have also journeyed through it, to the other side… The up-top world must be so ordinary compared to the miracle beneath, the miracle you made with your own sweat and blood. The secret triumph you keep in your heart.

To achieve the centrality of the point Whitehead is trying to put across, especially in what is not a long novel, the characterisation of the people he chooses to populate it must almost, by definition, take a back seat – as indeed must the casual mistreatment of slaves which, although very present in the novel, is dispensed with fairly quickly and in a matter-of-fact way unlike, for instance, the physicality of the approach to the experience of being a slave taken by Yaa Gyasi in Homegoing. This is quite clearly a risky strategy since it risks trivialising slaves’ experience of their treatment, but it pays off as long as the reader is aware of the author’s approach to what is he trying to achieve. The effect in making such experiences ordinary, everyday and, in that context, quite literally unremarkable may lie in dehumanising those subject to it but in circumstances in which the human miracle of those building, operating and maintaining the railroad is thereby made sharper, more real.

The major contribution which authors – as all artists – have an obligation to make is to use their work to pinpoint the injustices present in contemporary society. In spite of the Underground Railroad being a historical work, and a novel, it contains evident lessons not just in why the US has a Black Lives Matter movement (and why there is one in the UK, too) but in the ease with which ordinary men and women can be whipped up by demagogues into hatreds the like of which they wouldn’t otherwise recognise in themselves. We saw this with Hitler’s rallies; we saw it in the ease with which Milošević was able to turn workers bussed into rallies in Belgrade into Serbs; we saw it in many of Trump’s pre-election rallies; and we see aspects of it in live audience talent shows, too. And certainly we see it in the ease with which hate speakers and other divisive figures are able to gain access to (social) media.

A good artist is able to draw attention to such contemporary developments in the pictures they paint for us, even where they have a historical setting – and here Whitehead has done so too in the horrific Friday night ‘pageants’ which he has Cora witness from her North Carolina garret. Indeed, the contemporary lessons are made all the more pointed when we can witness their historical precedents (even in a work of fiction). We are all dehumanised when we allow any of ourselves to have our humanity taken away from us by a focus on others as ‘the other’, and the end-point is clear in a toxification of the public policy arena and in such a deterioration in the quality of public debate.

Similar to those facing the decision to construct the underground railroad out of a situation of horror, and to give hope to all those who are involved with it or who engage with it, or even who simply only hear about it, all of us have a responsibility to engage in the essential (re-)building process of our own humanity. We are indeed yet, as someone once sang, between the wars, and it is not yet too late for our efforts to have an effect.

Solidarity forever

We’re just back from spending a week in Gdańsk, having travelled to attend a friend’s wedding. With an unexpected spare day to myself as wedding preparations continued, I had a daunder up Góra Gradowa, the low hill overlooking Gdańsk’s main train and bus stations. This houses Napoleonic era fortifications, in the brick-built, grass-topped bunker style that you can also see elsewhere in modern-day Poland for example at Modlin and in Giżycko (Polish required); as well as a science museum devoted to the Polish-born astronomer Jan Heweliusz. Once you get above the tree line, as I knew, Gradowa affords a fine view over Gdańsk’s (inevitably rebuilt) old town to the south-east – but with my eye drawn, as it always is, to the north-east, to the cranes of Gdansk’s extensive shipyard Formerly Known As The Lenin Shipyard.

With the day fair, I left Gradowa in the direction of the shipyard, walking past the shipyard train station and the bits of the yard that are still working (with the approval of the EU’s state aid authorities, I might note), past the slightly edgy clubs set up amidst the abandoned bits and in old shipping containers (for those that like their dance culture to be intermingled with the smell of industrial paints) and back towards the town via the famous Gate No. 2. It was here that the 21 demands of the August 1980 inter-enterprise strike committee, written out on boards of plywood, were attached to the Gate (the boards once again present in situ – though surely a facsimile – which wasn’t the case on my first visit here back in 2012).

These days, the Gate (still emblazoned with Solidarność favours) is emblematic rather than functional and the immediate contextual setting for the European Solidarity Centre aiming to provide a museum for the role played by the wider Solidarity movement (and of which NSZZ Solidarność, the trade union, is listed as a founder). I wandered in, and then back out again, slightly deterred by the (albeit very modest) admittance fee (20zl; £4) but attracted back more by the Memorial to the Fallen Shipyard Workers which stands adjacent to the Gate.

The establishment of such a Memorial was one of the demands of the 1980 shipyard strikers. It doesn’t feature as one of the inter-enterprise strike committee’s 21 demands, which, drawing on strikes elsewhere in Poland, had moved on substantially from the bread and butter trade union issues which had sparked the strike in Gdańsk towards mounting a political challenge. The demands in Gdańsk included the re-instatement of Anna Walentynowicz, the crane driver and independent union activist whose dismissal five months before retirement had sparked the strike there (and in tribute to whom there is currently a series of information boards around the Memorial), as well as that of Lech Wałęsa (sacked from the shipyard in 1976) himself (and with whom Walentynowicz clearly had major disagreements). These were issues that had been settled within Gdańsk itself, with the Memorial arising out of the subsequent Gdańsk Agreement (interestingly, not only are the originals of the Agreement missing; no links are immediately available online either).

Regardless, the Memorial (unveiled within just a few months of the Agreement being signed) is dedicated to those killed in the 1970 riots across northern Poland over price rises and whose three crosses, topped with ship anchors, were inspired by the first three workers from the shipyard to have been killed. What I hadn’t noticed previously about this substantial memorial, at 42m standing almost as high as Gradowa, was that the ship anchors are ‘crucified’ with metal nails and ropes to the tops of the crosses – thus underlining in one stroke the commemoration of the fallen workers as martyrs and the significant role the Church played in the activities of August 1980. The tribute slabs at the front carry – in Polish, German, English, French and Russian – the message:

A token of everlasting remembrance of the slaughter victims.

A warning to rulers that no social conflict in our country can be resolved by force.

A sign of hope for fellow-citizens that evil need not prevail.

Other critical messages are included in the design of the Memorial itself and, along with Wałęsa’s own comment about this being a harpoon in the body of the whale, it is impossible to see the authorities within Gdańsk as having failed to recognise the significance of that to which they had agreed in establishing the Memorial.

IMG_9673 (2) (Custom)

Whatever the subsequent failures of the Solidarity movement in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, the trade union-driven aspects of the inter-enterprise committee’s 21 demands, including the right to establish independent trade unions, with acceptance of the right to strike and with protection for strikers, continue to have resonance, as the TUC debated earlier this month. So indeed does the demand for (effectively) shorter working time and for improved workplace rights for parents. Getting all these back on the agenda, in the era of applications of artificial intelligence and post-Brexit, continues to be a challenge for real trade unions whether in Poland or in the UK; as much as in today’s ‘gig economy’ as in 1980s shipyards.

It’s also a useful reminder that much trade union activity, and regardless of its industrial origin or context, has a profoundly political character. Introducing change in the workplace, and change within the societies within which workplaces function, continues to be a political act.

Facial recognition technology: a personal story

A quick check to the photo on the left would confirm – were it to be required – that I have spectacles. I’ve worn glasses since I was about seven years old when my class teacher, (a Mrs Whitehead, I believe, though I might be wrong about that) quite astutely realised that I couldn’t see the blackboard, and told my Mum. (With nothing to compare it with, how was I to know that not being able to see the board wasn’t the default position for everyone?)

So, I’ve worn glasses for nigh-on fifty years, and they are a part of me. ‘Twas not always thus: the silent movies of Harold Lloyd (motto: A pair of glasses and a smile) did much to habilitate me to the things in front of my face. These days, not only do they frame my face, they also frame a major part of my identity: I look in the mirror and I see me, in glasses (I am unable to see me, without!); furthermore, I am who I am in no small measure because I wear glasses: when I was young, a fear of breaking them, and shards going into my eye, or my parents having to contribute some of their very hard-earned cash to replace broken ones (most NHS specs were not free, even in those days), which happened on more than one occasion, were quite a major part of my growing up in some of my very formative years.

Without my glasses, I don’t see very well, being acutely short-sighted and with age yet to do its thing and start correcting it. Consequently, in front of strangers, even ones who mean no harm, I do feel vulnerable. It doesn’t help that my house was once, a long time ago, broken into and my glasses taken off my face and broken by the intruders. My glasses are me and I’d be no more without glasses in front of strangers than I would any other item of clothing.

This is not a post about my passport photo which, taken in the last few years, shows me without glasses on the grounds that glasses were not ‘approved’ (Ali Smith has a funny, and all too familiar, extemporisation on this theme in ‘Autumn‘). But it is linked.

The introduction of new technology in airports takes on a number of guises, one of which is the automation of security control barriers. Here, you are supposed to stand (absolutely squarely) on rough outlines of feet on the floor and stare at a post which takes your picture. Aside of the intrusive aspect of this, and those which raise all kinds of data protection and civil liberties issues, it doesn’t work for people who wear glasses: light flashing off the glass, apparently, confuses the technology (quite why, when cameras, including on mobile phones, are quite used to dealing with this, is a different matter).

‘Take your glasses off, sir,’ is the call when red lights flash and I have to seek assistance at the gate into security.

‘I can’t,’ say I, by now quite practised at this charade and also quite genuine in my objections. ‘You need technology that works and, if I have to deny my identity, your technology doesn’t work.’

This time, just yesterday, having this debate with the officer on duty, at a major airport in the London area, who manually checked my documents and waved me through. The added twist this time was the expressed thought that glasses – and, by implication, my own – could be used to disguise identities.

Coming eventually to the gate for my domestic flight to Edinburgh, I find similar technology and, putting my bar code face down on the glass, I am confronted again with red lights and a familiar, and growing, sense of helplessness. I again have the conversation with the airline staff at the gate about the vagaries of their applications of technology and that, no, I am not taking my glasses off.

Checking my details takes some time and everyone else has gone through by the time the gate staff tell me that the person they have a photo of on their screen isn’t me.

Bidden, I take a look. The horrendous head and shoulders caricature I see on the screen before me in a peculiarly detailed black and white x-ray style photo, distorted and twisted, with my head apparently bigger than my body, arms flowing from shoulders in an oddly-shaped way, and bearing more than a passing resemblance to Nosferatu, even I don’t recognise as me.

‘We can’t let you board the flight, sir’,’ say the gate staff, ‘ Your biometrics don’t match up with our records.’

And indeed they don’t let me on. Amidst the course of several conversations about the whys and wherefores of this, the security implications for those on my flight as well as another, unknown, one on which this apparent stranger is booked, and not least the implications for my later flight out of Edinburgh to Gdansk, my plane is backed away from the stand. It appears to all, including myself, that someone else’s picture has become associated on their systems with my boarding pass. I have been denied boarding, and through absolutely no fault of my own.

Resolution appears in the form of senior staff, who have the ability to call up what seems to be a higher resolution, albeit still peculiarly negative, photo. ‘That is him,’ says one, to the doubts of others. ‘Sir, is this you?’

A second, more sustained look at this second photo gives me pause for thought. It does seem to be me – the coat (critically by now in my carry-on bag) but framing me in the photo is the same and I have a button-through shirt, although I don’t appear to be wearing my glasses. Nosferatu has, however, been replaced by a figure a little closer to something I would recognise as myself. ‘Yes,’ I think out loud, ‘It might well be me.’ Too late, of course: my flight has long gone.

Photo retaken, manually, glasses still on, by one of the senior staff and I’m free to go away and stress with others about my chances of catching the next flight and whether it gets me there in time to catch my connection. (A side note: even these new photos still don’t trigger the gate barriers when I try and use them to board the next flight.)

As to where this earlier photo came from – who knows? Ignoring conspiracy theories, it can only have come from photos that were taken at the gate into security but which, however, were for some reason insufficient to let me pass through.

Ostensibly, of course, the photo is there to capture an image of people so that boarding cards can’t be swapped once people are air-side, although it seems to me that a stage is being jumped and that some form of retina recognition is already being implemented. This raises a few other issues, including that this – if true – is not being as widely publicised as civil liberties indicates it ought. More generally, however:

1. A technology that requires people not to be wearing glasses is not a functional one. There are quite a lot of us who wear glasses. Most people might be comfortable doing as instructed and taking off their glasses; unfortunately, I’m really not one of them.

2. To be useable, a technology has to do the job required of it. A technology which seems to be capable only of producing such a poor quality image, and which is dubious even at higher resolution, is simply not doing the job required when, at least on the surface, much better and more useable technologies are available.

3. And it has to be easy to use. A photo that even the subject himself can not recognise, still less hard-pressed gate staff with a really important, front-line job to do in the security of all of us, and with only seconds or less to spare per passenger, is not useable. People with glasses frequently look a lot different without them.

Time for a re-think, HAA?