underground railroad

No Turning Away, or Back, After Seeing '12 Years a Slave'

'12 Years a Slave' still, Fox Searchlight

Before I saw the new film 12 Years A Slave, I knew nothing about Solomon Northrop or his astounding story of courage, forbearance, and faith.

I’d never heard of Northrop, an African-American freeman, who was born and reared in upstate New York in the early 1800s, well before the abolition of slavery in the rest of the nation. I’d not known of the historical practice of kidnapping freeborn black Americans in the North and selling them into slavery in the South.

I’d never heard about how Northrop, an accomplished violinist, was bamboozled into traveling from his farm in Hebron, N.Y., where he lived a prosperous life with his wife and three children, to Washington, D.C., for work, but was drugged, kidnapped, and sold in Louisiana. I’d never heard how he remained for a dozen years before heroically regaining his freedom in 1853 — one of a very few kidnapped freemen and freewomen ever to regain their freedom.

AUDIO: A New Way of Life and the New Underground Railroad

Susan Burton and A New Way of Life Reentry Project have caught the attention of Michelle Alexander, acclaimed author The New Jim Crow, the best-selling study of the U.S. system of mass incarceration. Alexander points to Susan Burton's reentry program as a model for the kind of bold initiative needed to build what she calls a "new underground railroad"—a network of families, faith communities, and organizations dedicated to providing desperately needed support and love to people at risk of incarceration, families with loved ones behind bars, and people returning home from prison.

This radio documentary weaves together the voices of Susan Burton, Michelle Alexander, and five residents of A New Way of Life. The story shows the human face of those our society stigmatizes as "criminals," "felons," and "offenders," and sheds light on the tremendous hurdles they face upon release from prison, including the most basic and fundamental tasks of securing housing, work, and sobriety. The show, featuring interviews and ambient audio, was recorded on site at A New Way of Life Reentry Project by Chris Moore-Backman, a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

 

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