Monday, May 20, 2024

EUR Book Review: ‘Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit Of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge’

*As last week gave us the specter of President Donald Trump bringing up the specter of the nation’s first president, when – in defending his under siege Supreme Court pick, Brett Kavanaugh – he said George Washington “may have had a bad past”, a book diving a never-explored aspect of the Founder of our Country continued to fly off shelves more than a year after it’s release in hardcover.

“Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit Of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge”, by professor and historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar, tells the story of one enslaved woman- Ona Judge – and her quest for liberty, as well as the determination by her owner – who just happened to be the most powerful man in the country – to reclaim his property. It currently is the 22nd most popular book on African-American History and the 24th most popular book on the American Revolution on the Amazon sales charts.

Additionally, it has drawn almost universal rave reviews and was a National Book Award Finalist.

So does the book live up to the praise and hype? Absolutely.

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Dr. Erica Armstrong Dunbar

With amazingly thorough research, Dunbar tells the story of Judge and her relationship with America’s first First Family. She does so in a manner that neither demonizes the first United States President or glosses over the fact that the man who fought for liberty for so many was simultaneously determined to deny that freedom to women like Judge.

Rather than taking a side, Dunbar does something extremely fresh in this day and age: She tells Ona Judge’s story, based on a lot of the woman’s own writings, and lets readers judge for themselves.

There have been many books about the United States’ Founding Fathers. However, never before has there been a book that dealt with the complexity of the Washingtons and the enslaved people who served them. George freed all his slaves when he died, yet he still was determined to enjoy and demand their servitude while he was alive.

While George was conflicted, Martha is portrayed as considerably less so. In fact, it is her cold decision to give Ona away to her daughter as a wedding present that caused Judge to take a chance on escape. For while she got a taste of freedom in Pennsylvania – when the nation’s capital was Philadelphia – she would be sent to a slave state. By being presented as a gift, it made Judge realize her loyalty to the Washingtons would never be rewarded, that to them – especially Martha – she truly was nothing more than property.

Dunbar also succeeds in showing the very complicated relationship many states had with slavery. She presents us with a South that was already struggling with the institution, even as it was moving closer to making it a cornerstone of their society – at the same time that it was being dismantled in the North.

Dunbar also presents us with how different states, even in the North, handled slavery differently. There was a stark difference between New York and Pennsylvania and the other states and the priority they placed on the abolition of it and freedom. By doing so, Dunbar gives readers a glimpse of what black freedom looked like in different states.

She also touches on the role religion played in freeing people from bondage. One of the reasons we see that Pennsylvania was such a free state, is because in large part to the influence of white Quakers, who saw slavery as morally bankrupt.

At the same time, even as the institution of slavery ended throughout the North, it still did not eliminate racial injustice. Even black men and women who had never been enslaved still lived with the vestiges of it – lack of citizenship, their inability to vote, their inability to be employed in certain occupations. It is powerful to look at what “freedom” truly meant in the North.

Of course, for all it’s historical narrative and touching on volatile social issues, the book is centered on the life of Ona Judge. Her relationship with the Washingtons and taste of freedom in different states make for a compelling read by itself. Toss in the hard work she had to do and her hesitancy to flee life as an enslaved woman for fear of what might happen to her family and we have the story of an incredibly intriguing individual.

In fact, if there can be one criticism of the book, it is that it takes 100 pages out of its relatively scant 197 pages of story (the book is technically 263 pages, but 66 are filled with Acknowledgements and Notes and an Index) to lead up to Ona fleeing, and the details of her life afterward are sparse and short.

Of course, this is to be expected. We are talking about the story of a fugitive after all, whose main goal was not to leave clues to her whereabouts or activities around.

That Dunbar is able to piece together as much as she has and do so in such a scintillating, compelling, informative way, is a tribute to her research and her storytelling.

In the end, this is an essential, fresh look at both the Black experience in America and the complexity of the nation and its Founding.

It is a book everyone from academics to average, everyday citizens of every demographic can read – and should.- and enjoy doing so.

It gets my highest possible recommendation.

Grade: A+

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