Freedom: The Underground Railroad and America’s Slavery Pop Culture Moment

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Slavery in the United States is having a moment in today’s popular culture. Suddenly again the long, complicated and violent history of slavery is seemingly everywhere — movie and TV screens, bookstores and even Presidential politics. Chalk it up to the mostly-ignored 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, a surging national conversation on race in America or a growing recognition among cultural creators for the need to tell this story, but slavery is importantly among us.

Slavery in contemporary fiction: Underground Airlines and The Underground Railroad

Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters has been my late summer read. The book depicts a dystopian alternate contemporary United States where the Civil War never happened, slavery still exists in a pocket of Southern states and the hard-boiled narrator (himself an escaped former slave) pursues runaway slaves looking to escape north to Canada. Colson Whitehead’s newly-released The Underground Railroad takes a more historical fictional approach following an escaped Georgia slave girl’s journey north through a fantastically re-imagined Underground Railroad consisting of an actual network of secret railway routes.

Slavery on contemporary television: Roots and Underground

On small screens, no telling of the story of American slavery has been greater than in the landmark 1977 TV miniseries Roots which I watched as a child. Almost 40 years later, the summer began with a well-reviewed remake of the series on the History Channel, once again telling the multi-generational story of a family from Africa to slavery to freedom. Earlier in the year, Underground premiered on WGN with a fictional drama telling the tale of a group of slaves making the decision to escape their Georgia plantation. A second season will be premiering in 2017 and the first season has just become available for streaming on Hulu.

Slavery on contemporary film: Django Unchained, 12 Years A Slave, Free State of Jones and The Birth of a Nation

Hollywood has a spotty history with slavery but some old favorites of mine include the story of the first black volunteer regiment in the Civil War epic Glory (1989) and the slave ship revolt trial film Amistad (1997). Django Unchained (2012) somewhat controversially showed how slavery could be used as framework for what was essentially a violent action film. The following year’s Academy Award-winning 12 Years a Slave (2013) returned to a true narrative of a New York freeman sold South into slavery and winning his freedom again. In 2016, two movies have turned to historical armed slave uprisings with Free State of Jones and The Birth of the Nation, a film which riffs on the title of the classic pro-KKK 1915 movie in the telling of the story of the martyred slave rebellion leader Nat Turner.

Escaped slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass and his anti-slavery newspaper The North Star published in Rochester, NY from 1847-1851

While stories of slavery, abolitionism and the Underground Railroad are currently in our pop culture media landscape, my years growing up south of Rochester, NY exposed me to all this history from an early age. Escaped slave, writer and activist Frederick Douglass lived in Rochester in the 1840s through 1870s and was eventuality buried there upon his death in 1895. Harriet Tubman, another escaped slave, activist and escort along the Underground Railroad, also settled in nearby Auburn, NY and was buried there in 1913. Stories, historic sites and statues to the abolitionists of the period litter Western New York, as do the routes and stops along the Underground Railroad — some factual and some folklore.

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Solo play set up for Freedom: The Underground Railroad by Academy Games

While the Civil War has long been a popular period among historical miniatures wargamers and board game players like myself, the subject of slavery has been largely ignored. That changed in 2012 with the release of Freedom: The Underground Railroad from Academy Games. The intense board game presents the period from 1800 through 1865 with players cooperatively taking on the roles of abolitionists and conductors of escaped slaves along historical routes from the Deep South to freedom in Canada.

Playing against the game, players must work together in Freedom to raise funds, build abolitionist support and ferry slaves from three plantation areas of the South. A series of actions in each round give players choices in moving escapees, fundraising and buying cards as slave hunters prowl routes in the North attempting to recapture slaves seeking freedom in Canada. The cards depict historical events and people that assist or hinder the mission of the players, with each of the three rounds of the game revealing cards specific to the events of different periods of the era. As each turn ends, more slaves (depicted as small wooden blocks) fill the Southern plantations so the game is a race against time from the start. Only by rescuing a certain number of slaves and building anti-slavery support by the game’s end results in a victory.

And victory is difficult and harrowing. Playing through the game several times in both its solo and multi-player mode, Freedom has an intensity I’ve rarely felt in a board game. Hard, balanced choices have to be made to lure slave hunters away from Underground Railroad routes and players likewise have to keep an eye on not only moving their escaped slaves northward but on the other important aspects of raising money and gaining support for the cause. After several games, I realized some slaves had to be heartrendingly sacrificed and captured in order to allow others to escape. By game’s end, players can be emotionally exhausted and I’ve even heard of some crying during play.

Playing Freedom reveals the difficulty of depicting slavery and the story of the Underground Railroad in game form. Making Freedom a collaborative game with players working against the construct of the game does a remarkable job of presenting the challenge the entrenched system of slavery presented to those working against it for decades under long odds and seemingly little chance for success. Academy Games does a great job in providing informative historical context in the rule book as well as making available a 72-page teacher’s guide to using the game in the classroom.

Much as our popular culture has struggled to deliver diverse, accurate and compelling stories of slavery in books, television and movies, it is most probably the complicated nature of  the history that has kept game makers away from the topic for so long. Thankfully Academy Games has risen gloriously to the challenge with Freedom and filled an important gap in historical gaming and our popular understanding of slavery in The United States.

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Tis The Season For Toy Soldiers

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Thanksgiving is upon us which means the annual run to holiday gift shopping is nigh. By some estimates, upwards to 40% of toy sales occur around the holidays which fits squarely with my memories of the plastic bounty of Christmas past. The arrival of store Christmas displays and holiday catalogs sent my childhood mind reeling. Before the arrival of electronic games in the late 1970s and early 80s, my dreams of toys stacked under the Christmas tree were filled with action figures, playsets, games and toy soldiers.

So, with visions of Christmas toys past dancing through my head, I find myself paging through the glorious selection from the recently-relaunched website from I The Toy Soldier Company. For almost 30 years this New Jersey-based company has been keeping plastic and metal toy soldier fandom alive with an enormous catalog of toys in all scales and hand-crafted playsets which harken back to the glory days of the 50s, 60s and 70s.

With so much play now relegated to screens and virtual fun, there is still nothing like seeing a kid moving dozens (or hundreds) of little plastic figures around the floor. These toys not only make for hours of fun across generations, but they can also open young minds to burgeoning interests in history and maybe some eventual wargaming. Going a step further and combining some toy soldiers with books, movies, documentaries and family outings that highlight the period is another great way to make up a fun and educational gift package for the holidays.

Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome

Kids are fascinated by the ancient eras of Egypt, Greece and Rome, and a lot of elementary school curriculums focus on these periods, their culture, arts and the gods they worshipped. Books and films full of pyramids, temples, gladiators and chariots dazzle young minds.  Mid-century film classics Ben Hur, Spartacus and even The Ten Commandments are thrilling, family-appropriate entertainment to this day. From one-on-one arena battles between tiny gladiators to epic plastic battles on the sands and plains of the Mediterranean region will enliven the imagination for these ancient cultures.

Ancient Era playsets and toy soldiers

 American Revolution

Living here in the Northeast United States, I’m surrounded by history of the American War of Independence, inlcuding the Battle of Brooklyn fought right over ground I cover on the way to work every day. With forts, museums, battlefields and museums dedicated to the period dotting the countryside, the formative conflict of the nation is all around us. The classic 1943 children’s novel Johnny Tremain and Disney’s 1957 movie adaptation have been the hook for kids for years. There’s so much color and mythic personality to this period in early American history, and some plastic soldiers armed with muskets and cannons will easily spark interest in any wee patriot.

American Revolution playsets and toy soldiers

American Civil War

We’re right in the middle of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, so the time is ripe to get burgeoning historians interested in the period. With the release of Lincoln last year and many past offerings available like 1989’s Glory and Ken Burns’ epic 1990 The Civil War, the War Between The States maintains its cinematic hold on the American narrative. The seminal book on the war in many ways remains Red Badge of Courage which is still a rite of passage for many a young reader . Spending the holidays learning about the Civil War might kick off some family visits to battlefields and historic sites when winter breaks to spring, but getting some blue and gray toy soldiers out on the floor now can make for a very timely history lesson through play.

American Civil War playsets and toy soldiers

World War I

Europe is in the midst of the 100th anniversary of World War I, and next year America’s involvement in “the war to end all wars” will be quietly memorialized. The US came to the war late and it’s effects on our country were nowhere near those on the European continent, so learning about this conflict is a great way to broaden young minds to 20th-centtury history beyond our usual American-focused history education. My oldest son read All Quiet On The Western Front this past year, and the adaptation of that classic novel as well as films like Paths of Glory and Gallipoli are engaging ways to get a view inside the troubling politics and tactics of the war. Lining up multinational plastic armies bridging the gap of 19th to 20th-century warfare makes for a great intro to the period.

World War I playsets and toy soldiers

World War II

Perhaps more than just about any other war, World War II remains an enormous part of historical and popular culture through countless books, movies, TV shows and documentaries, both factual and fiction. From The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far to modern classics like Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers and Flags of Our Fathers, Hollywood continues to crank out epic stories from the war. Aside from books and movies, their are some amazing WWII games from the likes of Axis & Allies to Flames of War. To me, WWII is the period to watch, game and play in, no matter your age.

World War II playsets and toy soldiers

The above are just a few of my favorite periods in which I think kids could easily establish a lifelong interest. Through a combination of books, films, field trips, games and plastic soldiers from the likes of the Toy Soldier Company, you can make this holiday season a bit fun, a bit unique and maybe your kids or grandchildren will even learn a little something in one of the most time-tested ways: play.