The Slave Who Mailed Himself to Philadelphia — and Freedom

The story of Henry "Box" Brown should inspire all of us to escape the boxes we hide ourselves in.

The Civil War’s pivotal battle took place 150 years ago this week. We all know the war was not about freeing the slaves, but had Lincoln not yoked the Union cause to emancipation, we might be saluting the Stars and Bars flying over City Hall.

And we definitely would not be talking about an audacious act of self-emancipation: that of one Henry “Box” Brown, a Virginia slave who, in 1849, had himself mailed to Philadelphia abolitionists and freedom inside a wooden box.

An organization I’m involved with, The Brothers’ Network, will spend the next year reexamining that box and that journey via a festival of arts, culture and ideas organized around the box as metaphor for the struggle to free oneself from constraints and become fully human. The abolitionists in the antebellum era waged that struggle on behalf of the enslaved — but as Brown demonstrated, the slaves were perfectly capable of securing their own freedom given the right opportunity.

Yet even 150-plus years later, we still find ourselves packed in boxes of our own making, prisoners of preconceptions. We do not struggle to free ourselves from these comfortable crates but rather continue to shut ourselves tight inside them, fearful of what may happen to us if we should dare to open the lid.

It might lead to a complete crumbling of one’s world. That’s what happened to the slaveowning Southerners who lost that war. They spent the next century rebuilding their box and stuffing the former slaves back inside it — with some success. The entire country continues to deal with the hangover from that effort, which recently claimed Paula Deen as its latest victim.

It’s also what happened to Alan Chambers, the founder of Exodus International, when he finally admitted that there was no such thing as “reparative therapy” that could change gay into straight and apologized to those whose lives he damaged with that false promise.

In both of those cases, the people with the boxes created them to deny others the freedom, dignity and full humanity they deserved. That seems to be the most common use to which the boxes we build are put. And when those others object, our usual response is to nail the lids on those boxes a little tighter.

Brown’s box was different. He used it not to destroy a world or to deny dignity to others. He used his to open up a new world and achieve the dignity that was his birthright as a human being. In his box, Brown found liberation — as did Chambers, once he acknowledged what he had done was wrong.

George Wallace, the former governor of Alabama who made a career out of denying the humanity of half the state he ran and tapping the resentments of those who feared that half, also acknowledged the hurt he had caused late in life — well after nearly losing his own for causing it. And when he did, those whose lives he had damaged accepted the apology with warmth.

An inability to acknowledge where we may be wrong, to recognize the full humanity of others, leaves too many of us unwilling to question our preconceptions about things, as we fear the destruction of our own souls we are sure will follow from that questioning. We listen only to the voices that reinforce our thinking, clinging not only to our own opinions but our own facts, which we assert “everyone” knows are true. Instead of engaging in honest dialogue with those who might know differently, we dismiss them and climb back into the boxes where we have stored our minds. If the facts don’t comport with our ideology, well, we find some other facts or make them.

Armed thus with an erroneous understanding of our world, we continue to inflict wounds on others, then recoil in astonishment when those others protest: Why, those slaves were happy! Of course those ex-gays will have a better life! Or that general dismissal: They brought their troubles on themselves. We had nothing to do with them.

Of course they didn’t — because, safely enclosed in their boxes, they couldn’t see how they were implicated. We don’t see how we are implicated.

And until we do, the troubles will continue — all because we’re afraid to open the lid, climb out of the box, and see the world as it is and others as they are.