Hypocrisy, Irony’s Greatest Tool

Within William Wells Brown’s “The Escape; Or a Leap of Faith”, the constitution of the United States comes into question several times. This is not unusual in literature that deals with  race and injustice within the American Society. Such texts often point to the constitution and the implied freedoms by which the country was founded, i.e the ways in the inception of America (colonization, the habitation of Northern America by “Americans”) suggested that all who came to reside there would be free and recognized as such. In the case of the African-American, however, it seems that this was never the case, and slavery was always a big part of that. Thus, the questioning of the constitution in relation to “freedom” and  “liberty” are inevitable, as the play deals with many of issues, debates and inconsistencies within slavery that existed during the time in which the play was set (pre-Civil War).

Two very striking instances where the topic comes up are in the case of Cato and Mr. White. Cato just up and decides he wants to be free like Glen and Melinda, to start a new life in Canada where he can practice medicine and do whatever else he wishes. In a “free” country, which America had always claimed to be, Cato would not have had the need to go to Canada to do such things, and in his escape, his decision to be free, we see Cato question these constitutional freedoms; and laws which give cause for him to flee to Canada. In his song Cato states that despite his belly being full (Chorus Act 5 Scene 3), his master giving him little favors (such as an  old Cato keep warm) he still has no freedom. Moreover, towards the end of the song Cato also questions free Americans who “boast of liberty, an’ say your State is free” (Act 5, Scene 3). whom, Cato asserts, would probably not protect him if he stayed in their company. on his road to achieving this freedom,they boast of
Similarly, Mr. Whit laments having to run away from his pursuers,

“I came near losing my life.This is the way our constitutional rights are trampled upon. But what care these men about Constitutions, or any thing else that does not suit them?” (Act 5, Scene 2)

Here, White is hinting to the way that Constitution was used only to favor those who benefited from it. It is interesting that Mr. White is also targeted and put in a life-threatening position simply because he is for what the constitution describes as “freedom for all mankind”. Nonetheless, Mr. White is despised by his own but accused of stealing/harboring slaves and stripped away of his fundamental freedoms (speech for example) simply because he holds these values. This is ironic because what it says is that to be a slave is to be un-free and to be sympathetic to this fact makes you un-free as well; and it also renders you fit for the same punishment blacks/slaves are dealt (lynching) when they escape the confines of slavery. This ironic twist of hypocrisy, is a marvel to behold and it reveals how deeply entrenched the idea of limited freedoms and racial prejudice were for some Americans at the time. It also shows how ardently these ideals of freedom were revered and how they impacted the way  even a white person was treated in the American society.


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