Break It Down: Flight To Canada

[By Alysha Griffin]

“Break It Down” is a new HBW Literary Blog initiative that strives to offer critical interpretations of song lyrics, excerpts from novels, and poems.

This week, Blog Contributor Alysha Griffin has analyzed Ishmael Reed’s poem, “Flight to Canada.”

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Dear Massa Swille:
What it was?“Massa Swille” is the master of the fugitive slave Quickskill in the novel. The greeting is a play on the more recent greeting “What it is?” Not only does Quickskill use a phrase not of the time period, but addresses his master informally. Something that would not happen in the days of slavery.
I have done my Liza Leap
& am safe in the arms
of Canada,“Liza Leap” is an allusion to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin in which a runaway, Eliza, makes a dashing jump across the moving current of the Ohio River and proceeds to leap over sheets of ice until she is out of slave catchers’ reach. Quickskill is saying that like Eliza, he has escaped Southern slavery. so
Ain’t no use you Slave
Catchers waitin on me
At Trailways
I won’t be there Quickskill warns the master not to send any slave catchers, because he has made it to the North through the Underground Railroad.

I flew in non-stop
Jumbo jet this A.M. Had
Compliments of the Cap’n
Who announced that a
Runaway Negro was on the
Plane. Passengers came up
And shook my hand
& within 10 min. I had
Signed up for 3 anti-slavery
Lectures. Remind me to get an
Agent.Although airplanes did not exist during slavery, the runaway boasts about travelling in luxury and being commended for his escape.

Traveling in style
Beats craning your neck after
The North Star and hiding in
Bushes anytime, Massa
Besides, your Negro dogs
Of Hays & Allen stock can’t
Fly Travelling through the sky is a lot better than hiding and running from slave catching dogs.

But now I s’pose that
Yellow Judas Cato done tole
You that I have snuck back to
The plantation 3 maybe 4 times
Since I left the first timeThe writer is assuming that a light skinned sell-out named Cato has told Master Swille that Quickskill has returned to the plantation numerous times since his escape.

Last visit I slept in
Your bed and sampled your
Cellar. Had your prime
Quadroon give me
She-Bear. Yes,yesOn his last visit, Quickskill sampled wine from Swille’s cellar. Afterwards, he had intimate contact with the master’s most favored mulato. (“She-bear” may refer to a female bear or an Italian fairy tale).

You was away at a
Slave auction at Ryan’s Mart
In Charleston & so I knowed
You wouldn’t mind
Did you have a nice trip,Massa?Since Swille was away, Quickskill did not think he would mind.

I borrowed your cotton money
to pay for my ticket & to get
Me started in this place called
Saskatchewan Brrrrrrr!
It’s cold up here but least
Nobody is collaring bobbling gagging
Handcuffing yoking chaining & thumbscrewing
You like you is they hobbyhorseAlthough it’s very cold, where Quickskill has made his new home, he says that its still better than enduring the torture of slavery.

The Mistress Ms. Lady
Gived me the combination
To your safe, don’t blame
The feeble old soul, Cap’n
I told her you needed some
More money to shop with &
You sent me from Charleston
To get it. Don’t worry
Your employees won’t miss it & I accept it as a
Down payment on my back
WagesAfter telling Swille’s wife that he was sent by Swille to retrieve some money, Quickskill took the money as an initial payment for wages owed to him.

I must close now
Massa, by the time you gets
This letter old Sam will have
Probably took you to the
Deep Six

That was rat poison I left
In your Old CrowQuickskill closes the letter but first revealing that Swille will be dead soon as he put rat poisoning in his whiskey.

Your boy, Sincerely yours,

One thought on “Break It Down: Flight To Canada

  1. Thanks for pointing out the Liza's Leap. I could not find any solution to that reference untill you helped me. Also the turning around of the greeting "What it is" into past tense is a terrifc way of signifying the books mix-up of chronology. In return; Cato is not just a light-skinned sell-out, but son of Swille, maybe by Barracuda. (Check out inside the novel how he looks like Swille and gets special treatment in a condescending way. Of course he calls Barracuda "Mammy", but he also seems to have a close relationship to her,and she is Swille's close associate, so maybe Cato's mom?) A quadroon is like an extra-racist description, because it goes into detail with the woman being three part white and one part black "blood". She-bear is also used about girls who let themselves be available for all the boys. (It's hard to like that bit.) The "wages owed to him" are certainly not recognised by Swille; Raven is his slave and in the optique of slavery would "owe" Swille for "stealing" himself. "Boy" is at one time an overly familiar greeting, and a very offensive term for a black man, a slave. So it is not like the conventional "Yours sincerely".

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