Review: ‘Never Caught’ grapples with freedom after slavery

The biography of Ona Judge, the Washingtons' runaway slave, is a meditation on the nature of freedom and the silence needed to keep it.

by Jordan McDonald | 1/16/18 2:35am

In 2017, writer and historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar published the biography “Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit Of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge.” Attempting to accomplish an ambitious feat, Dunbar imagines the life of Judge, a young woman who was enslaved by America’s first family but managed to escape from bondage. The book reconstructs the course that Judge took on her journey to freedom from enslavement in 1796. By harnessing her skill for research, Dunbar reconstructs Judge’s world, telling a story that has never been explored in such detail or with such tact. Through this biography, Dunbar also honors the life and humanity of a woman who was denied niceties at birth.

As a work of biographical nonfiction, “Never Caught” uses history to bind the holes and gaps in the story of Judge, who was one of the only enslaved people of Mount Vernon to escape and tell her story. The book approaches Judge’s life with both an understanding of her circumstance and the limitations of rendering an account of any enslaved person’s life. Dunbar explains in the book, “For fugitives, like [Judge], secrecy was a necessity. Enslaved men and women on the run often kept their pasts hidden, even from the people they loved the most: their spouses and children.” With this in mind, the work of configuring a narrative of Judge’s life comes with many difficulties in accurately recreating the lives of those who defied the unjust laws of slavery. Dunbar centers the work with the knowledge of the fragility of freedom that plagued the lives of runaways, particularly those owned by families with immense slave-catching resources, including Judge’s owners, George and Martha Washington.

Dunbar elucidates the emotional climate that informed the precarious lives of enslaved people who fled by making it clear that “it was the threat of capture and re-enslavement that kept closed the mouths of those who managed to beat the odds and successfully escape.” Through this attention to the details of runaway accounts, Dunbar conveys Judge’s “shadowy life that was isolated and clandestine,” tinged with the fear of discovery. The result is an expertly crafted account that “reveals the contradictions at the heart of the American founding,” according to historian Annette Gordon Reed.

A finalist for the National Book Award for Nonfiction, “Never Caught” is an immersive approach to historical reconstruction. Dunbar informs her telling of Judge’s story with Judge’s own words from interviews and descriptions offered by those who were intent on having her returned as well as those who committed themselves to keeping her safe. In this way, it is a compelling meditation on the work that is required in preserving freedom. Through detailed accounts of the decades Judge lived as a fugitive slave, the book reveals itself to be deeply concerned with the concept of justice and its need for collaborative, ongoing support and reinforcement. It is both a historical account of a runaway’s journey and a love letter to the idea of freedom, an idea that compelled a young woman born into slavery to leave the only life she had ever known and launch herself into an unfamiliar world.

Born into slavery in Virginia, Judge comes of age in Pennsylvania and lives her life as a free woman between Greenland and Portsmouth, New Hampshire. “Never Caught” captures the landscape and geography of the era as they pertain to Judge’s relocation throughout the East Coast. Forging a tiny community among fellow African-Americans on the seacoast of New Hampshire, Judge built a life and family of her own after becoming something of an attraction for local abolitionists who wished to publish her story of escape. For almost 50 years, she managed to construct a new world for herself despite the looming threat of recapture. Her story is one about the locality of freedom, a precarious thing that cannot be secured by geography alone.

Additionally, Judge’s story prompts those of us living in the Upper Valley to continue the work of uncovering the people on the margins of the narratives surrounding New Hampshire’s history. Set in a state whose black history is widely unknown, “Never Caught” reveals a site for further exploration into the history of black life throughout New Hampshire and its neighboring states. As one poignant example, over two decades ago, activist Valerie Cunningham founded the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail in an effort to spread awareness of the history and contributions of black people in Portsmouth.

As Black History Month approaches and many of us begin to reflect on the history of the country, it is particularly pertinent that we shed light on the histories that have fallen into obscurity over the years. That includes stories like Judge’s that are unknown to the majority of the American people. Stories of black women’s resistance to slavery are underappreciated and rarely discussed in mainstream reflection on African-American history. “Never Caught” challenges this phenomenon by following in the footsteps of those who have continued to usher new stories into the nation’s canon that reveal the diversity and complexity of the black experience in America from 1619 to the present.

To Judge, New Hampshire represented a place where she was able to stop running indefinitely, a location fit for her to lay down roots after a nomadic period of escape. Her story calls us to reflect on the realities of this area today, to ask ourselves whether the communities that populate this state are still committed to preserving the freedom and humanity of others, as was done for Judge.

To Dunbar, the work of spreading Judge’s story is far from over. On Jan. 23, Dunbar will speak at Saint Anselm College in Manchester for a lecture entitled “Rethinking Resistance: Ona Judge, the Washingtons’ Runaway Slave and the Meaning of Escape.”