Book Review: Through Darkness to Light
By Tyler Austin
Throughout the Southern United States slavery lasted for nearly 400 years, during which time approximately 10,000 slaves were freed using the Underground Railroad. The railroad was a series of safe houses, rivers, pathways and dense forestry that was only navigable by using the night sky as a guide. Constellations like The North Star and The Big Dipper acted as compasses to runaway slaves as they trekked along this road to freedom.
The entire route extends from southern Louisiana to the Canadian-American border and is approximately 1,300-miles in total.
In her recent book Through Darkness to Light, Jeanine Michna-Bales traveled along this same route and captured pictures of the rivers, constellations, and the houses that former slaves took refuge in. She visited these sites during the day and would return late at night when the sky was lit ablaze with stars to take pictures that show “what the journey north to freedom would have looked like through the eyes of one individual.”
Flipping through the book we get to look through her lens at what remains of the railroad. With these images we can begin to imagine what it might've looked like 150-years ago.
Many of the photos are taken with long exposure so that the stars become neon streaks in the sky. The time in which the images are taken vary, as some take place in the dead of night while others are taken during sunrise and sunset.
The book opens with a foreword followed by chapters that give historical detail to the Underground Railroad. Throughout its pages, it's also full of quotes taken from famous historical figures, African spirituals and every-day people who lived during that time.
“The man I called ‘Master’ was my half brother. My mother was a better woman than his, and I was the smartest boy of the two, but while he had a right smart chance at school, I was whipped if I asked of the letters that spell the name of the God that made us both of one blood.” -William, slave and half brother to a United States Senator
Informing the reader of the dangers that came along with being a runaway slave and the risks people took in helping them are crucial when telling of their journey. The book does an excellent job of this by taking one of the darkest times in U.S. history and juxtaposing it with the nation’s raw natural beauty.
Michna-Bales places her readers deep in the southern United States and takes them on one of the most treacherous journeys to have ever existed within the nation’s walls. Using her extraordinary photography as a medium for a story typically filled with fear, danger and oppression the project as a whole is nothing short of amazing.