Poem #8: Away to Canada by Joshua McCarter Simpson

Estimated Reading Time: 7 minutes
Book cover to African American Poetry - An Anthology, 1773-1927, Dover Edition.

TitleAway to Canada

Author: Joshua McCarter Simpson

Source:  African-American Poetry: An Anthology, 1773-1927. Dover Thrift Editions. Ed. Joan R. Sherman. 1997. ISBN:  978-0-486-29604-3.

Link: You can find this poem on this website.


  Adapted to the case of Mr. S.,
         Fugitive from Tennessee.
I’m on my way to Canada,
  That cold and dreary land;
The dire effects of slavery,
  I can no longer stand.
My soul is vexed within me so,
  To think that I’m a slave;
I’ve now resolved to strike the blow
  For freedom or the grave.

        O righteous Father,
           Wilt thou not pity me?
        And aid me on to Canada,
           Where colored men are free.

I heard Victoria plainly say,
  If we would all forsake
Our native land of slavery,
  And come across the Lake.
That she was standing on the shore,
  With arms extended wide,
To give us all a peaceful home,
  Beyond the rolling tide.

       Farewell, old master!
           That’s enough for me—
       I’m going straight to Canada,
           Where colored men are free.

I heard the old-soul driver say,
  As he was passing by,
That darkey’s bound to run away,
  I see it in his eye.
My heart responded to the charge,
  And thought it was no crime;
And something seemed my mind to urge,
  That now’s the very time.

       O! old driver,
           Don’t you cry for me,
       I’m going up to Canada,
           Where colored men are free.

Grieve not, my wife—grieve not for me,
  O! do not break my heart,
For nought but cruel slavery
  Would cause me to depart.
If I should stay to quell your grief,
  Your grief I would augment;
For no one knows the day that we
  Asunder might be rent.

       O! Susannah,
           Don’t you cry for me—
       I’m going up to Canada,
           Where colored men are free.

I heard old master pray last night—
  I heard him pray for me;
That God would come, and in his might
  From Satan set me free;
So I from Satan would escape,
  And flee the wrath to come—
If there’s a fiend in human shape,
  Old master must be one.

       O! old master,
           While you pray for me,
       I’m doing all I can to reach
           The land of Liberty.

Ohio’s not the place for me;
  For I was much surprised,
So many of her sons to see
  In garments of disguise.
Her name has gone out through the world,
  Free Labor, Soil, and Men;
But slaves had better far be hurled
  Into the Lion’s Den.

       Farewell, Ohio!
           I am not safe in thee;
       I’ll travel on to Canada,
           Where colored men are free.

I’ve now embarked for yonder shore,
  Where man’s a man by law,
The vessel soon will bear me o’er,
  To shake the Lion’s paw.
I no more dread the Auctioneer,
  Nor fear the master’s frowns,
I no more tremble when I hear
  The beying negro-hounds.

       O! old Master,
           Don’t think hard of me—
       I’m just in sight of Canada,
           Where colored men are free.

I’ve landed safe upon the shore,
  Both soul and body free;
My blood and brain, and tears no more
  Will drench old Tennesse.
But I behold the scalding tear,
  Now stealing from my eye,
To think my wife—my only dear,
  A slave must live and die.

       O, Susannah!
           Don’t grieve after me—
       For ever at a throne of grace,
           I will remember thee.


Ok, if you're reading this poem and don't know what it is based upon but its rhythm feels familiar--recollect if you have ever heard the song "Oh Susanna". Many folks in the US who grew up in the mid-to-late 20th century most likely recall this song from Bugs Bunny cartoons.  But the original song and lyrics emerged during the middle of the 19th century in minstrel shows.  When you look at the actual lyrics with its disregard of the death of Black people, dubious use of dialect, the inanity of the speaker, and a Black man going south from Alabama to Louisiana to find his love, it invokes various racist tropes, which is why McCarter Simpson's reinvention is so fascinating.  

First, there is the fact that the speaker is going North to Canada rather than Louisiana, which was known to be one of the harsher places for slavery. The speaker seeks freedom regardless of what happens ("for freedom or the grave"). This is in stark contrast to the speaker in Oh Susana who just dies once he finds his love isn't where he expected.  It's more a declaration or sacrifice than a surrender. I think there's something else cool about his invocation of Queen Victoria welcoming him (or all enslaved Black people) on the shores of Canada. Additionally, the speaker of "Oh Susanna" speaks in a nonsensical way ("It rain'd all night the day I left, The weather it was dry, The sun so hot I froze to death,") but the speaker of "Away to Canada" is clear, direct, and intentional.  

I don't know whether or to what degree this song was popular at the time, but I can imagine it being used as a song to switch in and out with "Oh Susanna" as a means of collective resistance and insider knowledge: A song that can easily switch out lyrics depending upon who is nearby (e.g. overseers).  But more importantly, I see this poem as a form of disruption and resistance, inverting a message that is typically accepted and reinforces negative stereotypes. Inverting meaning and words is something that marginalized groups have often done and it's fascinating to see this present even in poetry and song from some 170 years ago.

Those are my thoughts.  How do you interpret the poem?

About the reflections
This poem is part of a 365 day challenge project that focuses on a poem a day.  Similar projects have included short shorties and photo reflections. Part of the intention of this year's project is to develop a better appreciation and means of reflecting on poetry, something that has never been a strong suit for me.  These reflections therefore do not represent a definitive assessment of the work by me. They are merely an opportunity for me to have a public conversation about what they mean in order to help myself better understand them and mayhaps have a conversation with readers for further insight.  

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