Speaker: Elizabeth Allen
It is easy to romanticize sanctuary: a crisis, desperate flight, heroic rescue, security within the awesome walls of the beautiful cathedral with the light shining down from the clerestory windows. This romantic vision renders sanctuary an anachronism, a practice out of time. But even when, as in medieval England, it amounted to a legal routine, sanctuary was actually cold, precarious, and ad hoc. It was not as safe as we think; it created jurisdictional debate; it could endanger both fugitives and hosts. And sanctuary was always asynchronous: the criminal entering sacred space touched upon eternity and disrupted the chase, the unfolding of events in linear time.
Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad depicts the mercurial, precarious, evanescent, almost impossible nature of sanctuary for Black people in America, expressed in the figure of the concrete dark space of the Underground Railroad. Crisis, especially for oppressed people, can be an ongoing experience. Whitehead’s concrete railroad insists that this situation is man-made. It is an insistence that extends asynchronously, from plantations to skyscrapers, undoing America’s many narratives of redemption. I have no wish to remake such narratives. But looking at sanctuary over the long durée—an honest, non-romanticizing look at a practice whose denizens were often the poor person, the habitual thief, the accidental murderer in a tavern brawl gone bad—maybe we find that the time machine has something to say about the temporality of hope in the present day.