Stopover. Frogmore Plantation, Concordia Parish, Louisiana, 2014

Last Fall, I found myself sitting alone in a private coach driving along a quiet road through Fort Myers, Florida. It was late in the evening, and the sky had gone dark. There were no buildings, no traffic, and very few street lights as the coach drove along through the backwoods and deep thickets of the town. I gazed out the window and was suddenly a vision called from somewhere deep within the land overcame me. I shuddered but couldn’t unsee the invisible traces of history.

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I keep these things to myself. Most people are not trying to hear messages without “evidence,” and even then… Shadowboxing with lies is a losing proposition and I quit that game. I simply see who said what now, flag, and keep it moving.

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But when I came across Jeanine Michna-Bales’ photographs, Through Darkness to Light: Photographs Along the Underground Railroad, the vision came tumbling back. The photographs, published in a book from Princeton Architectural Press, are currently on view at the Wyandotte County Historical Museum in Bonner Springs, Kansas, and will be traveling around the nation through 2020.

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Resting Place. Church Hill, Mississippi, 2015

On the Way to the Hicklin House Station. San Jacinto, Indiana, 2013

Fifteen years ago, Michna-Bales received the message and began to see, imagining in her mind’s eye what the journey along the Underground Railroad looked like to those who made the trip. She began to do the work, researching the details of the routes, scouting locations by day, and then, finally photographing them at night.

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For the project, she traced a route from the cotton plantations of central Louisiana through the cypress swamps of Mississippi, across the plains of Indiana, and north to Canada, traveling nearly 1,400 miles to freedom. Michna-Bales shows us the American countryside as was then, as it is now, and in doing so, she reveals that time itself is an illusion. As William Faulkner understood, “The past is never dead. It is not even past.”

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Michna-Bales’ photographs are haunting elegies to the horrors that hide in plain sight, histories of trauma and exploitation that only the spiritually corrupt can ignore and the intellectually dishonest can diminish or deny. Her work operates on several levels at the same time. In the darkness there is cover, but there is also constant threat, where innocence and serenity lies alongside four centuries of brutality and genocide. There is heroism and bravery, courage and nobility—as well as the very real awareness that the greatest threat to this nation is homegrown, that the real terrorists pledge allegiance to the flag and will do its bidding without conscience or soul.

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Moonlight Over the Mississippi. Tensas Parish, Louisiana, 2014

Look for the Gray Barn Out Back. Joshua Eliason Jr. barnyards and farmhouse, with a tunnel leading underneath the road to another station, Centerville, Indiana, 2013

Michna-Bales’ photographs are the embodiment of W.E.B. DuBois’ double consciousness: of you can only see a lyrical landscape, you do not know the truth about America. If you cannot feel the curious combination of fear and valor, you might be out of touch with the history of the nation and the debt it has yet to pay.

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Through Darkness to Light is one of the most searing bodies of work made in recent years, eloquent in its ability to capture all that no longer has body or voice but blows through the air far and wide, always present even if you refuse to look.

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I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person now I was free.
There was such a glory over everything,
the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields,
and I felt like I was in heaven.
—Harriet Tubman

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Within Reach. Crossing the St. Clair River to Canada just south of Port Huron, Michigan, 2014

All photos © Jeanine Michna-Bales.

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