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Introduction Freedom Road

By Howard Fast

from the 1969 Crown edition

I BEGAN TO WRITE FREEDOM ROAD In 1942, in the opening months of World War II. I was then with the Office of War Information, writing the basic propaganda line for the few hours of medium-wave broadcast on the BBC System that our British Allies granted us. I was very young and very much filled with a sense of man's dignity and man's necessity – as were so many of us who had come to our maturity during the Hitler years. I was also filled with frustration and the feeling of impotence. When we made our first landing in North Africa my work with the BBC System came to an end, and for the months that followed I joined a special film unit of the Signal Corps – a unit that accomplished very little, I am afraid – and then finally went overseas as a correspondent for Coronet magazine. A year and a half elapsed during that time, and it was in this interval that I wrote FREEDOM ROAD.

As a boy in the thirties I had wandered through the Tidewater South, and again in 1943 I wandered and saw and felt in South Carolina. I had the good fortune to be a guest for several days in one of the great old houses on the waterfront in Charleston – a house possessed and lived in by the same family since antebellum days – and, in the region around Columbia, I lived with black families, lectured in a Negro college, and listened to the stories of the old men. In Charleston I spent endless hours poring through old newspapers and piecing together a story that had never before been told.

FREEDOM ROAD became my own personal crusade against the infamy that man practices against his fellowman. In the oppression of the American Negro I saw blueprinted and limned in fierce bright light the essence of the horror we fought in Europe. The world was sick with racism and prejudice; racism and prejudice feed on ignorance; and history is the damned lie that coddles and nurtures ignorance. Out of this came the story of a man who, I've been told again and again, has become one of the most beloved and widely known fictional heroes of our time – Gideon Jackson.

I wrote the book and it was published. Nothing before it, like it, had been published in my time. There was no Supreme Court decision on integration then. There were no black militants. There were no freedom marches, no sit-ins. The book appeared in 1944, and, to my publisher's delight, it sold out its first edition before publication. My dear and beloved friend and publisher, Sam Sloan, tried to make me understand the portent of this book, but I have never been optimistic about the future of anything I have written. I went overseas to North Africa first and then to the CBI theatre, and I found that wherever I went, FREEDOM ROAD preceded me. I talked to thousands of GIs, black and white; they filled tents, halls, open spaces in the desert – and they listened in almost desperate silence to the argument of Gideon Jackson. Had he ever been? Could he be? Had I invented? Or had I written the truth?

I felt that I had written the truth. I tried to convince them of that because I knew to my own satisfaction that it was the truth.

The history of FREEDOM ROAD in the quarter century since it was written has become a sort of publishing miracle. It has been estimated that total sales throughout the world are greater than those of any other novel in the twentieth century. That may or may not be true; I do not know. But these things I do know. At least twenty million copies of the book have been printed since it was first published. It has been translated into eighty-two languages. Written languages were created for the first time for two African tribes so that they might read FREEDOM ROAD. It has been turned into dramatic performances in many places and it has been performed as an opera. I arrived at the figure of twenty million by totalling printings I knew about – but that was eleven years ago. What the figure might be today, I have no idea. Sometimes the book is reprinted in the far places of the earth with my permission; more often, it is done without lay permission, and I have calculated that perhaps half of the total number printed are without my permission or royalty or with permission and without royalty. Royalty or not, I have never refused a request for foreign reprinting.

Now I have picked up the book and reread it – after perhaps ten years. I wept as I wept when I wrote it, and my heart went out to Gideon Jackson and his people as it had gone out to them when I put them down on paper. Certainly, it might have been a better book, but it was of its time and moment, and I shall always have a great happiness in the fact that I wrote it. No man can do very much to heal the wrongs of oppression and hate, but even the sense of doing a little can give one the feeling of being useful during one's moment on earth. FREEDOM ROAD gives me that feeling.

May, 1969