Monday, 27 January 2014
Find out how a 200-pound man survived the trip in a coffin-like box.
What is one of the most novel ways a slave devised to escape bondage?
Here you see a man by the name of Henry Brown, Ran away from the South to the North, Which he would not have done but they stole all his rights, But they'll never do like again. Chorus: Brown laid down the shovel and the hoe, Down in the box he did go; No more slave work for Henry Box Brown, In the box by Express he did go. --"Song Composed by Henry Box Brown on His Escape From Slavery," Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, Written by Himself
Job ben Solomon, as we saw in an earlier column, was the first and probably the only slave who literally wrote his way out of American slavery. He penned a letter in Arabic to his father, from his jail cell in Maryland, which led quite circuitously to its translation at Oxford, England, and then to his purchase, release and repatriation to Senegambia in 1734 -- only after a stop in London where he was feted by British royalty and the intellectual elite, had his portrait painted and a book about his remarkable escapades published.
But another slave plotted his own escape from bondage in even more astonishing and harrowing way, and his name was Henry Brown.
If Job ben Solomon expressed his desperate quest for freedom in a letter, Henry Brown expressed his own desperate desire to be free in an even more novel form: He actually mailed his own body from slavery to freedom, from Richmond to Philadelphia, from the slave state of Virginia to the free state of Pennsylvania, a distance of 250 miles.
Brown was the ultimate "escape artist," as Daphne Brooks brilliantly labels him in her book Bodies in Dissent. He was a precursor, she argues, to Houdini. And as we shall see, he not only performed his amazing -- and quite dangerous -- escape once, but reprised part of the journey during a lecture tour in England. But I get ahead of my story.
Henry Brown was born into slavery on a plantation called "The Hermitage" in Louisa County, Va., around 1815, fairly close to Charlottesville, where Thomas Jefferson was still living at Monticello. Upon his master's death, when Brown was 15, he was sent to work for his late owner's son, William, in his tobacco factory in Richmond. In about 1836, he married another slave (curiously, with their owners' consent), a woman named Nancy, who was owned by a bank clerk. Brown was able to rent a house for his family. Together, they had three children.
Over time, Nancy was sold twice. Her third owner, Samuel Cottrell, actually charged Brown $50 a year to keep Nancy from being sold. But in August 1848, Cottrell sold Nancy anyway, along with their three children, to a Methodist minister in North Carolina. Brown raced to the jail where his family was being held, but it was too late. As they were shuffled through the streets of Richmond, Brown held Nancy's hand for four miles. Nancy and the three children were marched on foot along with 350 other slaves, in the horrendous second Middle Passage, all the way to North Carolina. Nancy was pregnant with their fourth child. The two would never see each other again.
Brown tells us in his slave narrative that he begged his own master to purchase his family but his master refused: "I went to my Christian master … but he shoved me away."
Devastated and overcome with the most acute sense of his own sheer powerlessness, Brown sought solace and guidance through prayer. "An idea," he reported, "suddenly flashed across my mind." And what an idea it was! Perhaps only God -- or an official at the expanding express delivery service in America -- could have fashioned such a bizarre plan: "Brown's revelation," Paul Finkelman and Richard Newman write in their entry on him in The African American National Biography, "was that he have himself nailed into a wooden box and 'conveyed as dry goods' via the Adams Express Company from slavery in Richmond to freedom in Philadelphia."
How was he to realize such a bold, and wild, idea? How would he avoid suffocation in this coffin-like encasement? What about claustrophobia? How long could a human being live in a box without dehydration? Not to mention deal with his body functions? As Brown's biographer, Jeffrey Ruggles, explains in The Unboxing of Henry Brown, Adams Express advertised the one-day trip from Richmond to Philadelphia, a distance of 250 miles -- but only if the package encountered no glitches, no delays. If so, the trip could take much longer. Could a human being survive such a trip? Or would his crate turn into his casket?
How He Did It
Though only 5 feet, 8 inches tall, Brown at the time weighed 200 pounds, so this was not going to be an easy thing to accomplish, and impossible, of course, without a lot of assistance. Two friends, both named Smith, decided to help Henry with this crazy scheme: James Caesar Anthony Smith, a free black man who sang with Brown in the choir of First African Baptist Church, introduced Brown to Samuel Alexander Smith, a white shoemaker and gambler. Brown paid Samuel Smith $86 to help him.
Through James Smith's intervention, a black carpenter named John Mattaner built the wooden box -- "complete with baize lining, air holes, a container of water and hickory straps" -- to fit Brown's rotund frame. Samuel Smith corresponded with James Miller McKim, the Philadelphia abolitionist (and the father of future famed architect, Charles McKim) for guidance. McKim asked Smith to address the package to James Johnson, 131 Arch Street.
As Henry Brown scholar Hollis Robbins writes in a 2009 American Studies article, "Smith's correspondence with McKim about the timing of the trip, particularly his attention to the breakup of the ice on the Susquehanna [River], indicates his -- and perhaps Brown's -- practical understanding of the conditions necessary for the box to arrive swiftly enough for Brown to survive the journey." The entire box measured only 3 feet 1 inch long, 2 feet wide and 2 feet 6 inches high. Brown burned his hand with sulphuric acid (oil of vitriol) so he could justify taking the day off without raising suspicion. He took along a few biscuits, or crackers, and a small bladder of water to sustain him.
With "This Side Up With Care" painted on the container, at 4:00 a.m. on March 23, 1849, Brown's friends loaded his boxed self onto a wagon, and delivered it to the depot. In his slave narrative, Brown describes his harrowing journey, including the sickening effect of traveling much of the journey upside-down, head-first, in spite of the label on the box. One wrong move, one unguarded sound or smell, would lead to his detection, capture, imprisonment and return to slavery, and perhaps to the Deep South.
Brown nearly died on the 27-hour trip: At one point, he was turned upside-down for several hours. His sole relief came when two passengers, wanting to talk, tipped the box flat to sit on it. The box was flipped again when it was boarded on a train in Washington, D.C. Brown had no choice but to remain silent and not move, no matter how the box was positioned.
Some 24 hours later, as Robbins describes, traveling by wagon to the depot, hefted by express workers from wagon to railcar, to steamboat, to another wagon, to another railcar, to a ferry and the once again by railcar, Brown finally arrived at the depot in Philadelphia. Three hours later, Brown's box was taken by wagon to the Anti-Slavery Committee's offices on North Fifth Street in Philadelphia. No one could know if their cargo was alive or dead. The four waiting abolitionists, including McKim, tapped on the lip of the crate four times, the signal that all was clear.
Finkelman and Newman describe what happened next: "A small, nervous group, including William Still, the African-American conductor of Philadelphia's Underground Railroad, pried open the lid to reveal … the disheveled and battered Henry Brown, who arose and promptly fainted," but not before exclaiming, "How do you do, gentlemen!" Revived with a glass of water, Brown sang Psalm 40: "Be pleased, O Lord, to deliver me!" McKim noted that the trip "nearly killed him," and that "Nothing saved him from suffocation but the free use of water … with which he bathed his face, and the constant fanning of himself" with his hat. He managed to breathe through the three small holes that he bore in the box with a gimlet. Brown called his trip "my resurrection from the grave of slavery."
Henceforth, the word "Box" would become Henry's self-chosen legal middle name, with no quotation marks around it. His friend, James Smith, however, did gain a nickname from the adventure: He became known as James "Boxer" Smith.
How His Fame Grew
Henry Box Brown had done what no slave anywhere had ever done before: He had mailed himself to freedom. Overnight, Brown became quite the celebrity on the abolitionist lecture circuit, much to Frederick Douglass' annoyance. He and his friend James Smith became a standard feature at abolitionist rallies, reciting the incredible saga of his escape, singing songs he wrote, as well as his psalm of deliverance, and selling his book, which was published just a few months after his escape. Woodcuts of his head popping out of the wooden crate were widely circulated. Even a children's book contained a chapter about his incredible escape.
Brown was not only an effective speaker; you might say that he was also the entrepreneur of entrepreneurs on the fugitive-slave circuit. In an email, his biographer Jeffrey Ruggles said that "Brown's imagination and creativity were akin to his entrepreneurial contemporary," P.T. Barnum, though on a much smaller scale, of course. With a loan of $150 from the wealthy white abolitionist, Gerritt Smith, and in collaboration with the artist Josiah Wolcott, Brown created a "large, didactic panorama, 'The Mirror of Slavery,' which consisted of thousands of feet of canvas, divided into scores of panels painted with scenes depicting the history of slavery."
Brown debuted his routine in Boston, along with James Smith. The panorama was a hit: As Christine Crater reports, "The Boston Daily Evening Traveller hailed it as 'one of the finest panoramas now on exhibition … Many people would walk a long way to see this curious specimen of American freedom … We wish all the slaveholders would go and view their system on canvas.' "
Accompanied onstage by Benjamin F. Roberts, a black abolitionist, who would lecture on "The Condition of the Colored People in the United States," Brown toured the North testifying about the evils of slavery and repeating the details of his imaginative mode of escape. Brown -- a great storyteller with a gifted voice for song -- was for a short time the darling of the abolitionist circuit.
Douglass' irritation with Brown stemmed not so much from a sense of rivalry (since Douglass had dominated the fugitive-slave category on the abolition lecture circuit since 1845) as it did from Douglass' worry that disclosure of Brown's novel method of escape might keep other slaves from employing a similar strategy, alerting authorities to the possibility that crates could contain a fleeing slave.
But as Ruggles explains, revelation of Brown's method of escape wasn't really his fault: "Douglass wasn't entirely correct in blaming the Garrisonians [abolitionists] for revealing the box method. They had tried to keep quiet about Brown's escape, but word leaked out in a Vermont newspaper and soon an article appeared in the New York Tribune. That article alerted the Adams Express Company and a second box escape from Richmond, attempted by both Smiths in May, 1849, was intercepted. It was only after articles about that failure had appeared in many newspapers that the Boston abolitionists went public about Brown's escape at the New England Anti-Slavery Convention in late May 1849."
Regardless of how it happened, Douglass proved to be right about the effects of disclosure: Upon discovery of the rescue attempt of a second slave on May 8, 1849, Samuel Smith, the white shopkeeper who had helped Brown, was arrested, and served six and a half years in the Virginia state penitentiary for doing so. A few months later, on Sept. 25, James Smith would also be arrested for an attempt to help still another slave to escape in the same way, though he would be acquitted in a trial, after which he joined Brown in Boston. (Another slave, a woman named Rose Jackson, was willingly smuggled by her owners from Oklahoma in a box over the Oregon Trail in the same year that Brown escaped, but she was allowed to emerge each night.)
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 put an end, for a time, to Brown's celebrity, at least on this side of the Atlantic. After being assaulted twice on the streets of Providence, R.I., Brown -- like many other prominent fugitive slaves -- fled to England in October 1850, to avoid arrest by a slave-catcher.
There, he published a second edition of his slave narrative in Manchester in 1851, this one "written by himself." (The first edition had been dictated to, and heavily edited by, a white abolitionist named Charles Stearns. John Ernest's edition, published in 2009, is the authoritative text.) Ever the showman, Brown soon became a most colorful feature on the British lecture circuit, traveling with his moving panorama from Liverpool to Manchester. He even re-enacted his escape, at least partially.
Jeffrey Ruggles writes that "Ads for Henry Box Brown stated that he would get into the original box as a part of his exhibition, but the only instance known of him actually being conveyed in his box was from Bradford to Leeds in May 1851." The Leeds Mercury reported that on May 22, 1851, as Ruggles discovered, " 'He was packed up in the box at Bradford' and 'forwarded to Leeds' on the 6 P.M. train. 'On arriving at the Wellington station, the box was placed in a coach and, preceded by a band of music and banners, representing the stars and stripes of America, paraded through the principal streets of the town.' "
Ruggles explained that this didn't amount to a replication of Brown's original trip, however: "The distance was much less than Richmond to Philadelphia. For this event, Brown was in the box for two-and-three-quarter hours, and James Smith accompanied him outside the box the whole way, so it was neither as long nor as harrowing as his journey to escape. The box was taken to a theater where Brown emerged onstage."
How He Changed With the Times
Brown was a complicated figure. There is some evidence that he could have purchased the freedom of his wife, Nancy, and their children, but chose not to. He married an Englishwoman and returned to the stage, performing for the remainder of the decade throughout Great Britain, in a traveling one-man version of Black History Month. The consummate multiplatform performer, Brown created a number of personas to match his skills as a narrator, singer, magician, hypnotist, electro-biologist and "boxing" champion, among them "The African Prince," "The King of All Mesmerizers" and "Professor H. Box Brown."
Finkelman and Newman report that Brown's British act featured "a large moving panorama to depict the history of black people in Africa and America, as he lectured on 'African and American Slavery.' He often appeared as an 'African Prince' as he melded antislavery sentiments and propaganda, popular history and entertaining theatrical production." Not one to miss a marketing opportunity, Brown took advantage of the raging Civil War, introducing to his act in 1862 "a new lecture and panorama called the 'Grand Moving Mirror of the American War.' " Near the end of the war, in 1864, Brown transformed himself once again, this time into a magician, billing himself as "Mr. H. Box Brown, the King of All Mesmerisers."
Monday, 20 January 2014
Dear black artists,
We regret to inform you that the need for your services will
soon come to an end as we enter a critical restructuring period.
Fortunately, after having spent nearly a century meticulously studying
your art, language, fashion, and lifestyle, we have learned enough to
confidently move forward without your assistance.
We thank you
for your contributions but have decided to make some necessary changes
as a result of your decreasing value. Focus groups show that consumers
are looking for more relatable images. While 2013 marked the first time
in Billboard’s 55 year history that there were no black artists on the
Hot 100 chart, this was a great year for us with Justin Timberlake,
Robin Thicke, and Macklemore claiming the #1 spot on the R&B/Hip-Hop
chart, proving that market demands are shifting.
Consequently, in the next few months, we will be gradually phasing out
your positions as we finalize this reorganization. In the meantime, we
ask you to continue with business as usual, training your replacements
Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber until instructed otherwise. Your severance
package includes a lifetime supply of Air Jordans, unlimited access to
reruns of “Love and Hip Hop”, a new 30 piece Tom Ford wardrobe, and the
latest iPhone. Your medical coverage will be provided through ObamaCare.
We want you to know that your termination is in no way a statement
about the quality of your work with us.
As such, we would like
to acknowledge your outstanding contributions to the industry over the
past decades. In music, we’d like to thank Kendrick Lamar’s
thought-provoking body of work which has opened the door for Macklemore,
a shining example of what intelligent rap looks like. In business, Jay
Z’s partnership with Samsung was historical as the Korean mobile company
paid the rapper a mere $5 million and his company Roc Nation, another
$15 million, a bargain deal relative to their standard annual $4 billion
marketing budget and $220 billion net worth.
while Kanye West may be experiencing difficulties launching his own
brand, his loyalty to European designers continues to add value to an
already thriving industry that other entertainers like Migos seem to
enjoy promoting for free. In cinema, “The Butler” and “12 Years a Slave”
were Oscar-worthy gems, showcasing the strength and pride of a
resilient people. We understand that this year, you will continue this
tradition of inspiring historical films with the May release of “Belle”
and the History Channel’s forthcoming reboot of the groundbreaking 70′s
televised series, “Roots”.
Your work did not go unnoticed as
it has inspired us to produce new historical movies of our own,
depicting our rich cultural heritage. Upcoming releases include: * “Son
of God” produced by reality TV pioneer Mark Burnett and starring Diogo
Morgado * “Noah” starring Russell Crowe * “Exodus” starring Christian
Bale as Moses * “Mary, Mother of Christ” starring 16 year old Odeya Rush
Just as your movies depict the struggles and achievements of your best
and brightest, these powerful films are meant to inspire and remind us
of our glorious past and divine lineage. In an attempt to capitalize on
the recent trend in movies that focus on triumphs of the
African-American experience, we have recently begun developing films
with similar themes.
Channing Tatum has just been cast as the
lead in the Nat Turner Story while Scarlett Johansson is reported to
have accepted the role of Harriet Tubman in a forthcoming biopic. Like
Quentin Tarentino’s “Django Unchained”, both movies promise to offer the
perfect balance between shoot-em-up style action and social commentary
while boasting two smash-hit soundtracks featuring Eminem, Katy Perry,
and Ke$ha. Again, none of this could have been accomplished without your
unwavering commitment and dedication to our mission. We trust that your
transition will be smooth and wish you continued success with your new
journey into Electronic Dance Music. Sincerely, The industry- F. Hint -
Thursday, 16 January 2014
Challenging Racism and the Problem with White “Allies”: A Conversation with David Leonard by Suey Park
I met Dr. David Leonard, Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, on Twitter shortly after my initial critique of Tim Wise. I was pleased to discover that there existed another white man who was not marketing himself as an anti-racist, but instead doing the work with people of color, while learning from them and taking after their direction.
Dr. Leonard was gracious enough to collaborate with me on this piece when I was just starting to freelance and has been generous in his teaching. I was most moved by Leonard’s work to spread awareness on Marissa Alexander’s case, which was ignored by both white feminism and so-called anti-racists.
SP: As you know, the concept of the white anti-racist or white ally has been put into question. Why do you think this is? Are these words oxymorons? What is a better word?
DL: I don’t like either of these terms for a variety of reasons. (I am indebted to @Prisonculture, and Mia McKenzie for their important and challenging discussions of allies; @FeministGriote has also offered an important discussion in this context.)
First and foremost, they presume that struggles against injustice are the responsibility of someone else – those who are subjected to the violence of racism, sexism, homophobia – and that the “allies” are helping or joining forces with those who are naturally on the frontlines. The idea of white allies also reinscribes the idea that whites have a choice as to whether to fight racism, to fight white supremacy. And while this may be true, it turns any agitation into a choice worthy of celebration. At the same time, it turns struggles against racial violence and injustice to a discussion of “what people are” rather than one focused on what people are doing in opposition to white supremacy.
Secondly, the mere fact that we don’t talk about Black, Latino, Indigenous or Asian American anti-racists, at least with the same public resonance, reflects this idea: people may see anti-racist struggle as organic and natural within communities of color, which not only embodies this logic but erases the risks, sacrifices and hard work necessary to battle racism. The idea of allies reinscribes this binary, whereupon white allies are seen as doing something different, special, and necessary, furthering the privileging of white action.
Thirdly, I also have a problem with the entire focus on defining white people in these exceptional terms. White, yet anti-racist – these are the ideas that emanate from the labeling. As if participation in struggle or consciousness cancels out whiteness, privilege, and position within America’s white supremacist hierarchy. No amount of work cancels out my whiteness, my masculinity, my class status, or my heterosexuality; no amount of activism erases the power and privilege generated because of white supremacy.
Fourth, the whole white ally or white anti-racist concept works against two fundamental values that serve as my foundation: accountability (indebted to Jlove Calderon for her work), and the work. Labels are about fixed identities as opposed to the work. Labels are about differentiation from others and work to position one as above accountability – “I am ally don’t question me.” The notion of being an ally supersedes the necessary space of accountability. As whites engaged in political work, justice work, and work that challenges white supremacy, we must be accountable to the struggles for justice, to communities of color, to organizations on frontlines, and to the work being done. Whenever I hear someone talking about being a white ally because of their involvement in this action or this published piece, I find myself asking: could they do something to have that revoked? We become determined to prove our exceptionality as opposed to being accountable. When we become focused on showing and being rather than listening and doing, we are not moving the fight forward. It’s not about choosing the right word, it’s about making the commitment to racial justice.
Lastly, the focus on individual allies furthers the identification and imagination of whiteness as individualized bodies. Whites being allies with people of color not only reinforces the idea of white folks representing a diverse community of individuals while people of color are all the same but also presumes that whites can engage in work as individuals, as lone freedom fighters, rather than as members of communities.
I often hear that “people of color should not have to educate white folks” and “white folks need to take their cues from people of color” simultaneously. Is this a contradiction?
I don’t think this is a contradiction. The push back against the expectation that “people of color educate white folks” is a rejection of centering white desire and need. The presumption here is that white people need/want to be educated about issues of racism, about inequality, or about differences in experience, and that this desire should compel people of color to act. This is all about white desire; it is about white agency and the expectation of Others helping white folk grow, learn, and be better people.
To me, that is very different from asking that white people don’t dominate, co-opt, and control movements, organizations, or communities. Each is about asking whites to put aside their own needs, desires, and privileged position. Asking whites engaged in social justice or anti-racist work to “take their cues from people of color” is about accountability and decentering white desire and white needs. It is no longer about what white people need and want but the agency, action, and politics of organizations of color. It is about being accountable and listening as opposed to demanding recognition, ownership or power.
Many white folks, including Tim Wise, say that racism needs to be fought not to “help” people of color, but because all people are hurt by it, including white people. Do you agree that racism hurts white folks?
While I understand the importance of this work – and clearly as an educator I see the power of teaching about racism, white supremacy, white privilege, and injustice at a predominantly white campus – I think our focus cannot focus on white desire or happiness. Whether or not it hurts whites is the wrong place to start. The centering of whiteness, of white humanity, desire, and history, is a core element of white supremacy so our conversations and actions should not and cannot focus on “how racism hurts” white America.
When we talk about white supremacy, we need to focus on the structural violence directed at communities of color – we are talking about issues of life and death, from healthcare to food insecurity, from labor exploitation to systems of mass incarceration. Segregation, state-sanctioned violence, war, poverty, racism – white supremacy operates through and within global injustice. White people are not suffering in any of these contexts. As it relates to the criminal justice system, health, economic security, wealth, or education, white people are not hurt by racism. Recognizing intersectionality and varied levels of privilege, racism empowers, privileges, and protects white America. To claim otherwise is factually inaccurate and troubling.
I do think it is important to talk about racism, how ideologies of white supremacy invariably lead to injustice and violence within particular white communities. For example, throughout history, whites have mobilized around racist law and order narratives that imagine Black men as a perpetual threat against the safety and security of white women. The dominant white imagination of the Black male rapist thereby erases the root issues of sexual violence – patriarchy, rape culture, misogyny. This is an example of how white supremacy, how stereotypes, white racial framing, the scapegoating and criminalization of Black bodies, hurts white women and society as a whole. White supremacy and rape culture hold a dialectical relationship. Yet, our focus should be on the challenging the violence of racism, the perpetual daily and structural consequences of white supremacy.
Do you think that being a white man gives you more agency to do anti-racist work with folks who might not be ready to hear it from people of color?
I always find this discussion to be fascinating because white supremacy codifies power and privilege in whiteness within every aspect of society. Why would anti-racist work be any different? When I walk into a classroom, I am often seen as more objective, as embodying what many view as an “expert” and a “professor.” When I walk on campus, whether wearing a hoodie or argyle sweater, I am seen as non-threatening, as belonging, and as being desirable. White supremacy codifies agency, choice, and freedom, so it would be ridiculous to deny its existence within the spaces I occupy as a teacher, a writer, a commentator, and an activist.
We all have agency. The constraints and limitations of these choices are one of piece of this puzzle. Whether or not we are celebrated or criticized for exercising that agency is yet another piece of the puzzle.
I have a role, to teach. I have a role to challenge racism, to educate those who believe there is equal justice under the law, those who think that racism is a thing of a past, who perpetuate rape culture through jokes and media culture, who think that sports are innocuous rather than a site of racial pedagogy.
Do you feel it is important that there be spaces solely for people of color, even if it means that you are not allowed to enter?
Whether or not I think they are important should not be the issue. Rather, when I am told directly or indirectly that this is a space for organizing, community-building, or conversations that because of my social location I am not “allowed to enter” (or that my presence would change the dynamic) I should respect that. I should listen and be accountable to these desires. So, yes, I think there are clearly spaces where, despite my passion and knowledge, I should not enter.
Do you have any tips for white folks who are trying to engage in anti-racist work?
As mentioned above, it’s crucial to focus on action, and on the work, rather than naming ourselves as “good” white folks. This necessitates whites thinking themselves as white, not as white anti-racist or allies. It is important to think about one’s whiteness and what it means to be white within contemporary society.
It’s crucial to push back the urge to make every conversation about “self.” It is crucial to move beyond “I am an anti-racist individual” to see oneself as part of an anti-racist community. It is crucial to move beyond just talking, and listen. It is crucial to push beyond the desire to be seen, to be praised, and to be celebrated, to consider instead the ways that we can facilitate justice and equality in ways not seen.
In many ways, white anti-racists often fall into the trap of viewing change through activist work rather than as organizers, as teachers, and as members of communities of “ceaseless agitation” and change. For myself, I focus on words like those articulated @prisonculture, “JUST DO THE WORK. Don’t talk about, “reflect” on it, pontificate, Just ACT. That’s it.” And while doing the work, be accountable.
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