In Harriet’s Footsteps

Standard

Well, sort of.

We know that Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery in Dorchester County, MD in 1849 at the age of 27; she later returned to lead many more enslaved people out of bondage.

What we often don’t know is exactly where things happened because these were enslaved people we’re talking about. Even Frederick Douglass’s exact birthplace near Easton, MD is unknown.

This is good to know before you follow the Harriet Tubman Byway on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

Whether the Eastern Shore counties are truly trying to atone for the sin of slavery in their parts, or whether the name of Harriet Tubman is a tourist draw, it is sobering to be in the area where the fearless little woman was such a thorn in the white enslavers’ sides.

The Harriet Tubman National Park area is not a sop to tourism. It has been in the works for many years and was supposed to have been finished by now. The latest projected opening date is spring 2017.

My sister and I did most of the 125-mile Byway, which makes a huge circle unless you go to the end near the Delaware border. I had downloaded and put onto CD the free audio guide, which much enhanced the experience. The narrator and actors set the mood wonderfully, even though many of the stops on the Byway were guesstimates of where something might have happened or were “something like” something to do with Harriet Tubman.

We stayed in Cambridge, where the Byway begins, and went first to the Harriet Tubman Museum. The museum is a grass-roots project that is in need of money to help expand the exhibits and its hours (12 to 3 pm). Even so, the tiny storefront has a very good video about Harriet Tubman, murals of her painted by a descendant,, a large collection of children’s books about her, and memorabilia (yes, I got the T-shirt).

one-room-schoolhouse

During the drive, we saw a one-room schoolhouse, the Stanley Institute, that had been built by black parents after the Civil War for their children and that was used until as late as the 1960s, when Maryland’s schools were desegregated.

We saw Parsons Creek, originally a canal built by enslaved people for Joseph Stewart to float lumber out to the bay to ships. Lumbering was a major business here. Harriet Tubman’s father, Ben Ross, worked for Stewart and so did Harriet. It is said that she learned her outdoor and navigational skills during this time. It is also possibly how she became so strong, as she had been a frail child.

We saw the Tuckahoe Neck Quaker meetinghouse, a center of Underground Railroad activity in Caroline County.

We saw the site of another of Harriet’s enslavers, Edward Brodess, in the town of Bucktown. Though she had several enslavers through the years, it was from Brodess’s farm that she escaped.

We saw the restored Bucktown Village Store, at which Harriet got caught in the crossfire and was hit in the head by a two-pound weight that a white man was throwing at his slave. It has been recorded that after this time, Harriet began having visions. This hearkens back to the experience of Julian of Norwich, who began having visions and messages from God after a serious illness.

We saw a restored cabin built by a free black man, James Webb. His enslaved wife and four children were allowed to live here with him. Basically one room with a sleeping loft, it must have seemed like a castle at the time to Mrs. Webb.

wmstillWe were very disappointed not to be able to see the William Still Family Interpretive Center, supposedly located at a 4H Park in Denton, MD. We drove and walked around the 4H Park but couldn’t even find a sign referring to William Still. His name comes up often in the Underground Railroad literature. A free black man, he lived in Philadelphia and was a major conductor on the railroad. His meticulous records helped him publish The Underground Railroad in 1871. That detailed work of the more than 1,000 escapees who passed through his station includes firsthand narratives and is still helping scholars’ research today.

A most poignant note about Mr. Still is that in 1850 his own lost brother, Peter, was one of the men he was assisting. Peter had been sold into slavery in Alabama years before.

Despite the disappointments, though, I’m so glad to have been able to follow Harriet Tubman’s footsteps and will certainly be returning when the National Park in her honor opens. I can’t even express how much I admire this woman, who went on to spy for the Union Army, be involved in the women’s suffrage movement, and opened her home to elderly blacks in Auburn, NY. It seems fitting to end with her own words:

“I was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say – I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.”

Books to Educate and Outrage

Standard

If you want to be outraged by something you read this year, you have far too large a choice of new books to accomplish this for you.

Both in nonfiction and novels, a lot of little-known and better-known American history has been revealed that will fuel your moral outrage. You will also meet, though, characters both real and imagined who will capture your heart and soul and help to focus your outrage and perhaps turn it into action. Continue reading

Let Them Rest in Peace, But We Must Not

Standard

I am sick, sick, sick of having to pray for the families of black victims of police What are we white people going to do about it? How the hell can we feel patriotic about a country that values life so little?

I would like to suggest that all white policemen in the United States be pulled from duty immediately and given this test, Project Implicit, as well as a psychiatric evaluation before being allowed back on duty or yanked off the force.

You can’t fudge this Harvard-based test for prejudices. It’s not intuitive, and even if you think you’re giving the “correct” answers, it doesn’t work that way. I took it a few years ago, and I’m pretty good at spotting how to “play” a test.

Both Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were said to be carrying guns. So? Both of the states they died in allow anyone to carry a gun. Louisiana probably allows 3 year olds to carry guns. They were not using the guns, they were not aiming the guns, they were doing nothing that could ever justify the kangaroo court of idiotic, racist policemen who took their lives.

I hope that no white person ever says in front of me that they couldn’t bear to watch the videos of their murders. We MUST watch them; we MUST bear witness to what white policemen are doing – and probably think they’re doing in our names.

On Saturday, I attended a symposium on the subject of “Driving While Black.” Two black men narrated their experiences of being stopped and the heavy-handedness of the police involved. Thank God Jerome and Jermaine are alive. It broke my heart to listen to them talk about the steps they have to take to try NOT to be killed by a policeman. They talked about their mothers’ fears whenever they left the house. Now they have children, and they talked about their fear for them.

What century is this again? As my friend and activist Maximo Anguiano posted today, don’t forget to set your clocks back 300 years tonight. And tomorrow you’d damn well better start speaking out or you are as complicit as the police in these murders.

 

 

Yuri and Malcolm

Standard

Truth really is stranger than fiction. Take the case of a Japanese-American woman and an African-American man.

May 19 was the birthdate of two people whose improbable lives crossed paths in the battle for civil rights.

Yuri Kochiyama was four years older than Malcolm X and lived 53 more years.

Born in California in 1921 and thus an American citizen, Mary Yuriko Nakahara and her family were imprisoned in Arkansas (“interned,”?? I think not) with the tens of thousands of other Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor.

yuri

Yuri speaks at an anti-war demonstration in NYC

After marrying Bill Kochiyama after World War II, she moved to New York City where she shared the experiences of her black and Puerto Rican neighbors in housing projects. There aren’t too many more dots to connect to her civil rights activism. Her home became a gathering place for activists where it “felt like it was the movement 24/7,” her eldest daughter, Audee Kochiyama-Holman, is quoted as saying in Yuri’s obituary.

 

She met Malcolm X, former small-time hoodlum and jailhouse convert to Islam, in 1963. She learned a radical activism from him and began focusing on black nationalism. The brief relationship ended with his assassination, at which she cradled his head while others tried to revive him with artificial respiration.

maxlolm x assassination

Yuri, in glasses, holds the dying Malcolm X’s head

Yuri’s activism did not end with Malcolm X’s death. Shutting down the war in Vietnam, reparations for Japanese-Americans who were imprisoned and more inspired a new generation of activists and even a rap song by Blue Scholars. It can be found at this link: Blue Scholars sing “Yuri” live

Malcolm X was 39 when he was murdered; Yuri lived to be 93. Both used their life experiences, alone and together,  to try to set right the wrongs in a troubled country. Both were born on the same day. You just can’t make this stuff up.

 

 

American Pieta

Standard

As we approach the commemoration of Jesus’ betrayal and crucifixion, I can’t help but think of all the people betrayed by the forces of evil in this country that do not believe in the either the Constitution or the words in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal. May the hope of resurrection and reunion bring some small measure of comfort to all the mothers, fathers, children, sisters, brothers and friends of the betrayed.

cross

 

 

 

 

 

Richard Wright’s Heir

Standard

Many people more eloquent and more relevant than I am have written about Ta-Nehisi Coates’s letter to his son, Between the World and Me.

From the first moment I picked it up and saw from whence the title came, I was brought back to Richard Wright’s autobiography, Black Boy, and his most famous book, Native Son.

And I have to come to think that there is much that is similar between Richard Wright and Ta-Nehisi Coates. I discern a similar urgency and impatience and anger in their written words. Mr. Wright had to leave the United States in order to be who he really was and to write what he really wanted to write. Fortunately for us, Mr. Coates is able to live and work and have a voice in the US. He has become possibly the most important voice saying what a lot of white people do not want to hear. That is a good thing; we need him.

After reading the first part of the poem, where the narrator is speaking, I also thought of Father Richard Rohr, an important voice in the mystic side of Christianity. From him I learned the word “numinous,” describing an experience that for a period of time takes you out of the world in shock or awe. Learning of the death of a loved one, for example, or equally, seeing the face of God.

I translate Mr. Wright’s words to describe such a numinous experience. The narrator comes upon the aftermath of a lynching and begins to realize what has gone on here, the “sooty details . . . thrusting themselves between the world and me. . .” How can seeing such an abomination not take one into a place of transcendent shock that erases the background of life? In the narrator’s case, it takes him to a place where the lynched martyr forces himself into the narrator, who then is able to describe the lynching in the first person.

Theologian Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) coined the term “numinous.” For him, it was the basis underlying all religions, and he gave it three parts: a mysterious experience that is wholly unlike anything else in ordinary life; a tremendous experience because it can be terrifying whether it is from God or Satan, and finally a fascinating experience because of its potency.

The narrator’s experience certainly falls into all three of these categories. While we might at first think the experience is from Satan because of the evil of the deed that caused it, an argument might be made that it is really from God. How else can we redeem and restore our history if we do not first face the evil of it? We have to go right into the pain of the martyred and the oppressed in order to come back to ordinary life and say with authority, as Richard Wright did and Ta-Nehisi Coates does, NO MORE! NO MORE! NO MORE!

Between the World and Me
Richard Wright

And one morning while in the woods I stumbled     suddenly upon the thing, Stumbled upon it in a grassy clearing guarded by scaly     oaks and elms And the sooty details of the scene rose, thrusting     themselves between the world and me….

There was a design of white bones slumbering forgottenly     upon a cushion of ashes. There was a charred stump of a sapling pointing a blunt     finger accusingly at the sky. There were torn tree limbs, tiny veins of burnt leaves, and     a scorched coil of greasy hemp; A vacant shoe, an empty tie, a ripped shirt, a lonely hat,     and a pair of trousers stiff with black blood. And upon the trampled grass were buttons, dead matches,     butt-ends of cigars and cigarettes, peanut shells, a     drained gin-flask, and a whore’s lipstick; Scattered traces of tar, restless arrays of feathers, and the     lingering smell of gasoline. And through the morning air the sun poured yellow     surprise into the eye sockets of the stony skull….

And while I stood my mind was frozen within cold pity     for the life that was gone. The ground gripped my feet and my heart was circled by     icy walls of fear– The sun died in the sky; a night wind muttered in the     grass and fumbled the leaves in the trees; the woods     poured forth the hungry yelping of hounds; the     darkness screamed with thirsty voices; and the witnesses rose and lived: The dry bones stirred, rattled, lifted, melting themselves     into my bones. The grey ashes formed flesh firm and black, entering into     my flesh.

The gin-flask passed from mouth to mouth, cigars and     cigarettes glowed, the whore smeared lipstick red     upon her lips, And a thousand faces swirled around me, clamoring that     my life be burned….

And then they had me, stripped me, battering my teeth     into my throat till I swallowed my own blood. My voice was drowned in the roar of their voices, and my     black wet body slipped and rolled in their hands as     they bound me to the sapling. And my skin clung to the bubbling hot tar, falling from     me in limp patches. And the down and quills of the white feathers sank into     my raw flesh, and I moaned in my agony. Then my blood was cooled mercifully, cooled by a     baptism of gasoline. And in a blaze of red I leaped to the sky as pain rose like water, boiling my limbs Panting, begging I clutched childlike, clutched to the hot     sides of death. Now I am dry bones and my face a stony skull staring in     yellow surprise at the sun….

Richard Wright was only 52 years old when he died after suffering a heart attack in Paris. Ta-Nehisi Coates is 40. Let us pray that he will have many, many more years to force us to look at ourselves and dare to visit the belly of the beast of racism in order to conquer the beast.

The following link is a filmed narration of “Between the World and Me”: Richard Wright on YouTube