My son was sitting on our living room floor in front of the TV, playing with his Harriet Tubman finger puppet, part of a pair of notable Black historical figures (the other is James Baldwin) rendered in felt. It was a gift from his godmother.
To explain who Tubman was, and why she’s important, I had to talk to him about how she led people out of slavery and then about how our ancestors had been enslaved. I also added that Ms. Tubman was born in Dorchester County, Maryland, less than three hours from the home where we were sitting, the modern beneficiaries of her bravery.
As Americans descended from chattel slavery, we have a personal connection to Ms. Tubman and what she did to free herself and others from that terrible bondage, and how it impacts where we are now. I knew that connection would be strengthened for my little 8-year-old if he understood how close this all was, that it concerned places we’ve been.
So I told him that we could drive to where Tubman lived in about the same time it used to take us to get from our old home in West Palm Beach, Florida to Walt Disney World. I also explained the history of the Underground Railroad, of which Tubman was a rifle-toting, slave-hunter-evading conductor, and how it was active in the mid-1800s, around the same time the hardwood living room floor he was sitting on was being laid.
I want him to know that history has something to do with him, but there are many people who don’t want that. We’re in a rampant period of book banning, of challenging libraries about books that tend to be about race, religion or LGBTQ subjects. These opponents of truth want to brand things they don’t like as harmful, as “grooming,” as Critical Race Theory — something that isn’t even taught in public school.
It’s because they don’t want you to know what’s happened, so you won’t notice when it happens again.
But this history is alive, breathing, present in our backyard, and by God, my child is going to know about it. And that’s not just because it concerns where we’ve been, but because it’s connected so intricately to where we are and where some people want us to go back to.
I am not going back.
That history is embodied in the statue of the late author Alex Haley, facing the Annapolis port where his first ancestor was brought in chains to America, just like our ancestors were brought elsewhere in this nation. We’ve visited his statue, and seen the view Kunta Kinte first saw when he glimpsed the country of his capture. It’s in a city where we visit his cousin, also named Alex, about once a month. It’s real to him.
The history is found at the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park, accented by a giant bust of the great orator’s head, right next to Ampersea, one of our favorite places to go for an early waterfront dinner. He’s asked me about that big, important-looking head, and what this Douglass person did to merit such a tribute. He’s touched it. It’s real to him.
I’ve been thinking a lot about American history lately, because there’s been so much effort nationally to get us not to think about it. At least, some people don’t want us to think about the parts that have to do with slavery, or Native American genocide, or the Holocaust, or Japanese interment, or Stonewall and the fight for LGBTQ rights. Those people say that these things are in the past and that teaching children about it is divisive, which is pretty dumb, because knowledge and truth divides us a lot less than ACTUAL GENOCIDE.
Some of that effort, I think, is an attempt to downplay the hurtful, bloody parts of our history so we can focus on the heroic ones. America’s always been a rah-rah kind of country, rightfully proud of our triumphs like the American Revolution and the War of 1812. I mean, the publication I write for is named after “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which Francis Scott Key began writing while watching the battle at Fort McHenry, which I can see from my desk. Winning is good. We love a triumph.
But triumph requires a fight. Victory requires a war to be victorious. Freedom requires bondage to have been freed from. To paraphrase one of my favorite songs, Crowded House’s “Four Seasons In One Day,” wherever there is comfort, there is pain.
When I go to the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, a short walk from my office, I learn about the atrocities endured by the enslaved, the efforts of people like Harriet Tubman to save them, and the modern examples of how the descendants of those who were enslaved have flourished. I feel that pain and that comfort. This has something to do with us, right here, right now. This is our history, the history of this city, this state, this country. We all have to know that.
There are those who believe that teaching about slavery and the civil rights movement creates a victim mentality.
Knowing the truth makes you stronger. And strong people are galvanized by that history, and take care to make sure they aren’t victimized again. They vote. They demand more from their leaders.
This history isn’t just about the past. That discrimination is still happening, in housing, in elections, in employment. We have come far but we have far to go. We are not going back. We are not diminished by our history of enslavement, no matter how much those who enslaved us wanted us to be. In fact, we are encouraged by it, uplifted by it, because we see where we are and from whence we’ve come.
And we are not going back.