The woman painting my nails, several miles to the north of the National Underground Railroad Museum and Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, told me she had never been to the museum. But she thought it was a good idea. She was Black. I had no words to tell her what visiting the museum had meant to me. I did want to scold her for living a stone’s throw from the building but never having been there. Then I thought it inappropriate for many reasons, not least of which was because there I was on my Memorial Day weekend, celebrating my freedom by getting a $40 manicure. Who was I to scold. So I said nothing. She asked me how much it was to get in. I told her I could not recall, but that children and seniors get in for a reduced rate.
I chose A Ouibit of Red for my nails.
Did anyone visiting that day catch the symbolism of this view from the museum’s grand hall? Across the vast, open space I could see the Ohio River, and beyond that, Kentucky. Once, a river separated enslavement from freedom. A few generations separated me from feeling the relief ancestors must have felt looking back from the Ohio side. Behind me as I was getting this shot a group of field tripping high school students—Black, White and Hispanic—were relating to their museum guide what they learned about the major cash crops the enslaved Africans harvested. They recited words by rote memory and the guide, a young Black woman, praised each answer—even the incorrect ones.
I went through the museum reading the posted plaques. I opted against the recorded self-tour after being somewhat put off by the actors’ voices portraying US slavery-era Blacks. They sounded like cartoon characters. The woman who took our money and gave us our tickets (reduced price for children and seniors) had given us the children’s tour. I wondered if the voices on the adult self guided tour sounded any different.
I was somewhat annoyed by the juxtapositions of new and shiny and gleaming, and old (or, in many cases, replications of old). I walked inside the slave pen. Inside the pen was myself and (I am assuming by their dress) an Amish family. There were seven of us inside the log walls of the pen. I tried to imagine the pen filled with three, four, five times that number for days, weeks, months at a time. I could not imagine.
I was cataloging my reactions—for later retelling to friends and family back home and to visitors to this blog. “Antiseptic” was a word I kept using in my head. The actual artifacts were walled away in protective glass in a protective enclosed atmosphere in order to preserve them for future generations. The replicas were made to look old, but I have seen enough episodes of home shows on HGTV to know how they were likely artificially aged. Everything was clean. Antiseptic.
This time line marched history along a curved wall in perfect, orderly, well-lit fashion. The years in between were lost. The vastness of those years was also lost.
I imagined a walk outside the grounds of the museum and throughout the city’s downtown. Each decade would be a half mile or so on the path, with markers all the way telling of the key events and figures and laws and battles and speeches. People would walk along the path, hopefully growing tired before they even reached the Civil War.
Yet… That would probably still be fairly antiseptic. There would probably be several Dippin Dots kiosks along the time line path.
I thought a lot about the field trip groups making their way through the museum. Several of the exhibits were life sized. This allowed the children to literally place themselves into the exhibits.
A group of preteen boys that I followed through several rooms were having an extended discussion about what weapons they would have used to break free from slavery. Here, two of the boys caressed the barrel of the rifle and said they would have over powered this single guard and stolen his weapon and killed him and ran away “up North.”
One of the boys decided that he would have hidden a knife in his pants. Then another boy became enthralled by a long machete depicted in another exhibit and decided he would rather wield that weapon.
I longed to tell them all to STFU, but their chaperon was only steps behind me. She, a White woman, was listening to the self-guided tour. She appeared to be crying.
Another school group came through as I was lining up these shots. One of the boys ran over to the seated men and exclaimed, “Oh, lookit! I’m a slave!”
His classmate, a girl, looked at him with disdain and said, “You retard! Being a slave wasn’t a good thing!”
The boy stood up, glancing at me as he did. I suppose I gave him a look, or perhaps it was his rebuke by the girl (who he had probably been trying to impress). But he stopped smiling and laughing and walked quickly away from the exhibit.
I thought the girl’s choice of words could have been better. Hers were not more enlightened than the rifle-choosing boy who told the potential knife wielder that his own choice of weapon was “so gay.”
But at least she had words. Apparently I just had a look.
I sat next to one of the life-sized seated men and took my shot.
One of the exhibits appeared at first to just be a darkened room with a large clear center column containing what looked like thousands of colored glass beads. I walked through quickly, in search of my children who I thought had gone on ahead of me. I found one with her grandfather, then returned through the room to search for my other child. I found her looking at the time line with her father.
I walked back through the darkened room. I stopped this time to look. The plaque said that the room was dedicated to all the Africans who did not make the Middle Passage with their lives. The colored beads were meant to represent them, because their names have—like their lives—been lost. I walked back through the room and suddenly burst into tears. I stood in a corner and silently cried for a few moments before catching up with my daughter and my father-in-law.
I amended my mental blog post to remove the word antiseptic.
My children also cried. One cried while reading the account of Margaret Garner, the woman on whose account Toni Morrison’s Beloved is based. She told me through her tears…it was so terrible…why would a mother do something like that?
I tried to explain that this shows how horrible slavery was, that a mother would rather her children be dead than return to be slaves. Could she imagine how horrible that must have been? She told me she hated slavery, and I was glad.
Both cried during a short film that used actors to portray a mother, her young daughter, and teenaged son about to be separated as the young man prepared to run away from his family and the plantation.
I almost did not go into the little theater, prepared to be annoyed at the actors. But I, too, cried. We hugged each other and remained seated for a few moments after the film credits ended. I asked my daughters if they wanted to ask me anything about the film. One said, “It was all just so sad.” I was happy that she was sad. All I said was that I agreed.
My other daughter wondered if the young man in the film made it. I reminded her that this was just a reenactment, but that some Blacks made it and some did not.
They wanted to go upstairs to the fourth floor to the genealogy center to “look up all of Paw-Paw’s brothers and sisters.” But it was nearly time for us to leave. We went through one other exhibit, then headed for the gift shop.
One daughter chose as her souvenir a fair trade beaded bracelet made somewhere in South America. She opted for no bag, immediately put it on her wrist, and remembered without me telling her to say “thank you” to her grandparents for buying it for her.
One daughter chose a finger puppet of Harriet Tubman. She picked Tubman over the finger puppet of Frederick Douglass, someone who I think was supposed to be Che Guevara, and several other figures I could not readily identify. The puppet was affixed with a magnet so that, I suppose, after you are finished putting your finger up through Black Moses’s skirt and lodging it into her head, you can use her to put your shopping list up on the refrigerator.
I was troubled by this thought and tried to convince my daughter to look at the free trade bracelets that her sister had already chosen from. But she was having none of it. She wanted the Harriet Tubman finger puppet with a passion.
Her grandparents bought it for her. She opted out of the bag, immediately putting the puppet on her index finger. She thanked her grandparents and ran out of the gift store. All the way to our car in the parking garage she extolled us, with the Tubman puppet held up high, to follow her to freedom. She managed a surprisingly accurate quoting: I freed a thousand slaves; I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves…
Although…her finger puppet Harriet Tubman’s words sounded much like Professor Minerva McGonagal talking to Harry Potter about the adequacy of his incantations at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Before I could become annoyed, I told myself that at least my daughter knew the words. That’s a start.