Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Keep the Casket Open

After Emmett Till was brutally murdered, his grieving mother made one of the most unthinkable decisions- she asked that her son's casket be kept open.  Open casket funerals are nothing new in the African American community; but this was different.  Till's body had been brutalized beyond recognition.  He was bloated, scarred, and each of his teeth had been knocked out.  The bright-eyed boy with the sweet smile was unrecognizable as he lay in the casket.  Despite the horror that she knew each mourner would experience as they filed past his body, or opened up their weekly Jet Magazine, Emmett's mother insisted that his casket be left open.  "Let the people see what I have seen," his mother told the funeral home director. "I think everyone needs to know what happened to Emmett Till."

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is a lot like the decision of Emmett Till's mother.  It tells the story of the enslavement of African peoples in the United States and in the Americas.  It lays open one of the most long lasting and brutal stories in our historical records.  What is so powerful about the Center is its pinpoint detail about this period.  For example, in the 1800s, due to the rising demand for cotton, many slaves were placed on forced marches from northern states to the deep south.  They were in essence being sent south to work the cotton fields. These men, women, and children walked an average of 750 miles form cities like Cincinnati to Natchez, Mississippi.  These marches spanned so many decades and included so many people, that to this very day  one can find miles of sunken-in paths (paved by the feet of slaves) within the forests and swamps surrounding Route 68.  Another fact- of those sent south, 25% signaled the destruction of a nuclear family.  

The museum is accurate, also, in its nomenclature.  These were not slaves, but "enslaved people."  They were not blacks, but "Africans."  These enslaved people were not simply picking cotton.  They were providing "free labor."  Labor that someone else was profiting from.  Those enslaving them had names, and families, and their lives were made better and more prosperous by the labor that they did not pay for.  Likewise those who did the laboring lost dignity, family, and centuries of wages.  

I think the easiest way to handle such a brutal past is to ignore it.  I would dare say that this is the stance that most Americans take in relation to the topic of slavery in the US.  In school I learned more about the Ottoman Empire, the Romans and the Greeks than I did about the Choctaw, the Navajo, the Seminole, and the African in the Americas.  Few people want to deal with shame when it sits so closely to their doorsteps.  But, ignoring is rarely the way forward.

The Freedom Center's work is about resistance and in particular the concerted resistance of Africans, White Americans, Europeans, and Native peoples against enslavement and oppression. The museum lays open the gruesome story of enslavement. An actual slave holding pen sits in the middle of its gallery and it sits on the northern shore of the Ohio River- the dividing line between free and slave states.

How many people died trying to cross the river?  We may never know.  What we do know is that by telling the story, we liberate ourselves from repeating it.  As well, we gain courage, wisdom, and resolve for the struggles that are both with us and ahead.  

1 comment:

  1. I absolutely loved seeing the museum virtually through the iphone app! It was an emotional and interesting journey, I can only imagine how it would have been in person. The murals and paintings were my favorite part; Tom Feelings was particularly compelling. Seeing the slave pen was also very strange, for some reason I never thought that there would be such a thing, but I guess I just hadn't considered that someone would have bought many slaves and then take them to auction in their area. When I heard that the slaves where marched often 750 miles without shoes, in chains, in the hot south to be auctioned I was flabbergasted.
    It was also nice to see small exhibits on individuals such as William Still, Ellen and William Craft and Harriet Tubman. I especially liked that they had a similar box that Henry Brown mailed himself in. The museum really felt like it was a good cap on everything we have been reading on this semester. When I was relayed Margaret Garner's story and saw the exhibit it felt very heart wrenching. To get so close to freedom and have it slip through your hands would be the worst feeling of all, and she made the ultimate sacrifice so her child would not have to endure such a tortuous future. When I saw the inside of the safe house and different places to hid it made me feel like I was there and I was immediately nervous. There was so much at risk, but William Still probably had it correct when he told his son Octavius in the novel "The Rains" that the individuals that opened up their homes to hid runaway slaves may have been the bravest of them all because they really had nothing to gain but everything to lose.