Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Hidden Histories

Market Sq: Local produce & slaves
At Market Square in Alexandria, Virginia, there is a beautiful Saturday farmers' market.  It is located in the center of the Old Town.  Vendors surround a central plaza with a water fountain and sell their wares to tourists and locals.  I love going to farmer's markets when I am away from home not only because it is a chance to get local produce but also because it gives me a brief glimpse at life in a different part of the world.
Just over 200 years ago, next to produce vendors in the very same Market Square, they were selling other human beings - enslaved Africans.   I have walked past Market Square dozens of times in my life.  I spent weekend nights, hanging out in this area as a teenager.  I was born just a few miles from here, I went to elementary and secondary school in Alexandria, and my parents live here now. I have thought of Alexandria as my birthplace and hometown.

But, in these thirty-five years of my life, I never knew that it was one of the largest slave trading hubs for the east coast. I never knew that it also had a large population of free blacks who became emancipated by buying their own freedom, by taking advantage of  loopholes in VA state code, or by the efforts of Quakers and abolitionists.  I never knew that my parents live in a historically black neighborhood known as the "Berg."  In the mid 1800s, more and more freed blacks took residence in this southeastern part of Alexandria though many have been pushed out in recent years.  I have often strolled over from my parents' home to the Queen Street Library.  I never knew that this library was the site of the earliest sit-in protest in American Civil Rights History.  In 1939, six high school students and a lawyer sat in the "whites-only" library until they were arrested.
Plaque commemorating the 1939 sit-in protest

While those activists did not achieve integration, they were successful in bringing a library to their community in 1940, which is now home to the Alexandria Black History Museum.  Yesterday, I stepped out of my parents' home, walked six blocks to the museum, and had my world turned over.  As a history teacher, I am always trying to help students see the connections between the past and present.  So why was it shocking to learn about slavery and segregation in my home town?

There is a difference between intellectually understanding history and experiencing history.  I learned about slavery and Jim Crow laws in high school.  I read books and listened to my history teacher lecture to the class.  It was awful; but it also felt faraway.  After all, it was history.  Now, knowing what I learned yesterday, I could walk the same roads where slaves, chained together, were unloaded off of slave ships.  I could stand with a new awareness at Market Square, feeling rage and grief because people had been sold like cattle in this very place.  I could check out a book from the same library where black students were arrested for trying to do so.  This whole time it was in my backyard and front yard.  It was at the farmers' market.  It was in my library. 

How much history is hidden before our eyes?  Particularly, the history of people of color and other marginalized groups in the United States?  The collective American consciousness seeks a happy ending, but in doing so this culture whitewashes the past.  Many would rather forget about slavery and racism.  But in doing so, this country continues to support policies and practices that oppress people of color.  History lives in our reality.  We can attempt to hide it from plain sight, or we can seek to understand it fully and learn from it.

1 comment:

  1. Transforming suffering means first, opening our eyes and hearts to the reality of suffering.

    Thank you for sharing and helping to open our eyes.