By Annette M. Alston
An artist’s prayer was answered with a singular act of small girl on a magical Spring afternoon. Three-year old Auriah Duncan placed her tiny palm in the unfinished hand of the Harriet Tubman mural residing on the side of the Harriet Tubman Museum and Educational Center in Cambridge, Maryland and created an eerie fissure.
At this moment, Harriet is standing in the vortex of the African-American vortex, midway between America’s past and America’s future, holding out her hand, beckoning. She is trying to tell all of us something if we’re willing to listen. Is this about the Hollywood film that’s premiering this week, or something more?
With the mural now completed, groups of people pilgrim to the location. The Museum has had to increase its hours and hire more people. My running buddy Todd and I happened to walk over to the mural as the mural artist, Michael Rosato, was speaking to a group.
You have to walk around to the back of the museum. Ironically, it’s not in the front of Race Street. It’s almost as if walking to a secret place. Then you see her personage bigger than life reaching through a brick wall, quietly beckoning to come. There’s a small rowboat behind her, waiting.
Rosato, a veteran artist, stood in front of the painting speaking to the group of white visitors on tour and sent from a historical society. Rosato, who is also white, hadthe elements of his craft spattered on his blue shirt and jeans, discussed Tubman, his project and the meaning it had for him. He said the day that little Auriah came to touch the hand of Harriet, he had just left for the day and hadn’t met her. He had left the hand after a long day working on the painting because he knew how important the hand was. He said he wanted to start fresh the next day. The group was comfortable asking him questions and he was very comfortable answering them. Then the visitors headed back to the street and left. I thought it curious that none of them went into the museum that bared her name. Had they gotten everything they wanted from the mural alone?
We wandered into the 1500 square ft. museum and saw a number of Black people including the volunteers that have kept the museum open since the 1980s. Some were watching a film while other were peering at artifacts, books and other resources. Everyone inside had seen the mural but were compelled to come inside for more and dive deeper into the woman and the history that created her. Both the white and the Black crowds wanted different things, it seems.
We left there and went down the street to Rosato’s studio where the artist welcomed the opportunity to talk about Tubman. We were eager to gain insight into his view of the mural and the woman he represented. It turned out that he was just as eager to hear our thoughts. Could he see what Black America saw in Harriet versus what white seem to see? Is there really a difference?
Rosato speaks with an air of sincerity and passion. He explained how he asked God for something really impactful to do. The next day the Cambridge, Md. Historical Commission called and asked if he would do the mural of Harriet Tubman. Rosato had a chance to quench the longing he had which went beyond painting a beautiful picture. It had to actively do something. If the pilgrimage is an indicator, then on that level he succeeded. It drew people there. But Rosato definitely wanted more than that. When you look at his other paintings in his studio, which is about the same size as the museum down Race Street), you can see that he has a style that allows his paintings to defy the boundaries and fight to leap off of the page and outside of those boundaries. It’s the same style he uses for his Tubman mural.
So what is his message? In a time when the US administration wants to build walls, Tubman is clearly tearing them down. For Rosato, this was the meaning. Creating a space where communication and dialogue can begin to happen on topics that white people tend to be very uncomfortable forging into. Rosato noted how only a month before, the city hosted a Day of Resilience. There were guest speakers from Ghana and he sat next to the great-grandson of Marcus Garvey and drums seemed to call spirits from old and you are drawn to an auction block where a Black woman, dancing in front of the crowd, is being sold. On and on history confronted the crowd in waves. White people were visibly uncomfortable.
And how important is that in 2019? In all fairness, Rosato did not say that they should. He realized that he was being confronted with a history that he had not really been taught in school. “I think there is a defense mechanism in the white community that when confronted with the injustices of the past, they don’t want to face it in a way that makes them feel as though they are being confronted with something they didn’t do.”
And that may be where the Black America and White America still must part. Is this why children know who Paul Revere, George Washington and Christopher Columbus were, while not knowing who Peter Salem, Crispus Attucks, Toussaint Le Overture, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman were? (Although in 2019, is it just names they know?) More importantly, what is wrong with discomfort? When your stomach is discomforted, you find a remedy. Discomfort is the genesis of pain, the kind of pain that allows empathy to pour through the fissure created. That empathy creates a developmental stream to humanity. Reality exists to be grappled with. It’s why Frederick Douglass said there were those who wanted thunderless rain. What’s wrong in this case is that discomfort has only led to band-aid corrective measures.
While Blacks are inside the museum looking for facts and information in order to be inspired for survival, whites are on the outside grasping Harriet’s hand and seeking absolution—an end to their discomfort. “This is not a bullet train,” said Rosato of American race relations, “ …but more of a steam engine.”
That resonated with me for some reason and I wasn’t sure why. Maybe he was saying that it might take a while for white people to really begin to feel comfortable being confronted with the assault of other peoples in the name of comfort and power. A privileged class does not want to feel guilty about enjoying privileges that were spawned from the backs of people who still have the scars. When confronted with the pain, people instinctively recoil from it or find ways to disconnect.
However, the pilgrimage to the mural, the Harriet movie, even the campaign for Harriet to be on the $20 bill is perhaps a measure of the readiness of white people to feel the discomfort and absorb the pain as a form of absolution. Real absolution demands scars. Scars that come from travel to a real destination that requires the tearing down of the racist structure that exists so that there is an actual level playing field. This goes even beyond the recent discussions of reparations in the political arena. Though that is a step in the right direction. In reality, real absolution would require diminished power, the likes of which the privileged class is unwilling to resign. The white fear is of permanent discomfort, of never-ending thunder; they know the scars on Harriet’s back, but only want to see her front.
A long time ago in the Eastern Shore of Maryland, a slave named Harriet prayed that her white master would die. Her master did, and Harriet was ashamed. She decided that her immortal soul would not be sacrificed by people who practiced barbarity because of a lust of land and lucre. So she sought freedom, for herself and her kin. On her terms. In the woods, in the snow in the dark, with only the North Star and tree moss as her visible guide. She would later be a spy and a soldier, risking herself again and again. Because she had made the right covenant with a God she knew could make the walls of Jericho fall around America. She took that first step toward God, and God gathered her up in His arms, lifting her up so high she has a permanent, visible place in history’s wind. That gust found Rosato because he prayed for it to find him. When it did, he pulled out his paints and opened up his mind.
I knew what the Black people inside the Tubman museum prayed for. They wanted equality. The right to have their history properly told, to have reparations, to have their children and grandchildren live on an equal playing field. The freedom to be Black and human. The little girl reached out for Harriet’s hand because deep somewhere she understood that. She and other Black people are looking for a guide to a very symbolic North. I now know what Rosato prayed for: a way to make meaning that spurs healing and reconciliation. I do not know what the white people outside the museum pray for. Maybe one day it will be the same thing as the people I know. But the evidence is lacking on when.