From Sierra Leone to Appomattox: Of Frogs and Bees, and Heroes and Heroines

When I was six or seven my grandfather told me he was taking me to a movie. But not just any movie. “Gone With the Wind” was being screened at the majestic and historic Fox Theater, in Atlanta, an hour and a half drive from where we lived, in Macon. My grandfather had a love of history, even as told by Hollywood, and he wanted to impart that love to me. We drove up to Atlanta on a Saturday afternoon and the theater was full. I don’t remember what we talked about. I don’t remember if we ate popcorn. I wasn’t intrigued by Clark Gable or Vivian Leigh or Butterfly McQueen.

What consumed my mind, during the film and after, were the long shots of the Atlanta rail yards filled with Confederate wounded. I was disturbed. So many wounded and bleeding, so much agony and suffering, as Scarlett O’Hara walked between the rows of bodies, giving soldiers sips of water and cleaning their wounds. Those images stayed with me.

But I was a little boy, and I got tired, and midway through the movie, just when Scarlett was clutching a single carrot in the wasted fields, my grandfather decided it best to take me home. I slept all the way.

Later, after we had moved to Atlanta, I found a cannonball in our neighbor’s yard. A Confederate 24 pounder, half-buried in a low ditch. The Battle of Atlanta had been fought where we lived. This, along living only three miles from the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King preached, helped make me know that I was living in history, that it was close and it was real. It was in the ground I walked on.

At school this year, inspired by the New York Time’s “1619 Project,” we have been studying American history through the lens of slavery and African-American history. It is important to know, in these times when our current president does not know who Frederick Douglass is, that our history began 150 years prior to the Declaration of Independence. It can be said to truly have begun with the first slaves arriving in Hampton, Virginia, in August 1619. This is where we started our projects, tracing the arch of our history through the lens of the marginalized—primarily African Americans and women.

We visited the Middlebury College exhibit, “Votes…For Women?” where the story of the suffrage movement is artfully portrayed through text and image. We were overwhelmed by the enormity of the story, and we copied down some of the words of those who fought for 70 years to gain the right to vote. “The best protection any woman can have… is courage” (Elizabeth Cady Stanton).  If women want any rights more than they’s got, why don’t they just take them, and not be talking about it” (Sojourner Truth). We learned about the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 and the reason for the purple, white, and gold sashes suffragists wore—which stood for purity and royal nobility.

We looked at woodcuts recording the events on the “The Zong,” a slave ship from which 133 Africans were tossed overboard while still alive. Geeta told us the story of Thomas Jefferson’s nailery, which was filled with ten-year-old enslaved boys who toiled to enrich Jefferson, and of Jefferson’s relationship to Sally Hemming. After her project, we ate grits and collard greens. We crouched under the big room table to feel, if only for a few minutes, what it would be like to be stowed under decks on a slave ship with no room to sit or stand. Iris taught us the story of John Newton, a former slave-ship captain who wrote “Amazing Grace” after his conversion to god, and she arranged a small chorus of her peers to sing it to us. Finley showed us a mountainous pile of buffalo skulls left behind by settlers and soldiers during the time of westward expansion, under the banner of Manifest Destiny, an expansion that decimated indigenous cultures. The photo gave us a grim counter vision to the “glory” of American empire. When we visited the college, we put our hands on actual copies of “The Liberator,” the Abolitionist newspaper published by William Lloyd Garrison. In her project on Abolitionism, Isabelle had us analyze the masthead of the paper, which included imagery of a slave auction on one side, an image of Christ with a freed slave at his feet in the middle, and a gateway in the far-right inscribed with the word “Emancipation.” We looked at photographs of the dead at the Bloody Road at Antietam. We read the Gettysburg Address in class, Lincoln’s words so poetically sure and aspirational. In Dinara’s project, we held voice votes to ratify the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, with unanimous assent to ratify all three.

It is massively difficult to make history important and exciting and compelling to middle school students. All we have is a few pictures. The hieroglyphics of political cartoons. Journal entries, letters, and speeches, which are often ornate and difficult to understand, almost a foreign language.  It is difficult to compete with all the claims on our student’s attention, the technicolor kaleidoscope of images on Instagram, or the immediacy of Snapchat or the drama of a Google chat. Moreover, students come to the school with practically no historical awareness. Only a few of them have visited historical sites. Only a few of them have read much history. History, its magnificence and beauty and terribleness and drama is, in most cases, a distant echo in their ears

And yet when we read about the singular acts of actual historical persons, we find real examples of the traits we most wish for ourselves. When we learn about Harriet Tubman going back and forth from north to south over seventeen times, we see towering bravery. When we learn of Frederick Douglass’ journey from being slave separated from his mother to become the greatest orator of the 19th century, we feel the immensity of possibility and noble transformation. When we learn of John Newton’s conversion from slaver to abolitionist, we see that anyone, us included, can move from darkness to enlightenment.

***

One night this fall I had a dream in which the world was ending. It happened after I had seen a news clip of horses being lead from their stables in the wildfires in California. In my dream, thousands and thousands were streaming down highways on foot. There was nothing left, just roads leading into a wasteland.  When I awoke that morning, I immediately thought of a book of poetry in the pile of books by my bedside. The book that came to mind was Kevin’s Young’s book of poems Brown (Knopf, 2018) The book is filled African American history, both personal and public, and in particular focuses on great figures and moments in time: John Brown; the “Brown Bomber,” Joe Lewis; Brown v. Board of Education. But the volume closes with a marvelous poem about a child bee-keeper. The poem is called “Hive,” and it is this poem that was in my mind when I awoke. Before I got up to get ready for school I pulled the book out and read the poem again.

The honey bees’ exile
is almost complete.
You can carry

them from hive
to hive, the child thought
& that is what

he tried, walking
with them thronging
between his pressed palms.

Let him be right.
Let the gods look away
as always. Let this boy

who carries the entire
actual, whirring
world in his calm

unwashed hands,
barely walking, bear
us all there

buzzing, unstung.

I did not know exactly why this poem came to me. But when I got to school that morning in meeting I told the kids about my dream. And as I described it, I realized that the poem was the answer. If the world is dying, or if it is in convulsions, or if we are living through some kind of collective rupture in the natural and political order, then the answer is the boy in this dream. He appears, on the last page of Young’s book, as a prophet for our time. A child who possesses all of the sacred knowledge; a child so careful, so loving and gracefully poised and so great in his power, that he can carry the entire buzzing world in his hands.

We teachers are driven by the idea that we can transmit all of experience into the hands and heads of our students. That we can make them feel the majesty of the universe in systems of equations and the sacred order of geometry; that the beauty of a frog’s iris is so moving that, upon gazing into it, our students want to save the world; that the story of John Brown or Robert Smalls is so inspiring makes them want to change their lives and the world entirely.

But sometimes this can only happen in a purely ahistorical way. Iris wrote a sketch about her little brother, Tobin. One day, playing in spring puddles, he accidentally stepped on a tiny frog. He froze and stood over the dead frog, in terror and dismay, heart-broken at the outcome of his playful glee. Iris stood by him and watched him coming to understand what had happened. She wrote that she learned how to love from seeing Tobin weep over a tiny frog in springtime.

In the morning I read them Kevin Young’s poem, no light shone down in the classroom. It was all I had to give them. It was another day of the North Branch School, another poem in meeting, another lab looking at cell structure, another day of balancing equations. Sometimes poetry and history do not touch them.

Still, we want them to see the infinity in a grain of sand, that is sure. Infinity in the life and death of tiny frogs and in feats of heroism. The hope is that they will learn the course of those right ones who came before. The dream is that they will pick up a handful of bees and find the right way to walk in the world.

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