I visited Sumner Hall the other day to look at the new Smithsonian exhibit, “The Way We Worked” and its allied display, “The Black Labor Experience in Kent County: Free and Enslaved; Founders and Soldiers; Tools of the Trades and Contemporary Work Stories.
I wanted a break from the interminable news about chemical warfare, battle armadas and the ever-widening divisions between countries, political groups, ethnicities and the kaleidoscope of social classifications that make up the human race.
It was quiet that afternoon in the small building on Queen Street as I walked among the artifacts on the first floor, looking at tools of the trade and read about the lives of some of Kent County African Americans who had succeeded as ex-slaves to build businesses and lives, many within a few hundred feet of Sumner Hall’s location on Queen Street.
I tried to imagine even the faintest outline of the black experience in America. It’s easy to read history or watch documentaries about the past, but easier for that experience to lack a connection to the core of our empathy. If we have it at all. After all, what has the past have to do with us? But a continuum of time and its events is still part of the whole and the voice of the American and world narrative is still being spoken—at least today—in every human activity from Johannesburg to Cincinnati.
It’s there in ‘imagining’ that for me a kind of discordance begins. It starts with the geophysical, sitting in a building restored to honor free blacks and slaves who fought and died for the North during the Civil War, on a block of town that for generations had been the home of African American families, a town that held slave auctions overlooking a river often teeming with sailboats. I doubt a black man or woman in the 18th century would delight as much seeing a white sail on the horizon. We are a long way from the kidnappings in Senegal and the depravity of the middle passage. Or are we? If 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation human bondage is no longer the coin of the realm, its consequences—the constant re-igniting of discrimination against “the other”—still poisons us.
But what is the dissonance, the clattering of voices—not only ours, but the ones we inherited—that keep me listening as if to locate by some magical sonar a clear narrative about the things that divide us and make our lives smaller by suffocating us with prejudice, fear and disdain?
I see my father sitting at a desk in the corner of the room but it’s 50 years ago. He is in his Navy Captain’s uniform and I hear laughter around him as he tells a racist joke. The party fades, the laughter dissolves.
The two exhibits at Sumner Hall are related but different in their scope. The first floor personalizes the black work experience with names and excerpts of historical records of their lives. The second floor is a lens pulled back to a panoramic shot of the wider American work experience. Here, a labyrinth of photo panels has been set up, each panel depicting people at work—black, white, Asian, men, women—all doing their jobs: women switchboard operators and train mechanics, astronauts, watermen. While it is impossible to overlook the photograph of an African-American waiter entering a train dining car filled with well-dressed white passengers, it does not close my self-enquiry.
The Smithsonian, by deftly widening the scope shared work, has invited local organizations to share in some of the historical heavy lifting, at least as far as the sharper focus on the African American experience and although the stories reveal many successes of overcoming harsh indignities it should not be lost upon us that, like a good photographic image, negative space defines it.
And there is my father, sitting at his desk behind one of the Smithsonian panels. It is 1965, 20 years after submarine combat in the Pacific and he is opening a letter, reading it, thinking about it. “It’s from one of my torpedoman, thanking me for saving his life. One of the best damn black torpedo man’s mate in the g’dam Navy,” he says. But ‘black’ is not the word he uses.
I’m confused. Praise, derision, and contempt are a bewildering choir of messages. How do we unlearn the voices within us? And where did they come from?
Like a primitive abacus, the brain calculates and classifies the differences: other, not other, good, bad, less than, equal. The book of natural selection and adaption explaining the difference in skin color and nutritional metabolism, tribalism, and in-group trust. The human genome project even points back as far as the Pleistocene era as a marker for human discrimination between the loved in-group and the feared out-group. We have to look no farther than the recent immigration ban to feel the ancient sting of fear of otherness.
For the two exhibits at Sumner Hall to work synchronously, to walk back and forth in our minds between a 19th-century ex-slave and a white woman astronaut—Sally Ride is displayed—is to enter the cardinal inquiry. For a few minutes we can begin to sense that in our endeavor to survive we are the same, building things with our hands, working as mechanics and farmers, physicians and taxi drivers, whatever it takes to get along, to succeed, to advance, Walt Whitman’s universal man.I walk through the gauntlet of the Smithsonian installation and stare into the faces of people at work. They are us. Working to live.
It is 1954, my father, mother and I are driving to Florida. At a rest stop, there is an African American, old to my 6 years. On his bicycle, he has all his worldly possessions wrapped in cloth. My father gets out of the car, talks to the man for some minutes, reaches into his pocket and gives the man some money. He returns, says the man migrates to Florida every year in his bicycle.
Tomorrow he will tell a racist joke but for a moment I saw an act of kindness override his inherited attitude. It gets complicated like that and it’s up to us sort through and re-evaluate our own biases and open our minds to the understanding that we are all passengers. Otherwise, we continue to throw fuel onto the burning cross.
The Smithsonian and Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience exhibit give us a place to have this kind of meditation. It’s a serious gift and Sumner Hall is the perfect place to unwrap it.
“The Way We Worked” exhibit will be at Sumner Hall through May 20th. For the many lectures, exhibits, musical performance and dramatic performances related to the event, go here.
Benchworks, The Peoples Bank, Silver Hill Farm, Phoenix Initiatives, Chesapeake Bank and Trust, The Finishing Touch, Grasmick Lumber and Shrewsbury Church are sponsors of these events. Without this kind of community and local business support, exhibits like these would never give us the opportunity to discover our shared passage of life, the commonality rather than the differences.
I remind everyone that Sumner Hall is now a self-funding private non-profit. We must work together to keep its doors open. For more information, please go here