Where We’re Going, Where We Are: On Harriet Tubman, Wal-Mart and The North Star
by Max S. Gordon
(The piece premiered at the First Person Plural Reading Series: What Just Happened? Writers Respond to Our American Crises — 2019 Edition, Harlem, New York, November 10, 2019.)
Before you can decide where you are going, you have to know where you are. Here’s where we are:
White supremacists recently desecrated the grave of Emmett Till. You may remember Emmett Till was a black child from Chicago, a 14-year-old boy, who was visiting relatives in Mississippi in 1955 when he was accused of disrespecting a white woman in her family’s store. Her husband and brother-in-law responded by kidnapping Till, torturing and murdering him. When his body was found he had been mutilated.
His mother, Mamie Till Bradley, insisted that her son’s coffin would be left open for the world to see what had been done to her child. The men who murdered Till were acquitted by an all-white jury, and admitted to killing Till after the trial. Till became a symbol of the perversity and grotesqueness of Southern racism. There were many men and women lynched and violated in the South and North as Till was, and we will never know all their names or faces. But we can go to the memorial site in Mississippi where Till’s body was found, to honor these people, as an acknowledgement of this nation’s past. We can say, as many have said about the Holocaust, this should never have happened. And that we must always remember.
But at this time and place, someone has desecrated Emmett Till’s grave, they have shot holes in it so that it now requires bullet proof glass. The New York Times recently reported that surveillance cameras caught a white supremacy group shooting a propaganda video there. I’m going to say it again. A white supremacy group went to the site where Emmett Till’s body was found and recorded a Klan recruitment video there.
Now, I would venture that one of the men who participated in the white supremacy video that day probably considers himself a follower of Jesus Christ. He might even call himself “born again”. Yet he can’t seem to see the relationship between the iconic image of the Pietá, Mary at the bottom of the cross, holding her dead son in her arms, and Mamie Till Bradley insisting on that open casket. Some people are able to reconcile their racism and religion, which amazes me: because the stories aren’t that different when you think about it — a mother named Mary, a mother named Mamie, bearing witness to their son’s deaths, shedding tears over the blood of their children, witnessing what tribes too often do to the innocents of the world.
Yet for inexplicable reason in this country you can hate niggers and still claim to love Jesus Christ. You can desecrate a grave and then go to work and ask in the break room, “Any more of that coffee left, darling? You won’t believe the pile of papers that’s on my desk this morning.” You can claim white pride and hold a hymn book in your hand on Sunday, take communion, pass the collection plate.
This is a measure of how sick we are. It isn’t enough to harass, to harm immigrant children, the children of those seeking asylum, and put them in cages. Now, in our desperation and illness, we are harming dead children too, a black boy lowered into the ground after being murdered, in a cage too soon, because he ignored the “wall” of Jim Crow and Southern propriety and had the audacity to speak to a white woman. By someone’s estimation, he was too entitled, too free, and the price he paid was his life.
We are a nation that now desecrates memorials to dead children. Before you can decide where you are going, you also have to know who you are. This is who we are.
The other day I was in Wal-Mart. I’ve managed to avoid Wal-Mart for years, which isn’t hard to do when you live in New York City because we don’t have one here. It wasn’t until I spent some time in upstate New York and went in for the first time that I realized: Wal-Mart isn’t just a place, it’s a state of consciousness. I’m going to be careful here, because there is a danger of my sounding like one of those East Coast elites — yes, you can be black and be considered elite. What I am about to say isn’t about demonizing the poor. The honest truth is, I was in there because I was broke, I needed some toiletries and I couldn’t believe the prices. I bought deodorant, toothpaste, some junk food, and then I looked around for a while.
I saw people in Wal-Mart I haven’t seen anywhere else. What I found in Wal-Mart was America. It finally occurred to me why people love Wal-Mart. You can talk about politics all you want, but if you only have fifteen dollars on Tuesday and you don’t get paid until Friday, you can stretch those fifteen dollars pretty far at Wal-Mart.
I know that democrats shop at Wal-Mart, but I was looking for Trump supporters. I tried to get into the psychology of the person who supports Donald Trump and who is poor, why do they believe that a “billionaire” businessman, who has nothing in common with them, but who says a few words that turn them on at a rally, is politically on their side?
Standing in the aisles of Wal-Mart, I had to acknowledge the genius of American racism and class warfare. We have some people, people who could work their entire lives and not earn enough to replace the gold tiles in his Fifth Avenue apartment, who feel this man is one of them, who feel more of an affinity with Donald Trump and his white rage than they do their black co-workers.
I’m not going to lie: I saw people walking around Wal-Mart with their asses out — just out. And those were the employees. I hope one day sociologists study us and really figure out how we pulled this off, this class thing. I’m talking about a world where we have Marc Zuckerbergs, and Jeff Bezoses, and Donald Trumps, men with billions and billions of dollars, and some people are walking around in Wal-Mart literally unable to clothe themselves, or buy themselves teeth — the friendly woman in her eighties, who helped me find an item didn’t have any teeth. And we aren’t angry at these billionaires, we aren’t raging, we’re busy shopping. I wondered: why aren’t we tearing this place apart, why aren’t we furious, why aren’t we appalled every single moment of every single day at the unfairness of it all? And the answer is because if we really dig deep into this shit, we’re all going to have to sit down for a long while and cry a lot of tears. We don’t want to consider the potential lost and despair in this world simply because of human greed.
So, to avoid that conversation, people embrace an ideology like white supremacy rather than embrace their grief. You trade teeth for a Trump rally. Many of us talk about how horrible racism is, and we’re right, but we don’t talk often enough about the other side of racism, because racism has many chambers. Racism can also be warm and snuggly, like a favorite blanket, or chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Or niggers roasting on an open fire. Because that’s our history too: a lynched black man or woman, cut down from a tree, genitals cut off, body flayed, and the charred remains left to hang in the window of a shop in the center of town for passerby to see, pieces broken off and kept as souvenirs.
Racism feels cosy because it tells us that even though we don’t have what Donald Trump has, if we are white we are wealthy by association. I remember meeting a guy in a social group I was a part of, and no matter what the topic was, he always found a way to work into the conversation, “As the cousin of Steven Spielberg…” (It wasn’t Steven Speilberg, but you get the idea.) I’m happy that he derived so much pleasure from the association, but in terms of accomplishments, he hadn’t done anything except through the accident of biology. But it gave him cachet, a title, a reason for being. You can’t be a loser, right, when you are the cousin of Barak Obama?
Whiteness works in the same way. We aren’t rich like Trump, but if we’re white, we could be, we should be, maybe one day we will be. Whiteness (not being Irish, or Italian, or French) but being white, the decision to be white, is the ultimate antidote to shame. And being poor in this country is often a very shameful experience.
And so, you have no clothes, no place to live, no bank account, a nomad wandering through a vast wasteland called Wal-Mart with aisles and aisles, in some ways not that different from the woman from Central America crossing a vast terrain and fleeing gang violence. She’s trying to feed her kids like you’re trying to feed yours; the difference is she’s from a “shithole country” and you’re not.
And that’s the great mind-fuck. Instead of feeling solidarity and compassion for her, and people like her around the world, you’re at a rally shouting, “Build the wall, build the wall”, and you can’t even see the wall they’ve built around your ass that you’ll never get over, that you’ll never escape, because you don’t even want to, you’re busy shopping for a flat-screen TV. Meanwhile, a white man pisses all over the constitution. You don’t have to wait for the wall, because it’s already built. It is called Wal — Mart remember?
Our president, who in the middle of impeachment proceedings, says that what is happening to him is a lynching. A senator who knows better, a senator with black constituents, who was born a year after Brown vs. Board of Education and a month before Emmett Till was murdered, agrees with the President. We have reached a point of such vulgarity in this society that we are becoming numb. And when you are numb to vulgarity, you are ripe for fascism.
The proper response to vulgarity isn’t becoming more vulgar yourself. The antidote to vulgarity is poetry. The answer to vulgarity is art.
Author Toni Morrison said about writing the novel Beloved, ““There is so much more to remember and to describe for purposes of exorcism…things must be made, some fixing ceremony, some memorial, something, some altar, somewhere, where these things can be released, thought, and felt. But the consequences of slavery only artists can deal with. There are certain things that only artists can deal with. And it’s our job.”
I want to talk now about the woman they call Harriet Tubman. I want to talk about resistance. Harriet did her job. I consider Harriet Tubman to be an artist. Some of us write, some of us paint, Harriet’s art, the medium of her expression, was freeing the enslaved.
The answer to Wal-Mart is Harriet Tubman. Someone had the great idea a few years ago to put Harriet Tubman’s face on the twenty-dollar bill. Can you imagine buying a flat-screen TV with fifteen Harriet Tubmans? I certainly hope it never happens, because if there was ever a symbol of someone who threatened to destabilize a corrupt capitalist economy, it is Harriet Tubman.
And she didn’t buy her freedom with a stack of twenties, thank you very much. If you have to commodify her greatness, I’d rather see a great pair of athletic shoes called “Harriets” that helps innocent black children run from the cops, than to see her on a twenty-dollar bill. Somebody thinks that if they put Harriet Tubman on currency, they’ve caught her. But you didn’t catch her then, and you never will.
And that’s what pisses off some white people, and maybe even a few black people. In the cultural imagination, our Harriet runs free, not stumbling, not staggering, but gloriously, triumphantly free: she escapes over and over again, she reaches freedom over and over again.
And they can’t stand it. You can’t stop her and you can’t explain her and you can’t spend her. But what you can do is go outside at night, take a deep breath of air, imagine gathering your skirts and running. Imagine the woods you are running into to has the potential to swallow you whole. Consider the night sky, consider the people who you love who you may never see again, imagine finding the courage to run beyond everything you can imagine, and then run past that.
Imagine that the person who wants to capture you sees you the same way we see our dining room chairs from Ikea, or our iPhone. These examples probably seem ludicrous, but when you really think about it , owning a slave, like owning “water” or “air”, is ludicrous.
I don’t actually like the term “slaves” because there is no such thing as a slave, just as there is no such thing as “the homeless.” There are people on the street who have lost their homes, there are people who are addicted, who are mentally ill, who need help. But those people aren’t “the homeless”. If I lose my house and I have to stay in a shelter tonight because it’s cold outside, I’m not the “homeless”, I’m Max and I need a place to stay. If you have nowhere to go tonight because you are in an abusive relationship and your children aren’t safe, you aren’t “homeless”, you are Sarah, who needs a place to stay.
So when we talk about “slaves”, we’re talking about people, just people. We are talking about a woman who was the midwife in her village when she was caught in a net, a man who was hunting and ended up on the ship, a girl who braided her sister’s hair the last day she saw her family, a man who lived until he was ninety, who tended the master’s horses, and whose only memory of his mother is a woman who held his hand when he was two, before he was taken away from her. He can’t remember her face but he can never forget that grabbing hand, reaching, reaching, forever reaching. Slavery is harder to consider when you don’t think of slaves, but of real people — real people, enslaved.
Think of Harriet, of her courage. You want to talk about Mission Impossible? Have a seat, Tom Cruise. In Hollywood, a man with ropes scales a mountain to get away from Russian spies and we cheer, but try walking from Maryland to Philadelphia with slave catchers on your heels and your only map is the sky.
You want to talk about an intimate relationship, compassion when the walk gets lonely? Try running alone at night and the only company you have is a light in the sky called the North Star, as you lean on Holy Ghost power. I am not here to preach religion to anyone, but Holy Ghost power is what you learn to rely on when everything else has been taken from you.
It is known from accounts of Tubman’s life that because of a violent injury during slavery, she sometimes fell asleep and had seizures while she was leading others to escape. So. we aren’t just talking about a black woman, we are talking about a black woman in America with a disability, a disabled black woman turned America inside out.
Mission impossible, made possible. And if Harriet was possible, anything brave is possible. The story of Harriet Tubman is deeper than slavery. It is about the triumph of the imagination. The problem under Trump is that we just aren’t dreaming big enough. We’ve become sloppy dreamers, we’ve outsourced our dreams. We need creativity to act, to respond to life. Harriet teaches us, go into your woods. Step out on faith. The help you need will find you. And you can win!
The great black actress and poet Beah Richards reminded us before she died, you must never betray your people. She said, “You can win. You ain’t gonna be no millionaire. But you can win!” She wasn’t talking about a jackpot at Trump’s casino: she was talking about the greatest human fight, kindness over corruption. Because Harriet rescuing herself from slavery was brave, Harriet rescuing others from slavery was kind.
We all know that being black can sometimes be a real drag in America; like when a cab passes you by, or you are followed in a store or racially profiled on the street. Or shot in your home. But there is one part of my cultural legacy that I wouldn’t trade for anything in this world. It’s the part of black life that makes people return to our art, our music, our poetry — despite the depth of our blues, something resounding always affirms: “We’re going to make it.” In Maya Angelou’s teleplay Sisters, the character Sissy asks her older sister Freda, played by the great Rosalind Cash, “How you gonna make it, Freida?” And Freda, who faced some hard times in her life and may soon face some more, tells her sister: “I’m gonna make it. Like you’re gonna make it.”
We are going to make it, because we’ve always made it. One crazy white man can cause a lot of harm, World War II is a testament to that. And we may have to lose a lot, before we remember again who we are, who we are supposed to be. But when Beah tells us, “You ain’t gonna be no millionaire” she’s saying, it ain’t about being on twenty-dollar bill, it’s about freedom. And you can win!
For those of us of color who have absolutely had it with crazy white people, both on our televisions and in our workplaces, we need to remember that white abolitionists were real people, people who risked their lives for justice, not just for black people but for themselves, because they wanted the grace that can only come from courage. We need to remember that Civil Rights workers Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, died together, we need to remember there were whites who went South, who lived in the South, who said that racism is wrong and took a stand. When I consider Trump supporters and white supremacists, that gives me hope.
White people, when you are also tired of the crazy white people in your lives, both on your television, and at your Thanksgiving table, you need to remember these heroes, not as Hollywood “white saviors”, but as an inspiration of what is possible. Whiteness isn’t mandatory, although it may feel like it, it has always been a choice! Black people we must keep insisting on freedom. Living in America, in this moment, sometimes our souls are so tired. But, wouldn’t it be nice to see, just once, what is on the other side of that wall?
Let the rest of the world follow CNN and Fox News. Like Harriet, I’m following the North Star. I know Donald Trump has millions of followers on Twitter. But for those who want to be free, the North Star has the greatest number of followers of all.
If you listen, you can still hear Harriet running through those woods. The night around her is electric and alive. The rhythm of her feet against the ground sounds of determination. We’ll never known all their names, over the hundreds of years, the many who escaped, but there is one name we know. And we invoke her spirit for the fight ahead: Harriet. Harriet. Harriet.
And the sound, as she rushes past, is the wind,
Saying, you can win. You can win. You can win!
What Just Happened: Writer’s Respond to Our American Crises — Related First Person Plural Reading Series essays and interviews:
Resist Trump: A Survival Guide (2016) (audio version available)
The Kavanaugh Season (2018) (audio version available)
Shine From Where You Are (2017)
Addiction and Donald Trump (2018)
The Road We’re Travelling: Driving Drunk With Donald Trump (2019)
Thanks to Stacy Parker Le Melle for creating and hosting this event!
Max S. Gordon is a writer and activist. He has been published in the anthologies Inside Separate Worlds: Life Stories of Young Blacks, Jews and Latinos (University of Michigan Press, 1991), Go the Way Your Blood Beats: An Anthology of African-American Lesbian and Gay Fiction (Henry Holt, 1996). His work has also appeared on openDemocracy, Democratic Underground and Truthout, in Z Magazine, Gay Times, Sapience, and other progressive on-line and print magazines in the U.S. and internationally. His essays include “A Different World: Why We Owe The Cosby Accusers An Apology”, “Faggot as Footnote: On James Baldwin, ‘I Am Not Your Negro’, ‘Can I Get A Witness’ and ‘Moonlight’”, “Resist Trump: A Survival Guide”, “Family Feud: Jay-Z, Beyoncé and the Desecration of Black Art”, and “A Little Respect, Just a Little Bit: On White Feminism and How ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is Being Weaponized Against Women of Color.”