The Universe of Discourse

Mon, 31 Dec 2007

Harriet Tubman
Katara and I had a pretty heavy conversation in the car on the way home from school last week. I should begin by saying that Philadelphia has a lot of murals. More murals than any other city in the world, in fact. The mural arts people like to put up murals on large, otherwise ugly party walls. That is, when you have two buildings that share a wall, and one of them is torn down, leaving a vacant lot with a giant blank wall, the mural arts people see it as a prime location and put a mural there. On the way back from Katara's school we drive through Mantua, which is not one of the rosier Philadelphia neighborhoods, and has a lot of vacant lots, and so a lot of murals. We sometimes count the murals on the way home, and usually pass four or five.

Katara pointed out a mural she liked, and I observed that there was construction on the adjacent vacant lot, which is likely to mean that the mural will be covered up soon by the new building. I mentioned that my favorite Philadelphia mural of all had been on the side of a building that was torn down in 2002.

Katara asked me to tell her about it, so I did. It was the giant mural of Harriet Tubman that used to be on the side of the I. Goldberg building at 9th and Chestnut Streets. It was awesome. There was 40-foot-high painting of Harriet Tubman raising her lantern at night, leading a crowd of people through a dark tunnel (Underground Railroad, obviously) into a beautiful green land beyond, and giant chains that had once barred the tunnel, but which were now shattered.

It's hard to photograph a mural well. The scale and the space do not translate to photographs. It looked something like this:

Note that the small people at the bottom are actually larger than life-size.

Here's a detail:

One cool thing about it that you can't see in the picture is that the column of stones on Tubman's right is painted so as to disguise an large and ugly air conditioning vent that emerges from the wall and climbs up to the roof. The wall is otherwise flat.

Anyway, I said that my favorite mural had been the Harriet Tubman one, and that it had been torn down before she was born. (As you can see from the picture, the building was located next to a parking lot. The owners of the building ripped it down to expand the parking lot.)

But then Katara asked me to tell her about Harriet Tubman, and that was something of a puzzle, because Katara is only three and a half. But the subject is not intrinsically hard to understand; it's just unpleasant. And I don't believe that it's my job to shield her from the unpleasantness of the world, but it is my job to try to answer her questions, if I can. So I tried.

"Okay, you know how you own stuff, and you can do what you want, because it's yours?"

Sure, she understands that. We have always been very clear in distinguishing between her stuff and our stuff, and in defending her property rights against everyone, including ourselves.

"But you know that you can't own other people, right?"

This was confusing, so I tried an example. "Emily is your friend, and sometimes you ask her to do things, and maybe she does them. But you can't make her do things she doesn't want to do, because she gets to decide for herself what she does."

Sure, of course. Now we're back on track. "Well, a long time ago, some people decided that they owned some other people, called slaves, and that the slaves would have to do whatever their owners said, even if they didn't want to."

Katara was very indignant. I believe she said "That's not nice!" I agreed; I said it was terrible, one of the most terrible things that had ever happened in this country. And then we were over the hump. I said that slaves sometimes tried to run away from the owners, and get away to a place where they could do whatever they wanted, and that Harriet Tubman helped slaves escape.

There you have Harriet Tubman in a nutshell for a three-and-a-half year-old. It was a lot easier than the time she asked me why ships in 1580 had no women aboard.

I did not touch the racial issue at all. When you are explaining something complicated, it is important to keep it in bite-sized chunks, and to deal with them one at a time, and I thought slavery was already a big enough chunk. Katara is going to meet this issue head-on anyway, probably sooner than I would like, because she is biracial.

I explained about the Underground Railroad, and we discussed what a terrible thing slavery must have been. Katara wanted to know what the owners made the slaves do, and there my nerve failed me. I told her that I didn't want to tell her about it because it was so awful and frightening. I had pictures in my head of beatings, and of slaves with their teeth knocked out so that they could be forced to eat, to break hunger strikes, and of rape, and families broken up, and I just couldn't go there. Well, I suppose it is my job to shield her from some the unpleasantness of the world, for a while.

I realize now I could have talked about slaves forced to do farm work, fed bad food, and so on, but I don't think that would really have gotten the point across. And I do think I got the point across: the terrible thing about being a slave is that you have to do what you are told, whether you want to or not. All preschoolers understand that very clearly, whereas for Katara, toil and neglect are rather vague abstractions. So I'm glad I left it where I did.

But then a little later Katara asked some questions about family relations among the slaves, and if slaves had families, and I said yes, that if a mother had a child, then her child belonged to the same owner, and sometimes the owner would take the child away from its mother and sell it to someone else and they would never see each other again. Katara, of course, was appalled by this.

I'm not sure I had a point here, except that Katara is a thoughtful kid, who can be trusted with grown-up issues even at three and a half years old, and I am very proud of her.

That seems like a good place to end the year. Thanks for reading.

[ Addendum 20080201: The mural was repainted in a new location, at 2950 Germantown Avenue! ]

[ Addendum 20160420: The Germantown Avenue mural is by the same artist, Sam Donovan, but is not the same design. The model was Kat Lindsey. Donovan’s web site provides a better picture.  ]

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