A couple summers ago I took a week to drive the 125 miles of the Harriet Tubman Byway along the Eastern Shore, a pilgrimage in honor of one of the most bad ass women in human history. I brought my bike and used it to visit every marked historic site along the way, taking notes not only about what happened where, but also what else I saw and felt: the heat and humidity, the biting flies, the Confederate flags, and the segregated neighborhoods of Salisbury, Cambridge, and other small towns along the way. It was a wonderful and sobering trip, both a lesson in the violences of slavery and freedom, and a reminder that though Tubman is a historical figure, the land she fled remains mired in that history and present articulations of the logic used to justify slavery from the start.
Just next to the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge outside of Cambridge they had just started marking off the site that would become the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park. I rode up to it on my bike and took a zillion pictures as I fantasized about what stories that site would tell. As soon as they released the opening day—March 11, 2017—I booked a place to stay and made my plans for a visit the following weekend with the ladyfriend for a romantical weekend getaway.
Our trip started with that drive from Baltimore out 295 to 695 to 97 and the Bay Bridge to 50. In a couple months that easy drive will be packed with folks headed for Ocean City, but on this chilly day in March it was a quick trip. Our googleymap took us on some backroads and straight to Blackwater's Visitor Center . . . oops. We stared at some maps and a few minutes later we were pulling into Tubman's new spot, a series of buildings rising from the grasses. I got really excited, the kind of excited I get where I cry, I'm so excited. A brand new park celebrating Harriet Tubman? Be still my heart!
The ladyfriend backed us into a parking spot (she's one of those people who backs into spots—apologies) and we headed inside. We were greeted by a friendly ranger who showed us where to start and let us down easy with the news that the park film wasn't done yet. I love a good park film. If you haven't checked out the one at the Johnstown Flood site outside of Pittsburgh, put it on your list. But I digress. Until the movie's ready they're showing the full four hours of the site's opening ceremonies on repeat.
Our tour started in a small room. The light was dimmed as pictures alternated on the far wall and sounds of the Eastern Shore—wind, birds, waves—played in the background. Images of advertisements seeking the reenslavement of those who had freed themselves or quotes about the horrors of slavery traded off with images of soft marsh grasses blowing in shore winds, birds of prey sweeping over the landscape, or wildflowers blanketing the grass. Standing there in that room, the beauty and horror all at the same time, was the most powerful part of the experience. It set me immediately in the cognitive dissonance inaugurated when one realizes that freedom only makes sense insofar as there is slavery, that the beauty we see is undergirded always by the blood and tears of those who were here first and displaced, and those who were violently torn from their homes and enslaved here.
And then we moved on, as one does. That affective experience gave way to a didactic one as we moved from wall to wall, learning about Tubman's family history, the work she did when enslaved, the moments she marked as her own turning points on the road toward freedom. I know a lot about Harriet Tubman—I've read a lot of books about her, and books about how books about her have been written. The bare facts of her life were not new to me, but I think they will be to visitors who maybe haven't spent as much time as I have studying up on this remarkable woman.
I learned other things, though, on this visit. A far wall in the last room of the exhibit lists the names of those Tubman guided to freedom. Knowing a number is one thing; seeing the names is another. It was a reminder that we aren't talking about masses of people, but about individuals, each with her own story, her own loves, dreams, struggles—her own humanity. Each life matters in its own radical difference from every other life.
That's something that can get lost when we're talking about mass horrors. The massiveness of the mass matters, but there's a way the number can let us use abstraction to escape the horror itself. 12.5 million Africans were forcibly brought to North and South America and the Caribbean during the period of the transnational slave trade; 10.5 million survived the journey. I cannot wrap my head around those numbers except to gape at what we've done. Hundreds of thousands of people were enslaved in Maryland. Tubman was just one of those people, and she shepherded another 70 people to freedom before the end of the Civil War. In telling the story of Tubman in such detail, and in telling us a little about the people she helped find freedom, a different kind of horror settles in. Each of those hundreds, thousands, millions was as complex as Tubman, and as complex as I think I am. The loss piles on loss, the numbers no longer enough to give a strangely safe distance.
We ended the tour at the gift shop, purchased a collectible ornament for our Christmas tree next year and upgraded my National Parks Passport, and headed out for our drive to Tilghman Island to our B&B right at the edge where this particular finger of land meets the water. It was breathtaking, the beauty of this spot and our luck at living these particular lives right now. Cognitive dissonance, indeed.