Why do we have such a hard time with such a little thing?
Mathematicians don't, of course. To them the 'equals' sign indicates an orderly, neatly-balanced world. Look hard enough, it seems to suggest, and you'll find the values of the unknown 'x' that allow two sides of any question to agree: a place for everything, and everything in its place. Replace the mathematical symbols with human beings, though, and we seem to spend most of our time figuring out why the two halves of the equation could never be equal.
I was thinking about this recently as I walked through a small brick house. The house does not stand out in any obvious way, its design typical of the early-1800s architecture around here. In fact, its anonymity is the whole point.
The house was part of what is known as the Underground Railroad, a pre-Civil War1 network of safe houses providing food, shelter, and other assistance to escaped slaves making their way from the slave-holding states of the southern US to the free states of the north. Cincinnati, Ohio was a popular destination for the runaways, a major port city lying on the banks of the Ohio River which separated it from the slave-owning state of Kentucky. It was to Cincinnati that Margaret Garner ran; in Cincinnati that she was captured; and in Cincinnati that she murdered her daughter so that her daughter would not grow up as a slave. (Garner’s story was the inspiration for the 1987 novel Beloved by Toni Morrison and the 1998 movie of the same name.)
Geography and an active anti-slavery movement2 made Cincinnati a major hub of the Railroad. Nowadays within a couple hours' drive, visitors can find a number of buildings that were part of the network. Some are private residences. Others have been restored as historical sites and are open to the public for viewing. Still others remain in use today, such as the Jonathan Wright House in Springboro, Ohio, currently operating as a 'bed and breakfast' inn. And there are the rest, still anonymous, many of them gone, waiting for historians to uncover their stories.
For this reason, Cincinnati was chosen as the site for the new National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, a museum devoted to preserving an important part of US history. The Center opened on 3 August of this year and was officially dedicated on 23 August. It's a pretty amazing place. One of the first things that visitors see is a slave pen that was moved from the Kentucky farm where it was used to hold slaves awaiting sale. The wood boards still bear carvings made by slaves locked up in the pen. There is also some powerful art work, a couple pieces of which particularly stand out in my mind. One is a sculpture made of chains and leg irons worn by slaves. Despite the materials used, the work is a celebration of freedom, the leg irons opening like hands reaching to the heavens. The other piece that caught my eye is the signature mural by Columbus, Ohio artist Aminah Robinson3. The 22-by-30 foot mural, entitled 'Journeys', tells the story of her travels in Africa, Israel, Puerto Rico and around the US. Like much of her work, 'Journeys' is done in vivid, vibrant colours — the individual panels are so detailed, I could have spent hours studying this work alone.
There is way too much in the Center to see in one visit, especially this past weekend, what with all the hubbub surrounding the dedication. A load of celebrities were on hand for the Sunday evening gala, including First Lady Laura Bush4 and Oprah Winfrey. (Bono of U2 was scheduled to appear but cancelled, sparing us the mild irony of having a Bush and a Bono supporting the same thing.)
There is some controversy over the location of the Center in Cincinnati, which in recent years has become known for its troubled relations between the races. Some accuse the Center of softening its message in an effort to appeal to a wider variety of donors, the list of which includes local corporation Proctor & Gamble, Ms Winfrey, and the state and federal governments, which are about as mainstream as you can get. Critics also say that the Center downplays the grim stories of the slaves who were re-captured by emphasising the successful work of the Underground Railroad. They note that the Center also loses its focus by referring to others' struggles for equality, mentioning leaders of the women's rights and gay rights movements among other 'Everyday Heroes'.
The more optimistic of its supporters hope that the Center's mission to educate its visitors will help heal the wounds left by the nation's slave-owning past. One area, called Reflect, Respond, Resolve, provides space for contemplation and discussion of visitors' experiences in the museum. There are kiosks which invite visitors to ponder difficult questions, such as 'is it always right to obey the law', questions that resonate in today's tense world.
Equal? No, not yet, and I'm not holding my breath. We humans carry around in our hindbrains our primate ancestors, who tend to bare their teeth and charge other primates who don't belong to the right tribe. Until we re-engineer our DNA, the best we can do to tell our hindbrain to pipe down when it starts screeching. Tough as that is, we actually succeed on occasion. And that's something to hold onto.