July 4th at the President’s House

Last week two friends, both writers, one from California, accompanied me to The President’s House in Philadelphia.  I still had in mind the opening in December, with officials making very good speeches with their frosty breaths and young people performing traditional West African dances on the mall afterward, some in bare feet.

Last week the child I met at the President’s House was blonde.  She’d come from Tennessee with her grandparents.  They’d bought her a blue colonial dress and white mobcap from the Independence Mall gift shop across Market Street.  Now they were taking photos of her against the backdrop of the President’s House before they have to leave to catch the plane back to Tennessee. We told her that I had written the scripts, and the grandparents told me how much this girl loved history and that her ambition was to grow up to be a historian.

We did not speak about the particular history represented on the walls of this house museum/exhibit, although it’s all I can think of when I’m there:  that and the house’s recent history.

I thought about the members of ATAC, the Avenging The Ancestors Coalition, standing on the Market Street sidewalk for years, pouring libations, carrying signs, making speeches, handing out pamphlets.  I remembered them meeting to determine strategy downstairs in the North Philadelphia Black United Fund building whose second floor housed Art Sanctuary for nearly twelve years.  There were ideological disagreements and fallings-out and splinterings along with dogged, determined leadership and persistence. I thought about historian Gary Nash and a group that called itself the Ad Hoc Historians and their articles and letters; more dogged, determined leadership and perseverance. Their work and others’ began a contentious political process that brought attention, money, proposals for the monument, a design team, an Oversight Committee, and finally, this completed monument, whose very title, The President’s House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of a New Nation, still rankles some.

At the moment my friends and I and the Tennessee family stood talking, only two of the five videos played as they were meant to do.  One displayed videos and captions, but no sound, as if, once again, these people are receiving our disrespect instead of our thanks for their sacrifice, endurance, and action.

Mostly that’s what I think about when I drive or walk by.  I see the errors in the scripts, where I should have changed the narration or made a line easier for the actor to say.  I think, as our liturgy says, “of things done and left undone,” but this time, for some reason, I asked the little girl if I could take a photo with her; I entered into my friends’ enthusiasm; I remembered University of Pennsylvania professor Tukufu Zuberi saying to the Oversight Committee that this would be a first in the nation’s interpretive commemoration of the founding.

“Aren’t you proud of this?” my friend asked.  “Look at these people.”

I read the names of the nine on the wall:

Christopher Sheels
Oney Judge

“After a while,” I told them, “their names became a poem.”  Yes, I told them.  For the first time, I felt proud.

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