Friday, June 22, 2007

invisible to visible to...

today i went to the country's first presidential residence on my lunch hour. it's really just a big excavation site where the residence used to be. i had been reading about it in the paper - how they planned to create an exhibit there and everything until folks realized that president washington had slaves there, and excavation revealed that there were artifacts on the site. right now plans to build the exhibit are being revisited, because planners are trying to figure out how not to lose the wealth of history and information that have been sitting in the dirt there for hundreds of years, virtually forgotten until now.

i wanted to go after reading an article about two older black women who make a daily pilgrimage to the site to see everything that's going on. they wanted to see whatever they could see pertaining to washington's slaves that lived there. shoot, so did i! there's a platform built on a corner of the excavation site from which you can view the foundation walls of the president's residence, including the precursor to washington's oval office, an old well shaft, and most fascinating to me - the tunnel that slaves used to get back and forth from their quarters to their master's quarters. it was used so that as they did their chores, they would be out of sight while the president was holding court with other heads of state, dignitaries and representatives. even back in the 1700's americans specialized in not actually seeing the social inequities we had.

i was kind of hoping to feel something important while i was there, reading the placards explaining the site and gazing over the excavation, imagining slaves and statesmen traversing over the space in such close proximity to each other. most times when i think of slavery, i think of fieldhands far removed from so-called gentlemen planters over in the estate house. here in philly, they were right up underneath each other, building tunnels and such so that the slaves wouldn't be visibly underfoot. but you know, as i tried to feel something special about being ground where our ancestors were enslaved, i remembered that everywhere i go in this city, on this east coast, there were slaves. most especially in my native state of virginia. i left a little disappointed. i wanted more knowledge. i wanted to see the artifacts, which are not yet on display. i wanted to feel some vindication for the slaves - that now they are no longer invisible and people come to visit the house they worked and lived in everyday, seeking information on them. but that's not really vindication. i work less than a quarter mile from the site. i have two degrees, and i don't have to empty anyone's chamber pot or fetch anyone's water - and there are millions of africans in this country who can say the same. for the ancestors, maybe that comes a little bit closer to, if not vindication, then maybe a salve for their injury.

it was worth my time though, and i highly recommend that everyone in or visiting the philly area take a look when they get a chance. there's a possibility that all of this excavation could be filled and built over if they can't get up enough money and creativity to figure out how to keep it on display, and time is limited. if they keep it open to the elements too long, it will wear away.

by the way, it's at 6th and market, ironically right near the liberty bell and all of philly's other monuments to freedom in america.

check it out.