This article appeared in the July 03, 2020 edition of the Monitor Daily.

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July Fourth, history, and ‘The other side of liberty’

Chris Gardner/AP/File
Doug Mooney, an archaeologist with Kise, Straw, & Kolodner, looks over an excavation area at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia on Feb. 25, 2003. The excavations are underway at the home of James Dexter, a former enslaved person who founded the country's first Black human rights organization and Philadelphia's first Black church more than two centuries ago.

Some metaphors, Walter Robinson told me, write themselves.

At Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center, the historic homesite of James Dexter, a former enslaved person who co-founded the Free African Society in 1787, was nearly paved over to be a bus drop-off. It was saved by African American activists.

“What could be a more amazing metaphor than to cover over something so key to Black self-determination?” asks the Black composer, writer, and activist.

His article “The other side of liberty” ran in the Monitor on July 3, 2003. Its examination of how freedom and slavery have been interlinked since the country’s founding – and the need for Americans to fully understand their history – echoes now. To Mr. Robinson, “the entire Atlantic Basin could be yellow taped as a 360-year crime scene.”

Yet he is an optimist, citing progress including the creation of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.

As the article notes, at the same moment they declared that all men were created equal, many of America’s Founding Fathers enslaved others.

“Can we accept our venerated Founding Fathers like George Washington as complex people who owned slaves and extended the length of the Atlantic Slave Trade in our Constitution?” Mr. Robinson asks. America acknowledges Washington as a freedom fighter. “Can we accept and lift up Black freedom fighters who broke the existing laws, like Harriet Tubman or Denmark Vesey, as patriots and true defenders of the precious ideals of our democracy? These are challenges to be overcome and resolved.”

Mr. Robinson, who composed a musical about Vesey and the Charleston Slave Conspiracy of 1822, quotes the words of a co-conspirator sentenced to hang in a trial closed to the public. A white minister urged him to repent. “Sin? What sin? … Washington was a white man and you idolized him; but I, alas, am a black man, and you hang me for the very act you applauded in him.”  

If you listen to today’s audio edition, you can hear an excerpt from “Preamble,” from Mr. Robinson’s musical, “Look What a Wonder.”

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This article appeared in the July 03, 2020 edition of the Monitor Daily.

Read 07/03 edition
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