04 August 2017

History is Not Always History

I am a Storyteller for Historic Philadelphia, Inc. For the summer, this entails standing at a semi-circular bench and telling stories to young and old who come to the Independence Visitor Center. Before every story, I ring a bell and proclaim "free stories!" to attract any last minute listeners. At first, ringing this bell made me feel terribly uncomfortable. Many people walk by giggling, or looking awkwardly away as if the sound of my bell will compel them into some Ponzi scheme. Sometimes it's easy to get swept into the energy of those passersby, and think of my job as silly or superfluous or saccharine.

Today, however, my bell tolled a sobering reminder of how worthwhile my work is. A woman approached me, asking if I would tell a story to the group of refugees she had with her. "They might not understand much," she said, "but I think it would be nice." I, of course, obliged, and began telling the story of Ona Judge. I chose this story because I use exaggerated gestures and tones of voice that I thought might be amusing despite any language barrier. Yet, as I got deeper into the story, looking at their faces, I began to choke up. Unintentionally, I was telling them their own story.

You see, Ona Judge was the enslaved servant of Martha Washington who escaped to freedom in New Hampshire while the Washingtons were living in Philadelphia in 1796. I have told this story at least five times a day, five days a week, for the last two months, and each time I tell it people are amazed. As I hand out my stickers, I chat with parents and children about how brave she was, to run away in that time, from the president himself. The story never ceases to impress me, but I had never been emotionally moved by it until today.

What's history for some is present reality for others. This group of refugees, from diverse and distant places, were bonded together by one very potent desire: freedom. They had each traveled far, through who knows what difficulties, what terrors, and were here, in Philadelphia - the birthplace of freedom, some might say - to hopefully start a new life, free of bondage, free of fear, free. Just like Ona Judge, each refugee took an incredible risk to grasp something that so many people - myself included - take for granted. Freedom. It's a simple word, but oh, so powerful.

This is why historical programming and education is so important, and not only for children. So many adults walk by my bench without stopping to hear a story, but tell me "oh this is good, kids need this." Well, yes, they do, but so do you! We should never stop learning, especially as adults when we can finally contextualize and connect stories of the past to crises of the present. It is so easy to dwell in our own history, to be glad that Ona Judge escaped and that 70 years later the country abolished slavery. It is so easy to forget that thousands of people are fighting similar battles today across the world.

No, we cannot all solve all the problems of the world, but we can tell people's stories. We can ensure that narratives are heard, remembered, and repeated. We can bring those stories to others, and inspire them to use their gifts and talents to take that story further in their own unique way. We can connect with people from all different lands and languages because, as human persons, we all share one very deep and complex desire: freedom.

So, thank you, Refugees. Thank you for giving my story - my work - new meaning. Thank you for continuing to make history. Thank you for reminding me the world is wider than my own backyard. Thank you for your bravery. And, welcome, to the United States of America. I hope we can all, together, make it a place worthy of your journey here.

1 comment :

  1. Excellent!! We need to get this published in all the major papers!