Last month, the Treasury Department announced that Harriet Tubman will eventually grace the front of the $20 bill. The poem presented here by Sarah Browning discusses the abolitionist heroine as as well Abraham Lincoln’s commute from the Cottage to the White House and the Petworth neighborhood of DC.
For Ben’s project he must research five facts
about his African-American hero and write them
on posterboard. He chooses Harriet Tubman,
whose five facts are: Her father’s name was Ben.
Her mother’s name was Old Rit. She was born
in 1820 and died in 1913. She was born in Maryland
and died in New York. Ben asks for advice
about his fifth fact and I suggest: She led more than
300 people to freedom. Ben sighs the way he does
now and says, Everyone knows that, Mom.
So I try to remember the book we read yesterday,
search for the perfect fact, the one that will match
his four facts and satisfy his almost-seven mind.
Remember, I ask, she was a spy for the North
during the Civil War? It’s a hit! He writes it:
Harriet Tubman was a spy for the north during
the civil war. It was a war between the north
which is where the slaves were trying to get
and the south which is where they were.
Before the war, Abraham Lincoln signed a form
that said All the slaves everywhere are free!
which is one of the reasons they were fighting.
On summer mornings, Lincoln rode his horse
to work down the Seventh Street Turnpike
close to my new home. Down Georgia Avenue
past The Hunger Stopper and Pay Day 2 Go and liquor
stores and liquor stores. Past Cluck-U-Chicken
and Fish in the ‘Hood and Top Twins Faze II
Authentic African Cuisine and the newish Metro station
and all those possibilities gleaming in developers’ eyes.
There goes Lincoln’s horse down Georgia Avenue
from the Soldier’s Home to the White House –
much cooler up here in the country, in the neighborhood,
at the hospital. And there’s Walt Whitman, the sworn poet
of every dauntless rebel the world over, hanging around
his street corner every morning to bow to the president
at Thomas Circle by the homeless guys. It’s 100 years now
since any president summered at the Soldier’s Home.
But I was born only 50 years after Harriet Tubman died,
all these centuries we drag into the next century and the next.
Writing here, in my new neighborhood, the city old
and new around me, I see Harriet Tubman
and Lincoln and Uncle Walt and the true stories
and sometimes our own despair like Washington’s
summer malaria, her 40 war hospitals, Whitman moving
from bed to bed, stroking the hair of so many dying boys.
North up Georgia Avenue in our own soldiers’ home –
Walter Reed – the boys and now girls too
mourn the ghosts of their own legs and arms
and our capacity for love. Where is their
sworn poet? Harriet Tubman born
so close. All these heroes under our feet.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sarah Browning is co-founder and Executive Director of Split This Rock. She is an Associate Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and a featured writer for Other Words. Author of Whiskey in the Garden of Eden (The Word Works, 2007), now in its second printing, and coeditor of D.C. Poets Against the War: An Anthology (Argonne House Press, 2004), she is the recipient of artist fellowships from the DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities, a Creative Communities Initiative grant, and the People Before Profits Poetry Prize. In March, 2014 Browning co-edited a special Split This Rock issue of POETRY Magazine with Don Share. She co-hosts the Sunday Kind of Love poetry series at Busboys and Poets in Washington, DC, now in its ninth year. She previously worked supporting socially engaged women artists with WomenArts and developing creative writing workshops with low-income women and youth with Amherst Writers & Artists. She has been a community organizer in Boston public housing and a grassroots political organizer on a host of social and political issues.
“The Fifth Fact” from Beltway magazine. Copyright © 2006 by Sarah Browning. Reprinted by permission of the author.
Source: Beltway magazine (2006)
Images of Walt Whitman and Harriet Tubman courtesy of the Library of Congress