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*** Winner of the Jeffster Award for “Best Social Justice Blog” from Deconstructing Myths ***
As the ten-year anniversary of 9/11 approached, I wanted to take part in an initiative where the significance of this event was looked at as a pledge for future peace and hope. I was told that the founder and director of the New York City-based Intersections International, Reverend Robert Chase, was spearheading a project The Ribbons of Hope at Battery Park, lower Manhattan. They needed volunteers. I signed up.
Mid-morning, September 9th, 2011, I stepped out of the subway at Bowling Green. On the lawns of Battery Park, right and left of the walkways, hundreds of memorial flags waved in the warm fall breeze. The names of those who had died in the terrorist attacks of September 11th were written in blue and red ink on the flags of honor. I moved slowly through the park. There was softness in the air. All who passed paused and looked. Along with other visitors I unfurled a flag and read through the names. Around the last bend of the walkway a messenger of light and beauty perched on a blooming bush, a monarch butterfly.
Upon reaching the site where 12 wire-mesh frames had been erected for the Ribbons of Hope project I met the team of volunteers. Over the next four days passersby were invited to write on a ribbon and tie it to one of the frames. While welcoming the visitors and orientating them to the table where they too could write a message themselves, I tied the ribbons that I had gathered from my colleagues and students at the Baltimore Waldorf School. As volunteers we also shared the task of transferring the thousands of messages which had arrived via the internet from people around the world. I made it a point to read each ribbon that passed through my hands. One message stood out: “Even for somebody bad at math – ‘divided we fall’ has always made sense. Hold somebody’s hand today.” To me this expresses the possibility within a great, yet simple, human gesture.
Some months prior to those three days in Battery Park, I had been told by the poet Jean Valentine about the African American Burial Ground. In one of my breaks I walked the five blocks to 290 Broadway. I was forced to head right into the stream of people coming down Broadway, approaching the areas around Ground 0.
When I found the museum, I entered and decided to watch the introductory video. Here I learned the history: “From about the 1690s until 1794, both free and enslaved Africans were buried in a 6.6-acre burial ground in Lower Manhattan. . . . Lost to history due to landfill and development, the grounds were rediscovered in 1991 as a consequence of the planned construction of a Federal office building.”
Informed of the history of the site, the struggles and marches on behalf of activists and African Americans to reclaim the land and its dead, I ventured into the museum. Immediately I was drawn to a wall where slides were mounted showing the skeletal remains of some of those who had been buried here. Each slide was documented: gender; age; cause of death. At times further specifics were noted concerning malnutrition and abuse. Although the slides, illuminated by a light from behind, glowed in warm amber light, and the words notating the specifics of each skeleton were written in blue, something red and horrifying began to scream at me. It was loud. And it got louder. I stood before that wall of glowing and wanted to get down on my knees. 15,000 plus were dumped nameless in this pit. Dumped. Nameless. No name. No grave. 15,000 plus. Please forgive me. Please. Please forgive us for what we have done. I whispered to myself. What have we done? These people built our country. These people. These people. I felt as if I were alone in a great Gothic cathedral. The spire was high. The nave, empty. The altar, red. I was alone, feeling a pain I had never felt before.
Stunned, I walked out onto the street. Needing something to drink, I entered a deli, bought a bottle of water and sat down in the back. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I sat there, looked at the brown wooden wall to my right and thought.
In time, as the water began to soothe the burning pain, I remembered something that my dear German poet friend Elsbeth Weymann had shared with me as she was writing her latest book. She told me the history about an enigmatic line in the Song of Solomon, 8:6, “For love as strong as death.” (Ahawa is the Hebrew word for love). The wise, 2nd Century B.C. Hebrew scribes and Pharisees, known as the Septuagint, desired to translate the Torah from the Hebrew into the Greek. Upon reaching this specific verse, they faced a challenge. Up to that point the Greeks had four words for love: Philía, of friendship; Scorgé, parental; Charitas, charitable; and Eros, erotic love. But this love, a love as strong as death, how to translate this? They worked with two Greek words: Agamai and Agapao, and created the word Agápe, the highest form of love. Agápe means to make oneself into an instrument in order to be able to open and receive the other.
Still staring at the wall, I knew I had been given the opportunity to experience one word, Ahawa, Agápe, a love as strong as death. Thanks to the sacrifice of these 15,000 plus, I had been given that opportunity.
I reentered the stream of those going down Broadway, walked through the park and looked at the flags with the names of the 3,000. The names of the 3,000. The nameless 15,000 plus. The nameless. The named. In the distance, Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty.
— by Gail Langstroth
To visit Gail’s website, click here.
— image “Chosen Site” by Paul Klee
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thanks for being so excellent in your poems we enjoy reading them ,they are educative too
Sylvia namukasa Uganda
Moving and beautiful. Thank you!
“For love as strong as death”. What deep and enigmatic words! A wonderful and poetic essay. Thank you Gail for mooving my soul…..
What a powerful, illuminating piece, this is. Thank you, Gail. I will make sure to go find this African American burial ground the next time I’m in NYC.
We need more voices like Gail Langstroth’s. No hoopla, no tricks up her sleeve, no ostentatious advertisements for a self. Just searing thought, branded in the sobering language of prayer, feeding our hungry hearts with words that matter and speak to us of the sacredness of memory, of our need to know, to connect, to acknowledge. Keep writing Gail. Keep pouring out the gifts of light you create within: the words, the roots of words, the connections. Keep showing us how it is possible to experience that moment of grace wherein love is stronger than death. Tikkum Olam
Gail, enjoyed your writing, but the politics of your piece were far more compelling. What can we do to right this wrong?The egredious scene you describe in the new museum equals further desecration pure and simple. Can we demand that our Government designate a piece of “holy ground” to commemorate the injustice that has been visited upon these souls? Once that task is accomplished could we not then call on spiritual leaders in our African-American community to craft a ritual that will invoke the sacred by way of finally laying these individuals “to rest?”
A moving piece of tragedy and juxaposition; on the sanctity of the dead and how we both honor and do not serve to honor them. This article leads through compassion, action and clear articulation.
Wow! I’m impressed by Gail’s beautiful language and imagery. You can taste, hear and smell what she felt and through her writing get a glimpse of a piece of history both old and new that is now our collective history. Keep your eyes out for this writer!
It is wonderful to read and to learn by reading. It is likewise critical to explore, and to write and share what we have learned. This is a wonderful essay. I am inspired to visit the African American Burial Ground, and become an instrument of commemoration. Wonderful work, Gail.
Beautiful, Gail, just beautiful.
This essay inspired me to visit the site and to pay homage to those who came before.
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How nice! This essay won a Jeffster Award from Deconstructing Myths. It’s always gratifying to receive recognition for our work. Congratulations to the author Gail Langstroth whose prose and poetry I admire — Michael Simms, publisher of Vox Populi.
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