Saturday, September 26, 2009

It’s all a matter of perception

Will the day come when some tunnel dug under the walls being erected along the U.S./Mexico border to let people slip through undetected will come to be seen as some sort of historic treasure worthy of commemoration?

It may sound extreme. I’m sure the very thought will offend some people on this planet.

BUT AFTER READING an account of a suburban Chicago college that has found evidence that one of their buildings was once a part of the “Underground Railroad” path that was used by slaves trying to flee to a place where they would be regarded as human beings, I can’t help but wonder.

For the record, we’re talking about Wheaton College, which is the kind of school that imposes a strict moral code on its students (no tobacco, and dancing is frowned upon) and takes pride in the fact that the Rev. Billy Graham was once a student. It’s not a knee-jerk liberal place.

The local rumor mill always included stories that slaves once used the buildings of what was then known as the Illinois Institute to hide away until they could slip through Chicago in the darkness.

Now, officials have found entries in books kept by military regiments that made reference to specific buildings on campus being used for the Underground Railroad, and also called the school, “an abolition school in an abolition town.”

SOME PEOPLE DON’T want to believe this has any significance, claiming that if it were really true there would be much more documentation. Supporters of the concept point out that the whole “Underground Railroad” was an illegal concept – one that people would not have wanted to provide documentation of.

Nothing would have stopped a prosecutor from that era from using such documentation to prosecute the people who were supposedly helping another man’s “property” flee. It would have been regarded as some form of “theft,” and for all I know the incarcerated abolitionists likely would have been set upon by their fellow inmates for extra abuse.

And I’m sure the mentality of conventional society of the era would have looked at such thought as proper.

Now I’m not claiming that the predicament of the slaves brought to this country from the African continent (or breeded from the slaves who were purchased) is comparable to the waves of people who found the whole legal procedure of trying to get a legitimate visa to come to the United States so ridiculous and absurd that they chose to ignore it and just come.

FOR ONE THING, we’re talking about one group of people brought to this country by force, compared to another group that wants to be here.

But what is comparable is the attitude of the people who have the biggest hang-ups about the issue.

They want to repeatedly use the word “illegal” to describe the newcomers to this country because they have their own ethnic hang-ups and don’t want to have to acknowledge that these are human beings.

Dehumanizing the newcomers makes it easier for the nativist elements to look themselves in the mirror when they engage in their trash talk, which on a moral standard is of the same absurdity as those people of past centuries who would have thought that the law-and-order approach would be to side with those human beings who seriously thought that ownership of another human being could be predetermined by race, or that some people were entitled to nothing more than being owned like a piece of livestock just because of that same race.

IT WAS THOSE people who could see beyond what was supposedly “the law” to do what they thought was the morally correct thing who were the equivalent of those abolitionists of old.

It was they who offered their covert help to get enslaved human beings to a place where they could be regarded as more human than slave.

And I’m sure it is their 21st Century counterparts who will be among those who try to offer that helping hand to someone that “the law” would prefer to brand an “illegal alien.”

If it means that I think the slave-catchers of old who tried their best to snatch slaves using the routes of the “Underground Railroad” to flee the Southern states and places that were not sympathetic are comparable to the would-be vigilantes (and I include the “Minutemen” in that category, taking offense that they would use such a label loaded with historic references to describe themselves) who spend their time along the U.S./Mexico border trying to detect movement in the desert, you’d be right.

YES, I’M SURE if you went back into history, you’d find the equivalent for fleeing slaves of the “coyotes” who prey on people wanting to get into the United States, only to rob them of whatever money they have and leave them for dead.

But that, in my mind, makes them all the more sympathetic characters – the potential victims of this whole issue (and yes, I realize that line will tick off the nativists).

I also realize that it is the passage of time that now makes it possible for us to realize how wrong U.S. society was some 200 years ago. It will be that same passage of time that makes us realize the humanity of the people trying desperately to get into this country for a better life.

So I wonder, will those tunnels someday be accorded historic respect? Or are we more likely to memorialize those road signs alongside Interstate 5 near San Diego – the ones showing a silhouette of an entire family trying to run across the road from Mexico to the United States while dodging the cars speeding by.


EDITOR’S NOTES: Will we learn a century from now that a series of routes as extensive ( as the “Underground Railroad” exists to help people coming up through the southwestern deserts into the United States?

Will this ( become a historic artifact?

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