a plumb, falling
BY LATANYA MCQUEEN
A plumb line is made by taking a weight and tying it to a cord. The weight, once suspended, makes a true vertical line. It is a standard to measure what one has built.
Plumb lines were once used in construction to make sure that the walls were level. They were used to “plumb” a wall. It is an old tool, one used throughout the world and throughout history. The ancient Egyptians used plumb lines in the construction of their pyramids. The “scales” pictured in hieroglyphs were plumb lines. On each side one can see the weight hung by strings.
In the book of Acts of the Bible, God uses a plumb line. “What do you see?” he asked Amos as he showed him the plumb. For God, justice and righteousness were the plumb line. It was God’s scale, this line, measuring our own sins we’ve cast upon one another. In the passage of the Bible, the Israelites have failed to live to God’s grace and his law. “I am setting a plumb line among the people. I will spare them no longer,” he explained, telling Amos that he would no longer overlook their sins.
Here I am, standing outside in the cold, waiting in line for tickets for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the only museum dedicated to documenting the life, history, and culture of African Americans. It’s only been over four months since the museum opened and timed entry passes are completely sold out, but their website says there are a select amount of passes held during the week for those who are willing and able to visit later in the day. This morning I’d called the museum to ask about the likelihood of getting one of these tickets. “Is it worth it at all to try?” I’d asked the guy who answered the phone. “Or would I just be completely wasting my time?”
“We can’t guarantee anything,” he told me. “You said it’s just you?”
“Yeah, just me. No one else.”
“Maybe you’ll get in,” he said, “but really there’s no telling.”
I had flown to D.C. for a conference but I have left it for this, walking the mile through downtown D.C. in search of the museum. I get there an hour before the time the tickets will be passed out and there is already a line. I head to the back of it and wait.
A black couple soon comes and stands behind me in line. Before long, they are talking to the next group of people that has joined us.
“I’m so excited about this I don’t know what to do with myself,” I hear the woman say.
“We came from New York. What about you?”
“I can’t believe it’s sold out.”
“Yeah, we tried in December and I think when I looked there were tickets and then I checked again and suddenly they were all gone. It’s crazy.”
Because I keep glancing back, one of them asks me where I’m from. “That’s far!” he says when I tell him.
“No kidding,” I say, and we both laugh.
The great chain of being, or “ladder of being,” was a hierarchical structure believed to have been decreed by God to represent all matter and life. It’s a taxonomy formed in a continuous line, a ranking of the natural order of the simplest to the most complex forms. Implicit in the understanding of the great chain of being is the premise that every existing thing in the universe has its own place—God at the top of the chain, followed by angels, then humans, and animals, continuing on. It is meant to be an order of the hierarchy of all existence.
Pseudoscientists of scientific racism drew from the great chain of being for their arguments. If there was an order, a hierarchy, then there were those that were superior and those that were below them.
In 1906, Ota Benga, a Congolese pygmy, was put on display at the Bronx Zoo. He was made to carry around chimpanzees and other apes. For the audience watching, he shot targets with a bow and arrow, wove twine, and wrestled with an orangutan. Eugenicist and zoo director William Hornaday labeled Ota, “The Missing Link,” believing him to be the last missing link of the evolutionary chain.
“Our race, we think, is depressed enough, without exhibiting one of us with the apes,” said the Reverend James H. Gordon, superintendent of the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum in Brooklyn. “We think we are worthy of being considered human beings with souls.”
In the United States, scientific racism was part of the justification for slavery. It was easier to commit an atrocity upon someone when one believed that they were lower, or when they believed that they were not even human at all.
It is getting close to time for the museum to hand out the tickets. Like me, others shift from side to side, anxiously waiting for them to start.
An older black woman comes up to the line. “Anyone here on their own? Anyone here alone?” she asks toward the crowd.
“I am,” I say immediately. “I’m alone.”
“I have a ticket for you, then,” she says, showing me the printed-out paper in her hand. “You can just take this and go right on in.”
I stare back at her. She sees my hesitancy and tells me she’s a docent at the museum. “I’m not trying to trick you here. I assure you this is a real ticket. All you have to do is take it and go.”
“We’ll hold your spot in line,” the white couple in front of me says. “It’s really okay. Go ahead.”
I still wait, unsure, too afraid to miss my shot.
“Go,” they reiterate, and finally, with nervous steps I step out of line, take the woman’s ticket, and go toward the museum’s entrance.
The Mason-Dixon Line was created between 1763 and 1767 when two men, astronomer Charles Mason and surveyor Jeremiah Dixon, set out to settle a border dispute involving the land between the British colonies of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. They constructed a demarcation line among four states, creating the Mason-Dixon Line, a cultural border that eventually came to signify the states that permitted slavery versus those that prohibited it.
In order to construct the line, Mason and Dixon lay markers and, later, cairns through all kinds of terrain and weather conditions. At night, they would take astronomical observations of the stars to guide their way, lying on their backs as they looked through a telescope to measure the angles between the stars and the meridian, the due north line.
Slaves, too, looked to the North Star. Unlike other stars, the North Star always remains in a fixed position, always pointing north. The surrounding cluster of stars creates a picture, what they thought looked like a dipper. They called it the Drinking Gourd, named after the hollowed-out gourds used to dip and drink from water. On the cup’s edge are two stars that always point to the North Star, and in following that line of sight they found the star that would guide their way as they made their passage north of the Mason-Dixon to deliverance.
The museum is separated into two sections, the lower three levels detail African American history and the upper floors are of African American culture. Not wanting to wait, the people around me head for the escalators up to see what’s there first.
I take the escalator down and am in a large room where lines are quickly forming. Entry into the history exhibit has to be spaced out due to the amount of people who’ve come. I shuffle along with the others to try and find the line’s end.
There are rows and rows of people filling up the entire space. They are senior citizens and they are children. They are in wheelchairs and crutches. They are being pulled along by their parents’ arms. As we wait they are sharing their own stories about what they know of the museum, about what it has meant to be black in this country, about Obama’s hope. I look at them and I realize that they have been witness to so much of what lies ahead, and yet there is such a collective feeling of joy, of celebration for something long overdue, and standing in the midst of them I am overwhelmed. This will be the moment that gets me, not anything that I would experience later, but this—of being here and being able to share this moment with all of them.
I can feel the ache in my throat beginning, and I have to leave the line before it comes. I find the bathroom, go into the stall, and begin to cry. It takes me a few minutes to get myself together, and when I open the door I see a woman standing by the sink. She looks at me through the mirror’s reflection and tries to smile.
“Are you okay?” she asks.
“Yes,” I start, my face flushed hot with embarrassment. “I’m just—”
“I know, it’s a lot,” she interrupts, and I realize she believes I’ve already gone through the exhibit. She takes some tissues from her bag and hands them to me. “Look, we’re here, aren’t we? Just remember that if it gets too much again. We’re here and we’re going nowhere.”
We are here, I think. We have survived because survival has been etched deep within our bones, and after everything that’s been done to us we are still here.
There are so many barriers, both imaginary and visible, between ourselves and in our lives. Places we are and aren’t allowed to go. The different demarcations of our existence. Our lives, our history, are a compendium of these lines that have been created. For instance, there’s the assembly line of slaves—as they marched onto boats, as they marched to be sold, with their bodies on the ships, lined side by side, no room to move, no room to breathe.
Or later, in the fields as they worked, their backs toward the sun as they picked cotton and tobacco, chopped sugar stalks.
A stake of wood nailed to another to form a cross, placed in the ground and lit on fire.
Or a rope falling down, perpendicular to the tree from which it hangs.
Eugene Williams was just about eighteen years old when he swam south of the invisible line of Lake Michigan’s beach, not understanding that the 25th Street beach was for blacks while the 29th Street beach was for whites. When he ventured on the other side of this boundary, whites saw and threw stones. He drowned in the lake, his death a catalyst for five days of race riots that followed.
In our present day, you can draw a single line on the map of certain cities marking the racial divide between whites and blacks. It is Eight Mile Road in Detroit, or Main Street in Buffalo, or Delmar in St. Louis, otherwise known as the Delmar Divide. It is US 275 in Tampa, and US 49 in Shreveport. It is the railroads in Pittsburgh and Hartford. These barriers have been stitched into the fabric of our country, the railroads and highways the thread forever separating us.
We are ushered inside the exhibit, but really what has happened is that we have moved into another smaller room. A guide stands near a glass elevator. He guides a group of thirty in at a time, and once the elevator has descended he begins his speech to the new crowd that’s formed.
“Congratulations, this will be the last line you’ll have to wait in today.”
The crowd laughs in response. The guide then tells us that the history exhibit is over a mile long and that there are no bathrooms until we get to the end. “Go before you start. Make sure you have tissues,” he says. “A lot of what you’ll be viewing will be difficult, so prepare yourselves.”
The elevator comes and I go in with the next group. We pack inside, the doors close, and we go down.
“Look,” a child says, pointing, and my eyes follow to what she sees. Now I understand the reason for the glass. As we go down we can look at the walls and see a time line, counting backward through our history.
“1900, 1800, 1700,” we all read out loud, and my heart whispers, Say her name. As everyone counts my heart aches in the knowledge of the Wilmington riots, of Bloody Sunday, of the bus boycotts and lunch counter sit-ins. I think of prison chain gangs, of poll taxes and literacy tests. Of the cotton is king fields. Of necks broken from the tightening of a noose.
I am thinking of the swing low sweet chariot roads that took us home to freedom. I am thinking of all we risked and all we lost.
1900, 1800, 1700, 1600, 1500.
The elevator stops at 1400. The doors open, and what we’ve waited so long for has now, finally, begun.
My mother once told me a story of the time they integrated the schools. “They brought all the black students into the auditorium with the white ones, and all the black students went to the back of the bleachers and sat together, and all the white students were in the front, and it was us and it was them,” my mother said. “We were here and they were there.”
Years after her death I will relay this story to my godmother—my mother’s cousin who grew up with her on neighboring family farms. “What makes you bring this up?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s just been stuck in my mind for some reason. Perhaps with everything in the news.”
She paused for a moment before responding. “I remember that, too. After all these years it’s really the one thing I also remember—that image of the auditorium, waiting for them to call each of us down from our different groups and tell us where we should go. It’s funny that between us it’s what stuck in both of our minds.”
“Why is that, do you think?”
“Good question,” she said. “You know, it’s not that there were so few of us that we grouped together. There was actually a good mix between black and white students at every school, and we were about fifty-fifty, and I don’t remember anyone telling us to sit together. By the time I got to the auditorium that’s just what it was. So who was the first person? Did someone separate the first group of black students and tell them where to sit? Or did they just sit in the back because that’s where they assumed we belonged?”
I could spend hours telling you of the museum—of each one of the displays and what they entailed, of the hours it took traveling up the ramps through the documented centuries. I could describe to you each piece that brought to the forefront the history I have learned and made me see the realities of the stories I’d been told. The cow-skin whip lashed on the backs of slaves or fragment of rope used to lynch Matthew Williams. The “Colored Only” and “White Only” signs designating segregation. The stool from Woolworth’s, Harriet Tubman’s shawl, Carlotta LaNier’s dress. When I see the Southern Railway Car I am able to reach out and put my hand on the exterior.
Before I leave, there is one last line I wait in—a line to go see the Emmett Till exhibit. As I wait, I listen to two students discuss who Emmett was. “Did you hear about how she lied?” one of them says.
“It just came out like last week. The woman who said he whistled at her. She lied about it all.”
Everyone is quiet once we get to the exhibit, once we’re inside the space that holds his casket. I realize too late that I wasn’t prepared for this, and so I leave—walking away from the exhibit and toward the exit. I have seen everything by now, and there is no need for me to go back, no need for me to even look back as I find my way out.
I open the glass doors and suddenly I am back where I started, in the main area where I waited with hundreds of others to go in. This feels symbolic, this circling back I’ve done, but I will not catch this meaning until long after I have left the museum.
They say that progress is cyclical, that it is not a straight, solitary line, despite what we may want to believe, but it instead happens in waves.
What unsettles me when I think of this is to imagine what is coming, because with every moment of progress there comes a moment of backlash. We have made progress and now we are seeing the tide of it recede. So I look at what’s come before and I wonder how much will be repeated. I worry that when it comes I will not be ready. I will not be strong enough to weather any of it.
But I’m told that another way of looking at this is to understand that in order to finally get to some sort of end there must be an examination of the beginning. We must understand the past if there will be any attempt to move forward.
I take this weight and hold it in my hands. I feel its heaviness as the muscles in my fingers relax, letting it slip and fall through the air. If the weight is heavy enough it will sink straight down, but it may not. If it doesn’t, I’ll watch as it swings. Waiting. Believing that it will steady itself eventually.
LaTanya McQueen‘s work has been published or is forthcoming in the Los Angeles Review, Harpur Palate, Indiana Review, Passages North, Fugue, Ninth Letter, Bennington Review, North American Review, New Orleans Review, Fourteen Hills, and other journals. LaTanya received her MFA from Emerson College and her PhD from the University of Missouri.
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