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.
And sometimes I see the ghosts of 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.
Head north up Georgia Avenue now to our own
soldiers’ home – Walter Reed – where the boys and now
girls too mourn the ghosts of their own legs and arms
and capacity for love. Where is their sworn poet?
I write here in my new neighborhood, the city old
and new around me, Harriet Tubman born so close,
all these heroes under our feet.