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Well, yes I am an American: In gratitude to the Black Heritage Trail

Written By: aaminahm on June 17, 2012 No Comment

As a follow up to my recent post “a fish out of water” I want to provide some
context for my experience in Boston by pointing out that I walked the Black Heritage
Trail through the Beacon Hill district today. This trail begins at the monument
for the 54th regiment who fought the Civil War for no pay as a statement against
inequity. These young men, who were already free, risked everything including their
lives to make a stand against President Lincoln who offered them less pay than their
white counterparts. All of them died as they marched up Beacon Hill to what is now
the State Capitol building. As I traveled this path that had once been traversed by
notable abolitionists such as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and David Walker
I felt humbled.
It was especially humbling for me because I came here from California. I
finally realized the impact that striking gold in San Francisco meant on slaves.
Because California entered the Union as a free state the Fugitive Slave Acts were
enacted. At any point in time bounty hunters would travel to the north and capture
men, women, and children and cart them back into slavery whether or not they
had been previously free. As I walked the trail I felt this strange sensation that was
both sickening and empowering. I realized for the first time throughout my stay in
Boston how much it meant for me as an American, and a Californian to be in that
space. I held back tears as I walked through the alley ways of the underground
railroad that were used to save individuals who were fearful of returning back into
I was sickened by the pain and fear that suddenly overtook me as I imagined
myself as a slave on the run while I traversed those pathways; the same pathways
that saved runaways more than 150 years ago. I felt a sense of empowerment at
the notion that other’s have come before me and faced more harsh obstacles than I
have and yet they persevered. I realized that their perseverance was not for them,
as many of them died along the way. It was for me. When two white men threw
Frederick Douglass off of the Red Line he still fought for the right to transportation.
This is a right that I gladly enjoy. There are those that would have us believe that
we are not wanted. And this has caused me to spend a lot of my time feeling isolated.
But I found out today that the population of Black Boston in the early 19 th Century
was about 3%. Yet they still fought against injustices. The population of blacks at
Berkeley is about 3%. What then is my role?
This afternoon I came to the airport to take my flight back to San Francisco.
Before boarding the plane I visited the Duncan Donuts that was staffed by a
Muslim sister working behind the counter. I gave her the greeting in Arabic. She
asked me where I was from as her coworker another Moroccan looked at us. I
said “California”. He said “But originally”. I said, “I am American, I was born in
New York and raised in California”. He asked “What about your parents?” His
questioning me embarrassed the Muslim woman who had by then informed me that
they were both Moroccan. She said, “Why do you keep asking her these things?”
I didn’t mind the questioning because frankly it happens to me quite often. Once

someone hears my American accent and sees my headscarf they think that I am
either a first or second-generation immigrant (this is true of both immigrants and
Americans). I said, “My mother is from New Jersey and my father is from Texas”. He
said “New Jersey? You mean like here? The state of New Jersey?” I said, “Yes.” And
then he said which was the funniest thing to me “Well yes, then you are American!”
It was the most matter of fact validation of my Americanness that I have ever
experienced before in my life. I said, “Yes, I know.” I walked away as I continued to
overhear the two of them argue back and forth about Americans. I couldn’t really
understand what was being said; however I noticed that every other sentence
was punctuated with “American!” I know that I was meant to be validated as an
American in that moment after I had experienced the Black Heritage Walk and cried
in appreciation for the dedication and love of my ancestors who fought and died
in the hope of a better tomorrow for us all. And despite the insults that I received
during my time here and being made uncomfortable I believe that there was no
place that I would have rather been. So I want to send out a note of thank you to
Bostonians past and present. I especially want to appreciate my ancestors who
earned the right for me to be in that space, and in all public space for that matter. I
am most grateful to Boston because it was through visiting that city that my identity
has become abundantly clear to me. Well yes, I am an American.

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