Freedom – it’s a wonderful concept, but quantifying it isn’t always easy. Over the millennia, money or the currency of the moment has become associated with the concept of freedom. But unlike money, freedom isn’t doled out in round numbers, nor can you stash a little freedom underneath your mattress in case of emergency.
But what you can do with your money, and what you have to do to get it, often dictates where you are on the freedom scale. For example, if you have the regular option to buy four t-shirts at your local retail store for a minimal amount of money, and can do it often, you’re generally on the higher end of the freedom spectrum. However, if you’re spending 16 hours of your life in order to produce those cheap t-shirts for retail consumption on pittance (or even no) wages, you’re generally on the lower end.
The stark contrasts in levels of freedom currently residing among the world’s residents, as well a look at the nature of freedom in this country, receive an informational and detailed examination at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Located alongside the riverfront in Downtown Cincinnati, this facility (opened in 2004) proved to be a different experience from The Old Slave Mart Museum in Charleston, the last comparable facility we had visited. The latter, with its prohibition on photography, as well as its provenance (the site of an actual slave market building), hit home on a more personal level – we were encouraged to feel the sense of hope despite the foreboding, seemingly impossible to overcome circumstances, and were asked to go beyond the slave label and think of each person we learned about as individual human beings, with their own unique stories, travails, and personalities.
The Freedom Center, on the other hand, provides a more formal wide-reaching approach dedicated to The Underground Railroad (the network designed to help slaves escape to freedom in Northern United States) as well as the notion of freedom in general, and we were encouraged to share our experience. This led to a very information-heavy experience which detailed how numerous groups, from Africans forced into slavery to other oppressed groups such as Native Americans and women, struggled to gain rights that were typically reserved for White Protestant men. The sheer volume of information is probably too much to absorb in just one visit, but this actually makes the Freedom Center a great candidate for a revisit, if only to focus on a particular topic.
All the exhibits and displays are bracketed amidst lovely architectural touches and roomy pavilions. Outside the patio on the third floor, a lovely view of the riverfront and Roebling Suspension Bridge (at the time of our visit, only open for pedestrian traffic) can be had while one takes in The Eternal Flame exhibit, representative of the candles placed in the windows of Underground Railroad operators. Also available to the public on the floor above is the John Parker Library and Family Search Center, a resource to help people research their family genealogy.
Some Freedom Exhibits did elicit that more somber feeling that Charleston’s Slave Mart evoked, mainly in exhibits which displayed the tools that helped transport those captured in bondage as well as an actual 1830s house from Kentucky used to hold captive people destined for slavery. The descending staircase offers a view of the house as well as the king-sized quilts by renowned Columbus artist Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, quilts which colorfully detail events in both her own as well as African-American history.
In line with that, an exhibit related to modern slavery really hit home the point that in a lot of ways, slavery hasn’t ended at all. Essentially, this country’s ending of formal slavery, along with our status as mass-consumers who desire goods and services as inexpensive as possible, has led to a more underground form of slavery, exemplified by child laborers and soldiers, sweatshops, and other forms of exploitation (e.g. sex trafficking) around the world. Besides the human toll, the environmental toll has started to peek through noticeably, such as the dumping of unwanted clothing in countries like Chile and the possible devastation of pristine landscapes due to metals mining for electric cars.
Something that jarred me during my visit was how fiercely the actions behind the institution of American slavery were matched equally with words of support for it. One particularly saddening panel talked about justifications for the institution, many of which used religion as a basis (e.g. Hebrews once owned slaves, and Jesus Christ never specifically barred slavery.)
Much of this sentiment was fueled by a sense of racial superiority, and sadly this notion still exists in this country more than 150 years after the end of formal slavery. In fact, few would deny that it has grown in visibility and strength the past several years in this and other countries around the world, especially during the years of President Trump and his term as President.
The exhibits of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center point out there’s plenty of freedom to be had in this world. But similar to money, freedom tends to clump around certain groups of individuals, and many of those individuals have actually received a slight dent in their perceived level of freedom based on COVID-19 pandemic mandates issued during the past couple years. This phenomenon leads into a quote I’ve heard recently (the exact attribution is somewhat murky) which states, “When you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”
Indeed, when someone comparing a mask mandate to the horrors Nazi Germany foisted on the Jewish people during the 1930s and 1940s (something I have often seen), the reality is that someone has got plenty of freedom in reserve. Compare that bit of often whiny inconvenience to that of Harriet Tubman, whose first journey crossing the border of a free state to escape slavery prompted this rapturous remembrance in her biography: