From Henry Bibb, Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave (New York, 1850), 201.
On a Tuesday in July, Jesus Lara Lopez stood surrounded by his wife, children, and a group of protesters at the Cleveland Hopkins International airport. For the past 16 years, the father of four had created a life for himself, working the graveyard shift packing Milano cookies and goldfish crackers for Pepperidge Farm. He was a man who paid his taxes and was never charged with a crime, and although he worked long hours to make a life for himself and his family, he lived his life constantly looking over his shoulder. He was one of the millions of Americans that we call undocumented immigrants.
The images of Lopez and his family were striking to me. The thirty-seven-year-old father wrapped his arms around his young sons—boys who wiped their swollen eyes in disbelief and dread. Their father was to be taken away, permanently. Lopez’s eldest son nuzzled his head into the crook of his father’s neck, and tried to steady his trembling shoulders. Perhaps he didn’t recognize the tragic irony of his attire that day. He embraced his father wearing a grey hoodie, decorated with the stars and stripes that represent his country’s flag. Or maybe the fourteen-year-old was keenly aware of his choice of clothing that day—the day that he would stand in front of TV cameras and say goodbye to his father.
For someone who focuses on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century African American history, this scene was strangely familiar and in many ways, applicable to what I teach in the classroom. I spend much of my time helping undergraduates unpack and understand the history of American slavery, and at the center of our exploration is the forced and permanent relocation of Africans as well as the constant dismemberment of black families via the auction block.
All of us in this room have read through accounts of enslaved mothers and fathers begging to remain with their children and loved ones on farms and plantations across the South and North. When word spread that an owner was in debt and or close to death, unease traveled across the un-insulated quarters or the attics and basements that the enslaved called home. They knew that the weeping would begin soon. Enslaved mothers would hurl their bodies to the floor, asking their owners to allow their families to remain intact. These cries would fall upon deaf ears—debt, inheritance, and greed possessed no sympathy.
Those who managed to beat the odds (who found a way to escape from their owners) would spend many waking hours wondering when they would be shuffled back to their enslavement, handcuffed, bruised, and desperate. Until 1865, these people, called fugitives, would often spend their lives hiding in the shadows, exposing themselves only when necessary or when there was too much to lose or gain.
As historians, we shy away from making direct comparisons from the past to the present, but how else can we reach students who are coming of age in a moment of great turmoil? As I teach about enslavement and those who lived on the run, why can’t I compare and contrast the experiences of people who live in fragile spaces, unprotected by the law and often living on the fringes of desperation? Proceeding carefully, with the offering of context and specificity, I can compare a Jesus Lara Lopez to a Harriet Jacobs, an Ona Judge, or the men and women who were assisted by William Still, just blocks from where we sit today.
It is true that Lopez was returned to Mexico as a free person; he was not taken from his family and forced to serve as an enslaved person somewhere else. But his story helps to connect themes that run across the span of history—themes that often appear as long ago and far away to many of our undergraduates. Lopez’s story and the stories of countless others help students to think about the devastating consequences that forced migration or immigration has had on the lives of people of color, the Muslim community, and others.
I plan to continue teaching just as I have always taught. I connect the past to the present and help students to understand where and how they fit into the large arc of history. We are teaching during uncertain times, but no more uncertain than times before. Our roles as educators and writers remain important, indeed necessary as we offer researched facts to our students and in some cases to the general public.