08/22/2013 12:37 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Flight to Freedom

I recently went to the Metropolitan Museum to see the powerful exhibition, Photography and the American Civil War, for the second time. This time I was also able to see a show of paintings on the same subject, The Civil War and American Art.

Anyone who cares about justice, or who loves this country, cannot be unmoved by the painful images of a nation at war with itself, with a disagreement between sections of the country so profound that civil violence is the only answer.

We have gotten beyond the Civil War now, or so we think, and have resumed our journey as one nation, undivided. But one painting -- The Ride to Liberty -- The Fugitive Slaves -- by Eastman Johnson, cannot be passed over easily. It depicts a black family, tightly seated on a galloping horse, fleeing an unseen force of violent retribution and enslavement. Looking at this picture, only days after the deeply troubling verdict in the Trayvon Martin -- George Zimmerman trial in Florida, and looking at the look of terror in the faces of the black family fleeing, made me think about two kinds of freedom. There is that freedom of people like me who have grown up unfettered in a reasonably tolerant society like the contemporary United States; and there is the freedom of people who were enslaved by some of our ancestors and who fled before they were emancipated by a President and Federal government which went to war to release them from bondage.

The possibly conscious reference to images of the Holy Family's flight into Egypt adds to the poignancy of the painting.

These are not casual musings for a quiet Saturday afternoon visit to the city's metropolitan museum. As my mind was working through these troubling thoughts I decided to relax at the Balcony Bar, overlooking the Met's Great Hall. It was not yet busy, so I could reflect quietly and appreciate the grand surroundings of the "People's Museum." Suddenly, I saw a flicker of movement in the next bay, aerial movement that could be made by only one sort of creature large enough to be visible.

I rose and went into the next bay, and saw a bird, a sparrow, desperately beating against the great window overlooking Fifth Avenue. For me, and the thousands of visitors to the Met that day, the museum was a place of enlightenment and liberation. But for this poor creature, it was a huge and perplexing cage.

The waiter told me the bird had appeared late morning the day before and had been flying around ever since. The other guests on the balcony hardly noticed, but occasionally the desperate bird caught people's attention, and they all brightened with delight and, one imagined, with some hope for its liberation.

The link between this innocent creature and the terrified family depicted in Johnson's painting in the galleries was all too apparent and disturbing.

I learned that the bird somehow found its way out and escaped its grand cage the next day. I hope the family depicted in the painting also found freedom, at least in some measure. The recent observations by President Obama about the pain of African-Americans reminded me that their descendants, my fellow-Americans, are still struggling to feel free.


Eastman Johnson
A Ride for Liberty--The Fugitive Slaves, March 2, 1862, ca. 1862-63
oil on board
21 1/2 x 26 in.
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA, The Paul Mellon Collection, 85.644
Photo by Katherine Wetzel, © Virginia Museum of Art