The Lessons of a Tortoise

Chinua Achebe is one of Africa’s great storytellers. In one of his books, Anthills of the Savannah, he includes a fable about a leopard and tortoise:

The leopard had been looking for the tortoise and hadn’t found him for a long time. On this day, on a lonely road, he suddenly chanced upon Tortoise, and so he said, “Aha! At last, I’ve caught you. Now get ready to die.” Tortoise of course knew that the game was up and so he said, “Okay, but can I ask you a favor?” and Leopard said, “Well, why not?” Tortoise said, “Before you kill me, could you give me a few moments just to reflect on things?” Leopard thought about it — he wasn’t very bright — and he said, “Well, I don’t see anything wrong with that. You can have a little time.” And so Tortoise, instead of standing still and thinking, began to do something very strange: he began to scratch the soil all around him and throw sand around in all directions. Leopard was mystified by this. He said, “What are you doing? Why are you doing that?” Tortoise said: “I’m doing this because when I’m dead, I want anybody who passes by this place to stop and say, ‘Two people struggled here. A man met his match here.

I had to read this tale again to make sense out of it. I knew there was a lesson, but I couldn’t articulate it immediately. I tend to best understand the world visually and viscerally, not intellectually. I put myself in the tortoise’s position and imagined thrashing my own arms and legs. I wasn’t going to just sit back and let the leopard pounce and eat my body. I was going to engage, to struggle, and to be active till the end.

Last weekend my partner and I attended a production of the musical, Top Eye Open, written by Dillon Bustin at Hibernian Hall in Roxbury. The play takes place in Boston, in 1850, the year the Fugitive Slave Act was signed, a mandate that required states to return runaway slaves to their masters and made it criminal for anyone to help fugitive slaves. The play’s narrative line is formed around the lives of several runaway slaves and the people who helped them towards freedom. Hearing these stories lit the embers in our hearts.

   Runaway  , wood and bronze figure, LH

Runaway, wood and bronze figure, LH

As the last applause faded, a woman in the audience stood up and said, ‘I’m not speaking for the production or Hibernian Hall, but this play is a great reminder. Today, officials in Cambridge declared their city, a sanctuary city. We need to ask the mayor of Boston to follow. We all need to keep our Top Eye Open,” referring to the fact that if you were once a slave, even in the North, you needed to be careful whom you trusted, and even when sleeping, keep your “top eye” open. She ended by saying, “Not on my watch!”

   All the World's a Stage  , restructured chair and bronze figure, LH

All the World's a Stage, restructured chair and bronze figure, LH

Cambridge has been a sanctuary city since 1985, that is, a city that doesn’t cooperate with U.S. customs and immigration enforcement policies. It stands to lose federal funding when Donald Trump comes in to office. Most of us don’t know about sanctuary cities because we are not immigrants:

As a Sanctuary City, Cambridge affirms the basic human rights and dignity of every human being and provides education, health and other services to all residents of Cambridge, regardless of their immigration status.

Stories are powerful reminders of those who have struggled before us. On this weekend of Thanksgiving, let’s all remember to struggle against injustice and complacency. Let anyone writing the history of these turbulent times declare, “The people rose out of their dormancy in unforeseen numbers and the dirt flew in all directions. With sand in his eyes and dirt covering his spots, the leopard slunk away. Then, as the world watched and waited, a bale of turtles flapped their way out of the ground. Their mother’s legacy survives, even stronger than before.”

 Snapping Turtle Laying Eggs at Old Frog Pond Farm

Snapping Turtle Laying Eggs at Old Frog Pond Farm