Freedom Train


“Is this here freedom on the Freedom Train really freedom or a show again.”
—Langston Hughes

I was 7 in June of ’76
when my parents took me to see
the American Freedom Train in Archbold, Ohio.
A red, white, and blue train
to commemorate America’s Bicentennial,
a traveling exhibit of historical artifacts,
including Dorothy’s ruby slippers and Jesse Owens’ medals.

For 40 years I remembered,
only, standing under a blazing sun
in an endless line that snaked across a field toward
a shimmering mirage of red, white, and blue.
On a whim I decided to google it,
to verify my memory, maybe write a poem.

I discovered that for 40 years I have lived in ignorance
of another Freedom Train, another poem.
Like its descendant, the ’47 Freedom Train was integrated,
but only after Langston Hughes wrote
his scathing poem Freedom Train,
only after Paul Robeson read it out, loud
and proud, in his rich, booming god-voice.
In the South the ’47 Freedom Train did not stop.
The all-white board of trustees
heeded the call to integrate,
but stopped short of actually fighting for it.

I didn’t know this, at 7, while I waited to see Dorothy’s shoes.
My only black friends were on TV,
the Jefferson’s, the Sanford’s, the Evans,
Roger, Rerun, and Dwayne.

Now I know about the ’47 Train,
and I’ve heard Robeson read Hughes’ poem.
I lived, as a child, in an America
where the number of black families on TV peaked in 1976,
with black characters written by white writers.

I live, now, in an America,
where black lives still fight to matter, and
where white privilege is not having to learn any of this.

Antioch Writers’ Workshop Best in Show

about the author
Vanessa O’Kelley had a passion for writing as a child, no surprise for the daughter of an English professor. She was convinced that one day she’d be a writer, but that passion was sidelined by her love for movies. In 1997, she graduated from Wright State University with a B.F.A. in Motion Picture Production, and she has worked in either film preservation (Library of Congress) or film production (as as production designer, set decorator, or set dresser) ever since. Now that she has rediscovered her passion for writing, she intends to pursue the writing life every day, although she’s not quitting her day job just yet.