Frederick Douglass: The enduring call to wakefulness

DC Teacher and Davidson Alum, Clint Smith‘s moving spoken word on zip codes, food desserts, and injustice entitled, “Place Matters,” is lighting up my facebook account and provoking some important conversation about the battles young children are fighting everyday against drugs, poverty, and obesity.   Click here to hear what he has to say!

Over ten years ago now, I spent a formative summer in Anacostia working with a youth missions organization, and it breaks my heart to hear how much the children there are still struggling to survive.  In a spiritual autobiography class at Princeton Theological Seminary,  after we read Frederick Douglass’ biography, I wrote a piece about my time in Anacostia and Douglass’ house, which stood high on a hill just down the street from the church we lived in, and from which you can get a glimpse of the capitol.  I want to add my voice to Clint Smith’s this morning in an effort to raise awareness about the state of education, poverty, and injustice just a few miles from our nation’s capitol.

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I held Terrance and Talib’s small brown hands in my white ones as they dragged me toward the convenience store, expectantly bouncing up and down toward sodas and candy.  But in a matter of seconds the rusty van with its side door missing came careening around the corner, flying past us and I had just enough time to shove their little heads to the ground—trembling, we were, amidst the sound of screeching tires, hugging the hot pavement.  Two weeks prior a local gang from our neighborhood had accidentally killed a kid from Congress Heights in the crossfire, and here the gang from Congress Heights was now, circling the neighborhood for easy targets.  Terrance and Talib all too casually rose from their prostrate positions and turned their backs to the street, peering through the great iron bars that lined the sidewalk right where we had fallen.  They raised their eyes to look at his house, broad and grand, the only three story house that hadn’t slumped to two under the weight of poverty and decline, the only porch that held pristine rocking chairs, the only grassy hill for miles of pavement.

 “Whose house it that?”  Terrance asked.

There is no Frederick Douglass in Anacostia today, I thought, instead of mouthing the words.

His house was right there over the bars and I longed to tell that to Talib and to Terrance, but without “the sliver trump of freedom” it would mean nothing.  No soul can rouse itself to eternal wakefulness without a light to summon its attention.  Much as the bondage Douglass experienced gave the white man’s salvation a distinctly bitter, putrid taste, a message of spiritual liberation so trite meant little to this neglected community and to these boys who were starving for the sustenance of life itself—their own humanity. 

 

But this is where Douglass’ struggle ends, not where it began.  He begins his story with all that he does not know, all that he has lost because he was born a slave, far beyond Tuckahoe, Easton, and Talbot County.  And it is in this way that the children who came to Renaissance Baptist Church simply because we were there to listen, told their stories.  Absent of any detail, a parent completely unknown to them, a knowledge of nothing beyond the W, the street on which they lived. 

It is called W Street—like many city streets in southeastern D.C., in what is known as Anacostia, it seems downright generous to give alleys littered with burnt out cars, bottles, and buckling houses even a letter to their name.  On one end of this winding road is the metro station which connects this landmass on the other side of the Anacostia River to the rest of the capitol and congress buildings, and at the other end lies his house, statuesquely seated upon the only hill for miles, looking across the water to the capitol, yet directly down upon a city of shambles. 

These are the tangled roots of America and American Christianity, that though “all men are created equal,” the marble of the congress buildings was laid to bear by the hands of slaves, that though the Christian scripture might have harbored a message of liberation, the harshest slave owners were the ones whose whippings were steeped in scriptural righteousness.  This Christian and public alliance with slavery is what pushed Douglass not only to flee the plantations of his youth northward, but to flee (temporarily) the faith as well.  His anger, though, represented his hope, the fire of freedom that refused to accept a religion promising only spiritual, not physical liberation to its people. 

But the anger in Anacostia today fractures the community as brothers and sisters thrive off the exploitation of one another.  Even Renaissance Baptist Church was just another haven for drug trafficking—our pastor drove an olive green jaguar and came once a week to look out at the streets with a smug, careless glance.  It was Frederick Douglass who attacked this kind of religion, the kind of Sunday holy-rolling that slinked away to prostitute itself during the work week, from the very offering plate that the faithful had filled.  “What!  preach, and kidnap men?/  Give thanks, and rob the own afflicted poor?/  Talk of they glorious liberty, and then/  Bolt hard the captive’s door?”  While Douglass spoke of a new paradigm for salvation from his house on the hill, those in Anacostia found the captive door bolted, and traded the hope of glorious liberty for a hellish day-to-day hardened existence. The black church in this place had lost Douglass’ fiery ambition, becoming a cult of complacency in a community of need.

Perhaps all that is why the Nation of Islam temple two blocks up the street was so popular, boasting the likes of Louis Farrakhan, who preached twice within its tattered walls that summer.  The police barricaded off blocks up and down the street and black men with bright bow ties marched past the Frederick Douglass house, the Renaissance Baptist Church, and into the temple.  It was one of these nights in July that a young Anacostia man held his pregnant girlfriend hostage in a car across the street from our church; it was a scene unlike anything I’d ever experienced, police lights flashing, sirens and blow horns thundering, bow ties aflight from the area, fleeing across and out of Anacostia.

And this was what I observed: nobody, nobody wanted to be in Anacostia. The church was two blocks from murder row; the Salvation Army and the Red Cross had moved out.  The Venus and Serena Williams Tennis Center was a gleaming, marble monument in the neighborhood over, but it was a testament to the Williams sisters’ ability to get themselves out of Anacostia, rise above these God-forsaken streets.

The nights were bleak despite the joyful cries from the children frolicking on the steps of the church.  They were there because no one cared where they were, least of all their parents.  For the first few nights, I tried to walk these children back to their homes, meet their parents, and let them know that we couldn’t care for them at these hours of the night.  But from within young Terrance’s house came the notable shrieks of his mother prostituting herself in the upper room, and suddenly babysitting on the steps seemed the only thing to do.

A young Frederick Douglass.

But it is his house, the Frederick Douglass house, which stands so solemnly and out of place amidst this sobering circus.  And there are tourists who come to D.C. and come all the way out to Anacostia to see the yellow house with green shutters and experience the world of Frederick Douglass.  Perhaps what they do not expect is to have to use their imagination to see past the reality of Anacostia.  They have to wonder, I think, how St. Michael’s, where Douglass worked the plantation, is one of the loveliest portions of the Eastern Shore, whereas his own home attests to the height of urban poverty, institutionalized racism, and neglect to the ideals of freedom and equality he sought so desperately to instill in all people. 

All people have souls, Douglass’ biography teaches, even the slave.  But does Anacostia itself have a soul?  Or has it sold its soul, sold these children, Terrance and Talib, into a new irreversible, urban bondage of poverty?  Who will tell Douglass’ story, not just with words, but with his life?  Where is hope when there is none to be seen, when the house on the hill can stand so tall but its presence is not enough to triumph over today’s complicated systematic evils? 

Sometimes in my dreams, I imagine those children from the church steps playing on the Douglass lawn, on the porch, living in that big unlived-in museum of a house.  I imagine it all with anger, helpless anger, until I remember the real lives lived on the streets.  You see, it’s easy to equate the decay of buildings and structures with the decay of souls. 

At an after school program in Anacostia, DC.

The story I have not told is the one in which the community on W Street took us in and protected us from all the danger they lived with everyday of their lives.   Gert and Bill, the couple who lived across the street from the church, came over the very night we moved in, promising to be there, whatever we needed.  That eventually came to spiritual conversations, much needed showers in their cramped bathroom, and ever-important information about the needs of the community. By their generosity of spirit, their hospitality, and their care, we touched one another in a community that frequently felt bullets graze by, felt the emptiness of hunger, but rarely felt the “silver trump of freedom…rousing one’s soul to eternal wakefulness.”  Douglass recalls this moment for him, when “freedom now appeared, to disappear no more forever.  It was heard in every sound, seen in every thing…I heard nothing without hearing it, and felt nothing without feeling it.  It looked from every star, it smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm.” 

Douglass looked out from the plantation’s slave barracks on a bleak future yet all he could hear and taste was the cry and the thirst for freedom.  Perhaps looking for hope against the dingy backdrop of Anacostia is to place too much faith in appearances, to place too much acceptance upon the reality that seems irreparable.  If Douglass’ deepest longing to learn, to know freedom, and to live, reverberated from deep injustice, perhaps Anacostia does have a soul after all.  Anacostia could not be so desperately in need of salvation without a soul to yearn for grace.  A great injustice remains in the blocks surrounding the Frederick Douglass house, but the justice to redeem it will come from within.  The Frederick Douglass house stands as a reminder that freedom calls us all to wakefulness, but not a freedom from oppression or poverty arranged at the hands of white men in congress, but a freedom for humanity rumbling in the depths of the depravity in which Anacostia toils on day after day.

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