Sunday, August 30, 2009
Ironically, two or three of those meetings were supposed to be sort of pep rallies to get us all geared up for the new semester. For me, that was a big fail; but, then, I always hated pep rallies when I was in school, so their effects seem to be lost on me in general. Now, however, I'm looking at getting back into the classroom and talking about history and watching a group of people discover that history actually holds some interest and relevance. In fact, the one good thing coming from those right-wing "tea parties" might be that the students will find the Boston Tea Party a little more interesting. Dumbasses do have a function in this world, after all!
I am sad to see the summer end, as are most people on the academic year. Aside from the teaching burnout, exacerbated by that online class in the first summer session, I had a great summer. I had the writing class back in June, which released so much creative energy. Then, I had the NEH institute that, despite the drawbacks of the hotel, was phenomenal. I met scholars working on slave resistance in so many different locations and from so many different points of view that my whole approach to teaching U.S. history, especially African American history, must be revised. The revisions will draw in much more about Africa and the Caribbean, which will have greater appeal to my students, at least half of which come from one of those two areas.
With the NEH institute being held in Baltimore, I was able to spend hours and hours wandering about Frederick Douglass sites. I still have several posts to work out of that, which will help me get that writing groove back, and which will help me work out some of my ideas for my book. For instance, I'm still finding Anna Douglass to be an enigma, but I'm teasing out more details about her life. In the absence of any writing from her hand, I must do as Annette Gordon Reed did with Sarah Hemings: interpret her actions. So, I'm gathering as much as I can about her actions, no matter how small. I'll never crack open the Douglass marriage, and I may never fully understand even part of her life; but, as someone at the institute pointed out and as I've found in trying to trace fugitive slaves, sometimes people from the past demand their privacy, even a century or more after their deaths.
Oh, and I met a guy. If you follow my Twitter feed, you may have figured that out. This should be terrifying news, given the chain of fools who comprise my ex-boyfriend-whatevers, but this one seems to be a keeper thus far. My antennae are up for red flags, which made me realize that, in the past, I've actually been very good at identifying red flags almost from the first meeting. I just never heeded them because, from about birth, I was taught to ignore the self-preservation instinct (had I heeded it, I probably would have crawled away from home at age 2). This time, I'm being extra careful because I'm happy alone and don't need a new fool to mess that up. So far, no red flags. None. Really!
The guy, the Gentleman Caller, is responsible for my lack of blogging. My most interesting and eloquent words have gone his way; but they are only interesting to him and me. Blog readers would become ill reading them. Gentleman Caller has also been responsible for me walking around like I've been hit over the head, and feeling like a 16-year-old. Not ME at 16, but some other, normal person at 16. It's been quite a trip.
In any case, I wanted to mention the Gentleman Caller because he may or may not come up. Also, I couldn't not mention him. For over a week, every word that I tried to write always went back to him. Again, not anything anyone would want to read; but, I realized, not something that he would want to have public. In fact, I ended up asking him if he wanted to appear on the blog and have agreed not to write directly about him, just the fact of him. I've also agreed not to give him any identifying features other than to say that he gets what I do and the things that I face at work, and that this is a long-distance relationship (which makes the "caller" part of his pseudonym literal). Also, he's over 6-feet tall. He did specifically ask for that detail to be included.
I think that was the first serious conversation that I've had with a person whom I know in real life about their appearance as a character on this blog. Last year, at the Little Berks, my dinner companions said, straight up, "no blogging about us;" but this was an actual, back-and-forth conversation about the balance between my freedom of expression and his right to privacy. I brought the subject up, too, so he seems to have given me a case of the ethics.
Anyway, that's all for now. The institute knocked me out of my writing groove, so I'm getting myself back on track here.
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
I feel so horribly unethical and insulted in those meetings, like I'm contributing to the downfall of American education. This is, at our college at least, essentially a very obvious creep toward No Child Left Behind at the college level because that worked so well at K-12. I feel as if, by participating, I'm complicit in the problem, that I'm adding to the ignorance of Americans, which means that I'm adding to the evils of the world done by ignorant Americans. I'm not being hyperbolic, either. I feel that, if I were a moral and ethical person, I would refuse to participate.
Of course, if I refuse to participate, then I would also be an unemployed person, being untenured at an institution that does not grant tenure. Still, shouldn't someone, somewhere along the line just say "NO"? The higher up and the greater in numbers, the more effective this "NO" would be; but, as it plays out, it's like the corrupt system of speculation in Little Dorrit: nobody's fault. Everyone just participates in this system that everybody knows is a sham, and everyone says that we have to do it because "THEY" say we that have to and because "THEY say it coming whether we like it or not so we might as well accept it."
This is all obviously a sore point for me. Remember, I grew up in Texas. As an adult I lived in the very district where the No Child Left Behind business was hatched. I knew teachers -- talented, enthusiastic teachers, who quit within a few years because of No Child Left Behind. From the very start, everyone tasked with implementing the program -- that is, the people actually engaged in the actual education of actual students -- knew that it was bullshit and detrimental to education.
Meanwhile, at our college, in our department, we all settled on a truce. Do what they ask, generate the data and hand it over with as little disruption to our own teaching as possible. After all, the OA Borg kept telling us, "You are the professionals. You know your subject. We trust you to come up with the most effective assessment instrument. We will accept what you come up with." If we didn't comply, then, "THEY will come in and create one for you."
Someone actually told that to me yesterday. I wanted to tell her, "c'mon! You are far too old to believe that, if we are good little professors, and do exactly what is expected of us, then THEY are going to leave us alone." I did tell her, "THEY are going to take it over if THEY want to no matter what we do." She has become assimilated. She honestly believes that she can limit the impact of the system by becoming part of it. Our pity for her prevents us from holding her in contempt.
THEY are actually already taking it over. All of that "we trust you" and "you are the professionals" and "we will accept what you come up with" is just smoke. You see, we came up with ours, and they kept sending it back to us. At first, it was just tweaking the language. "Students will understand the causes of the American Revolution," had to be "Students will demonstrate an understanding of the causes of the American Revolution." That sort of thing. Then, their revisions became more detailed. "How does this question show that students are demonstrating the causes of the American Revolution?" they wanted to know.
Ultimately, what they wanted from us was an essay-based exam. Ultimately, we refuse to give it to them. Understanding that, really, all the Borg really wants are numbers to plug into spreadsheets to generate charts and graphs that demonstrate "learning," we decided to create a multiple choice "instrument" that covered basic questions that you can't get through a history class without knowing. They aren't quite "who's buried in Grant's Tomb" questions. They are more like "Which of the following was NOT a cause of the Civil War," followed by a list of items that incorporates several different interpretations with one very wrong answer like "the invasion of Poland." That way, if any of us did not emphasize an interpretation that another did -- and we have to be aware that the adjuncts have their own interpretations, too, since they aren't part of this process -- then the student could at least intuit the correct answer.
We would all give this "instrument" as a quiz of some sort. Then, we could just plug the numbers into the software at the end of the semester and feed the numbers to the Borg. The Borg is fed with minimal impact on the way that we run our own classes. That was what we agreed was the best way to approach this process.
We see a huge difference between feeding numbers to the Borg and education. We test education with our own assignments and exams, which are based on writing and through which we can see if students are improving their thought processes. We feed numbers to the Borg with this "instrument" thing and evaluate our students based on our own thing.
We are fully aware that ours is a joke of an "instrument," but we felt that anything more would begin to dictate what we teach in class. While we all know that essays are the best way to test understanding of material, if we all gave the same essay question using the same rubric for grading those essays, then we would essentially be creating a common exam, and we all agreed that a common exam would mean that we would end up teaching to the test.
Make no mistake, the Borg wants it all to be EXACTLY the same. You can't just have a rubric with general parts like "opposition to taxation." You have to have parts that say, "Stamp Act," and "Boston Tea Party," and so forth. While the Borg insists that they are not advocating standardized testing or common exams, they really are.
The OA Borg becomes more and more intrusive with more and more forms and more and more rejection of our own "assessment tools." They say, "we let you create your own tool because we trust that you know what you are doing." Then, when we do, they send it back saying "this isn't good enough." The process repeats until they are satisfied, which means that they do have requirements for these "instruments," (please! They are "tests"!) but to keep up the mendacity of "you create the instrument yourselves," they have to coerce us into figuring out what it is and giving it to them. To keep up the lie that "we aren't asking for a standardized or common exam" they have to get us to decide that a standardized and common exam is the best option.
Clearly, they do have to coerce our department because we don't buy it and we have no respect for their process. They want us to give them honest-to-god exams that demonstrate education. We believe that we already do, they just aren't the same exams approaching the questions of the course in the exact same way. They don't accept that method because, if their numbers are going to mean anything, they need sameness. To achieve that sameness, they want us to give the same exam.
We rebel against that because we see that as standardized testing with common exams. We see that as not only an infringement on our freedom in the classroom but also the source of our students being untrained and even frightened to think on their own after 12 years of similar standardized testing. We teach in the humanities. Education in the humanities cannot be quantified in the same way as, say, business productivity. Yet, the way that the Borg describes their ideal education, you and I and the professors at Harvard or even the Sorbonne should all be giving the same exam with the same exact rubric so that that THEY can prove that education is happening. In fact, I often wonder if they expect the students to turn in the same exact answers.
Who, by the way, are THEY? Because THEY should be resisted.
NOTE: I vent here so that I will not be this pissed off at the meeting. As great as 99% of my colleagues are, and as great a place as my institution is to work in general, as with most places, the administrative culture does not appreciate speaking truth to power. If something has been implemented, it is 100% good, and there will be no complaints.
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
“$200 REWARD. RANAWAY the 27th August, a 7 o’clock in the Evening, ARCHIBALD HARRIS, a bright Mulatto, with coal black hair, resembling that of an
Indian, but rather inclined to curl, and rather bushy behind – he has some small scars, or knots, on his breast, resembling the marks of a cowhide; is about 25 years of age, has a good countenance, but when promptly interrogated has a hesitancy in his speech, and when conscious of guilt rather a stare; has a strong voice, and in conversation talks loud. Was purchased of Lloyd Rogers, Esq. near the City of Baltimore, in whose service he has been a considerable time as a coachman, and was raised by Mr. Gettings, of Long-green, Baltimore County..."
That seems a detailed summation of Harris's appearance and attitude. Woolfolk had purchased Harris from Rogers, the owner; but what to make of "Mr. Gettings"? Was Harris hired to Mr. Gettings? Was Mr. Gettings the overseer?
What also of Harris's attitude? He's clearly boisterous and makes a lot of noise. Was his "hesitancy in speech" when "interrogated" and staring a sign of silent defiance? Were those scars a sign of trouble in the past?
The advertisement goes on to describe Harris's escape:
"...[he] has a forged Pass, and it is supposed he has taken a BLACK MARE, with Saddle and Bridle, about 14 or 15 hands high, hind feet white to the footlock joints has a very little white in her forehead; has a scar on her back occasioned by the saddle. The Mare belongs to a Mr. Knight, on the Falls turnpike road 4 miles from Baltimore. She was hitched near the Lexington Market, where he got her, as he was seen within a few rods of her with a small bundle a few minutes previous to her being missed."
The description of the horse that he appropriated is just as detailed as that of Harris, and I can't help but notice that both have scars. Lexington Market was the same as I mentioned in my last post about bad boys. Here we have someone that Woolfolk clearly considers a "bad guy," acquiring a forged pass, packing up a bundle, unhitching a horse, and taking off north.
The most interesting part comes next:
"Archibald selected me to purchase him of his own accord; he has been my Captain for several months, and had no cause for eloping excepting too good treatment. AUSTIN WOOLFOLK.”Obviously, we have the typical southern master whine of "we were so good to him and he was so ungrateful;" but I see something much more devious going on here. Harris asked to be purchased, and he asked to be purchased by the most notorious slave dealer in the south. Woolfolk was one of the top two dealers selling slaves from Baltimore to New Orleans, from the upper south in to the deep south of cotton plantations. Frederick Douglass knew of him. William Lloyd Garrison spent time in jail for attacks on him. He was mentioned in papers as far afield as Evanston, Illinois, and Portland, Maine, for his activities.
Harris had to have known what he was getting into. He had to have known that he, a man with a skill and position as a coachman, would be sold into the cotton fields as a hand. While his position as "Captain" suggests that Woolfolk used Harris as his own personal slave rather than as cargo to sell south, Harris still must have known that was always an impending possibility.
What I see here is a man with a plan. He had a skill, he drove either Rogers or Gettings around and therefore had access to information outside of Maryland and knowledge of the roads. Perhaps he also had contacts in other places along the route north. He just needed an opportunity and decided to create that opportunity by getting himself to Baltimore. He got himself sold to Woolfolk, made himself useful, and put on the facade of contentment. Then, he bided his time. Once he had a pass, he packed his "bundle" and hit the road.
I wonder which they noticed missing first, the man or the mare?
I wonder what became of him? Where did he go? Did he change his name? What did he do?If I were not busy pursuing other fugitives and their families -- including a particular famous one -- I'd follow him.
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
The first landmark I encountered was Lexington Market:
What's so bad about Lexington Market? Well, nothing, actually. I had actually never heard of it; but as I passed it on my way to Poe's grave, I recognized it. "That's where McNulty had his kids follow Stringer Bell!" I exclaimed. For those of you who have not become obsessed with The Wire, McNulty is the name of one of the police officers and Stringer Bell was one of the drug kingpins. I consider both "bad guys" because drug kingpins are always bad guys, and McNulty was a fucked-up mess who hurt anyone who came close to him.
If you haven't seen The Wire, I highly recommend putting them at the top of your Netflix queue. It's depressing as hell, especially Season 4, which should be required viewing for all teachers. Still, all of the story lines delve into the systemic problems of poverty and crime and the near futility and deep flaws of the institutions such as the police and schools, that are supposed to improve society. All of the characters are complex, even the baddest of the bad guys, regardless of which side of the law they are on. The female characters are fully realized. The acting is spectacular.
To give you an idea of just how good the show is, in our institute of PhDs, half of the people had either seen or were watching The Wire. By week 4, people were throwing out examples from The Wire to illustrate systemic oppression and power relationships. For instance -- and this was my favorite -- when we read the document of "Nat Turner's Confession," we noticed that Turner himself never killed anyone. His sword was always dull. "Hey," said one woman, "Stringer Bell never killed anyone either."
In other words, she suggested that, within the rebellion, there might have been a hierarchy of who could kill who and who did what sort of killing. Stringer Bell didn't kill anyone because killing was the work of lower-level operatives. He had to keep his hands clean, to remain unimpeachable in the actual crime, to keep the whole operation going. Perhaps Turner did, as well. This did not work out for either, in the end, because being an outlaw -- outside of the law -- is dangerous business, and both worked against systems, and many individuals with great investment in those systems would go to great lengths to ensure its survival.
Speaking of individuals willing to go to great lengths to protect systems, here we have a non-fictional bad guy memorialized in the Mt. Vernon neighborhood:
That is Chief Justice Roger Taney: Maryland-born, first Catholic Supreme Court Justice, and author of the Dred Scott v. Sanford decision. Sure, he was a slaveholder who freed his slaves; but really, you have a hard time making his case as a good guy. After all, he was the man who identified the central question of the case as this:
"can a negro whose ancestors were imported into this country and sold as slaves become a member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United States, and as such become entitled to all the rights, and privileges, and immunities, guarantied by that instrument to the citizen, one of which rights is the privilege of suing in a court of the United States in the cases specified in the Constitution?"
and decided not only that Dred Scott and his family should be kept in slavery because "Dred Scott was not a citizen of Missouri within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States, and not entitled as such to sue in its courts, and consequently that the Circuit Court had no jurisdiction of the case, and that the judgment on the plea in abatement is erroneous," but also that all African Americans were not and should not be considered citizens of the U.S.* So, I consider him a bad guy.
I found two more bad guys from the antebellum era, as well, but neither are memorialized at all. The first was Austin Woolfolk. "Who is he?" I hear you ask. Well, he was one of the biggest slave traders in the U.S. and operated right out of Baltimore. He's listed on p. 400 of the 1831 Baltimore city directory as a "purchaser of negroes." He lived on West Pratt street "near the railroad. By my estimation, that would be near Camden stadium, which you can see to the misty middle-ground left in this image (that's Pratt Street on the right, and I'm facing west):
A contemporary view (courtesy of the Baltimore World Trade Center, courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society) is this:
That's Pratt Street, facing west, with the harbor on the left. Local historian Ralph Clayton describes a scene in which Woolfolk and his enslaved cargo "...made their way down Pratt Street to Philpot Street and on to the wharf at the foot of Fell's Point" I confess to being a bit dubious as to that specific arrangement, since Camden Yard to Philpot Street is quite a hike, and right past these wharves in the picture above (also, no footnotes in newspaper articles -- I'm working on getting an article about Woolfolk himself from another source). If, however, this was the way the transport within the city operated, then Frederick Douglass saw Woolfolk in action only a block away from his own doorstep. He did write that he saw slaves being sold at the foot of Philpot Street. I would rather like if this were remembered in the landscape of the city. I wonder if any cities or towns -- aside from the Slave Market in Charleston -- mark the site of slave sales.
The other unmarked Baltimore bad guy lies in the Green Mount Cemetery. This is the family monument, dedicated to the actor Junius Brutus Booth:
Junius would be the father of John Wilkes Booth, the Maryland actor whose final performance began with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. "Sic semper tyrranus," he shouted after blasting out the brains of the man who signed the Emancipation Proclamation. After a long and winding chase through the Maryland countryside, Booth met his own end by a gunshot through the neck. His body was transported and autopsied more than once before it ended up here in the family plot, unmarked on the orders of his brother, Edwin:
Yet, it is not uncommemorated. Visitors leave pennies on the monument, all to one side, and some shoved under the edge of the plinth:
I imagine that the purpose (I'd have to go re-check Sarah Vowell's Assassination Vacation to be sure, because she would know such goofy and pertinent information) is to eventually topple the monument with the tiny images of Lincoln. That's my penny up there on the end on the right.
There are certainly many more bad guys in Baltimore's past and present. Given the poverty-stricken neighborhood surrounding Green Mount Cemetery, parts of which actually served as the locations for The Wire, there are probably many a real life Stringer Bells and McNultys wandering around right now. Some company might make a killing -- not sure if that pun is intended -- offering a crime and punishment tour of the city. It might even give the ghost tours a run for their money.
Sensationalism aside, these bad guys, and the particular nature of their badness -- both real and fictional -- open up the complexity of Baltimore as an illustration of race in America.
* Really, a certain vice-presidential candidate, when asked about Supreme Court decisions with which she disagreed, couldn't even bring this one up? Then, again, she might actually agree with it.
Sunday, August 09, 2009
As the discussions reveal in Historiann's posts, "Colonial Barbie" and "Seriously, I Need This Doll for My Research," dolls are one part of the process of creating public memory, that history or heritage making that determines what is or is not worthy of inclusion in the public narrative of the American past. As we all know, certain people are left out of that process. As the commentors on Historiann had great fun in pointing out, peasants, revolutionaries, and other members of the rabble are less likely to be represented for children's play than the elite, nobility, and other representatives of the status quo. Even when minority-status people are represented, they are those who are anointed as exceptional, and portrayed as less than threatening to the status quo.
In fact, that makes the Douglass action figure that I wrote about in my last post on the subject a bit of an anomaly. The doll makers reproduced the intense glare of his early portraits, and include a tiny Narrative for him to hold. This is Douglass at his most radical. Perhaps because the position that he took can now be accepted as the right position -- that is, today we think "of course fighting against slavery was the right thing to do! Who wouldn't?" -- he can be depicted as angry and forceful.
What to make of the Harriet Tubman version of the action figure, from the same company?:
I found this in the Gift Shop of the Reginald Lewis Museum in Baltimore, itself a fine museum to Maryland Black History. Yes, that is supposed to be Harriet Tubman. The box says so. She has a gigantic grin on her face. She does not carry a gun, but does carry a map -- a map! -- of the Underground Railroad. Compare to this image of Tubman herself:
The doll Tubman shows no indication of the subversion, danger and secrecy of the actual Tubman's mission, or the hard life that weighed upon her. She gleefully skips down the trail, map in hand, to help slaves escape bondage -- or so that is the impression that I get. No gun. No stooped posture. No grim visage.
Now, don't get me wrong. I was thrilled that there was a doll for girls of color, for once, especially one that did attempt to give the doll African-American features rather than on that put a white doll in black face; but the toy makers seem to take the power out of Tubman. Do they think that little girls don't want a tough-looking action figure? Or perhaps they fear that parents will object to a doll with a rifle, especially if that rifle is in the hands of a woman, especially if that woman is a woman of color.
Douglass, in this scenario, can be depicted as powerful because he is male and because his power was public, on the stage, and in a cause that most people (yes, "most," because you'd be surprised -- or not) agree was just. Tubman engaged in the same cause, but she was subversive, illegal, willing, to do violence in protecting her charges. To turn her into a toy, she must be rendered non-threatening, just a happy woman engaged in the work of the just.
I also wonder about the issue of "pretty." Tubman was not "pretty" by the patriarchally-approved standards that produce dolls today. You may notice that the Tubman action figure has softer features than Tubman actually did. In fact, the doll has such soft features that she no longer resembles Tubman herself. The face is oval and oblong, the eyes wide, the eyebrow elegantly arched and high, the mouth soft. Tubman's face has been eradicated in this depiction of her.
I would have just thought that this was another poor rendering of a historical face on a child's toy -- after all, none of the presidents or other "heroes" produced by this toy company look anything like their subjects -- except I saw this toy on the next shelf:That is Bessie Coleman, the first African-American female pilot. She was poor, a sharecropper, and wanted to learn to fly. As with the black men who wanted to become pilots, she had to go to France to take lessons, which meant that she also had to learn some French. Who has passion enough to do that? She returned to the U.S. to perform in airshows in the 1920s. She died in a fall from her aircraft when she failed to secure herself in. So she also left behind the cautionary tale of "always wear a seat belt."
In any case, here is what the actual Coleman looked like:As with Tubman, she's beautiful, but not in that patriarchally-approved way. she has a round face and a tough expression. She's also a little on the stocky side, round not lithe -- or at least appears so in this picture with all of her garb on.
The doll, on the other hand, is longer and leaner, although fortunately not of Barbie dimensions. Her face is oval, not round, and her expression is as expressionless as a Stepford Wife. Her features, too, are not as broad or as round. I wonder, too, at the accuracy of the skin color. Coleman wasn't as dark as Tubman, but was she this light, or this tone?
I also cannot pass up mentioning the creepiness of the two heads. I really wanted to buy this doll, but the two heads just disturbed me. Couldn't they make a separate little cap for her, as they did with the goggles? Did they have to make a whole new head? She's not Marie Antoinette, for chrissakes!
Again, as with Tubman, I'm thrilled that there is a doll for girls of color, I'm thrilled that they have retained some African American features, I'm thrilled that this doll is not another Harriet Tubman or another Amelia Earhart, and I'm thrilled that this doll represents intellectual prowess not normally attributed to girls of any color. Yet, I'm disappointed that the doll makers can't seem to let the doll fully represent the woman, that they have to somehow make the woman not herself in order to sell a doll to ostensibly teach about her life.
I'm not sure what to make of these dolls. They are toys, after all. The little girls who play with them probably aren't concerned about the accuracy of the image. They are probably happy to have a doll who looks like them and whom they can send on all sorts of adventures as their own proxy. I remember I was thrilled at dolls that simply had brown hair and brown eyes instead of the "prettier" blonde and blue. I also did not develop eating disorders because of my Barbies, whom I had live more exciting lives than shopping and dating (Ken, by the way, was useless in my Barbies' world). This is to say, I'd be curious as to what the little girls who play with these dolls think of them and how these dolls affect their sense of self and the formation of their identity.
Saturday, August 01, 2009
Originally, I had hoped to rent a bike there, and cruise around the county with the Talbot County Historical Society's Frederick Douglass Driving Tour map, but poor planning and a lack of awareness of small town life left me mapless and in the middle of some dreary weather. Instead, I just drove about, searching for the actual sites of Betsy Bailey's cabin, Thomas Auld's St. Michael's home, and the Lloyd plantation, Wye House.
I had taken this driving trip many years ago in about 2003 or 2004, and recalled some of the information. The main piece that I remember about Wye House was that it lay down a particular road that the Driving Tour map had indicated was "Private." At the time, I saw no "Private" signs, but still did not venture further. This time, I would not be deterred.
This part of Maryland is quite rural to a city girl like me. Like many rural, coastal areas, it has a clear caste system. You have the parts that are clean and polished, painted bright colors and manicured for either the tourists or the wealthy people who use "summer" as a verb. Then, you have the people who live there year round, usually working in agriculture, industry, or, most likely, the service industry. There is a color line, too; and often a line of immigration status. When you wander about the country roads, or hang out after-hours or in the off-seasons, you see this.
That isn't quite what this post is about, however.
I drove along these country roads, which became progressively narrower with each turn; and, with each turn the quality of the pavement corresponded to the size and condition of the houses. Most of the roads became simply tunnels in the trees, and, with the overcast weather, seemed as if they took me down into a Gothic dream where one could easily believe in ghosts and haints and liminal spirits. Then, I encountered a vulture feasting on roadkill:
That's when I came across this:
The service entrance to Wye House. This, according to Dickson Preston, author of Young Frederick Douglass, would have been the road that Douglass, his mother, his grandmother, and all of the other slaves took onto the plantation. Today it is the "service entrance," then it was the "servants' entrance."
A few dozen feet further on, I encountered the main gates:
Of course, I slammed on the brakes and leapt out of the car. Something contracted in my stomach. Frederick Douglass was enslaved here. For two years, he lived here. He saw his aunt beaten to a pulp here. He was abused by his "Aunt" Katy here. He felt the absence of love here. He first knew himself to be standing in the presence of starving power that wanted to eradicate his person, if not his body. Then, he created a record that opened a window into the lives of the 300 or more people who knew this place more deeply than its owner.
I paused a moment to contemplate that, to honor Douglass and to honor the others, the ones whose names I have found in the Lloyd Papers (MS 2001) in the Maryland Historical Society: Old and Young Lambert, Daphnis, Cato, Joe, "Lame" Tom, Mary and Eliza the twins, the "absconded" Isaac and Jim and a whole list of others. Then, a car drove by, and I decided that I should move along before anyone thought I was casing the joint.
There wasn't a shoulder, and I was curious as to what lay further on, so I did not turn around and kept going down the road. I passed a sign that said "Wye Town," which was the neighboring Lloyd plantation, and where a realtor was having an "Open House." I considered turning in, just to see what might be there, but decided I'd better not. Finally, I found the end of the public part of the road. Another "Private" sign greeted me and I thought, "well, that must be where Cheney and Rumsfeld live." Actually, I would have been shot by snipers had that been true, but I wanted to amuse myself. I turned around and headed back.
As I passed the entrance to Wye Town, I noticed a red car coming toward me. I thought nothing of it, and it passed. As I drew closer to Wye House, I realized that I could see the Big House through the trees. Checking in my rear view mirror to make sure no one was behind me so I could stop for pictures, I noticed that the red car had turned into the Wye Town drive. "Must be a real estate agent," I thought.
Sitting in my car with the front window rolled down, I took a few pictures, trying to zoom in as much as I could. This was the best that I could do:
I rolled along, trying to get a better perspective, then decided I had gotten what I came for and sped up. Glancing back in the rear view mirror, I noticed the red car coming up behind me very quickly. So quickly, in fact, that I thought I should get out of the way. Without a shoulder on the road, the best place to pull over was in that small drive before the gates of Wye House. So, I put on my turn signal and steered myself over.
The red car pulled up beside me and penned me in. The driver rolled down her window.
"Do you have a problem?" she asked. Her tone suggested that now I did.
"No, ma'am," I said, ducking my head and giving a little monkey grin as if to say, "don't mind me, I'm just a dumb ole tourist." Meanwhile, I scoped her out. She wasn't in a uniform or any other sort of official garb. Her car was such a recent purchase that the new car scent wafted above my exhaust. It did not have any indication of lights or radios. "No ma'am," I repeated, "I just saw you coming up fast so decided to get out of the way."
"That wasn't the question," she said. "I asked, 'Do you have a problem.'"
Shit, I thought, now I have to give a geeky explanation. Flashing another monkey grin, I said, "This is where Frederick Douglass's master lived..."
"No," she corrected me. "That was where Frederick Douglass lived."
She said it as if the 7-9 year old boy who was a slave on this property owned it. Ah, I thought, so that's how they play it around here. What family did she hail from? Covey's?
I also kinda resented her patronizing tone.
"Yes, where Frederick Douglass lived," I echoed her, with yet another monkey grin. "Anyway, I study him." I held up my copy of the Narrative. "I study him, and I just wanted to see where he was."
She lifted her chin and looked down her nose. "There's nothing to see," she said.
If by "nothing" she meant no museums, no tchotchkes, no markers, no indication of any presence of Frederick Douglass or other slaves, then she was correct. I think she really meant that these weren't the 'droids that I was looking for.
In any case, I said, "yes, I know. I just wanted to take a picture and move on. I'm done now. Thank you. Have a nice day." I may have babbled a few more pleasantries as she pulled out of my way and watched me drive off.
The owners of the house are comfortable enough with the reason for the plantation's fame to invite archaeologists to excavate the grounds for evidence of slave life, but the neighbors may not be. This woman was just looking out for her neighbors, acting as the neighborhood watch; and she did her job well. Nonetheless, her hostility, in the context in which I was operating, left me with that Faulkner feeling that the past isn't dead. It isn't even past.
Technically, I wasn't thrown off of the plantation because, technically, I wasn't actually on the plantation. Still, it sure as hell felt that way.
Damn, I thought. What if I had been black?
I don't believe in ghosts, but I do believe in haunted places, it's just that the living are the haints.