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Taking My Children to See Frederick Douglass

Historians in the News
tags: slavery, abolition, African American history, memorials, public history



The water under the Chesapeake Bay Bridge whipped against itself, the wind lifting up handfuls of foamy white and slapping them back down. The sky was a pearly blue, and thick, milky clouds hung above us like bulging lanterns. As we passed over the bridge—4.3 miles connecting Maryland’s eastern and western shores—I rolled down the windows and pulled back the sunroof. I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed the feeling of wind rolling over my fingers; the feeling of my entire family singing along at the top of our lungs to my children’s favorite Disney songs.

It was the first time since sheltering in place had begun, almost three months earlier, that my family was all together in the car for an extended period of time. We’d packed our masks, our sandwiches, and more Ritz Crackers than anyone was physically capable of eating. One never knows how traveling any meaningful distance with a 1-year-old and a 3-year-old will be, so my wife and I had emotionally prepared ourselves for tantrums and tears. But our children were well behaved, perhaps themselves simply grateful to be anywhere other than inside our home. They too seemed to relish the wind rushing past their faces.

“It is always a fact of some importance to know where a man is born, if, indeed, it be important to know anything about him.” So wrote Frederick Douglass in his 1855 autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom. I had been spending time with Douglass’s work for several weeks, hoping that reengaging with his writing might help me more fully understand how our country had arrived at this moment. A moment in which a global pandemic has torn away the veil and revealed the deepest fissures and failures of America’s promise to its most vulnerable. A moment in which people of all generations and races have taken to the streets to demand an end to state-sanctioned violence. A moment in which the statues of white men who paved the way for genocide and fought to defend slavery are being taken down by cheering crowds. A moment in which Black lives matter has moved from a phrase laden with controversy to language at the center of our public discourse. A moment filled with rage, reckoning, and possibility.

It was with these reflections and Douglass’s words in mind that, on Juneteenth, I got in the car with my family and drove from our home, outside Washington, D.C., to Talbot County, Maryland, where Frederick Douglass was born.

Read entire article at The Atlantic

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