In front of the last house before the dock, the American flag rose up a tall staff along with a large blue trump pence 2020 flag that whipped in the wind. I looked at my children in the rearview mirror, grateful for all they were too young to know. The road ended at the water’s edge. I parked and kept the car running. I told my family I needed just a few minutes.
I walked out onto a small wooden boat ramp and tried to take in my surroundings. The air was thick and heavy. The brown water was still but for the soft current that pulled ripples along its surface. On my right, a small tree jutted out from the shallow water, its branches bending down as if to drink. Across the river was a vast expanse of untamed, luscious green that looked like it ran out into the sky.
I turned to my left and saw the river bend to its right. Douglass’s birthplace was less than a mile north up Tuckahoe Creek. The only way to get a close view of the land upon which Douglass spent his childhood is to get in a canoe or kayak and paddle there yourself. I thought of a young Douglass growing up here. Learning, over time, the unfreedoms placed upon his boyhood body. “Living here, with my dear old grandmother and grandfather, it was a long time before I knew myself to be a slave,” he wrote in My Bondage and My Freedom.
I learned by degrees the sad fact, that the “little hut,” and the lot on which it stood, belonged not to my dear old grandparents, but to some person who lived a great distance off, and who was called, by grandmother, “OLD MASTER.” I further learned the sadder fact, that not only the house and lot, but that grandmother herself … and all the little children around her, belonged to this mysterious personage.
I only had a few minutes to take in the space, to breathe in the air. As I stood at the edge of the dock, I craned my neck and stood on my tiptoes as if that might allow me to get a better glimpse of the land that Douglass had run over as a child, the land he had sunk his hands into when he returned as a man.
I got back in the car, shut the door, and made a U‑turn. My children quickly fell asleep in their car seats, and we switched from Disney musicals to the news, trying to hear updates on what had transpired that day with the protests, with the virus, with our country. We made our way through idyllic neighborhoods with open windows and colorful shutters. American flags hung from front porches. So did Confederate flags.
“I am not of that school of thinkers which teaches us to let bygones be bygones; to let the dead past bury its dead,” Douglass said in 1883.
In my view there are no bygones in the world, and the past is not dead and cannot die. The evil as well as the good that men do lives after them … The duty of keeping in memory the great deeds of the past and of transmitting the same from generation to generation is implied in the mental and moral constitution of man.
The next day, I scrolled through my Twitter timeline and came across an image that left me breathless. Under the haze of dusk, activists in Richmond had transformed the Robert E. Lee statue into a canvas blooming with new and reclaimed meaning. Garlands of graffiti wrapped around the statue’s base, their anti-racist messages written in colorful letters that curled and popped on the pedestal. Projected onto the side of the 40-foot base was the face of Douglass, his visage enormous and striking, upstaging the darkened silhouette of Lee above him. Between Douglass’s head and Lee’s silhouette was a quote from Douglass that I think about often when I see the protests, in their myriad forms: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
This article appears in the September 2020 print edition with the headline “Looking for Frederick Douglass.”