Home > About > Bill Peak's Library Column > A Library Moment on the Courthouse Lawn
Once again, Frederick Douglass Day was a beautiful September Saturday—no humidity, high blue sky, not a cloud in sight. The Easton High School ROTC had just presented the colors, and now the Rev. Roland Brown of the Union Baptist Church was giving the invocation. He spoke slowly, carefully, reminding us of the reasons we had gathered, the man whose life we celebrated. Afterwards, after we had all said our amens, I looked out over the crowd spread across the courthouse lawn, humans of every stripe—rich and poor, black and white, young and old—and found myself suddenly and unexpectedly subject to a powerful emotion. To see my friends and neighbors, patrons and co-workers, come together like this to honor Talbot County's most famous native son—and the ideals he, and all Americans, hold dear—well, I suddenly knew there was more to the beauty of the day than just the weather.
And it was at that moment that I happened to look up through the treetops at the courthouse tower. I studied the clock, approved of its timekeeping, then noticed the fragment of sky revealed just above the clock and its tower. It was clear, blue, bell-shaped, and it seemed to me to hang overhead like a reflection of the clear, stainless ideals celebrated below. Then, as if summoned by this thought, twenty or so late-season swallows and swifts swept into that fragment of sky like angels, their breasts flashing in the light.
To say I was surprised doesn't do justice to what I felt at the coincidence of that moment—the birds' arrival, my thoughts—I was awestruck.
And then the hawk appeared.
It was an accipiter, most likely a male Cooper's hawk, and, as it turned and wheeled, back-lit, above the clock tower, I could make out individual feathers in its wings and tail, the dark cross-bands reddish in the light. Given that it was early fall, migration underway, most of the birds were probably juveniles, and, in the way of juveniles, they seemed uncertain of the game they were playing—the swifts and swallows both mobbing the hawk and escaping him, the hawk escaping the mob while eyeing tempting individuals. And all of this silent, swirling dance taking place in and around the air hanging over our courthouse tower, not 40 feet above the spot where Katelynn Cherry was now singing “Amazing Grace.”
I was, to say the least, taken aback. What could it mean, these two visions occurring simultaneously, both beautiful, powerful, yet each so different from the other: the ceremony taking place on the lawn below courtly, civilized, the one in the air above wild and bloodthirsty? And that I was the only one to witness the coincidence of their occurrence, that everyone else's attention—properly enough—was locked on Ms. Cherry's incomparable singing—this too seemed part of the exceptional nature of this moment.
And then I was called to the podium to read Robert Hayden's “Frederick Douglass.” It is a short poem, and so that you might understand something of my thinking that morning, I'll copy it out here:
When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful
and terrible thing, needful to man as air,
usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all,
when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole,
reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more
than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians:
this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro
beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world
where none is lonely, none hunted, alien,
this man, superb in love and logic, this man
shall be remembered. Oh, not with statues' rhetoric,
not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone,
but with the lives grown out of his life, the lives
fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.
And there, of course, was the answer to my question. Freedom is not just beautiful, it is also “terrible.” We ascend its giddy heights with care. Like the birds overhead, the freedom to do as we please can be exhilarating, but it can also, if used unwisely, send us into harm's way. Oliver Wendell Holmes once famously observed that freedom of speech does not extend to dangerous speech, that it does not, for instance, give an American the right to yell “Fire!” without cause in a crowded theater. This is the terrible and beautiful burden we shoulder when we put on the mantle of our freedoms; it is the burden of civilization: to use those freedoms not selfishly, not wantonly, but wisely and for the benefit of all. In the air overhead, a vision of unfettered freedom—wild, impulsive, beautiful, yet given to savage violence—on the lawn below its proper, human avatar: the students of the Easton High School marching band, my friends and neighbors, celebrating civilization triumphant. This was Douglass's promise fulfilled, these were “the lives fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.”
Over the course of 2018, our community, our state, and the nation at large, will celebrate the bicentennial of Frederick Douglass's birth (see pages 7 & 8 of the library newsletter for a look at upcoming events). I'm fairly certain that, if asked, Douglass himself would have suggested a long, thoughtful visit to the Talbot County Free Library as one of the best ways to honor that birth. For a library, any library, is civilization's storehouse: it preserves and passes on from one generation to the next the writings, the wisdom, that Frederick Douglass held dear. Imagine all that he would have sacrificed to enter so hallowed a place.
Contact Us | | | Library News