A Man and His Place at the Talbot County Free Library

by Bill Peak

It was a hot day, humid, the heat prickling both skin and mind. The men had long since taken their shirts off, and, when they attacked each other, they found they couldn't get a good grip, hands slipping over sweaty shoulders, fingernails clawing flesh. It's said they fought in the sun like that for two whole hours, and, for once, I find such an apparent exaggeration believable, for I think at that time, on that one occasion, the two of them became something more than men. Each in his own way represented something bigger than himself—righteousness on the one hand, dark and wicked sin on the other. God fought the devil that day on Maryland's Eastern Shore and, thankfully, God won.

Of course the most popular story may well be the one about the sailboats. As its author told it, “I have often, in the deep stillness of a summer's Sabbath, stood all alone on the lofty banks of that noble bay” and watched vessels “robed in purest white” as they worked their way out to sea. Comparing the ease with which those boats moved from one place to another with his own inescapable bondage, Frederick Douglass despaired. But despite the poetry of that passage, it is the story of Douglass battling the slave-breaker Edward Covey at Mount Misery Farm that always springs first to my mind. There is something elemental about that combat, the two men, one black, one white, arms locked beneath the sun, teeth clenched, the fight going on and on, as if forever. I'm reminded of woodblock prints I've seen by William Blake—fire and brimstone, heavenly light.

And that it should have taken place here, in Talbot County, that's an important part of its power for me. For in its way, it stands as an emblem of this land and its people, their stubbornness, their insistence upon getting it right, winning out over any and all forces aligned against them. And of course Douglass did win out. He pulled himself up from the soil that imprisoned him, escaped to a promised land, and rose to become a mighty leader, thinker, and writer—one whose words and ideas we as yet ponder and revere. And isn't it ironic that it is in this—this phenomenal rise from so base and devalued a condition—that Frederick Douglass proves himself a true son of the place he fought so hard to escape, that now, for me, he symbolizes better than any other all that I have come to respect and admire about the sons and daughters of Talbot County?

On Saturday, September 23, in partnership with the Frederick Douglass Honor Society, the Talbot County Free Library will help celebrate our community's annual Frederick Douglass Day here in Easton. There will be a parade, inspirational speaker Kenneth B. Morris, Jr. (a direct descendant of both Douglass and Booker T. Washington) will speak; event partner ArtWorks for Freedom will host a panel discussion; there will be music and food; there will be games and activities for children; and there will be a show of embroidery art demonstrating that, sadly, the human trafficking Douglass fought so hard to eradicate continues to arise, confound, and shame us today.

But in a sense, for me at least, we will really begin to honor Douglass and his legacy on Monday, September 18. That evening, at 6:30, in the Easton library, Dr. John Miller will repeat the lecture he gave in our St. Michaels branch back in February on Marcus Rediker's seminal work, “The Slave Ship: a Human History.” I was fortunate enough to attend that first lecture and I can tell you, you won't want to miss this repeat performance. For Miller, a former university professor, is a masterful speaker, one who knows how to use pace and language to capture his listeners' attention, and then carry them along with him from one dramatic turn of events to the next. But most important, Miller knows his subject, and the power of his delivery is derived in no small part from the power of that subject—the grace and heroism that, in the face of unspeakable evil, one people taught another.

You can find a column I wrote for The Star Democrat back in 2014 about Rediker's The Slave Ship at: http://www.tcfl.org/peak/20140907.html, but I can assure you: Dr. Miller's lecture on the 18th will prove much better than anything I could ever write. And I'm hoping that lecture will inspire you to join us in our grand celebration of Frederick Douglass's life and work on the 23rd. We owe it to the man who helped teach us what America means. I owe it to the man who helped teach me to love the good people of Talbot County.