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Honoring Frederick Douglass?

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On Tuesday, May 6, the Recovery School District (RSD) superintendent, Paul Vallas, was 30 minutes late for a community meeting to discuss the school system’s plans for Douglass High School. Over 100 people attended, including well over half of the school’s faculty, who were eager to have an opportunity to hear directly from the superintendent.

The audience, which also included students, parents, neighborhood residents, and community and educational organization representatives, began the meeting promptly at the appointed time, gleaning bits of information from a small group that had breakfast with Mr. Vallas the previous week. At that breakfast meeting, he promised to bring written plans for the school. Apparently not much planning has taken place, because all the audience received when Mr. Vallas arrived 30 minutes later was a thin report on building repair costs. The report, prepared in February by an architectural firm, invited questions and comments from the RSD. Apparently the RSD made no response to this report; certainly no such response from the RSD was shared with the audience.

About 20 minutes into the meeting, one of Mr. Vallas’ assistants arrived. In his remarks, he offered a curious biographical sketch of Frederick Douglass, noting that Douglass was an orator, a journalist, and a lawyer; in most schools two out of three correct earns a failing grade. But the worst part about the presentation was its conclusion; Douglass High School would become a police, fire, and emergency health services school as a way to honor the life of Frederick Douglass and continue his life’s work.

When Mr. Vallas arrived shortly after these remarks, he brought with him no written plan for this public safety academy. It may be a good thing that there is no written plan yet. There may yet be time for the developers to think more carefully about the life of Frederick Douglass and what a school that honors his life and continues his work might be.

Today’s blog features a creative writing by two former Douglass students. Marlon Cross graduated from Douglass and Dayoka Edmonds spent her 10th grade year with us before she moved from New Orleans to live with her mother. They studied the life of Frederick Douglass carefully and wrote this letter as a way of understanding Douglass’ life and values and sharing them with younger students at Douglass and its feeder middle and elementary schools.

Audience members encouraged Mr. Vallas to read the book The Long Ride, a history of social justice and civil rights history in New Orleans written by students from Douglass and two other public high schools in New Orleans. He did not agree to do so. We gave Mr. Vallas a copy of the book in August, 2007, so we did not really expect him to agree to such a request. But the offer is still there, and maybe he will read it now and let it inform his decision-making and his communications. Better late than never.

Frederick Douglass Writes a Farewell Letter to His Daughter
Dayoka Edmonds and Marlon Cross

Dearest Annie, My Youngest Child:

I can remember the first time you grasped my index finger. Fresh from the womb, your small voice cried loud as I held you in my arms. Annie, you were as beautiful as roses & daisies in a spring garden. Your voice spoke to me quietly in a language that I didn't understand. Inside my heart I knew you wouldn't have to slave for freedom as much as I did. My youngest love, my youngest life, you remind me of the ocean.

As I write you this letter, the waves rock this ship like your cradle rocked you when I was too busy with your four older siblings. I sit on deck and watch the waves. I think of your ways, soft and calm, at times, rough and fast, but always a wonderful sight to see. Just last month when you were drawing a picture of your baby doll, I disturbed you, asking you to pick up your shoes. The tone of your voice was sweet even when you didn't want to be bothered. Why, I would have done anything for you. I learned that from my own mother. She went through a 24-mile walk after work just to come see her son, your father. She worked in the fields on another plantation, while the other children and I stayed 12 miles away. She cared for me just as much as I care for you. I think of her long journey as I cross the Atlantic Ocean once again, placing my life in danger, weeping that your earthly life has ended.

How my heart wishes to walk into my residence to see the face of my Annie, those eyes like your mother’s that sparkle in the moonlight, those pretty white teeth that shine in the dark, and that graceful smile that to which no other can ever compare. I know that inside my heart everything happens for a reason. I am so sorry that I could not have been in your presence to adore you with my love, to kiss your cheek, as your soul passed to the next life.

You must understand why I was away the day you died, only eight years old. You won't know the name John Brown or the meaning of the words abolition and justice. But these are some of the reasons I was away. John Brown’s skin was white but his soul was pure. His heart was set on one goal--abolishing slavery. He too is now dead. Our country wants me to join him. I knew of his plot to attack Harper’s Ferry, take over the weapons there, and wage war against slaveholders. I told no one about this plot. For that this country, which declares itself a defender of the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness, accuses me of treason. I do not regret my silence about Brown’s plot. I only regret its failure, his death, and most of all my absence as you took your last breath.

So now I journey again. The water, the source of life, gives me little comfort. I return to your four siblings and dear mother. I return to a country stuck in greed and evil. I also return with the hope of freedom for all. I pledge my life to remain in this country, to die fighting for freedom for all people rather than to escape to another country. Your untimely departure tells me where I must remain. It reinforces my determination, my conviction that I will never be free until all my people are free. Thank you for this gift you give me on your leaving. Forgive my absence at your departure.

All Love Always,
Your Father,
Frederick A. Douglass

1 Comment

Today's entry is frightening. The contrast you present here is mind-blowing. On the one hand, you have a community of students, teachers, and parents who, in sync with both their school's and their school's namesake's history, are fighting to keep alive an institution that for decades has been the strong, thriving, (albeit under-funded and under-appreciated) heart of the Ninth Ward. One the other, you have a group of “educational experts” who paradoxically seem to possess almost no knowledge about the community where they are working, much less Frederick Douglass and all he stood for. It’s funny—Vallas advocates creating schools that are full-time community centers, yet wasn’t that exactly what SAC and Urban Heart were successfully working towards at Douglass and neighboring schools before the storm? New Orleans schools are not some undiscovered country that needs to be “tamed” and fed (I’m reflecting on a September New York Times article that calls Vallas a “tamer” of urban schools). What would happen if Paul Vallas did read The Long Ride? How would his and other newcomers to New Orleans’s conceptions of themselves and their role in the city change if they read it?

I’m not saying everything’s bad in New Orleans schools today. Vallas and other newcomers to the city seem to be putting some decent, fresh ideas in play. But how will any of these new ideas and newcomers impact the city if they are not in conversation with the city’s history of civil rights activism, its longtime teachers and residents, and (especially) the city’s youth?

I hope Vallas does read The Long Ride, and soon.

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