Poetry and jazz bring history alive at local Frederick Douglass event
BY JESSICA ARENDS
What could inspire an evening of spoken word, jazz, Maryland history and the study of law? Why, a local Frederick Douglass celebration, of course. On Feb. 8, about 75 residents and students gathered for the “Democracy, Freedom & the Meaning of Frederick Douglass” celebration, one of the Law, Art and Activism events presented by the University of Maryland (UMD).
The soft and steady jazz music of the Emory Diggs Band warmed up the stage at the Hyattsville Busboys and Poets while UMD students mingled in the back munching on free nachos.
Award-winning local poet Joel Dias-Porter opened with Robert Hayden’s 1961 poem “Frederick Douglass,” which drew the crowd to their seats. The audience listened quietly and reverently to Dias-Porter, his gospel-like cadence punctuated by the pop-pop of the conga drum: “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.”
Dias-Porter also read original poems inspired by American poet Wallace Stephens, the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi, and the Beatles. His words, strong and urgent, wove themes of freedom, reconciliation, love and hope. The Black oratorical and radical tradition of Frederick Douglass as an abolitionist inspired both poets and activists, including Martin Luther King Jr., according to Dias-Porter.
John Muller, author of Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia and associate librarian at D.C.’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, shared lesser-known facts about Douglass. Douglass spent the last quarter of his life traveling throughout Maryland, including a stop in Bladensburg in 1880, to give speeches on social reform and abolition, said Muller. And Douglass played the violin, spoke at local orphanages and served on Howard University’s board of directors — all despite never receiving any formal education.
“Douglass was very skilled in what we would today call code-switching or emotional intelligence,” Muller said. “He could hang with peasants and presidents alike.”
Muller emphasized that one of the reasons February is Black History Month is because Douglass’ birthday is in February.
Brian Gilmore, senior lecturer of the UMD MLaw Programs, coordinates the Law, Art and Activism event series and served as the emcee for the evening.
“Maryland did not secede from the union, but did have slavery — we have a very complex history,” said Gilmore.
During a post-event interview, Gilmore explained that the Law, Art and Activism series demonstrates how poetry and poets are alive and among us, not merely relics from the past. He said he also hopes the series can keep democratic values alive.
“Our politics right now are pretty precarious,” Gilmore said. “We are in a daily battle for democratic ideals. Art reminds us of who we are — our humanity towards one another.”
Chalto Watkins, a first year UMD student from Frederick, attended the event with several other students. “I loved hearing the poetry,” she said. “We don’t realize how close we are to history. This helps us take the time to appreciate it.”
When asked how such events relate to her Justice and Legal Thought coursework, Watkins said, “It shows how poetry and music influence society and contribute to social justice — how poetry can really move people.”
Prior topics addressed by the Law, Art and Activism series have included immigration, refugees and women’s suffrage, according to Gilmore.