I tried to do what Steven Spielberg should have done, and that’s channel Frederick Douglass for a view on Abraham Lincoln and the federal city.
Douglass, who knew more than a thing or two about the particulars of slavery, having been born a slave in Maryland in 1818, also knew Lincoln. Lincoln always had experienced the full breadth of liberty and as a politician and titular head of the Republican Party imagined an America which, at the very least, would give blacks a measure of freedom from the shackles of cruel and unusual, inhumane U.S. laws.
Hollywood denied the two men their relationship.
The script that would have focused on Douglass-Lincoln was ditched and now is known simply as “Lincoln,” which focuses instead on the president and his party’s inside-Washington strategies alongside the Democrats’ with anti-slavery politics remaining the reason for the film.
I was long ago acquainted with Douglass, but not because of black history lessons in D.C. Public Schools.
Most of my learning stemmed from my parents’ insistence on their children learning history and because Douglass’ estate, Cedar Hill, was where we in Anacostia and nearby neighborhoods used to ride Flexible Flyers, if family fortunes allowed, and cardboard boxes if not.
We called it the “ghost house,” because at dusk and after nightfall the street lamps seemed to cast an eerie-looking glow from within.
Snowstorms gave us a totally liberating feeling, as the wind created banks of snow for free-falls and gave us an unbelievable sense of freedom — freedom from our moms’ calls to not get soaking wet while at play, freedom to enjoy acre upon acre of snow-covered green-space and freedom to view the landscape of the grandest capitals.
At the time, the National Park Service had yet to gain control of Cedar Hill, but we knew that it had been owned and occupied by a black man, a liberating thought in and of itself.
We also knew that Douglass’ eventual freedom was due to his and others’ hard-fought victories.
We knew because our parents gave us living history lessons to supplement schools’ traditional American lessons.
So we understood why our neighborhood streets had names like Stevens, Sumner, Birney and Stanton, and why, during Reconstruction, large-scale housing projects like Barry Farm came online.
We also knew why Cedar Hill was adjacent to Pitts Place, the maiden name of Douglass’ second wife, Helen, a white woman he married in 1884, two years after his beloved Anna died. While Douglass and Pitts were free to marry, they did not push too close to America’s cultural cliff, and traveled extensively.
As I visited Cedar Hill on Friday and took in the view of this city, chill winds blew lessons of Douglass, who was born at a time when blacks were forbidden book learning but became one of America’s seminal writers, publishers and statesmen.
Sure, our initial thought of him is slave, fugitive slave and abolitionist.
But even Douglass, who most whites wanted to keep as dumb as a rock, was smart enough to know as a young man that the peculiar institution called slavery was America’s most noticeable “birth defect” (a phrase coined decades after Douglass’ death by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice).
The Lincoln-Douglass relationship is a true event that reflects the potent realities of America’s politics, and a time in our history when things were at once black and white.
Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” which claims to zoom in on the raw power of Republicans and Democrats, could have easily been titled “Here We Go Again,” since the plot certainly proves that while the names of the players change much else remains the same in Washington.
Ditto, by the way, “Django Unchained,” the Quentin Tarantino slave-era movie which takes place a couple of years prior to the Civil War and premieres Christmas Day.
I suspect the first draft that gave the Douglass-Lincoln a look is still out there, though I confess I hardly know who could pull it off.
Should Spike Lee get a nudge or should he be urged to visit Cedar Hill to take in a different view, as Douglass himself did?
• Deborah Simmons can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.