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There’s quite a stack of things that I have set aside ‘to read next’, whenever that comes along. More and more gets added to the stack and each book slowly waits its turn, probably too patiently. Every once in a while something comes along that moves right up to Next and becomes Now already. Never did I imagine a document on the naming of public spaces commissioned by our County Executive Dr. Calvin Ball to slip into the queue, much less become next and now as soon as I heard about it. It is an absolute must read, and a riveting page turner at that. I can’t look away, and I shouldn’t.
The document is the 262 page Public Spaces Commission Report, released on November 5, 2021. It lists out all public owned buildings in Howard County, Maryland, where I live, their names, and the relation of the person behind that name to any history of slave ownership and/or oppression. It documents participation in slavery, involvement in systemic racism, support for oppression, involvement in a supremacist agenda, violation of Howard County human rights laws, and even if the namesake includes racist and offensive terminology. It is pretty weighty; here is an example:
Wow. Page after page of analysis and detail like this, building after building. For a number of buildings, no direct relation to slavery was discovered, for many, though, there is a past to reconcile.
These buildings have an everyday presence in our lives: government administration buildings, schools, parks, libraries and such (the report put off addressing the 3,000+ street names in the county for another day). Building name elements are familiar and roll off our tongues like nothing matters: Warfield Building, Miller Branch, Atholton Park, River Hill, and so on. For many of us today, any association with history, benign or otherwise, is not really part of our everyday interaction. Places become more associated with what we do there, like attend a meeting, pay a ticket, check out a book, swing on a swing set. Knowing only so much, those that stop and think about it may take a moment and realize, “Oh, so that’s who the George Howard Building was named after, the first governor of the state from our county… interesting.” Up till now, that might have been the depth of curiosity, recognizing a bit of historic trivia.
Less trivial, and what this document lays out page after suffocating page, is a deeper understanding of our county’s past and its people of power or note now memorialized through building names: that they enslaved and profited so off of others. For locals who know these buildings and so casually say their names, it is jaw dropping. We Howard Countians must deepen our understanding of the past in our present, and begin a discussion about how to reconcile with it. This is a start.
This report really is vital knowledge. You can find and read or browse the Public Spaces Commission Report here. Seriously, take a look… you won’t be able to look away. Sincere thanks to this administration for commissioning it and bringing forward this part of Howard County history, and special thanks to the researchers behind the project (all are listed within the report). What a document you have made, what an important resource. As one would expect, the work does not stop here.
My Own Name. I have another reading project in the works, one that is going to come sooner after reading this report. I want to understand my own name, and its relationship to slavery. The Singletons originally came into this country in the 1700s and established a cotton plantation up river from Charleston, South Carolina. I hear they were also later successful in North Carolina. That they were successful means they relied on the work of slaves, the lives of slaves. I want to know more about that, to understand and document what is in the name I wear, the one that has been carried superficially into the present, a little too willfully unaware. As you know me, the project will start with reading, with books like Edward Ball’s Slaves in the Family, a model for the research, and Theodore Rosengarten’s Tombee, A Portrait of a Cotton Planter already in the queue, move through google search results of my own name, and eventually a trip south to visit places in person. It is a monumental task, but it will be a task that builds a more real monument to those that came before us and how they lived prior to our becoming. We owe it to them.
I usually end these with ‘Happy Reading’, but this is a different kind of reading.
Board Co-chair, HoCoPoLitSo
Further reading for Howard County history buffs: History of Blacks in Howard County Maryland, Oral History, Schooling, and Contemporary Issues, by Alice Cornelison, Silas E. Craft, Sr., and Lille Price, published under the auspices of the Howard County Branch of the NAACP in 1986.
It was a beautiful day outside. The sun was shining. There was a light summer breeze. People were out and about, drinking coffee at side-walk cafes and window-shopping down Main Street in Old Ellicott City.
But I was inside a dark, dingy, and musty building – way up on the third floor of a sprawling antique store – where I stumbled upon a small section of old books. My friend and I browsed the huge selection of Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and Bobbsey Twins collections. I discovered a unique illustrated edition of Oscar Wilde’s “Ballad of Reading Gaol” and a copy of Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (pencil dated 1939), and those came home with me to join my collection.
As I browsed those “pre-owned” books, I got to thinking about the material-life of books. Some used books are filled with marginalia, folds, and even small tears that show wear. Some suffer from cracked spines. Others are pristine – as if they were never used – perhaps very gently and carefully read but not used. A musty smell is activated when you open an old book – the pages so old and dry, yellowed brown, that when you turn them, they “crack.” You wonder about the last time someone had touched this book. It’s an experience that engages all of your senses and sparks your imagination.
All of this made me go home to revisit my bookshelves and open up my old books.
When I look at my three copies of Defoe’s Roxana I notice three different books. The first copy is a large, beautiful hardcover edition by The Heritage Club purchased by Miss Lee Baack – when I purchased the book at a used bookstore, it included the receipt and the publisher’s brochure. The second is a regular old Oxford World’s Classics copy that I used to study the novel for my thesis (notice all the post-it papers sticking out of the pages). The third is an early or mid 20th century sensationalized pocketbook edition. Although all three tell exactly the same story , the cover design and the physical appearance of the book beckon different kinds of readers as well as varying reading-purposes.
Inside my 1896 copy of Robinson Crusoe – of course, also by Defoe – there is an inscription: “R. Stacey Christmas 1903”. The “£2” written next to the name reminded me that I had bought this book during my year abroad in England.
They do that, you know. Old books – they remind me of specific times, events, people, and even feelings. My broken and tattered copy of Macbeth will always remind me of my awesome, wonderful high school English teacher who was also a real-life hippy who rode the motorcycle to school wearing his Grateful Dead t-shirt. Memories. Inside the pages of that book, I keep a photo of the Lady Macbeth statue that I took in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Each book – not the story, not the literary, artistic work that’s in it, but the physical book – has a life. Our reading habits, what we do to our books end up shaping how we communicate with the future readers (our future selves or other people). Our reading habits change the thing of the book. What we do to our books pass from one reading circumstance to the next not only the writer’s art but also the experience of its being read – through various creases and folds, underlines, markings, and writings.
In “A Year in Marginalia: Sam Anderson,” Sam Anderson shares images of marginalia he made in 12 different books in 2010. He writes, “The writing I enjoy doing most, every year, is marginalia: spontaneous bursts of pure, private response to whatever book happens to be in front of me. It’s the most intimate, complete, and honest form of criticism possible — not the big wide-angle aerial shot you get from an official review essay, but a moment-by-moment record of what a book actually feels like to the actively reading brain.” In another article, Anderson says this about his practice of marginalia: “I basically destroyed my favorite books with the pure logorrheic force of my excitement, spraying them so densely with scribbled insight that the markings almost ceased to have meaning.”
Excitement is not exactly what I found in the marginalia of my Reconstructing Aphra: A Social Biography of Aphra Behn. Inside the cover I found this: “A.J. De Armond 1980- review copy”. Then a note to the future readers of this book from A.J.: “Borrowers: please don’t confuse me by adding further notes to mine.” I’m trying to hear the tone of this message – is it a polite plea or a bossy command?
Speaking of marginalia-over-marginalia, the copy of The Stranger on my shelf, it turns out, is not my own copy. It’s my brother’s – he says the book was new when he read it for school. In it, I see marginalia in my brother’s handwriting with only a few notes in my hand. I also found on the first page of Chapter 5 a message from his classmate named Saidat who apparently wanted credit for helping him study this novel. But when asked about it, my brother said, “Who the hell is Saidat?” Oh well.
I can’t help but smile when I read inside the cover of my Crime and Punishment a penciled writing by 19-year old me: “Nothing had changed but me. That was all that was needed to change everything 8.26.1998.”
Dear readers, I invite you to browse your own bookshelves and revisit your old books. I invite you to go to a used bookstore and rescue a book, take it home, see where it came from, and create a new life for that book with your own reading of it. The thing – not just the art – of the book has much to tell us.
From Abu Dhabi to Howard County and Back, Author Siobhan Fallon Lives Through the Jet Lag to Tell About It.
Jet lag, medically referred to as desynchronosis, is a physiological condition which results from alterations to the boy’s circadian rhythms resulting from rapid long-distance transmeridian (east-west or west-east) travel on an aircraft.
I was asking for it. Heading to Maryland from Abu Dhabi, with two little daughters in tow, was bound to be trouble. But when the generous folks of Howard County chose You Know When the Men Are Gone for their Book Connection Project read, there was no way I was just going to send an ethereal Skype-self to their computer screens on October 15 and 16th. I wanted my flesh and blood and exhausted self right there in person.
We arrived in NY after nearly 24 hours of transit (made interesting by my nine-month-old trying to pull the hair out of the head of the nice lady in front of us all the way to Heathrow). On October 14, I left my girls with my mother and drove a rental car to a hotel in Howard County. I got on the treadmill for an hour of uphill climbing while looking through my notes and skimming my stories, brushing up for the talk the following morning at Howard Community College (HCC).
Ten p.m. (six a.m. Abu Dhabi time) I was in my room and wired (for future reference, getting on a treadmill at 9 pm is not a good way to tire oneself out). I decided to post the upcoming readings on Facebook and ended up getting into a lively discussion about Kenny Rogers with Laura Yoo, HCC faculty member and member of the board of directors at HoCoPoLitSo. I mentioned Rogers’ lyrics make for great stories, she posted her favorite childhood songs with videos, and she even found one where Kenny still had his wonderful, original face.
Her sense of humor confirmed what I had already suspected — these events were going to be awesome.
And each one was, filled with enthusiastic, kindly, curious readers in sparkling learning spaces at both HCC and the Miller Branch of the Howard County Library System (no wonder it was voted Library of the Year 2013).
Here are some of my favorite moments:
– After reading at HCC, a student asked me to sign his book. His teacher required proof of attendance and he had me inscribe a paperback to her. I couldn’t help adding, Please give this man an A for creativity!!
– When I walked into Margaret Garroway’s English class (she joined forces with other English classes and the room was full), Margaret was in Alex Trebek mode, moderating a trivia game, classes pitted against each other with representatives sitting at a long table in front. The trivia was taken from my collection, and there was even an answer I didn’t know (but the students did, good job, guys!).
– After the English class, one student brought me a red sharpie and asked me to sign the cover of his book rather than inside. Everyone behind him in line liked the way it looked and asked to borrow his pen (I liked the graffiti feel of it myself—I’m going to start carrying a red sharpie and ‘tag’ all my books from now on) until the poor kid had to run off to his next class.
– During the taping of HoCoPoLitSo’s TV show The Writing Life, I finally got to meet fellow mil spouse author and my Writing Life host, Kristin Henderson. When I lived in Virginia, she and I played email tag (she is part of a group of mil spouse writers who get together once a month; alas I had my hands full of new baby and the move to Abu Dhabi and couldn’t manage to meet them). She is just as fabulous as I imagined her to be.
Now I am back in Abu Dhabi. Yes, I spent about a week downing too much coffee and railing at my kiddos for not sleeping enough (the nine-month-old was waking up bright-eyed at 2 a.m. every night, ready to pull my hair out).
Jet lag be damned, I wouldn’t trade a minute of the great time I had at Howard County.
Oh, and can somebody please tell Trivia Pursuit to add questions about my stories to their next edition?
Special thanks to Candace DePass, Lisa Bankman, Alesia McManus, and Susan Thornton Hobby for all their hard work coordinating this trip across time zones! I hope to be back in your beautiful Howard County again someday.
Sometimes the hands rise slowly. Sometimes they shoot up quickly.
Other times, hands rise up cautiously as the eyes dart around the room. I love this moment for its honesty, its quiet potential, and the way that question maps out the terrain I have to travel to at the least show each and every school in Howard County that poetry is present, possible and matters. As writer-in-residence for HoCoPoLitSo, I travel to the county high schools to read and talk poetry.
During the reading, I share stories behind the inspiration and origin of some of the poems and then I ask the students if they have any questions about certain poems. Many even request me to read certain poems and then give their own interpretations on them. We talk about other things as well. Ipod playlists. If Twitter is an appropriate space for poetry. Role-playing games. Favorite books. Dating. Haiku. Race. Gender. The list goes on.
If I have any sort of a complaint, I wish that perhaps my visits could extend past the usual fifty-minute class time. Usually the bell rings and the students make their way to lunch or to another class and I find myself a little melancholy that the connection we’ve built in just a short time is broken. But so much has happened within those small bubbles of time. I’ve witnessed brave students share their own poems when I’ve asked if there are any other poets in the room.
I’ve watched them deliver heartbreakingly honest and earnest poems, shaking paper and all, with the kind of sophistication and insight I truly wished I possessed at their age. I’ve stayed after my allotted time with passionate teachers and their poetry-hungry students who fire questions like pistons at me about form, meter, and content.
I enjoy this job most of all because I realize that Howard County is not as mysterious as I thought, because poetry dwells there, and anywhere poetry lives is home.
Derrick Weston Brown
To support HoCoPoLitSo’s Writer-In-Residence program in Howard County high schools, consider making a donation.
When I got the news that I was tapped to be the 2012-2013 HoCoPoLitSo writer-in-residence for Howard County back in early August, I was as nervous as I was excited. The nervousness I mention first because with my own schedule that ebbs and flows with the responsibilities of being a working poet and teacher, I wondered if I could fit these visits in, and more importantly, if I could find my way around in the mysterious Howard County.
Honestly, Howard county was only familiar to me for two reasons: the city Columbia and the absolutely awesome vegan restaurant not too far from Columbia called Great Sage. But beyond the nervousness, my excitement was also sparked by the mystery of the unknown. As my imagination began its snowball’s journey down the hill of infinite possibilities, all sorts of questions were percolating around in my brain . . .
What are Howard County high schools like?
What will they think of my poems?
Will they care?
Will I get lost?
Will they relate to my poems?
How should I present my poems?
Should I just read?
Should I talk and then read, or read and just talk?
I carried all of these questions with me on my first school visit to Oakland Mills High School and I was pleasantly surprised and relieved to find that my first reading would be in the school’s media center. As I scanned the faces of those students that first day as they filed into the library, quietly chatting to each other while stealing looks at me, I was strangely calmed by the spectrum of expressions I saw.
There was curiosity, vague interest, teen-aged skepticism, and of course, the glazed over “Am I really here for poetry?” look. What I realized, after taking in the expressions I saw, was that I had worn each and every look displayed in front of me. I was reminded that I was a high school student once, a student who was immediately skeptical, inquisitive and up-in-arms whenever we were told we had a special guest speaker.
So I bundled up all of my nervousness and excitement, and made myself a promise in the few seconds that remained as Joyce Braga (a HoCoPoLitSo volunteer) introduced me. I wouldn’t read at the students, I wouldn’t lecture the students. To me, poetry is a conversation, a call and response; to rob the person or audience of their right to respond is a crime. So I opened my first reading that day and every day since then with a question. “Who in this room — be honest — actually likes poetry?”
To be continued …
Derrick Weston Brown