Bathroom talk isn’t one of my favorite topics. And I don’t enjoy its humor either. But as the bathroom wars continue over transgender access and rights, and students and parents voice concerns about privacy and safety for girls and boys in school bathrooms, my friends and I dove into our school memory boxes.
The fact is the girls bathroom and locker room at school can be the most dangerous place on earth. The girls bathroom was the tough’s turf for hanging out, smoking, and waiting for their unsuspecting student mark. Most of the stall doors were missing. Most of the toilets didn’t work at all. On occasion there was no water from the sink faucet. Yes, we’re talking about the United States of America public schools. The bathroom environment is ripe for anything except its bottom-line function.
Under these conditions some of us held our pee and other business until we got home. You were warned that this holding practice could lead to kidney failure later in life. But hey, we wanted to live to see another school day, and hug the ones we love again.
When this scene is played out for entertainment purposes in a movie or episodic, the tendency is to make the bathroom the proving ground, separating the cool kids from the squares or geeks. The strong from the weak. The geeks have to draw their line in the sand. The confrontation is the rite of passage to stand up for yourself and assert your right to be who you are. To be free.
Murals are fragile things. They bring vibrant color and life to what was once dead spaces. As the years and the weather pounds on them, their colors begin to fade. Or a new building will cover the damage and the narratives of the past. I’ve been noting the visual music of U Street and Shaw for the Ellington, Shaw & U walking tour focusing on Washington, DC’s jazz heritage. Most of the murals along these blocks are homages to persons who are no longer in our physical lives: Duke Ellington, Marvin Gaye, Chuck Brown, Miles Davis, Shirley Horne.
Mural survival is always precarious. G. Byron Peck’s iconic mural of Duke Ellington on the side of the True Reformer Building has been removed. The mural was one of the first signs of the U Street transformation. The mural was removed before. It was raised and placed on the side of the True Reformer Building. A new business building at the U Street Metro stop was built over the previous location. The current removal of the Ellington mural is not for relocation or even restoration but for a complete do-over because repairs to the weather damaged panels are impossible to make. A grant from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities will ensure its return.
Not far away the Marvin Gaye mural (2014) on the side of a liquor store at 7th and S, NW was a rebirth of an earlier Marvin Gaye mural by the same artist, Aniekan Udofia, on the side of a house across the street. The previous mural was covered by a new building. Aniekan knew it would be a temporary situation. He intended to paint a “better mural” once a space became available. I admired his pluck and a kind of “Buddhist” perspective of impermanence.
Aniekan is also responsible for a Duke Ellington mural at the location of the musician’s birth in Foggy Bottom, and the Chuck Brown mural (2010) on the side of Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street. Brown shares the wall with living legends including Donnie Simpson (WPGC DJ), President Barack Obama, and Bill Cosby, long-time family friend to Ben (deceased) and Virginia Ali who opened the Chili Bowl in 1958. In November 2014, a Washington Post column by Clinton Yates suggested that Cosby’s image come down from the wall as sexual assault accusations piled up against the comedian/producer/actor. Should Cosby share the wall with the first Black POTUS? No action has been taken on the mural to date. A new Ben’s Chili Bowl opens today (July 8). The Washington Post is still on Cosby watch. Murals may not last for ever, but friendship is another matter altogether.
A few blocks down artist Alonso Tamayo‘s Miles Davis stares at us from the parking lot for Bohemian Caverns. Once a nightclub for swing and jazzy takes on the American song book, the club has modified its musical playlist to preserve and feature straight ahead jazz classics. Miles was not alone on the wall. Gazing from her left was the image of Shirley Horn of Washington, DC. Her music touched Davis and he shined a light on her. But Horn was content to have a DC life with jazz rather than take a one-way A train from Union Station to NYC. She brought the light back to her hometown in her final years. Unfortunately, it could not save her image on the wall. Natural light, weather, and repairs to the wall forced Shirley to be covered in black. Is the wall in mourning? This brings us to the question – How many murals feature women? The late Latin Jazz pianist/arranger Maria Rodriguez (aka Jean Butler) gets a nod on the side of the Latin American Bilingual Public Charter School on Military Road in DC by the artist Cecilia Lueza.
How many murals pay homage to the living? One mural that pays homage to a living person, though the affiliated institution may consider him dead– E. Ethelbert Miller. E. Ethelbert Miller’s face is included in a writers mural inside the Howard University book store. The mural was painted by Alexis Peskine, a native of Paris who graduated from Howard Summa Cum Laude with Bachelor of Fine Arts. The project was commissioned in 2003. Ethelbert and Toni Morrison are the only two living persons sharing space with dead poets, writers/intellectuals – Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston. In April of this year Eugene (E.) Ethelbert Miller was deleted from the Howard University system as director of the university’s Afro-American Resource Center along with 84 other persons in a layoff. But Ethelbert remains…on the HU bookstore mural, at least for now.
Inside the HU bookstore I finally find the “Poetry ” section. Black women poets dominate the inventory — Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou, a volume by singer/actor Jill Scott – followed by Shakespeare, e.e. Cummings, and other “dead white men.” Tony Medina’s Bum Rush the Page a Def Poetry Jam Anthology, and an African American poet from Chicago (can’t remember his name) represent. No poetry by E. Ethelbert Miller. I browse the other stacks noticing none of Miller’s anthologies, or his two memoirs (Fathering Words and The 5th Inning) were on the shelves. Even a search on the website produced this result….
Makes you wonder how long the mural will last in a bookstore where neither Ethelbert or Langston Hughes can be found on the poetry shelf?
Prior to April students seeking knowledge could associate the windows below the bell tower of Howard University’s Founders Library as the mountain their inner Moses had to climb seeking knowledge and guidance in navigating their identities on a HBCU campus. Undergrads are fragile people especially during the first two years.
The HU bookstore is not the only location that pays visual homage to the living writer. The mural created by Busboys and Poets owner Andy Shallal inside its first location on 14th street includes an image of Miller in the upper left hand portion of the wall. Not to get a big head on his own, Andy commissioned artist Pete Petrine to create a big head Ethelbert drawing for the launch of Busboys and Poets’ first publishing venture in 2012 with PM Press — Ethelbert’s second memoir The 5th Inning. The bookcover is designed by Andy Shallal. The big head hangs inside the Busboys and Poets 5th & K location.
Could it be that Ethelbert’s expulsion from the tower is like the release of the caged bird. Bird flies over the city and claims a perch on a circular metal bench at the Dupont Circle Metro at Q where Ethelbert’s poem “We Embrace” is etched in the granite. Fly to another poem on the wall of La Casa Shelter on Irving Street, near 14th. A leaf sculpture by Lisa Scheer at the Georgia Avenue-Petworth Metro station recites an E-poem: every leaf surrenders to air, we dance, we flutter, we touch the earth. And a mural on the side of a Children’s Medical Care Center on 14th near Colorado is a painted quilt of images with another poem by E. Ethelbert Miller.
Maybe the words will speak for a thousand falling bricks and fading images.
Ethelbert Miller is a globally recognized and published poet, board chair of the Institute for Policy Studies and, until today (I suppose), was Director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University. Ethelbert and I often swapped blog content and posts. He was one of the inspirations and mentors for this blog.
I’ll never understand why they call today “Good Friday.” My God, My God!
If you don’t know Malalal Yousafzai’s story, Malalal is from Mingora, a town in the Swat district of Pakistan’s northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. In October 2012, at the tender age of 15, the education activist was targeted and shot in the head by Taliban gunmen in front of fellow students on a school bus. The assassination attempt was in response to Malalal’s blog advocating for girls education in her community where girls were banned from attending school. (Pakistan has the 2nd largest students out of school in the world.) By a miracle she survived the shooting and was sponsored to be sent to the UK for intensive rehabilitation.
I recently read Stephen L. Carter‘s novelThe Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln. I boldface novel so not to confuse the book with other Lincoln titles, usually non-fiction. In Carter’s novel, Lincoln lives after the play, and is still President. But he’s on the hot seat with Congress for going “too far” with the South, “too hard” on the rich folks, and “not far enough” for the radicals. At the center of this argument is a young aspiring Oberlin College graduate named Abigail Canner. Abigail was born a free black woman, she’s smart, determined, and through her Oberlin connections has a job with the law firm for the President’s defense team. Everyone seems to want to know Abigail.
Saturday, June 29 at 2:30 PM I moderate the discussion around the 1867 world of Abigail Canner at the Historical Society of Washington, DC (801 K Street, NW, Washington, DC 20001). [Download the flyer or RSVP for the free event on Eventbrite.] Our speakers and Carter are blurring the lines between fact and fiction. The thematic discussion of the book will go deep around Abigail, her world, her dreams even what she and her colleagues and neighbors would eat. Carter doesn’t give too many details, but we’ll fill the plate. One of my favorite culinary historians, Michael W. Twitty will join me to talk about foodways before, during and after the Civil War. You can read Michael’s open letter to Paula Deen on his Afroculinaria website — check out all the other good stuff in his web library too including a recipe for blueberry barbeque sauce. Michael and I take our southern food seriously.
But my principal assignment is to explore Abigail’s alma mater, Oberlin College, founded in 1833 in the western wilderness of Ohio. Oberlin was estblished by northern missionaries and grew when the “father of Revivalism” Charles Grandison Finney came on the scene. Finney was also a staunch abolitionist (radical?). With Finney established, students and financial support soon followed. In the novel, Finney provides the important letter of reference and recommendation for Abigail to clerk at the Dennard and McShane law firm in downtown Washington.
Before HBCUs and Seven Sisters, the Oberlin Collegiate Institute that became Oberlin College, was the go-to college for all women and persons regardless of color for a complete Bachelor’s degree course, a “Literary Course” (for women minus Greek, Latin, and advanced mathematics), Theological studies, and eventually the Convervatory of Music (founded in 1865).
Abigail was recruited to attend Oberlin by the first African American college graduate and fellow Obie George B. Vashon who makes an appearance in flashback in The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln. Vashon was among the first graduates of the college in 1838. He would return to earn a MA in 1849. Vashion was a first in law as well — the first African American to practice law in New York state.
Once enrolled, Abigail the freshman would be on campus with some prominent upper class women. Abigail Canner may not mention these women, but they certainly would’ve crossed paths on Tappan Square:
Mary Jane Patterson who graduated with a B.A. in 1862 was also the first black woman in the world to earn a Bachelor’s degree from a collegiate institute. Patterson would go to Washington to teach at the Preparatory High School for Negroes (later M Street High School, and then Dunbar High School). She would become its first woman principal.
Mary Edmonia Lewis enrolled in 1859 at the recommendation of her brother. She didn’t complete her studies for the Literary course. Things got a little out of hand when she was accused of poisoning two white students/friends. This was known as the “Spiced Wine Scandal.” Part Chippewa Indian and African American, Edmonia was somewhat exotic in the Ohio town, never hiding her heritages. But just before her friends were leaving to enjoy a sleigh ride with their fellas, Edmonia invited the girls up for spiced wine. It’s been said that the wine was spiked with Spanish Fly which made the girls violently ill. The incident nearly split the abolitionist town in half. Edmonia was dragged out from Mr. Keep’s house and beaten.
John Mercer Langston, a prominent Oberlin resident and graduate from the Oberlin College and School of Theology, came to Edmonia’s rescue in court and won for her. John Mercer Langston, also of Native American/Black heritages, would later become the first dean of the Howard University’s law school and elected to Congress in 1888, the first U.S. Representative of color from the state of Virginia.
Even with her court victory, Edmonia couldn’t stay in Oberlin and left the campus in 1862 for Boston. Edmonia was also an artist. She started sculpting and sold small plaster souvenir busts of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, and created busts of Abraham Lincoln and John Brown. With these earnings and the help of patrons, Edmonia booked a passage to Rome, Italy to continue sculpting and was part of a group of expatriot women sculptures known as the Marmorean Flock. Whether Abigail Canner heard gossip around Edmonia’s story, warnings or passed the future sculptor as she was leaving town, is left to our imaginations.
Fanny Jackson Coppin would’ve been Abigail’s classmate; both graduating around or at the same time in 1865. Fanny was born a slave in Washington, DC. Her aunt purchased her 12-year-old niece’s freedom for $125. Fanny worked as a domestic, hired a tutor, attended public school. She enrolled in Oberlin’s Literary course followed by the collegiate course and earned her BA in 1865. There’s no mention of Fanny in the novel. But maybe Fanny had no time for Abigail. While a student, she started an evening school for freed persons.
After graduation, Fanny Jackson became principal of the girls’ high school at the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia. She opened the only trade school for African Americans in that city. Abigail would meet her fiance at Oberlin. Fanny was 44 when she married AME minister Reverend Levi Jenkins Coppin. Fanny also established homes for working and poor women and was a fighter in defending the rights of women and African Americans (source: Oberlin College). Coppin State University, in Baltimore, is named for Fanny Jackson Coppin.
Abigail had loads of oppportunities to connect with fellow Obies when she returned to Washington, DC. But she had more pressing matters in the post-Civil War city known for corruption, intrigue, danger, and mud.