by Michelle Isenhoff
“Emily, spell ‘dictation,’” Mr. Marbliss called from the front of the room.
Emily’s gaze was fixed on the bare fingers of the maple tree across the street, though she didn’t really see them scratching against the side of the bakery in the breeze. Nor did she see the baker walk outside and stand looking up at it with his hands on his hips. She did see the midnight black eyes of Malachi staring unflinchingly at her from behind the stall’s half-door. They were filled with something she couldn’t define. Not hurt, exactly. More like a sad disappointment that rendered her arguments to her uncle as hollow as the squirrel hole in the tree outside. She’d only been able to hold his gaze a moment before fleeing past her uncle and out the barn door.
“Emily? Are you going to join our spelling bee?” Mr. Marbliss quizzed. “Emily!”
Her head jerked and a few snickers jangled through the room. Someone, it sounded like Angelina, whispered, “Maybe she can spell ‘distraction.’”
“I’m sorry,” she answered, lifting her chin, “I didn’t hear the word.”
“It was ‘dictation,’” he repeated, a warning in his tone.
She spelled it perfectly, but on her next turn she missed “anyway,” to the sound of more mockery. After that she did try to focus on her schoolwork, but it was hopeless. Her mind kept pulling itself back to yesterday, and to the lead weight her heart had become.
That afternoon she avoided Malachi, walking a different route home from school, escaping for a long ride on Coal Dust, and taking her dinner to her room. She even managed to miss him as she rushed through her chores. But he knew her habits too well. He found her bundled on the front porch watching her breath freeze against the very last hint of sunset.
“Hi,” he said, drawing his coat tighter around himself. He sat on the railing and leaned back against the house with one long leg propped in front of him.
She didn’t answer, which brought to mind the one-sided conversations they used to have. He didn’t say anything else for a long time, either. They just sat there watching traffic pass on the road. She began to shiver, wanting to return to the fire inside but unable to.
Malachi shifted on the railing. “Emily, you remind me of a wild thing trapped in a cage. I know how much you miss your home. You’re drawn out here to this porch, looking away south, waiting to be set free.”
A wagon rumbled by filled with a load of hay.
“You’re not the only one waiting. There are others out there, trapped like you, looking to the north, drawn by the Candle Star.” He leaned out over the railing till he could see the bright light over the roof of the hotel. “But they’re held by chains.”
He drew his head back under the porch roof and leveled her with a full, bold stare. “Emily, do you agree that God made us both, just like he made black and white angels?”
“Of course I do,” she sniffed. “I’m no heathen.”
“If you really believe that, you cannot justify any differences between us.”
“Oh, yes I can. You and I are of completely different stations.”
He scoffed. “Stations are man’s own invention, based on pride and power. There’s no natural basis for it whatsoever. We hurt the same. We love the same. Our only difference comes down to color. We’re like two painted houses on the same street.”
“Why are you telling me this? Why do you care so much what I think?”
“Because underneath that proud white skin you have determination and a good heart. I respect you for it and consider you my friend.”
She looked away south. “Don’t you have friends of your own race?”
He shrugged. “Of course I do. Lots of them. But not all of them understand me. I’ve been called a fool for holding your uncle – a white man – in high esteem. My dream to become a doctor – a white man’s profession – has been called presumptuous. I’m straddling two worlds, and not everyone can comprehend that I’m trying to make things better. But you do.”
Her head snapped around. “What do you mean?”
He stared hard at her. “I mean, you understand about breaking out of boxes, trying what everyone says is impossible. You’re doing the same thing yourself; resisting your parents’ plans, grasping for the opportunity to become an artist. Golly, come to think of it, I’ve seen you buck about every restriction placed on you!”
He continued more earnestly, “But even within these pressures, we can control who we become.”
He looked up at the stars again. “Your uncle once said that poetry is art because it’s bound beauty. Maybe people are like that, too. Maybe character is being able to find a way to grow and develop into exactly what we were meant to become, even when we’re crowded with limitations. Maybe,” he paused a moment, reflecting, “maybe it’s even the limits that push us to become extraordinary.”
They sat together until complete darkness overtook the city and the rest of the stars popped out like jewels. Emily’s teeth began chattering audibly.
“Emily, I’d like to take you to a meeting at my church tomorrow.”
“But tomorrow’s Saturday.”
“It’s a special meeting. There’s someone I’d like you to hear.”
Malachi stood up from the railing and stretched out his hand to her. “Come on, let’s go inside.”
Emily stared at the dark hand, the palm shaped just like her own, the flesh warm and alive and feeling just like her own, the fingers that struggled and grasped like her own. And she reached out and clasped it.
The next evening was cold and clear. Shadows were lengthening, but overhead the March sky still shone aquamarine. Malachi led Emily through the city to a beautiful, red-brick church with a steeply-pitched roof, tall Gothic windows, and spires on both corners of the roofline. Two smaller turrets perched on either side of a gabled entry so the building’s whole face seemed to point the way heavenward for those passing on Monroe Street.
Emily and Malachi weren’t the only ones entering the church. A steady trickle of humanity streamed down both sides of the street and passed through the church’s double doors. Inside, the sanctuary was a sea of black and white faces. The pews were full and folks were beginning to crowd into the aisles. The two children jostled their way to a front corner where they could just glimpse the podium over the flowers on the woman’s hat in front of them.
“So this is where you go to school?” Emily queried, taking in the brilliant colors of the windows and the rich, dark wood of the pews. “It’s a sight better than mine.”
“We take pride in our church. It was started by Blacks the year before Michigan became a state, and it’s grown steadily from there. This building was finished only two years ago.” He raised one eyebrow at her. “Are you surprised?”
She didn’t answer but continued to admire the beautiful facility.
“Emily,” he said with a trace of impatience. “You’ve now spent seven months in the North. Do you really still think of free Blacks as a bunch of illiterate slaves? Look over there,” he pointed, indicating a dark face. “Mr. Lewis runs a fine bakery. There’s Mr. Lambert, the tailor who owns a prosperous clothing store. Up front, that’s Mr. deBaptiste, the barber who owns the steamboat. Mrs. Willis, over there, is an excellent seamstress in demand by the richest folks in the city. We’re an educated, important section of Detroit society, and,” he added pointedly, “every slave on your father’s plantation is capable of the same, given the opportunity to do so.”
Before Emily could form a response, there was a stirring on the dais and the crowd grew still. An elderly black man with a presence of authority stood behind the podium.
“That’s our pastor, Reverend Davis,” Malachi whispered.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Second Baptist Church.” The preacher’s voice resonated in the large room. “We are deeply honored to host this gathering, and we are proud to have you stand with us before God and man to support the cause of freedom for every American. But before I introduce our speaker, let us beseech our Lord together.”
As the reverend prayed, Emily peered out across the sea of faces and realized this was the dream Malachi worked for – black and white side by side; accepting, united and free. The preacher’s words floated to the ceiling, low whispers hovered about the pews, and the vision of two races bowing equally before their Creator burned into Emily’s mind.
“Our speaker needs no introduction to many of you,” the preacher announced, “but he’s worthy of our highest recognition. Please join me in welcoming the esteemed Mr. Frederick Douglass.”
The room burst into a cannonade of applause as a tall, spare black man with a frizzle of hair just turning to gray shook hands with Rev. Davis and stood formally before the podium. His countenance, as he waited for the greeting to fade away, was at once dignified and self-assured, and he reminded Emily of an Old Testament prophet – one of those friends of God who brought a message for His people.
Mr. Douglass began to speak in a deep voice, one so gentle that it seemed soft, though it reached to every corner of the room.
“I come before you this evening with both elation and soberness of heart. Elation, because before me I see the success of a Free Negro community. I see colored men and women who have proven they can thrive under the freedom granted to them. I see those who have risen from ignorance and debasement to intelligence and respectability.
“Tonight, I celebrate your achievements. I celebrate this beautiful church and this congregation of Free Coloreds committed to the betterment of their souls and their community. But while we celebrate, let us address the prejudice that seeks to subdue our race and deny us the fullness of our liberty. Let us speak of the America that has neither justice, nor mercy, nor religion in the case of the Negro.
“What would the colored man ask of this America? Only that, speaking the same language and being of the same religion, worshipping the same God, owing our redemption to the same Savior, and learning our duties from the same Bible, we shall not be treated as barbarians. We ask that the door of the schoolhouse, the workshop, the church, the college, shall be thrown open as freely to our children as to the children of other members of the community. We ask that the American government assure life, liberty and property to the colored American. We ask that justice be rendered alike to every man according to his works.”
Mr. Douglass’s words rose in volume and passion. “We ask that the cruel and oppressive laws, in both North and South, which deny citizenship to free people of color, shall be denounced as an outrage upon the Christianity and civilization of the nineteenth century. We ask that the complete and unrestricted right of suffrage be extended to the free colored man, as it is to the white man. And finally, we ask that slavery be immediately, unconditionally, and forever abolished.”
The auditorium burst into applause at these powerful, explosive phrases. Emily felt herself lifted on the eloquent words, as if she was soaring on a swift wind. For the first time she dared to let herself consider such ideas – ideas Malachi had been demonstrating all along.
When the applause died away, Mr. Douglass continued in a voice made low once again. “During our celebration of all we have accomplished as Free Coloreds, despite America’s reluctance, let us especially not forget those who have nothing yet to rejoice over. Let us remember those in bondage. Those who toil for the gain of another. Those who sleep in hovels so another might sleep in a mansion. Those who wear rags so that others may clothe themselves in silk. Those who live in ignorance that another may be educated. Those who labor under a burning sun so someone else may idle in leisure. Those who know hunger that another might feast. Those whose names may be enrolled in heaven, among the blest, but on earth must be recorded in the master’s ledger, along with horses, sheep and swine. Those who suffer whip, gag, pillory, chain, pistol and blood hound.
“Slavery has long ravaged this nation, dating back to the landing of the pilgrims on Plymouth Rock more than two centuries ago. Now those few slaves have grown to number over three million, and this most dangerous institution threatens to tear the American Union apart.
“But even so, this is a period of activity and hope. Let us join together – black, white, man, woman and child – to protest the evil that holds one man in bondage to another. With every avenue freedom makes available, let us demand justice where justice is long due.” His voice rose in a crescendo and “amens” rumbled about the room.
Emily hung on the edge of the silence as the speaker paused. Then he delivered his prophecy with assurance and quiet strength, leaving no room for doubt in the minds of his listeners. “That Coloreds shall yet stand on an equal platform with our fellow countrymen is certain. Be assured that we shall see a final triumph of right over wrong, of freedom over slavery and equality over caste.”
With this quiet declaration, the great man humbly, but with awesome dignity, took his seat on the platform while applause filled the sanctuary and spilled out into the city. Someone began singing a hymn, and the whole gathering took it up as an anthem. Even Emily joined in with the strong, confident strains:Blow ye the trumpets, blow! The gladly solemn sound Let all the nations know, to earth’s remotest bound: The year of jubilee is come! The year of jubilee is come! Return, ye ransomed sinners, home. Ye slaves of sin and hell, your liberty receive, And safe in Jesus dwell, and blest in Jesus live: The year of jubilee is come! The year of jubilee is come! Return, ye ransomed sinners, home.
The last reverberations of the verse died away, but Emily thought even the black and white choirs of heaven couldn’t match the triumph and challenge that song sent forth into the darkness of that Detroit night.