I met Melani Douglass, the great-great-granddaughter of the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, through a mutual friend. I was deeply excited to meet a direct descendent of one of my heroes. When I worked in Glasgow, Frederick Douglass was a key figure in my work exploring Scotland’s role in the emancipation movement. After I met Melani at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, she invited me to her community of Anacostia, where we talked about her rich family heritage, her dreams and aspirations, and her identity.
This story has been excerpted from the Telling Stories That Matter toolkit, which is now available on ISC’s website. Download the toolkit for more stories like Melani’s or for tips on how to collect stories in your own community.
By Melani Douglass
I was always raised from as long as I can remember with a clear understanding of not just my father’s father’s father’s family, but also of my father’s mother and my mother’s mother and father. Sometimes I’m nervous to only become defined by one-fourth of my line, as that does not inform the majority of whom I am. My Frederick Douglass line is a clear part of my family thread. It’s almost like the golden thread that shimmers; it is what people see, you know? But, if you were to try to cover yourself with only the golden thread, without the entire blanket you’d be quite cold. I had to make that choice myself to not just be defined by only my Douglass line.
For me, home is not always where it’s easy or where it is comfortable. Finding a decent apple in Anacostia is very hard, you know! Don’t try and get tomatoes unless you grow them yourself. But that’s not what makes home for me. Home to me is a place that calls you and brings you back to your center and allows you to collect your spiritual self in a way that can operate even with adversity. I wanted to put my time and my energy into this place I now call home and help contribute to this community.
Today, thinking about the world and in raising my child, I think about how we must act in a way that actively moves us forward and moves us together, and I want her not to be intimidated by the overwhelming presence of wrong, as life is resistance. Things will always be there, and so it is a chance to grow spirituality and develop. It is one thing to confess God and freedom, but it’s another thing to stand, to be alone. I want to raise my daughter in this way, in this world as it exists today.
Melani N. Douglass is the founder of the Family Arts Museum—a nomadic, non-collecting institution that celebrates family as fine art, home as curated space, and community as gallery. To follow and connect with Melani’s story, visit www.facebook.com/familyartsmuseum or her website, www.melanindouglass.com.