finalist for the 2016 John Guyon Literary Nonfiction Prize
It’s a regular morning and I head out the neighborhood passing the Glenn Dale Hospital, a clump of old abandoned buildings built in the early part of the century that now strike the eye as a modern day betrayal of the land. They are dying a slow death, in plain view, but still remain out of the range of insight.
I've grown used to the mile or so stretch of ruin. Sometimes I look, and other times I do not. When I do, it chills something in me. A flash of the mind imagines the cobwebs beginning in the angles of the room and spreading out like a ghostly mist, mixed with the dust from the chipped paint, toxic deadly and deadly toxic, flaking off the walls. Then people appear moving slowly from room to room in the daze of sickness. Some of them cough deep in their chest and I feel the burn. The hospital used to house people who had contracted TB. When it was closed down in 1981, the official reason was asbestos. Each broken window has a person staring out into the loneliness of the hills so still and silent. The grounds are untended now. The grass is high.
Glenn Dale is an eye sore for the affluent African American community that surrounds it. Located in Prince George’s County, just outside the Nation’s Capitol, the hospital is in the middle of one of the most well off African American counties in the United States. In all directions, just miles from the facility, are developments that suggest African Americans have risen above the ideological ghetto that seems to live in the basement of the black image.
It’s Black History Month and the clichés arise: tattered travelers without shoes, former plantation dwellers wandering through the half memory of slavery and abolition on a quest towards freedom take the stage. In P.G. County like most of America these ghosts belong to the past where many of them wait for recognition and rest. Most of us have seemingly moved far beyond them. They exist as painful reminders of the past or at least, reminders of how far we've come. After all, what does the image of slavery have to do with one of the nation’s most affluent African American communities? How do the ghosts reconcile with the luxury cars, designer clothes, and gates at some of their entrances? Many homes not far from Glenn Dale sell for upwards of a half a million dollars.
All of this strikes me as odd. I’ve watched the community change. Growing up the school bus would pass Glenn Dale as we played paper football, pencil fought, and threw spitballs at each other. Back then it was just another site on a country road, not too far from our house in Lanham, Maryland, just a few miles down the road. My parents, recent transplants from New York, were too sophisticated to live in the country again. They had grown up in places that looked a lot like Glenn Dale. We now lived in the suburbs, a space halfway between the city and the country. For my mom, Glenn Dale, though close, was on the other side of an invisible line that separated the suburbs from the country. She would laugh if headed East on 450 and away from D.C. saying, “We going to the Boondocks.”
Now the hospital is a last man standing, a piece of land yet to be redeveloped. It sits on a piece of prime real estate with an obstacle course attached to it. Hidden in the mess of brick is the problem of asbestos, whose toxic chemicals cause cancer. I’ve also heard that it takes a hundred years for TB to go away. Developers have made several bids on the property but still haven't succeeded in turning the campus into a new set of luxury homes. In that way, the old hospital symbolizes the history that remains with us sitting in plain view. We know it’s there, and drive past it every day. It is physical and conceptual.
The old hospital represents history and the world changing around the unresolved pieces. Historical buildings are designated as such to note them as signpost of society's memory. Maybe the buildings still stand because there is something unremembered about them? Maybe they remain vacant and empty because they are waiting for rest and reconciliation with the past? And maybe, when the memories are properly put to rest, the ground, the developers, and the world around will be allowed to swallow them.
Memory can easily be buried in the present.
Too often it is disorientated at the place where lightning strikes.
For lightning is the charge of storm. The chances of being struck are the chances of trauma.
The flash blinds.
The thunder produces deafness.
In its wake, all that we can see, and all that we can hear, become enmeshed with the emotion that never was recognized in the first place. In the present we carry these old memories half experienced and half unrealized. To like moments that are fundamentally different, we bring the charge of the old trauma. We wander through the fields of existence unable to decipher the difference between the now and the old-the what has happened, and what we think will happen. We think we can’t survive when we already have.
Imagine the tree whose tip reaches into the sky. Imagine the exact point where the flash roots itself to the ground and releases its charge. Imagine the wounding.
It is both the place of awe and the place of worship, the place of belief and disbelief. It instills both reverence and fear. It gives us sense of our existence while at the same time obliterating our ability to think about it.
Afterwards we wander. We look for our reflection and find the half image cut and pasted to the old image dimmed by the pain or blurred by the light. We half remember as we are led back to those same places searching for a sense of completeness.
Not far down the road, maybe a thirty-minute drive from Glenn Dale sprawls another abandoned campus. This one is located further in the country. There’s less development, but still you find houses built that can be afforded by the wealthy scattered amongst roads that are deceptively southern, haunting, and beautiful at the same time.
Here the bricks of the empty buildings are more well kept; they belong to the Crownsville Hospital for the Negro Insane.
Crownsville was opened in 1911 over twenty years before Glenn Dale. 1911 is also personally unique because it is the same year my grandmother was born. In the elderly one finds history in the living. There is something both fascinating and humbling about the presence of someone who has lived over ninety years. One questions the reality of the history before them. What do they really know? Where are all the places they have been?
The life of my grandmother and the Hospital for the Negro Insane have almost identical time spans. Granny was born in the Deep South of Alabama and in her life would see two “World Wars”, the introduction of indoor plumbing into her house, the dismantling of Jim Crow, the rise of Black Power, the birth of the computer, and the rise of the cellular phone. The South she was born into has been much written about. It is a land full of mental illness; the black psyche could not exist there without confronting it.
One can only wonder what happens to the minds of citizens who must live in a country where the mental illness has been sanctioned by the law and allowed to grow rampant. Mental illness breeds mental illness: Walk down a street and make sure you don’t catch a white woman’s eyes. Always go through the back do’, the back do’. Don’t fight even if you are right. In those times many Negroes couldn’t even vote because voter suppression was active and full-time. Granny was born just four years before the re-establishment of the Klu Klux Klan.
In 1911 the Hospital for the Negro Insane began to house the Negros who had been designated by the state of Maryland as mentally ill. Once admitted to the facility the blacks who had been designated as mentally ill were fit enough to build much of the institution with their own hand’s.
I met Crownsville during my older son’s soccer years. At the time he was involved with a Maryland Developmental Program soccer team who practiced just a few miles from Crownsville. I did not know the building was made by and for Negroes at the time. We passed it, and like Glenn Dale, the initial drive past was full of shock, wonder, and amazement. Who lived here? What is the story?
In some ways history is very intimate and touches the mind with a specificity that longs to be synced with a memory from another place and time. In that way, Crownsville and Glenn Dale are sisters of the odd and mysterious who somehow find themselves together holding hands in the realm of my mind.
Crownsville reappeared in my memory recently when Dr. Monifa Love and Monica Turner, two leaders at Bowie State University, chose the Hospital for the Negro Insane as the subject for an innovative Young Scholar’s English 102 Course. As a part of the program, students researched the institution, interacted with former employees, and learned about the ways the Negro insane were treated. As you might imagine, electro-shock, lobotomies, and harsh living conditions went hand and hand with the confinement.
Both Glenn Dale and Crownsville seemed to be a physical match for the old and abandoned in my memory. My spirit connected the two sets of building cut from the same historical time period with my own fears of ghosts, death, and confinement. But I was plunged into something else far darker and confusing when I began to imagine a sea of black faces behind the walls of Crownsville. The hospital then began to smell like a slave ship and link with the underground history I have spent most of my life studying.
To this day, Black History functions like an underground railroad for many of us, particularly those who work in the humanities. We operate like priests who have yet to be designated as such. Our questions of philosophy, language, history, and interdisciplinary study seek to link spirit, humanity, intellectualism, and cure. The mess of slavery is the shattered glass of both personal and historical memory. Imagine us on the grounds of the old hospital picking up the thousand pieces, stuffing them into bags, and then heading back to a lab to figure out how they all fit together.
Though abolition occurred one hundred and fifty years ago, the study of our history still serves as a path to freedom. Those who take up the tasks of decoding our often difficult and traumatized past, seek to reconcile the contemporary expressions of African American culture with our past treatment and seemingly chronic issues. Our challenges are both intimate and depersonalized at the same time. One of my pivotal traumas packaged “in get over it”, involves a plump bellied monk in High School, who wore the garb of those vowed to God. His robe was white with a large red cross painted on his chest. He was the one who gave me my first D in a biology class. According to him I was cheating. Dazed, I stumbled into the recesses of my own mind. Prior to entering his school, I had made almost all As. My pride was my algebra, my advanced math, my ability to do equations in my head. I loved school; so much, I realized when accused of cheating, I had never even thought about cheating. The notion that his reality could be imposed on my mind, where the thought simply did not exist, tested both my confidence and sanity.
It was a Black History riddle of sorts. Like the Asian koans designed to teach practitioners about the nature of thought, my instructor’s perception challenged my view of right and wrong, justice and judgment, fair and evil. How does one prevent people from thinking you are lying—capable of what you have not even commissioned with your own mind?
The result was an unpredictable anger that arose precisely at those moments I felt vulnerable to a similar accusation. In some ways, it was my introduction to the Black part of Black History. My grades dropped considerably and I shied away from the sciences and math. Though still a good student, the equation I sought as an answer to the situation made the predictability of math seem illusory. Though men like my biology teacher occupied the physical world, they were not machines. They were ruled by consciousness. What were the precise rules of consciousness? How did it take shape in the world? What were the designated inputs for such a mind to manage success from an inferior position such as mine?
Though much better kept, Crownsville immediately made me think of Glenn Dale. Abandoned buildings seem to have a common ancestry. If anything it is their combined sense of age and the past, the mystery of the old within our community. Their presence asks the questions: Where are their people? What happened to them? How did this come to be?
On Halloween, young people in Glenn Dale make a tradition of going to the hospital to snoop around and be scared. After all, Halloween is fantastically made up of fear, ghosts, goblins. Even mental illness engaged in the midst of the holiday can be processed effectively. The holiday, like all of them, is both psychic and full of wonder. October 31st is one of the days we are allowed to engage our fears and sense of the odd. Though not limited to these categories, the confrontation with mental illness almost always raises these questions.
Should you have an abandoned building in your community, I am sure the young people there do something similar to what folks do at Glenn Dale. The haunted house is a cultural trope for us. Just like the fantasy of Negroes, it longs to be grounded in the real world.
So kids for decades have been creeping into the buildings at Glenn Dale past the no trespassing signs posted all around the grounds. This October 31st you could see the tracks of police cars through the tall grass as officers posted up before the sun had gone down on top of the hills with their lights swirling to protect the old, dying buildings from young fools looking for adventure
From what I’ve heard, it’s not hard to get in. The doors and windows are all broken. Everything is falling apart. If you weren’t a kid, you’d be scared of the TB lingering in the air or the asbestos. You’d be scared of the building falling in on you.
But really, that’s what Halloween is all about. Confronting the fear in yourself with an external object as the prop.
People want to be scared. The prop justifies the scream. The release of the fear as your heart races and your adrenalin pumps into your brain says that what you thought was scary was real, real enough to extract a truly emotional response. Your body gives it up, like a pre-written script.
When you think about it, that is, think about fear as an intellectual activity your response is not as powerful. For knowing fear is not feeling fear. With thought the two become intertwined. To truly be scared, the fear needs more free reign to inhabit the vast expanse of our attention. The old hospital becomes a way to feel fear, not know it. Our intelligence, and often secure positions, give many of us the luxury of thought with feeling that is constantly undermined and unacknowledged.
To want to be scared is about the scream and the heart racing. It’s about the rush that brings all your energy into the present. To achieve this, it usually needs to be dark. The place needs to be unfamiliar and abandoned. You must go to the place where you do not know in order to gain the chance to feel, for real-for real, what you have been hiding from yourself.
The scream you want to experience is the scream of irresponsibility. The one that comes from shivers and only the thought that you do not know what will happen next. In these cases the scream functions as freedom. It is an exorcism of the crazy in you, ordained by you.
I think Crownsville is different because the insane seem to be more haunted than the dying. The dying are confined because they are sick and in some cases will die; the mentally ill are confined to live-because society has designated they cannot live with us.
Now, I am thinking of Gothica with Halle Berry or the Shining. The mentally ill and the confined show up often in movies. I can understand that. There is something fascinating about the mind and the idea that someone has separated from it to the point that they must be institutionalized. As odd, and even more petrifying, is an external authority imposing the idea upon a person that their mind is no longer sane. False imprisonment, much like the idea of false imprisonment within a prison, is always a possibility. The law attaches itself to the designation or accusations, the psychiatrist comes into assess, the judge presides and makes decisions.
Insanity is so much like slavery. For when we study it, it often becomes unimaginable. In part, this is because of our fear. As much as slavery is a sign of our inhumanity, it is also a site of our fear. Though I have not discussed the fear of being enslaved with whites, I can imagine they may even be more afraid than blacks. The thought of enslavement cannot be separated from the tragedy of it, the fear of it, the dangerous distance that a law designating some humans as non-human produces.
The slave is abused for not working. The slave is abused for trying to read. The slave is abused for running away. The slave is abused for taking his or her own thoughts of freedom seriously.
Almost naturally, as an African American, I am a bit suspect of the charade of those designated mentally ill.
The reconciliation of slavery’s dilemma lies in the designation of our freedom via amendments to the Constitution and legal acts that attempt to resolve the intimacies of designating thoughts of freedom unconstitutional for over a century. Slavery was mass confinement of African Americans to a mental institution. Dr. Love reminds me of this when I talk to her about the Institution; she speaks softly and says that sometimes we are wounded in ways that only a spiritual work will resolve.
I hear ghost. I imagine my ancestors. I can't help but think of the hospital as some version of a slave ship that keeps sailing long after abolition.
The notion of mental illness associated with slavery has been taken up by Dr. Bobby Wright, Amos Wilson, Dr. France Cress Welsing, and other black psychologist. The Black Psychology Department at FAMU is almost legendary in this respect. The notion that the navigation of mental illness within the African American community has to be managed by African American scholars versed in Western psychology, knowledge of the history of African American people, and African religions is a logical necessity. Unfortunately, that work is also revolutionary and challenging to existing power structures. It might sound cliché, but to question the mind that renders you inferior gets at the heart of the question of slavery and black history. The comfortable answers suggesting it is simply the way of the world, may very well be true, but also have little to do with processing your own mistreatment. Ones sanity in this case is not a luxury. One must swim through the sea of the concept of insanity to get there.
If we go to the Crownsville Hospital for the Negro Insane, from what shall we be released? What scream will come out? What fears will find in the moments that have long lingered in the past as thoughts, as knowing and unknowing?