Weekly Letter: Peace, Privilege, and Madness

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“Peace on Earth” is my favorite holiday phrase, because seeking peace is what I consider the very purpose of our human existence. Maybe that’s why we become depressed when we conclude that peace is slipping away, conflict is growing, and we have no power to do anything about it.

The holiday season, especially from Christmas Day to New Year’s Day, is joyous for some and miserable for others. Our culture sets a high bar this season, encouraging us to celebrate with lavish gifts, time off to be with family and friends, and celebration of privilege. 

The word privilege makes people uncomfortable. That’s why I’ve chosen to use it. My all-time favorite use of the word was by Reverend Carletta Allen of Asbury United Methodist Church at a People’s Park rally a few years back. “If you’re wondering what to do with that privilege you’ve got, put it to work,” she said. Amen.

So over the last few days I put the privilege of time to work reading a book, a book that I knew would contribute to my own small work toward peace on earth.

The title is Madness: Race and Insanity in a Jim Crow Asylum. The author is Peabody and Emmy Award-winning journalist Antonia Hylton. The setting is Crownsville State Hospital.

You know the place. It used to house thousands of patients, all Black at one time, because somebody determined that they were not mentally fit to reside in our communities. It’s the 69 mostly vacant buildings on 600 acres of mostly green space in the geographic heart of our county. It’s a place that the state of Maryland allowed to decay after its closure in 2004. It’s where I chose to be inaugurated last year, because we’d just had the land transferred to the county from the state, and I knew that transforming the place into a center for healing would be the heart of my administration’s work for the next four years. 

I knew that Crownsville was sacred ground before I opened Antonia’s book, just as I knew that racism permeated the institutions of state and county government throughout my life. But I didn’t know Crownsville, just as I didn’t know what it was like to grow up Black in Anne Arundel County when I was growing up here. The book helped with both.

The never-before-told history on the pages of Madness isn’t what people expect. There is as much optimism and heroism shining through the stories told by patients and staff as there is madness. Crownsville was humanity struggling to find peace in a place built to contain discord. If Crownsville could succeed, so could the human race. 

But Crownsville and the asylums like it across the country did not succeed. Separating people who are different was a failure for most, just as it is in all efforts to achieve peace.

Maybe that’s why the phrase “Peace on Earth” is so powerful. It acknowledges that when peace happens everywhere, it is the sustained peace that world religions pray for. Protecting privilege by separating those who have it from those who don’t fails every time. 

Knowing the history of Crownsville, and transforming its sacred ground into a place for healing offers us another chance to get things right. And that’s about as good a gift as we can find under any tree.

The copy of Madness that I read was from an advance run. It will be officially released on January 24 and can be purchased everywhere. Or join us on the evening of January 26 at Indian Creek School to hear directly from Antonia, and pick up a copy of the book. 

Until next week…

Steuart Pittman
Anne Arundel County Executive