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Est. April 5, 2002
Oct 01, 2020 - Issue 835
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He spoke out, argued, fussed, and fumed. His anger showed, without apology. And yet, a fugitive from the law in a land “whose inhabitants are legalized kidnappers,” as he writes in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Frederick Douglass becomes a great orator and writer of memoirs. Despite the bounty hunters! Despite the vigilantes! The crazies. Five months into the COVID-19 Pandemic, I decided to read about Frederick Douglass to keep my sanity.

It’s not just the Pandemic, it’s the shooting six times of a sleeping Breonna Taylor by the Louisville Police followed by the choking of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police in real time and then, here, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the paralyzing of Jacob Blake after Kenosha Police shoot him seven times in the back. World leaders, passing their upturned hats in hand, make the rounds to corporate conferences, cashing in on financial deals for the further dissemination of weapons, while the temperature of the planet rises.

As I prepare to move from a senior housing complex where white residents and management set in motion gaslighting narratives and ethnic cleansing maneuvers to isolate and then to silence dissent, I turn to the 19th Century and Frederick Douglass.

Douglass, the escapee, recognizes that his status as “free” was contingent on the freedom of all those considered no more than property of another and therefore entitled only to chains, lashings, and sexual abuse. The Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution encircled the lives of most white Americans, granting them the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” In contrast, for enslaved African Americans, it’s the bill of sale, with the signatures of two white men, the seller and buyer. And no one in this involuntary grouping of humanity has the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Long before Dr. Martin L. King, Jr. recognized in America a great purveyor of violence, Douglass calls attention to it.

It’s risky.

There is Douglass “free,” and yet, as he comes to recognize, how free is he as a Black man and a fugitive subject to “the terrible liability of being seized upon by his fellow-men”? There’s the fugitive suffering “the terrible gnawings of hunger” in a land where many have housing, but the fugitive has no home. Douglass himself remained a short time in this “distressed situation,” as a new escapee on the run. Many haven’t been as lucky, and they’ve been captured and returned to the horrors of a brutal practice of systemic violence. And others are still out there, in the woods. Hiding. Cold and hungry.

Douglass could, as “one heart,” write and speak on behalf of the “millions,” writes historian David Blight in Frederick Douglass, Prophet of Freedom. His hatred of slavery provides the freedom fighter with the “creative force” to depict the horrors he personally experienced and witnessed as an enslaved Black man. Hatred of slavery is a “great purgative power” for Douglass.

Under the regime of a government more sworn to conquest and enslavement, Douglass gives himself over to the human heritage of speaking truth to power. “The truth was,” he writes in Narratives, when first asked to speak, “I felt myself a slave, and the idea of speaking to white people weighed me down. I spoke but a few moments, when I felt a degree of freedom, and said what I desired with considerable ease.” In short order, however, Douglass progresses from the grateful to the outraged Black man, working among white abolitionists. He begins lashing out at the hypocrisy at the core of American doctrine and dogma, proclaiming James Buchanan, for example, the “chief of sinners.” Buchanan, Douglass shouts back to the nation of innocent citizens, should be recognized as a member in good standing with the “treasonable Slaveholding Confederacy”!

But I’m intrigued with the Douglass who reserves his best retorts for Abraham Lincoln, a president who, no less than previous presidents preceding him, believes his freedom is linked to being a white man in America. Douglass sustains a poignant and running commentary on a man who would seriously consider the emigration to Africa of freed African Americans. For Douglass, the involuntary return of former enslaved people would represent the further enactment of violence against those who labored for hundreds years on this soil.

The 16th president of the United States is to be watched. And called out!

On Fridays, when we were made to attend the viewing of what I’ve called since, the “crusade films,” propaganda indoctrinating us Black children with the belief in the righteousness of our nuns and priests - white nuns and priests, we were never made to understand that the dark-skinned humans were our ancestors. Worst, we were discouraged from recognizing ourselves in the dark-skinned people by virtue of our “acceptance,” when merely infants, of Jesus Christ. Taught to disdain the Motherland of Africa by instilling in our young heads the idea of being lucky to be Americans and not Africans, we became the “us” to the “them” for whom we committed no compassion!

Black children, encouraged to feel privileged because we are across the Atlantic, sitting in a spacious cafeteria in a Catholic school, watching the “savages” of Africa, the not humans, resisting the “goodwill” of “civilized” men on horses who wore crosses sown on their chests. We are not to question the wielding of swords among this “community of the religionists,” to use Douglass’ words. All the violence of white men is for the good of the savages. Their souls are at stake!

What swords were wielded at us, African American children? What crosses were we being made to kiss? We the descendants of these so-called “savages,” how could we register not only the manipulation of our minds about ourselves and our ancestors but also about five hundred years of living while Black in America? That history of violence stolen from us as we are separated once again from our familial cultural origins. Our memories wiped clean as a practice of omission on the part of these nuns and priests, front-line representatives of the American Empire. Against our will, we serve this religionist community and not our own interests.

Beware, writes Douglass in Narratives, of the slaveholder whose raison d’ ȇtre is to serve a divine entity. “Where I to be again reduced to the chains of slavery, next to that of enslavement, I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me. For all the slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst.”

Mean, base, cruel, and cowardly!

Douglass never had a religious slaveholder. But, like us today, he lived and worked in a country proclaiming itself a “community of the religionists.”

In his famous “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro” address, Douglass calls attention to the nation’s hypocrisy by pointing to the work of white abolitionists, risking their freedom to free enslaved people and the work of bounty hunters honoring a Christian belief in the superiority of whites, and therefore, entitling the hunters of human beings the right to capture and return African Americans to slavery.

Where is the logic in an idea that holds that freedom is divinely conferred by a godhead upon some but not others? Douglass doesn’t see it! Those others, African Americans, are either enslaved beings or criminals, laborers by law or fugitives, by law. And yet, Douglass understands, the narrative of American innocence, saturated with religious rhetoric, condemns the runaway or the fugitive. In My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass’s second memoir, he argues against the idea that if an enslaved person desires freedom from the tyranny of plantation, then that individual is a “criminal.” Truly innocent people who sacrifice their maintaining an idea of freedom, who are the brave for doing so, are, in the narrative of innocence, “criminal.” This idea is logical?

But then, what is logic when this narrative of American innocence takes precedence over reality? But Douglass asks anyway: How is it possible to establish a law (The Fugitive Slave Act 1850) and a system for the return of human beings to a terrorizing situation in which they will be punished, if not murdered, and still proclaim America a nation of innocence?

But then Douglass hears and witnesses the “power” of “public opinion.” A product of the narrative of innocence, public opinion helps maintain the racial hierarchical order - at ground level. Douglass listens to “the man on the street.” Even the women attending abolitionist's meetings! The fight for freedom, a true notion of freedom, entails the right of the enslaved to run from the “maledictions” of a narrative of enslavement, Douglass writes. To run from the plantation in the actual is to run from the narrative of innocence which fuels public opinion as to what is really happening in America in the darkness of its “underground railroad.”

Over a hundred years later, Toni Morrison will recall how it must have been on the run as a fugitive. In Beloved, Sethe, an escapee from Sweet Home and Schoolteacher, “is tired, scared maybe, and maybe even lost. Most of all she is by herself and inside her is another baby she has to think about too. Behind her dogs, perhaps guns probably; and certainly mossy teeth. She is not so afraid at night because she is the color of it, but in the day every sound is a shot or a tracker’s quiet step.”

And indeed Sethe recalls her “recklessness” when Amy Denver (the white girl who finds her in the woods) speaks to her. Amy’s eyes were those of a “fugitive’s.” Her boldness, on the other hand, was borne of “desperation.” As even family-less, runaway white girl knew, between the two of them, it was Sethe who was in real trouble. No one was after her, Amy, but the bounty hunters, she reminds Sethe, could “cut your head off.”

Up ahead, is freedom, nonetheless. Her children have headed this way already. Alongside them, in Ohio, there is freedom.

In the north, Douglass looks around for a church to attend and settles, he writes in My Bondage, on the Elm Street Methodist Church. It appeared problematic from the beginning as Douglass recalls observing “the bearing of the colored members,” a handful, forced to sit in the designated “gallery” of the church. For a people who suffered enslavement, to come north and now be required to oblige the segregation policies - even while partaking of “the blood of Christ” with white Americans - was “humiliating,” Douglass declares.

Douglass records that he did rise up from his seat - but he walked right out of that church! “I honestly went there with a view to joining that body. I found it impossible to respect the religious profession of any who were under the dominion of this wicked prejudice.”

Douglass hadn’t been aware of the “powerful influence of that religious body in favor of the enslavement of my race.” Nor had he known “that the northern churches could be responsible for the conduct of southern churches.” He had yet to learn, he writes, that his “duty” was to steer clear of the church - not just the slaveholding church but that of Christianity as a whole.

But Douglass attempts to join other churches only to experience “the same” results. “I attached myself to a small body of colored Methodists…” He remained for many a “seasons of peace and joy,” but ultimately removed himself when he learned that the church “consented to the same spirit which held my brethren in chains.”

Dealers in Black bodies and “souls of men,” Douglass explains in Narratives, “erect their stand in the presence of the pulpit, and they mutually help each other.” Slaver and priests, preachers. The dealers in bodies “gives his blood-stained gold to support the pulpit, and the pulpit, in return, covers his infernal business with the garb of Christianity.” The “slave prison and the church stand near each other.”

And it’s a global enterprise; its origin is in the union of Western nations. European countries anticipate the export of cotton from a thriving American industry while commissioned statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary keep workers busy at local artisan shops throughout the US. How could he, Douglass, sing praise to America, a nation reveling in its “freedom” from the tyranny of the British Empire? “This Fourth of July is yours,” he says, “not mine?”

“You may rejoice, I must mourn.”

Human beings, Douglass reiterates, still suffer at the hands of the truly tyrannical! What of the Fugitive Slave Act that punishes those who want to be free of tyranny within this nation? Such a law isn’t fit for a nation claiming freedom as its most honored value. “YOUR HANDS ARE FULL OF BLOOD.”

With the 1860 election around the corner, Douglass recalls Thomas Paine’s “dark… clouds… above the horizon… pointing [to] disastrous times.” Douglass believed, writes Blight, that America was a nation founded in crime, and, as such, it would be “condemned by the prophets of old in the people’s own sacred texts.”

“Oh, be warned! Be warned!… A horrible reptile is coiled up in your nation’s bosom; the venomous creature is nursing at the tender breast of your youthful republic; for the love of God, tear away, and fling from you the hideous monster, and let the weight of twenty million crush and destroy it forever!” I can hear in Douglass the urgency that will drive Malcolm to warn America that by whatever means necessary the business of freedom for African Americans must become central priority.

“The doom of slavery is certain,” Douglass declares. By whatever means necessary, said Malcolm, change is going to come. But what form will that chance take?

Change, Douglass declares, “has now come over the affairs of mankind. The arm of commerce has borne away the gates of the strong city. Intelligence is penetrating, and lightning are its chartered agents. Oceans no longer divide, but link nations is comparatively annihilated. Thoughts expressed on one side of the Atlantic are distinctly heard on the other.” Douglass ends with the poem, “The Triumph of Freedom.”

“God speed the year of jubilee

The wide world o’er/…

Until that year, day, hour arrive…

With head, and heart, and hand’ll strive…”

...toward a freedom we have yet to know!

Douglass offers a powerful vision, writes Blight, one that would require a transformation of what it means to live where freedom rings.

Did Lincoln the lawyer and aspiring politician hear this speech delivered in 1852 by Douglass? Would he care? Lincoln was our emancipator, the man who thought nothing of himself as he with sword and cross rescued Black lives from bondage! That’s the Lincoln we African American children were made to see as we boarded buses for the trip from Chicago to Springfield to tour the great man’s home…

Douglass reports in the fall of 1850, according to Blight, that “a party of man hunters” had come to Rochester “to seize him and wrest him back to slavery.” Douglass worries. He tells an audience the hunters didn’t find him because he hid from them. But Douglass made it clear that he was prepared had they succeeded in locating him. He was ready to “greet them… with a hospitality befitting the place and occasion.” The audience cheers as Douglass added, he had “resolved” to “die” rather than return to slavery.

Douglass, Blight notes, keeps “a steady drumbeat of attacks on the Fugitive Slave Act.” So when Abraham Lincoln arrives on the scene, Douglass describes him as “untried.” Honest, but a man who knows only his realm of business, that is, being a lawyer from Illinois. Otherwise, who is he? Is he Garrison who Douglass knows and has worked with in the fight to abolish slavery? Is he Garritt Smith, an abolitionist and someone recovering from a mental breakdown as a result of his fight against an indifferent populous determined to keep the enslaved on the plantations, laboring for the “free.”

The indifference towards other human beings and their plight, their suffering, and their death and the outlawing of their protests, dismissal of their pleas of “I can’t breathe,” is violence. The omission of this history of violence, its continuing legacy, the omission of the beneficial inheritance for those who collaborate consciously or unconsciously in this cover up is a crime against humanity.

Douglass isn’t sure about Lincoln, and so he defers to others in the Radical Abolition Party. “I shall look to your letter for light on the pathway of duty.”

For Douglass, it’s not just a question of whether or not Lincoln wants to see the enslaved free. Rather, does Lincoln see Black people as human as he is? Do Black lives matter to Lincoln? Or is it a matter of dogma?

Douglass needed to witness the debate and the national opinion surrounding the formation of a new administration, writes Blight. The journalist and orator needed to witness an administration that is “divorced from the active support of the inhuman slave system.” And Lincoln is referencing the constitution rather than the hurt feelings of the Southern state governmental authorities. Lincoln, however, doesn’t see human beings in bondage in the south, human beings in hiding from the law up north. Lincoln didn’t care about Black people as much as he cared about his country. Black people and the country were held in separate compartments in white’s mind, rendering a fight for the freedom of Black lives from onslaught of day-to-day tyranny all the more challenging.

It doesn’t take long, writes Blight, for Douglass to see Lincoln’s concern. Here was a lawyer thinking on how the Republican Party should legally end slavery.

Infuriated, Douglass delivers a deconstruction of the “Republican coalition’s diverse attitudes toward slavery,” in a thirty-two hundred word editorial and in a subsequent seven-hundred word speech. Let’s be clear,

1.) slavery is an “expensive and wasteful ‘system of labor”;

2.) slavery creates an aristocratic class in a nation proclaiming itself to be democratic;

3.) slavery creates an oligarchy of Southerners who, in turn, become “masters of the United States”;

4.) slavery creates a race of people who come to despise another, creating an “aversion to blacks” that lingers for generations; and

5.) slavery is the most “atrocious and revolting crime against nature and nature’s God.”

The seriousness of this crisis in the American experiment, particularly as it pertains to the establishment of a democracy, shouldn’t be subjected to a futile debate about what is or isn’t constitutional, Douglass declares. Abolish slavery! It’s “heartless cruelty.”

Douglass, Blight writes, knew that for most northerners and even for most Republicans, slavery was a “grand operatic performance” in which they played the role of “spectators.” So Douglass employs another tactic. He suggests that Americans read their Bibles. Read the Bible. Read that story about Cain and Abel. Go back! Look closely at Cain when asked about his brother. His retort, “Why should I care?” Now, read on further and note Cain’s fate is that of “a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth.”

On Election Day, November 6, 1860, it’s Abe Lincoln. He’ll become the next head of state. By the middle of April, the country will be at war with itself. Frederick Douglass, still a fugitive, begins observing President Lincoln, the president of a Christian nation.

As for the referendum that many politicos feared would have hurt Lincoln’s chances of being president, it didn’t pass. The Democratic paper, the New York World claimed equal suffrage to be an outrage as it would imply that whites and Blacks would be “intermingled in the same community.” It would represent, writes the World, a “gross injustice.”

What is the World afraid of, asks Douglass?

Until he reviewed the election results which showed that a large number of Republican voters “abstained on black suffrage.”

“The victory over us is simply one of blind ignorance and prejudice,” writes Douglass who thought of himself as someone who could change history with his pen. He feels, at this moment, writes Blight, “inaudible.” But not for long.

In time, many Americans come to see in Lincoln a towering figure. Unapproachable.

Frederick Douglass isn’t one of them.

Read Part II Editorial Board member and Columnist, Lenore Jean Daniels, PhD, has a Doctorate in Modern American Literature/Cultural Theory. Contact Dr. Daniels and BC.

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