[Opinion] We Are Still Charged With Meeting the Challenge That Frederick Douglass Issued

Friday, Jul 10, 2020

I ask of this Independence Day: What to Black Americans is the Fourth of July?

Protesters march by a photo of Frederick Douglass in Boston on June 22 during a Juneteenth protest in honor of Rayshard Brooks and other victims of police violence.

Protesters march by a photo of Frederick Douglass in Boston on June 22 during a Juneteenth protest in honor of Rayshard Brooks and other victims of police violence. Photo credit: Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images.

Each year, I read the 1852 Frederick Douglass speech, What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? on Independence Day.

Sifting one’s way to truth is challenging on national holidays. They are occasions for myth-making. The story of a country is always an ideological one, crafting heroism and divinity out of the mess of human activity, war, cruelty and making do. I am not a patriot. Douglass arguably was.

But he refused to sacrifice truth for patriotism. And in his landmark oration, he spoke the hypocrisy of a nation that proclaimed liberty and justice for all but denied both to its Black people. Douglass differed from many of his abolitionist peers in holding fast to the Constitution of the United States.

William Lloyd Garrison, for example, rejected the Constitution outright for its accommodation to the interests of slaveholders, evidenced in the Three-Fifths clause that allowed the enslaved to be counted for congressional representation in Southern states even though they were not counted as citizens.

Douglass saw the Constitution as a beautiful document, one that could be an instrument of justice if only it were reinterpreted to include all people. We are 155 years after emancipation and yet the nation still hasn’t fully committed to emancipation.

American abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) helped recruit African American regiments during the Civil War.

American abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) helped recruit African American regiments during the Civil War. Photo Credit: Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

We are still charged with meeting the challenge that Douglass issued in 1852. We proclaim liberty and justice for all. By law, African Americans are included in that number. But the promise is elusive. I mean that in many ways.

The promise of the 13th Amendment was undercut at its ratification by the exception of prison. And we live in, as my colleague Naomi Murakawa describes it, “Prison America.” It is not exclusively Black, as chattel slavery was for much of the history of slavery, but prisons are highly disproportionately Black.

The promise of the 14th Amendment, equal protection under the law, and the application of the Bill of Rights remain only partially fulfilled. Look in any area of human life: housing, employment, medical care, and you will see areas in which the state supports institutions that systematically discriminate against African Americans.

And then there is the 15th Amendment, the right of suffrage, which has been denied through manipulation and deception again and again: poll taxes, mostly-white primaries, violence. And now, after an arduously fought civil rights movement, we are yet again having to insist upon that right that is craftily refused through voter intimidation and suppression.

Our reckoning must be brutally honest. Douglass told us, “We need the storm, the whirlwind, the earthquake.” But Americans are uncomfortable with sustained social upheaval.

The police power, an arm of the state, has always overpoliced and underprotected Black Americans. It was as though the power of the lash was turned over from the master and overseer to the government and never stopped ripping flesh apart. In recent weeks, prompted by the killings of Breonna TaylorGeorge FloydTony McDade and Ahmaud Arbery, thousands have taken to the streets in protest, heeding the great abolitionist’s words that “… the feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and the crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced …”

It is not incidental that the word abolition has returned to our public consciousness in this era when lynch mobs don’t even wear hoods anymore. Just blue, or the costume of suburban everymen, so entrenched is the ideology of Black inferiority which says that Black people deserve to be punished, that they don’t mind showing their faces. This has been an extraordinary season.

We are witnessing a global conversation about anti-Black racism. It is as though a brilliant light has been shone on the nation’s shame. In every quarter, inequality is named loudly. I am cautious, of course, about the prospect of enduring change. But if nothing else, this is a reckoning.

And now I, though less eloquent, want to take my lead from Douglass and ask the question of this 2020 Independence Day. What to Black Americans is the Fourth of July? Can we settle now into the glory of the American mythos because we are moving toward truth?

I think the answer is still no.

Though a century and a half have passed since emancipation, such a proclamation is as of yet premature. There are too many layers we have yet to wade through, and too little change thus far.

After the Confederate monuments fall, and the Stars and Bars flag is lowered, we will still be left with the Stars and Stripes, the slave-holding Founding Fathers, the slavery-protecting Electoral College. This leaves me uneasy. I am not a patriot.

Nationalism, as far as I can tell, is made through exclusion and expulsion. I am not representative of most Black Americans in that regard. However, I often think Black politics are a many splintered thing.

The Frederick Douglass statue in Emancipation Hall at the Capitol Visitors Center in Washington. Congressional leaders dedicated the statue during a ceremony.

The Frederick Douglass statue in Emancipation Hall at the Capitol Visitors Center in Washington. Congressional leaders dedicated the statue during a ceremony. Photo credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

For many, the goal of this particular reckoning is full inclusion in what is. It is a struggle against the entrenchment of the anti-Black iteration of white supremacy in our institutions and practices. For others, the structure itself, the one that enabled genocide, slavery, militarism and economic exploitation to be justified for an imperial idea of greatness lauded over the rest of the globe, must be remade.

I fall into the latter camp. But either way, one thing is true. Over the course of this nation, the entire range of Black American political visions, from the most passionate integrationists to the most radical socialists, have been treated as a threat, and potentially a disaster, by white Americans.

This is the story behind white suburban flight masked under the words “better schools.” This is the story behind workplace discrimination legitimized through evaluations and assessments that thrive on unspoken bigotries.

This is the story behind railing against affirmative action even with study after study revealing inequality and racial discrimination in academic institutions. This is the story behind a Black child being called a hulking threat, a Black person in distress called a hulking threat, a Black police officer called a hulking threat and shot, suffocated, shackled, thrown into a dark hole and driven crazy – and it’s called reasonable.

Our reckoning must be brutally honest. Douglass told us, “We need the storm, the whirlwind, the earthquake.”

But Americans are uncomfortable with sustained social upheaval. And so, there is good reason to be skeptical that our current moment might only yield cosmetic change.

Take for example the way that the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday is celebrated. He has become an icon of American history and yet there is no state in this nation, and no moment in national history, that has come close to embracing his vision of the beloved community. Worse still, the vision of the civil rights movement to address economic, political and social inequality is actively resisted by those who repeat King’s words with forked tongues, and those who turn them into sentimental gestures yet tense up in the presence of Black flesh.

I thought of this insincerity often in the past few weeks as news reporters asked me if I was worried the protests against the killing of Black people or calls for defunding or abolishing police will give the election to President Donald Trump.

I found it a grotesquely offensive formulation because it implies we ought to lay down and die in the service of white Americans’ hysterical fear of Black freedom. This is simply an unconscionable request. I turn back to this society with my own question: Will any vision of Black inclusion into the body politic be taken seriously by the larger American public, finally?

Independence Day is still folly and deception until we get an affirmative answer.

As Douglass intoned, “The fiat of the Almighty, ‘Let there be Light,’ has not yet spent its force. No abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light.”

[Originally published on July 3, 2020 via The Undefeated]

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