Frederick Douglass’s Vision of America

*This post is part of our online forum on the life of Frederick Douglass.

Statue of Frederick Douglass in Frederick Douglass Circle, New York, NY (Photo: Robert, Flickr).

Fellow Citizens:

I’m worried. Very worried. But don’t mistake my worrying for pessimism or, worse, nihilism. Rather, I worry because I see a nation, with its connection to a wider world, unraveling right in front of us. Daily attempts to shatter what constitutes citizenship contribute to this entropy. There’s no immediate solution in sight.

Millions of people no longer have faith in electoral politics. A sizable population remains disenfranchised due to voting rights rollbacks and the prison industrial complex. The unemployed and underemployed struggle to provide for themselves and their families. Our children view gun violence in schools as a quotidian existential threat and legislators don’t care enough to change laws that would protect them. The #MeToo movement underscores the scale of women’s unequal status to men in the body politic. Undocumented inhabitants live as fugitives and are labeled illegal animals. Unaccompanied immigrant youth separated from parents languish in inhumane detention centers. Racial minorities demand acknowledgment that their lives matter.

All of this is in a polity whose founding documents assert democracy and freedom as its fundamental twin pillars. No wonder Colin Kaepernick took a knee.

How’d we get here and what alternative course should we pursue?

Revisiting the life and work of former slave, abolitionist, scholar, and statesman Frederick Douglass offers us a way forward.

The University of Rochester recently announced it would confer on Douglass an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree during its 2018 commencement. In describing why he’d receive this unprecedented accolade 200 years after his birth, the university noted it was “in Rochester where Douglass founded the abolitionist newspaper, the North Star, in 1847, which was later renamed Frederick Douglass’ Paper.” Douglass “delivered many of his most famous speeches while in Rochester, including his 1852 Independence Day address, ‘What to the Slave is the 4th of July?’”

Additionally, when residing in Rochester from 1847 to 1872, Douglass harbored runaway slaves, facilitated partnerships between abolitionists and women suffragettes, and completed important works such as his middle autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, and novella, The Heroic Slave. In Rochester, as in Maryland’s Eastern Shore, New Bedford, Washington, DC, and Port-au-Prince, Douglass probed whether citizenship was more than a designation tied to one’s birth location.

“Barricades of ideas are worth more than barricades of stones,” wrote Cuban revolutionary José Martí. Ideas matter in the forging of “Our America,” this Douglass agreed with. Yet struggle had different forms for Douglass—physical, intellectual, psychological, spiritual. The modern geopolitics of racial capitalism conditioned its manifestations and the sins of slavery fomented interracial distrust.

Jefferson Davis, as Ibram X. Kendi recalls, declared on the U.S. Senate floor, April 12, 1860, that the divide between the white world and the Black world was “stamped from the beginning” of the American republic. Davis resigned from his Mississippi Senate position soon thereafter and became President of the Confederate States of America following the South’s succession from the Union. The struggle over slavery and the future of democracy and freedom in America erupted.

Fellow Citizens, it’s understandable people lost hope during the Civil War. Thankfully, enough courageous women and men—slaves, fugitives, non-slaves—didn’t.

We keep on going because we must believe we can despite concerted acts to enslave and euthanize us. We must persevere because it gives us strength and resolve. We must never give up because change will only come with concerted demands through the sands of time. As Douglass memorably put it in his “West India Emancipation” speech, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

No, change isn’t easy.

Blacks in the modern period have had to confront the realities of life, precipice of death, and the chilling quandary Douglass often pondered and Audre Lorde later declared: you “were never meant to survive.” And yet here you are still. Janelle Monáe’s nuanced Afro-futuristic short film “Dirty Computer,” via memories of totalitarianism, love, and resistance by android Jane 57821, also wrestles with this dilemma. So too does Childish Gambino’s riveting “This Is America,” viewed over 427 million times since its May release.

For Gambino, aka Donald Glover, the opening scene inside a warehouse features the armed protagonist, in Jim Crow minstrel stance, executing a person seated in a chair, head covered with a bag. The protagonist’s ensuing semiautomatic killing spree of a jubilant Black choir singing prosperity gospel conjures images of Dylann Roof’s 2015 South Carolina church massacre. Taken together, these scenes distill the pain, hypocrisy, and unfilled promises of the demos within a fractured America, the roots of which Douglass depicted in his July 4th oration at Corinthian Hall.

This America is ‘yours,’ not ‘mine,’ Douglass exhorted.

What was necessary for social and political change in a divided nation according to Douglass was for America to become America for the first time. Before that, Martí argued, “the pressing need of Our America is to show itself as it is.” “Our” America, Douglass implored, required a simultaneous embrace of difference and recognition of unity as an option so long as there were resolute efforts to eradicate domination and arbitrary interference by one group over another. In short, marronage.

Childish Gambino, Janelle Monáe, and Audre Lorde issue similar calls for marronage. As the scholarship of Christopher Lebron, Barbara Ransby, and Deva Woodly illustrates, activists in the Black Lives Matter movement echo this disposition as well.

Transformation is possible if we’re honest about our reality. Dishonesty and untruthfulness, Friedrich Nietzsche bemoans, prevent us from achieving a new future.

Douglass stated in the closing lines of his July 4th speech, “I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope,” and he ended the oration citing a prophetic passage from William Lloyd Garrison’s “The Triumph of Freedom,” a verse that reads:

“When from their galling chains set free,/Th’ oppress’d shall vilely bend the knee,/And wear the yoke of tyranny/Like brutes no more.”

Fellow citizens, citizenship is a cornerstone of our senses of patriotism, individuality, ‘we’-ness, democracy, and the free life. Citizenship is belonging. Citizenship is tied to our dreams and aspirations for the polity we inhabit. The right to citizenship is irreducible to where you were born or your documentation status. Citizenship should never be impeded or stripped based on preconceived notions of who a citizen is. And it’s under siege.

While the Trump administration rapidly works to further narrow the meaning of citizenship through troubling standards of incivility that are routinely inattentive to history, this erosion, like the norms of cabinet appointments, isn’t attributable to Trump alone.

As Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt highlight, between 1800 and 2005, the Senate blocked presidential cabinet nominations only nine times. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s and Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s hearings were pure political theater, but their successful confirmations reflected forbearance norms instead of exceptions.

If Douglass were with us now, he’d decry authoritarianism, stoking racial resentment, and alternative facts. He would encourage civility while simultaneously questioning our understandings of respectability. He’d plead that we collectively bend a knee, think, evaluate, judge, and adopt an expanded idea of citizenship. Otherwise, realizable dreams will collapse into nightmares.

“The duty of to-day,” Frederick Douglass declared to a beltway audience on April 16, 1889, “is to meet the questions that confront us with intelligence and courage.”

Fellow citizens, the duty is ours. Are you up for the challenge?

*This piece was originally published on Public Seminar and is reprinted here with permission.

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Neil Roberts

Neil Roberts is an associate professor of Africana Studies, political theory, and the philosophy of religion at Williams College, where he also serves as the W. Ford Schumann '50 Faculty Fellow in Democratic Studies. He is author of the award-winning 'Freedom as Marronage' (University of Chicago Press, 2015) and the collaborative work 'Journeys in Caribbean Thought' (Rowman & Littlefield International, 2016). His most recent book is 'A Political Companion to Frederick Douglass' (The University Press of Kentucky, 2018). Roberts is President of the Caribbean Philosophical Association. Follow him on Twitter @neildsroberts.