… and a broken promise.
FREDERICK DOUGLASS, A BLACK MAN who escaped from slavery in the state of Maryland and through monumental efforts of self-education and determination became one of the most celebrated abolitionists, activists, writers, orators and statesmen of the nineteenth-century, is celebrated as an American hero.
This astonishes me, though not because he doesn’t deserve his heroic status. His achievements would have been exceptional had he been a white man; but he was black, a former slave, and what he achieved required infinitely greater courage, persistence and faith. Together with his personal qualities—intelligence, ambition, above all, charisma—he was the abolitionists’ living proof that slavery was not natural law, that slaves were not “savages” undeserving of full citizenship.
His transformation, when it occurred, was effected by the simple act of crossing a state boundary, but behind that act lay everyday miracles of self-will. The obstacles Douglass overcame were intractable; the small acts of kindness shown to him, usually by the wives of his owners—a proper bed, a decent meal, the illusion of family— so rare he remembered each occasion from boyhood to the end of his life.
(How much I resist using the word “owner” in this context, resist admitting the appalling reality that, as a slave, he was property, a beast of burden, less than human.)
He was born in 1818 into slavery, taken from his mother, the common practice, and put to work; through his childhood and as a young man he was bought and sold and traded by one owner after another as casually as you would buy and sell and trade livestock, until he ended up in the service of an owner known as a “slave-breaker.”
(He needed to be broken because word had got out that he had been teaching himself to read, and then, as his fellow slaves learned of his accomplishment, teaching as many as forty of them at a time in impromptu gatherings.)
The slave-breaker’s preferred method of control was whipping. Whippings meted out daily, the fresh marks on top of those from the previous days, which would not yet have had a chance to heal. Whippings, Douglass said later, that indeed broke him, body, mind and spirit, until one day he stood up and fought back so fiercely his owner never whipped him, or even approached him, again.
You have seen, he wrote in his autobiography before describing that incident, how a man becomes a slave.
Now you will see how a slave becomes a man.
No, I’m astonished at his being considered a hero in contemporary America because Douglass was not a compliant, docile, forgiving man. He was not nice. He held people accountable. He did not think everything would be all right, at least, not passively, not without a struggle. His advice late in his life to a young black activist was: “Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!”
Agitate! In other words: Stir things up. Make people uncomfortable. Don’t let them off the hook. Don’t smile at the camera, scowl; don’t be the happy slave. Don’t play into the stereotype, refuse it. Don’t speak gently to the white women of Rochester.
I’m astonished because I have no doubt that if Douglass were alive today, agitating today, he would be reviled. Because, literally or metaphorically, he’d be kneeling during the National Anthem, and that would be the mildest of his agitations.
Douglass’ house in Rochester was destroyed by fire in 1872; his daughter, her husband and their children barely escaped with their lives. This was without question an arsonist’s attack. What mysterious or public disaster, I wonder, would be visited on him today, for his agitation?
White people in the North had trouble believing that Douglass had once been a slave, so thoroughly, so greedily had he educated himself, so eloquently did he speak. What fakery would he be accused of today? What scandals cooked up, what smear campaigns? What would the memes look like?
How a slave becomes a man: By fighting back so fiercely your torturer never touches you again.
It’s easy for white people to think of Douglass as a hero, because he’s dead and can no longer cause a ruckus with his activism; because he can’t respond to the white men who use his speeches to “prove” that, because literal slavery no longer exists, because the blacks have had the school busing and the Selma March and can even claim their very own martyr, because of the thirteenth and fourteenth and fifteenth amendments, America is post-racial, color-blind.
What the hell are they complaining about now, for pete’s sake?
Not content with the grudging concession that people of color have, say, the right to vote, now they have the nerve to object just because Republicans do a little creative redrawing of the county lines.
People of color apparently aren’t content with the cheap, lumpy sofa of human rights, the basic IKEA model that sort of looks OK but that you secretly wish was from West Elm. They want the West Elm sofa plus the throw cushions and the Berber carpet.
And every so often the exasperation and impatience of white people bubbles up, in the affronted, aggrieved tones of someone whose thoughtful gift has been rejected.
If you don’t like it here, you’re free to leave! Do you ever see that online?* The assumption here is that if you’re not white you’re here on sufferance, you’re enjoying a probationary period—but complain too much, be a difficult, demanding, unappreciative guest, and whammo! Privileges revoked!
“If you don’t like it here, you’re free to leave”? And I say to the petulant white guys and gals: So are you. You’ve got the money and the privilege, so how about returning to, say, Great Britain, where you will be better appreciated? I’m one hundred percent certain Boris Johnson will kiss you full on the mouth.
Douglass’s most famous speech, an excerpt of which is quoted below, was given to—the name reeks of white gentility—the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society in Rochester, N.Y., on July 5, 1852, nearly nine years before the Civil War began.
Read his words: However nobly phrased, they are also withering, bitter, enraged. He blazes like an Old Testament prophet. Apparently nineteenth-century American women were not the wilting violets of cliché Victorian femininity. They could, as we say, “take it.”
Fast forward a century and a half. Colin Kaepernick uses his celebrity to draw attention to systemic racism in America, not with inflammatory words or disruptive protest. He simply kneels during the National Anthem before the game. All hell breaks loose. For this he is denounced as a traitor, when he should be celebrated for exercising his right to protest.
Cory Booker travels to the centers where refugees are being held in third-world conditions. He reports on what he sees; he helps five women obtain asylum, following the accepted legal process.
A woman on Twitter tells him he should be charged with treason. Treason, if you’ve forgotten, is punishable by the death penalty in the United States of America.
The average American in 2019, then, is less robust than the abolitionist women in 1852 Rochester, who could listen to the fiery oratory of a former slave. Who invited Douglass to speak to them.
Perhaps it’s Trump’s unapologetic supporters, the MAGA-hatters, the new breed of Republicans, who need smelling salts, or even tincture of laudanum. What they are suffering from used to be called hysteria, or “an attack of the vapours.”
Those seeking asylum from the violence and miserable poverty of their lives in the country that promises new beginnings and freedom are caged like animals in overcrowded facilities. Children are separated from parents and denied the most basic care. All are demonized as “illegals.”
Some are so desperate, they die in the attempt. But seeking asylum is a legal act and the U.S. has a duty under international law to admit them.
Illegal is a label, a construct, a way of dehumanizing in order to justify inhumane treatment. Illegal is, in today’s jargon, performative: what you say is what you get.
Refugees are not immigrants. They are seeking refuge, obviously, from acute crises: persecution by their own governments; natural disasters, lawlessness, civil war or discrimination so terrible that to return them to their country of origin is certain death. They aren’t making a calm, considered, career decision to change their country of residence or citizenship. They are in some manner escaping a war being waged against them.
Canada admitted tens of thousands of refugees from Syria in 2015; This was our response to an emergency, a humanitarian crisis.
Canada also has a multi-faceted immigration program that reflects our values. Programs include pilot projects encouraging immigration to the north and to the Atlantic provinces, sponsoring family members, express programs for skilled workers and opportunities for caregivers, artists and sports persons. As part of our immigration program we encourage applications for refugee status from those seeking protection from repression and discrimination in their home countries.
The two classes—immigrants and refugees— have become synonymous in the public’s mind because of Trump’s insistence that everyone who is not white and who sets foot on U.S. soil is a “rapist,” “gang member,” part of a planned “invasion.”
Some day we will have to have the conversation about a borderless world. We can’t continue to build metaphorical walls and shut out that part of humanity which hasn’t won the lottery and been born in a developed and democratic country.
It’s also impossible to view the plight of refugees from Guatemala and other Central American countries as having occurred in a vacuum, when U.S. policies have directly targeted those countries with disastrous results.
In the short term, human beings are morally bound to help others if they possibly can, and to do so in a compassionate way that recognizes their inherent dignity and equality—our common humanity.
Trump co-opts the Fourth of July celebrations and turns them into a tinpot dictator’s preposterous military parade; makes the Fourth of July all about him, in other words. Is anyone surprised?
Serial sexual abuser, criminal, pathological liar: Has a more ridiculous or contemptible impostor ever held public office in a democracy, anywhere?
“The New Colossus”
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
—Emma Lazarus ( (1849–1887)
“The New Colossus” was written by a young Jewish woman, Emma Lazarus, as part of the effort to raise money for the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, and who, dying in only her thirty-eighth year, would never know how the final five lines would enter American mythology.
“Give me your tired, your poor….” Give me. Not just acceptance, but an invitation. An active embrace by the mother of exiles.
Wretched refuse: Refuse is what you discard. Less politely, garbage. However rejected you have been, we will embrace you. Liberty as mother, blind to race, color, creed. What a mother, infinitely more than a father, creates is home and family.
This is the promise.
I can’t read these words without my voice breaking with emotion; yet on reflection, measured against reality, I see Lazarus’ idealism as irrevocably tainted. I see what has become an unfortunate American propensity to indulge in pompous self-regard and fine-sounding, empty rhetoric, boasts about shining cities on hills that shine only for that tiny minority gifted with the right time and place of birth, those who have never wanted for anything, struggled, gone hungry or lived in fear. Unholy license.
And how dark the world has become now that the mother of exiles has extinguished her lamp, slammed shut the golden door.
* I wrote this post before Trump’s now infamous suggestion to “the Squad;” it wasn’t meant ironically. I can probably now assume that you’ve all heard this at least once, online.
24 July 19