July is Frederick Douglass’s time of year. Around July 4 every year multiple history organizations have a reading of the Douglass speech of July 5, 1852, delivered in Rochester entitled “What to the slave is the fourth of July.” Even descendants may voice the words of their illustrious ancestor. This year, many of the recitations were online [I received many announcements] so there was ample opportunity to listen to a slew of speeches. Nonetheless, despite the venerated stature in which he is held, his statues must be judged by the same Woke standards that have led to the toppling of so many other statues so far this year. An examination of his record shows conclusively that he was not pure and deserves the fate of other former heroes.
Depend upon it, the savage chiefs on the western coast of Africa, who for ages have been accustomed to selling their captives into bondage, and pocketing the ready cash for them, will not more readily see and accept our moral and economical ideas, than the slave-traders of Maryland and Virginia. We are, therefore, less inclined to go to Africa to work against the slave-traders, than to stay here to work against it. (“African Civilization Society,” February 1859)
This comment by Douglass has been used before in these blogs (Happy 1619, Not July 4th, Birthday: All the History Fit to Print that the NYT Omitted). It contradicts one of the most sacred myths within the BLM and Woke movements: the belief that Middle Passage people were stolen from Africa. Douglass knew the real story and expressed it. None-the-less, there is no excuse for telling the unacceptable and uncomfortable truth. Douglass needs to be held accountable for this impurity. STRIKE ONE.
Now consider the word used to describe the African sellers of Africans to Europeans: “savages.” Is this the type of word that is acceptable under Woke standards? Far from it. There is a series on National Geographic called “Savage Kingdom.” It’s not about people.
Brave New World, a TV version premiered on the NBCUniversal on July 15, also has a “savage” component. One of the novel’s worlds is the “Savage Reservation” in New Mexico. The people and customs of the Savage Reservation are said to be modeled loosely on the traditions of Zuñi.
In a recent online “Conversation” offered by American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) (July 9), Dr. Estevan Rael-Gálvez, anthropologist, historian and cultural consultant, voiced his displeasure over a plaque in Sante Fe. The objection was not to the any image or statue but to the word used to describe the Apaches. The word was “savage.” The participant said if there was one change he would like to make it is to that sign and that word.
In another recent online presentation, “Foundations for Teaching and Learning about Native Americans” by the National Museum of the American Indian (July 21), the word “savage” was featured as a derogatory term in primary sources and in textbooks. There can be no excuse for Douglass using that term even if the people referred to weren’t American. The word is unacceptable. STRIKE TWO.
The Freedman’s Memorial in Washington has been a source of contention in the current quest to purify American history. It depicts Abraham Lincoln standing above a kneeling freed black man. President Ulysses S. Grant, the cabinet and the Supreme Court were in attendance. This blog is not about the Memorial itself but about Douglass’s legitimation of it by speaking at the dedication. He delivered the keynote speech at the unveiling of original statue on April 14, 1876, 11 years after the assassination of Lincoln. At that time, Douglass asked listeners to look through the eyes of enslaved people seeking freedom:
Despite the mist and haze that surrounded him; despite the tumult, the hurry, and confusion of the hour, we were able to take a comprehensive view of Abraham Lincoln, and to make reasonable allowance for the circumstances of his position. We saw him, measured him, and estimated him.
See how Douglass is making allowances for the impurity of Lincoln. See how he is asking us to judge the person in the context of times, to examine him in his entirety, to measure him not by one’s standards of today but to stand back and see the totality of the person. These admonitions are intolerable and inexcusable. Either you are pure or you are not. So what if Douglass had misgivings about the statue. So what if he wanted a second statue to be erected. He was there at the dedication and spoke then. There can be no context, no nuance, no looking at the life of a person in the world in which he lived. If you are not pure then you are toppled, cleansed, erased. No excuses. No exemptions. Not for Jefferson. Not for Lincoln. Not for Douglass. STRIKE THREE. YOU ARE OUT.
WHOOPS. When I Initially thought of writing this blog, I intended to stop here. However, I became aware of a counteraction to the effort to cleanse Douglass from American history due to his impurity. I received this notice describing a contrary position:
To celebrate the passing of the 15th Amendment in August of 1870, Frederick Douglass spoke at Washington’s Headquarters and the AME Zion Church in Newburgh and led the crowd on a peaceful march through the city. On the occasion of the 150th anniversary, money is being raised to commission a statue commemorating Frederick Douglass’ famous visit. The committee is asking for members of the public to donate to the cause. Can you spare $15 in appreciation of the 15th Amendment?
This group in Orange County, NY, attests that despite the Douglass violations of Woke standards, he still is regarded as a heroic person. My Spidey sense tells me that the American public is not likely to impose Woke standards on Douglass either. He will be viewed as an individual human being and measured on that basis. I suspect that consensus extends to other Americans who helped create this country or acted to fulfill its vision. So I conclude that statues of Douglass will not be toppled.
WHOOPS AGAIN. Even as I was planning this conclusion the blog, a statue of Douglass in Rochester was toppled on July 5. The fact that it was a 7-foot plastic replica made to look like the bronze of the 25-foot original bronze statue located elsewhere in the city doesn’t change the action…it does make it easier to understand how the topplers could drag it 50 feet! The people responsible for this extralegal act have not been identified nor have they identified themselves. Was it Woke people judging Douglass as impure who took the law into their own hands as is their wont? Or was it anti-Woke people engaged in payback. If you commit an extralegal act to topple my statue, then you have granted me a license to commit an extralegal act against your statue. The Woke now have unleashed the right of all people to act against statues based on their own values.
It’s easy to see where this will end. The BLM paints its name on streets in prominent places. The anti-BLM cover up the painting. Back and forth it goes including in front of Trump Tower in Manhattan. Now everyone can claim a license to topple, a license to paint. Where will it end? Which incident will be the American Sarajevo? Which one will be the new Fort Sumter? Which one will elevate the current culture war to the next level as America’s Third Civil War ratchets up? Just as no one knew that it would be George Floyd that provided the spark, no one knows which confrontation will turn fatal. [Note: this was written before the attempt to occupy Portland.]
WHOOPS AGAIN AGAIN. Even as I was still planning this blog, something else happened in this very fluid situation. According to the article in my local paper “New Douglas Statue Erected,” a new statue was erected on July 18 replacing the one which had been toppled on July 5. According to the caption of the photograph it was a “reinstallment” of the toppled statue. It was one of the replicas held in storage making it easy to replace the toppled one. The reinstallation was a community action in the light of day and not a toppling in the dark of night. This open action probably provides a better sense of where the community in Rochester stands…with the statue!
Where does that leave us today? According to David Blight, author of Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (2018), in an interview with the New-York Historical Society (June 25, 2020):
… Douglass was a patriot. In my book, I call him a radical patriot. He deeply believed in the first principles of the Declaration of Independence—equality, popular sovereignty, natural rights, and the right of revolution. He believed in the creeds and principles; it was the practices that he fought against. Douglass believed the preserved and re-invented U.S. that emerged out of the Civil War and emancipation had given the nation and all of its people the opportunity to create a multi-racial, multi-religious country. He saw America as an idea—a nation made up of all the peoples of the earth, living under equality before the law.
According to Blight in an earlier interview at the New-York Historian Society (January 11, 2020), Douglass saw America as a place with some kind destiny on some of kind trajectory in history designed by the divine. What’s next? American exceptionalism? America as a City on a Hill? Is there really a place in a Woke society for someone like that?