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Cancel Frederick Douglass: Where Do You Stand on Purifying American History?

A statue of Frederick Douglass has been ripped from its base in Rochester on the anniversary of one of his most famous speeches. (Credit: WHEC)

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.

AFRICAN SAVAGES

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.

Freedman’s Memorial

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:

Help Erect a Statue of Frederick Douglass to Commemorate his 1870 Visit

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?

To Topple or Not to Topple Statues: The Battle between “Come Let Us Reason Together” versus “Abso-fricking-lutely!”

To Topple or Not to Topple, That Is the Question (Alex Waltner – Swedish Nomad)

To topple or not to topple, that is the question. Statues have become the latest battleground in America’s Third Civil War. At this point, it is impossible to determine which statue will be our Fort Sumter. It is reasonable to assume that just as one could not predict that it would the George Floyd murder as the straw the broke the camel’s back, one cannot know which attack on a statue will be the trigger for violence.

In the meantime, last month, Bret Stephens and Charles Blow, columnists for The New York Times, offered quite contrary views on the question of “to topple or not to topple.”

BRET STEPHENS

In his column “After the Statues Fall,” (June 27, 2020, print), Stephens posits four familiar words as a template for answering the topple question: A MORE PERFECT UNION.

Stephens suggests for any given individual, the question should be asked whether that person contributed to the effort to create a more perfect union in the United States. If the answer is “no,” and he includes all Confederate-related figures here, then the person fails the test. The statues should come down and the buildings and military installations should be renamed. Stephens mentions some other examples of non-Confederates who don’t deserve a public building and non-Confederates who do deserve honors on net because of what they contributed to making a more perfect union.

Then he turns the big two: George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. These two slaveholders who were instrumental to the creation of the United States. He doesn’t mention it, but the latter provided the words or ideals upon which we declared our independence and the former made it possible for that declaration not to be stillborn or a dorm-room manifesto. Eliminate them and there is no country. Stephens writes:

If their fault lay in being creatures of their time, their greatness was in the ability to look past it. An unbroken moral thread connects the Declaration of Independence to the Gettysburg Address to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. An unbroken political thread connects the first president to the 16th to the 44th. It is impossible to imagine any union, much less the possibility of a more perfect one, without them.

Stephens contrasts thinking critically about the past for the sake of learning from it with behaving destructively toward the past with the aim of erasing it. He concludes in favor of debate on whether to topple or not to topple:

An intelligent society should be able to make intelligent distinctions, starting with the one between those who made our union more perfect and those who made it less.

By coincidence such an intelligent discussion was held a few days later. The American Historical Association (AHA) held an online presentation with David W. Blight and Annette Gordon-Reed entitled “Erasing History or Making History? Race, Racism, and the American Memorial Landscape” moderated by AHA Executive Director Jim Grossman, on Thursday, July 2. Whether or not they had read this column I don’t know. If not, then the discussion was even more fascinating. They expressed many of the same concepts that Stephens did. They used the term “criteria” instead for the judging of people on an individual basis with Confederates not passing muster. They even thought several hundred people listening to the online event would volunteer for a national commission.

There you see the problem. Stephens’s template for the evaluation of people works well in an academic setting. It is great for high school or college debates. It could work at some academic conferences. However, the evaluation process is bound to be subjective. There would be legitimate differences of opinions even if everyone agreed on the template. Obviously, it ignores the emotional component. Stephens proposes a solution for an intelligent society in a “come let us reason together” setting. That has nothing to do with where America is right now nor is there any political leader proposing a “come let us reason together” approach. This scenario is great on paper but is not possible in the real world as it exists now.

CHARLES BLOW

By coincidence, the next day, Charles Blow offered a significantly different perspective full of emotion. The title is:

Yes, Even George Washington: Slavery was a cruel institution that can’t be excused by its era (June 28, 2020, online).

In case there was any doubt, the opening line is:

On the issue of American slavery, I am an absolutist: enslavers were amoral monsters.

The very idea that one group of people believed that they had the right to own another human being is abhorrent and depraved. The fact that their control was enforced by violence was barbaric.

Blow’s template is a very direct one: if you owned people you were “abhorrent and depraved.” Period. There is no other evaluation needed. No netting of the good the people-owner might have done elsewhere. If you own people, then case closed.

There is no room for doubt. No uncertainty. And no exception.

Some people who are opposed to taking down monuments ask, “If we start, where will we stop?” It might begin with Confederate generals, but all slave owners could easily become targets. Even George Washington himself.

To that I say, “abso-fricking-lutely!”

Blow presents an all-or-nothing evaluation with removal as the one option.

I say that we need to reconsider public monuments in public spaces. No person’s honorifics can erase the horror he or she has inflicted on others.

Slave owners should not be honored with monuments in public spaces. We have museums for that, which also provide better context. This is not an erasure of history, but rather a better appreciation of the horrible truth of it.

Blow’s analysis is intensely emotional for him unlike the Stephens column. It also is easy to apply.

But Blow leaves many unanswered questions. If these people like George Washington are so horrific for what they did that they do not deserve public monuments in public spaces, what about the other ways in which such people are publicly honored. What about

The state of Washington

The city of Washington

The mountain of Washington

The university of Washington

The bridge of Washington

The parks of Washington

The dollar bill of Washington

The neighborhoods of Washington.

Dismantling the Washington Monument is challenge enough, but how do you get demolish half of Mount Rushmore?

And let’s not forget that without Washington there would be no United States of America?

Blow doesn’t address these issues. His end game remains undefined. He feels good about toppling the monuments and statues to George Washington but leaves all the other public expressions of him unmentioned.

In my blog Schuyler Owned People: Should Schuylerville Change Its Name? June 18, 2020, a lifetime ago), I raised a similar issue with the Mayor of Albany’s decision to remove the statue of Philip Schuyler. What about all the other public Schuyler examples from a state-owned house, federal owned house, municipality named after him, county named after him, and his role in American history at Saratoga?  As a mayor, her jurisdiction is limited. I did note that one councilmen wanted the removed of all the people-owner names of streets and parks which in Albany means Washington Park. Blow had the option of going where the Mayor could not. As a columnist, he could have advocated for the full cleansing of Washington from the public arena. The logical extension of Blow’s argument means consign everything Washington to a museum, rename it, or demolish it.

WHAT DOES BLOW WANT?

Considered these toppling examples.

The toppling of the statue to Saddam Hussein signified the end of his rule.

The toppling of the statue of Lenin, founder of the Soviet Union, signified the end of the Soviet Union.

The toppling of the statue of King George III signified the declaration of independence from British rule, a declaration after a long war which proved successful.

Therefore it is reasonable to conclude that the toppling of the statue of George Washington, father of the country, signifies that the topplers are calling for the end of the United States, the end of a country based on the ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that he won for us and he then held us together as a country.

Is that what Blow wants? While I don’t doubt that among the woke there are people desirous of exactly such an endgame. They reject not only the symbols of the founding of the country but the founding itself. Blow does not appear to one of them. His call to relocate statues from public spaces to museums (presumably private ones with no public funding), suggests he is not advocating for the overthrow of the United States. But his call for the removal not toppling of statues and monuments of people-owners is simply a feel-good baby step that ignores the larger issues. He has an obligation to explain to the American public what his end game is. He has an obligation to explain to We the People where he would draw the line and why on the issue of the public display of the name of Washington among others. He has an obligation to explain his end game because if he doesn’t, others will do it for him.

P.S. The damnatio memoriae (or “condemnation of the memory”) was tried in ancient Egypt on Queen Hatshepsut and King Akhnaton. Will we now have to erase the names of Pharaohs who had slave labor including Nubians and demolish their buildings or is that up to Egypt? What should we teach about these “abhorrent and depraved” people like Tut?