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Revisiting Frederick Douglass

Reading Frederick Douglass causes us to think in new ways about our nation’s history.
Photo credit:
Wikimedia Commons

Frederick Douglas is dead. This February during  Black History Month Americans across the country will commemorate the bicentennial of his birthday. Last year this time, however, President Donald J. Trump didn’t appear to know this fact. 

In kicking off Black History Month 2017 Trump hosted a “listening session” at the White House leaving listeners scratching their heads wondering if he knew Douglass -a self-liberated former slave turned abolitionist -died in 1895. 

Expecting then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer to clarify what Trump meant regarding his comment on Douglass, Spicer, however, made it clear he, too, didn’t quite know if Douglass is dead.

“I think he  [Trump] wants to highlight the contributions he has made. And I think through a lot of the actions and statements he’s going to make, I think that the contributions of Frederick Douglass will become more and more.”

The remarks from both Trump and Spicer could have been an episode of “Drunk History,” a TV comedy series where an inebriated narrator fumbles recounting historical events, which illustrate why we need Black History Month and an intensive tutorial for the Trump administration.

With the election of  Barack Obama as president queries arose concerning the future need for Black History Month.

Millennials, in particular, whose ballots help elect the country’s first African-American president revealed celebrating Black History Month seem outdated. To them, the continuation of Black History Month is a relic tethered to an old defunct paradigm of the 1960s civil rights era and a hindrance to the country moving forward.

But in 2017 Trump became president. And queries about whether the continuation of Black History Month is needed died down, because Trump has  tweeted out an insult to just about every marginalized group in the country. 

Since his first year in office Trump’s  display of xenophobic, misogynistic, LGBTQ-phobic and racist remarks, to name just a few from his laundry list of bigotries,  appears to have no cutoff point.

Trump’s  embrace of white supremacy showed itself in his statement about black immigrants from what he depicted as “shithole countries. And, Trump’s removal of  white supremacist groups- Ku Klux Klan, Identitarians, Identity Christianity,  Neo-Nazis, and Neo-Confederates, to name a few - from a violent extremist group list put out by the Southern Poverty Law Center highlights the Jim Crow era Trump wants the  country to time travel back to when he say’s “Make America Great Again.”

His repugnant “blame on both sides” comment about the Charlottesville mayhem that took place last summer depicted the perpetrators as victims, too.  

By Trump condemning counter-protesters similarly as white supremacists and swastika-wielding thugs, many of his supporters are now more emboldened than ever before to not only contest the celebration of Black History Month but to  insist now on the celebration of white history month. For example, Boston born White supremacist Richard Spencer, a Trump supporter, sees no need for Black History Month.

At one of his notorious rallies Spencer stated that “I would never say something like, ‘I don’t like black people’ just that  “Africans have benefited from white supremacy.” Trump’s administration, if it could have its way would indeed have a white history month celebration.

If Spicer was telling the truth last year that Trump’s administration will be highlighting Douglass’s invaluable contribution to America’s history it should start with his historic speech, “What, to the slave, is the Fourth of July?” delivered on July 5, 1852, to the Rochester Ladies Antislavery Society in Rochester, N.Y. 

In the speech Douglass stated to a country then in the throes of slavery, “Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence. . . I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. . . This Fourth of July is yours, not mine.”

Douglass’s speech then as now highlights the fight for black independence and full citizenship. It informs our understanding of race relations today because it connects with contemporary themes of class and gender issues, economic disparity and the prison industrial complex, to list a few. 

For many years Community Change, Inc.  Library on Racism in Boston held an annual public event called “Reading Frederick Douglass.” At this participatory reading, people took turns reading aloud parts of Douglass’s 4th of July speech.

The website explains why that particular speech:

“Reading Frederick Douglass causes us to think in new ways about our nation’s history, affords opportunities to open up discourse about race relations and citizenship (especially immediately before or after the speech), and raises awareness of the role slavery and race continue to play in our history and national discourse."

In 2012, the Federation of State Humanities Councils awarded Reading Frederick Douglass the Schwartz Prize for the Best Overall Program. The program is now held in Vermont.

Douglass’s indefatigable activism as an abolitionist help end slavery, and the 13th Amendment made it legal.

But it’s important to remember his remarks about  the 13th Amendment as a country moving forward: “Verily, the work does not end with the abolition of slavery, but only begins.”

In 1866, one year after the passing of the 13th Amendment Frederick Douglass with other national African American leaders met with President Andrew Jackson to advocate for black citizens voting rights which Johnson opposed. 

 Black voting rights is still a struggle today.

I hope Trump revisits Frederick Douglass.