Per Caritatem

Undeniably, the United States has come a long way from the days of chattel slavery, and we can be encouraged by the positive strides made in racial relations and equality; yet, it is important to remember whence we came in order to avoid repeating past mistakes and so that we might become critically alert to new manifestations of racism and racial bias.[1] Here we would do well to heed the words of Frederick Douglass’s 1852 oration, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Having accepted an invitation to speak to a predominately white audience in celebration of Independence Day, Douglass, as master orator and rhetorician, turns to a Psalm of lamentation—a passage with which his audience was thoroughly familiar—and interprets it as analogous to the situation of American slaves.

Douglass begins with the following lines:  “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yea! we wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there, they that carried us away captive, required of us a song.”[2] The captors, having accomplished their mission, now command their Jewish captives, whose eyes still tear up when they recall Zion, to sing one of their native songs. To this obtuse, insensitive demand, Douglass, speaking the “plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people,”[3] asks, “[h]ow can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem […] let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.”[4] Always poised and ready, like Socrates of old, to turn his public speaking invitations into opportunities to provoke and to challenge the ethico-political status quo, Douglass condemns his fellow citizens’ superficial “national, tumultuous joy” in celebration of America’s so-called “freedom” and independence. In fact, earlier in his speech, Douglass emphasizes the great “disparity” and “distance” separating him and his fellow citizens. The good fortune and “blessings” celebrated on this day do not apply to those of a darker hue. “The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me.”[5] Beyond the surface civility, the fanfare, and the laudatory refrains, Douglass remembers, Douglass hears “the mournful wail of millions, whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are to-day rendered more intolerable by the jubilant shouts that reach them.”[6]

With this example of what Foucault calls “reverse discourse,” Douglass uses the familiar words of Scripture and says in effect, just as the Jews were taken captive by their oppressors, forced to dwell in a land not their own, similarly African American slaves find themselves as strangers in a strange land where they have been constructed as the savage, as the intellectually-inferior other in need of the white man’s culture, “superior” reasoning abilities, and “moral” direction. Like the Jews exiled in Babylon, the most suitable song, the song corresponding to the violent, unjust, degraded existence of an African American slave is not a song of triumphalist jubilation, but a song of sorrowful lament. For Douglass to gloss over this all-too-recent contemptible American history because he is no longer in chains would be to turn a deaf ear to the “mournful wail of millions” and to once again allow the white, hegemonic culture to write the black story. Moreover, Douglass reminds his audience—who, after all, function as analogues to the captors of God’s people of old—that God’s heart bleeds for the weak, the humble, the downtrodden. Though a merciful and forgiving God, divine justice unlike human justice will not, in the end, be mocked.

Notes


[1]  Race, race-baiting, race relations in the United States, and the media’s role in constructing racial identities continue as significant socio-political problems that must be engaged.  These issues are in no way resolved or behind us simply because Barack Obama holds the highest public office in America. See, for example, Frank Rich’s assessment of the Sherrod incident in his New York Times editorial, “There’s a Battle Outside and It is Still Ragin’.” The New York Times, July 24, 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/25/opinion/25rich.html?_r=1 (accessed  7/26/10).

[2] Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”, 431–32.

[3] Ibid., 431.

[4] Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”, 432. The psalm on which Douglass improvises is Psalm 137.

[5] Ibid., 431.

[6] Ibid.


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