"Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters ...Power concedes nothng without demand. It never did and it never will."
Frederick Douglass - Letter to an Abolitionist Friend - 1857
... and, now that I've been home for a few days, those fresh memories are becoming a jumble of impressions -- out of sequence, and disorderly -- when I sit down and try to organize them into words that march together in a parade of new understandings -- and logic. But, no, they persist in moving into my consciousness in full rebellion, refusing to line up as they should, but instead just schmush their way to my frontal cortex like some bawdy vaudeville act!
There's the continuing unfolding of thoughts born at the end of that second floor alcove window overlooking the Capitol -- when I first became aware of the great Frederick Douglass, the man, whose mansion has been preserved so beautifully, while we have less awareness of his ideas as he lived them, and -- through them -- influenced the Abolitionist Movement, and the Lincoln presidency as well. And how today's continuing struggle for human and civil rights appears to have lost its ties to those which came before by a succession of iconic black leaders. Oh, they're remembered because they're deeply embedded in black history, and still memorized diligently by black school children to this day, but not by mainstream American history as they should be.
Then it dawned: Much of that history was limited to a handful of black publications -- The Pittsburgh Courier, the Chicago Defender, the Amsterdam News, the Crisis, etc., but that means that only African Americans learned of historic events like the Double V Campaign started by James Thompson's letter to the Pittsburgh Courier; the Port Chicago Explosion that cost 320 lives, 202 being black naval personnel; the mutiny trials for those 50 sailors who refused to return to reloading ammunition; the exploits of Bessie Coleman who went to France as a young woman where she had to learn the language in order to be trained in aviation because she couldn't do that here at home; and Fannie Lou Hamer's valiant but hopeless attempt to seat the Mississippi Freedom Party in the Democratic Convention. So many stories that only came to light because black Pullman porters traveling across country on the rail lines, took on the responsibility of dropping off bundles of black newspapers at depots along their routes -- to be picked up locally -- and distributed by and sold in barber shops, and beauty salons, and newsstands in black communities, throughout the nation.
Such stories were simply not seen as relevant to the American Narrative; 'tis the pity! How different it might have been had there been a recorded blended history so that we could now find ways to more accurately restore and preserve our nation's story as it was lived by all of its people.
Our national park is dealing with a more recent history that is more easily captured because that history occurred at the dawn of a more enlightened era. It will be more difficult to go back and try to trace the connections between the ideas of Douglass and those African American icons who followed his lead down through the last century. But I'm sure those links are still traceable, and that America would be the greater for knowing our true and more complete history.
|Brilliant Ta Nehisi Coates - activist and writer for the Atlantic|
I suspect that it is those of us now living -- those of us who were readers of the black press -- who can help our National Park System to do that work, starting with the Frederick Douglass site. Today's generation of emerging black leaders need these truths in order to find the footprints left by those who've gone before.
Small wonder that we evolved as two nations, one black and one white, "separate but not equal", without the benefit of being able to build a history in common because the lives of black people remained invisible to the rest of the population, except weakly, and often through unknowing well-meaning white voices.
We should be seeing today's Black Lives Matter as but another pulsation in the long struggle for equality -- one that extends from the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 to the present. Instead, from a white perspective, this most recent iteration of the Civil Rights Movement is simply seen as one more illogical spasm of unreasoning, disconnected, inexplicable attack of madness, rising from an ignorant people hopelessly locked into a level of poverty and criminality that defies the country's greatest efforts to bring change to lost lives.
I was reminded of all this upon seeing, once again, the Capitol building and surrounding magnificent structures built long ago by black slave laborers.
Being so overcome with good feelings about this great adventure that it was impossible to mention this painful truth to my unknowing granddaughters.
... maybe next time... when the glow begins to fade ... .