Frederick Douglass's 1876 ReportRoundup
tags: racism, Frederick Douglass, teaching history
Laura K. Field is a Senior Fellow at the Niskanen Center and Scholar in Residence at American University. She writes about current political affairs from a vantage point informed by the history of political thought.
A thousand years hence, when the solid marble that held his remains shall have crumbled; when hundreds of military heroes who have risen under his administration shall have been forgotten; when even the details of the late tremendous war shall have faded from the pages of history, and the war itself shall seem but as a speck up the long vista of ages, then Abraham Lincoln, like dear old John Brown, will find eloquent tongues to rehearse his history, and commend his philanthropy and virtues as a standard to the rulers of nations. Wherever freedom has an advocate, or humanity a friend, his name will be held as an auxiliary.
“The Assassination and Its Lessons,” Brooklyn Academy of Music, 1866
If 2019 was the year of the 1619 Project and 2020 was a year of racial reckoning in the streets, then 2021 proved to be the year of conservative backlash. It began, unforgettably, with the January 6 insurrection, where a mob hurling racist taunts at beleaguered Capitol police officers rioted with impunity only months after peaceful Black Lives Matter protestors were met with overwhelming displays of force. Then came President Trump’s 1776 Report, intended as an official rebuttal of the 1619 Project, and then the growing momentum behind state-level efforts to control public education on race.
One common move in the turn against the 1619 Project (and against what many now refer to as “wokeness”) is to invoke the words and person of Frederick Douglass. The orator and activist who escaped slavery and went on to lead the abolitionist cause initially condemned the U.S. Constitution but eventually came to interpret and present it as an anti-slavery document; he famously broke with his abolitionist friend William Lloyd Garrison over the question of how best to conceive of the founding text. Thanks to this history, and to Douglass’ own varied and prolific writings, critics of the 1619 Project find a convenient friend in the 19th century’s foremost thinker on the Black experience in America.
An example: In his 1852 speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”—probably his most famous speech—Douglass refers to the Constitution as a “GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT.” Critics from across the political spectrum often use this phrase as a rejoinder to 1619 Project lead Nikole Hannah-Jones, or to the alleged “woke” movement more generally. The five prominent historians who responded to the 1619 Project invoke Douglass’ line, and so do the authors of the 1776 Report, presenting Douglass’ attitude as a point of contrast with “progressivism.” Writing for The Bulwark in February 2020, Cathy Young critiqued the 1619 Project (and echoes the words of Martin Luther King Jr.) by noting that both Douglass and King treated the Founding as a “promissory note of freedom and justice for African-Americans” (Young links to Douglass’ July 4th speech).
In an especially egregious distortion, the conservative nonprofit PragerU recently published a short video in which Frederick Douglass is presented as a moderate incrementalist, in sharp juxtaposition to Garrison the dangerous “radical” and his modern-day, activist counterparts. Inevitably, PragerU’s scriptwriters invoke the “glorious liberty document,” too.
The quality of these critiques varies enormously. But, in each instance, critics pit Frederick Douglass, the elder, more authoritative Black voice and statesman, against a younger, more controversial one, who in Nikole Hannah-Jones’ case happens also to be a Black woman.
Reference to older voices like Douglass or King (whose work is so often quoted selectively, too, by people from across the political spectrum; of course I am hardly the first to observe this phenomenon) is a powerful rhetorical choice. It serves to undercut the credibility of contemporary thinkers by presenting their work as a radical departure from what has come before, while at the same time flattering the self-conception of the audience (“See, I’m not racist, I side with MLK”).
But it’s usually wrong.
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