Skip to main content
douglass

Reading Frederick Douglass during the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protest Part II

In the thirteenth century, England expels Jews from the country. Over thirteen hundred Jews were forcefully deported with “no precipitating crisis, no emergency, not even any public explanation” to precede this course of action, writes Humanities Professor, Stephen Greenblatt. England was the first nation in medieval Christendom to expel Jews.

Jews had been accused of any number of things, including the murder of Jesus, himself, likely of Jewish heritage, Greenblatt declares, but overall, Jews were hated. Along with “Ethiopians, Turks, witches, hunchbacks, and others,” Jews, once deported, became “an invisible people who functioned as symbolic tokens of all that was heartless, vicious rapacious, and unnatural…” Before and after the expulsion, the purging of Jews from England, the hatred of a people of difference remained. By the 16th Century, “no Jews had claim on reality” since the Jews had been “made nothing,” that is, Vernichtung.

This creation of what isn't human distracts from what is human and we are never to notice and always forget that the use of deliberate and cruel violence makes a fantasy within a reality for the benefit of the entitled to maintain the power of life and death over others.

And, yet, Greenblatt asks, rhetorically, where is Christ without the Hebrew Bible? Nonetheless, the Jew turned symbol represents what is not human in Christendom. This creation of what isn’t human distracts from what is human and we are never to notice and always forget that the use of deliberate and cruel violence makes a fantasy within a reality for the benefit of the entitled to maintain the power of life and death over others.

Shakespeare, a man of his time, Greenblatt explains, initially speaks and writes of Jews in ways expected of someone who never met a Jew. For Shakespeare, Jews were “ancient history.” Years later, after Marlowe writes The Jew of Malta and after his death, Shakespeare, Greenblatt writes, pens “lines that seem exceptionally alert to the human misery and political dangers of forced expulsions.” In Sir Thomas More, the Bard writes,

“–Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,

–Their babies at their backs, with their poor luggage

–Plodding to th’ ports and coasts for transportation…”

In this world too, Africans were hated. The “color black,” historian Howard Zinn explains, was thought to be “distasteful.” Even before the 1600, the Oxford English Dictionary defined the color as something “deeply stained with dirt; soiled, dirty, foul… atrocious, horribly wicked… liability to punishment…” The importing of Africans had already begun.

Shakespeare will begin to think on the resistance of a character named, Caliban.

The idea of expulsion and colonization is indeed “ancient history.”

“I am to speak to you tonight of the civil war by which this vast country - this continent is convulsed.” The war is on, Frederick Douglass declares, and of all the humans on the planet, the African Americans are ready to fight in it.

And so, David Blight, in Frederick Douglass, Prophet of Freedom, calls on President Lincoln to allow “black loyalty” to show itself to America, to the world, for the cause of freedom. In return, Douglass hears from the Lincoln administration an offering of “colonization schemes.” And there is America, Blight writes, revealing, once again, its history and character consisting, “essentially” of “the embodiment of contradictions.” If honest today, Americans shouldn’t find it baffling to recognize how we live in a nation, as Zinn noted, that was determined to return every runaway slave to the plantation while lackadaisical when it came to “enforcing the law ending the slave trade.”

Lincoln considers the colonization of African Americans. Lincoln may have come to hate slavery, Blight argues, but he, nonetheless, was content with “working within what he viewed as the restraints of his legal power as commander-in-chief.” In the White House, thinking about the urgency of freeing people held in brutal bondage didn’t occupy the mind of the nation’s leader. Commander-in-chief. For Lincoln, when it came to slavery, there were only three ideas to consider. The first idea was that emancipation should be “gradual,” the second, that it should “compensate” the slaveholders, and the third, that it should “result in the colonization of as many blacks as possible outside the United States.”

In other words, slaveholders, “hated” though they might have been and slavery “hated” thought it might have been, nonetheless, served this nation by catapulting it right to the top of Western civilization. For Douglass, Lincoln’s ideas were unacceptable.

By now, Douglass, a more seasoned activist, is imagining how the world will see him. What will future generations think about his work, his effort toward seeing freedom for Black people in America? Douglass’s dissatisfaction with the White House administration’s blatant concern for the slaveholder and the southern and bordering slave states sent Lincoln back to the proverbial drawing board.

It’s a tug of war between a man committed to freedom and one who wants to save the nation at the expense of the very people who, dehumanized for hundreds of years, labored for a country that only recognized them as worthy on sunny days, toiling in the fields. But let it rain resistance, let the very people wronged cry foul, point the finger at the true source of violence, and then those people are no longer useful or wanted.

And now comes a string of proclamations. Almost freedom, but not quite. Almost a nation disentangling itself from the ill-gained profits of slavery. But not quite. Douglass would have seen through it all. He would see the anger of a collective of slaveholders dampening Lincoln’s spirit. But, there, too, was a reluctant Lincoln, unable to imagine the plight of “wretched strangers,” visible to him on any given day, toiling away, unfree, at the White House.

Finally in March, 1862, the president began floating the idea of emancipating African Americans. That is, the freeing of enslaved Blacks in the border states seemed less of a threat to slaveholders in southern states. In Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, and even Delaware, slaveholders in these border states would receive compensation, of course. After all, Blacks are property - even if these states had few enslaved Blacks.

Abolitionists, including Douglass, who had been holding their breaths, finally let out a collective cheer. It was a start. Nothing grand. A start. Finally, a president of the United States was thinking about “emancipation,” Douglass thought.

The war is on, Frederick Douglass declares, and of all the humans on the planet, the African Americans are ready to fight in it.

Congress, however, despite ferocious debates, could only muster the votes to emancipate “thirty-two hundred slaves in the District of Columbia.” It seemed that too many lawmakers imagined “free” African Americans unable to “cope with freedom.” What should the US do with these people after slavery, then, continued to be an issue - for white America.

Emancipation for African Americans meant the beginning of restoring a people to the ranks of humanity.

For white Americans, emancipation meant something else entirely.

While the lash strikes one more person’s back and the selling of another two children help purchase an upscale carriage for the mistress, down on the plantation, high places, the federal government drafts financial documents to exchange money between the US government and slaveholders (property owners). The “art of the deal” reflects the civilization inherited from the European conquistadors, kings, and queens. Whether in Mississippi or Washington D. C., the American power-brokers resemble one another as the one hands off to the other a payment of (according to Blight) three hundred dollars per slave. In total, some one hundred thousand dollars went to “schemes of colonization in the wake of abolition in the District.”

Some ideas die hard.

It seems that few recognized the slaveholders (as did Douglass and John Brown), as criminals. The whole system of enslavement, a crime against humanity, paid well: nine hundred thousand dollars went to slaveholders in compensation. Games were being played. Minds were moving slowly toward the idea of total emancipation. Douglass accepted the effort toward that day when total emancipation would be a reality.

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

But, as Blight notes, Douglass was soon lecturing the president. How much should this man presume to know about Black people? How would he know “the intentions and spirits” of Black people? Did he ask Black people if they would consider “leaving their own country to satisfy the demands of white supremacy.”

Image placeholder title

It was for Douglass an old problem. Not that of what to do with African Americans, but rather, what to make of America’s love affair with white supremacy. The origins of the Civil War, he told the nation, are born of slavery. In fact, Douglass continues, “we are only continuing the tremendous struggle, which your fathers and my fathers began eighty six years ago.” Douglass recognized a nation, writes Blight, facing “a second American revolution.” Already underway, Douglass recognized this war as “more bloody, but perhaps more enduring and important than the first.”

While white Americans thought of extending white supremacy to the “frontiers” and beyond, African Americans focused on what was at stake: freedom or death?

The “singularly pleasing dream” of white supremacy, however, as Douglass noted, was moving forward. Despite the freeing of African Americans in the District of Columbia, Lincoln, too, isn’t giving up the prospect of Blacks expatriating to Africa or the Caribbean. He calls a meeting at the White House on August 14, 1862, inviting a small delegation of Black ministers, writes Blight. Douglass isn’t invited. But he hears.

The Lincoln lecture is “one-sided.” Could Blacks voluntarily leave the country? How about it?

“You and we are different races.” Besides, “we have between us a boarder difference than exists between almost any other two races.” And besides, again - how could Black people expect to be considered “equal” in this nation?

Douglass, outraged, writes, Blight tells us, the “harshest criticism he ever leveled at a president.” Lincoln’s all for colonization. “[H]is inconsistencies, his pride of race and blood, his contempt for Negroes and his… hypocrisy” show him for what he is - a colonist. He is, Douglass continues, “a genuine representative of American prejudice and Negro hatred.”

Blacks, then, should leave the country so whites are able to settle into a fantasy of white supremacy - as if the world were not a majority of people from various races!

Douglass continues: “The tone of frankness and benevolence which he assumes in his speech to the colored committee is too thin a mask not to be seen through. The genuine spark of humanity is missing in it… It expresses merely the desire to get rid of them [Blacks] and reminds one of the politeness with which a man might try to bow out of his house some troublesome creditor or the witness of some old guilt.”

How does the expulsion of a people sit well in a country proclaiming itself to be a Christian nation? Under a president who parts from the Whig philosophy that God is a personal God, intervening in the lives of human beings, as historian Eric Foner explains in The Fiery Trial, citizens close to Lincoln recognized a reincarnation of Thomas Jefferson. Lincoln admired Jefferson, and Jefferson, until his “dying days,” advocated the colonization of enslaved Blacks.

While the idea of colonization, expulsion of Black people from the US, might seem absurd, Foner writes, it wasn’t for its advocates. Equipped with a history of Europe’s problems with difference,the original colonists and Founding Fathers transported the solution used against Spanish Muslims and Jews prior to 1492. The experiment in democracy, I would think, begins, to use Foner’s words, with “virtually” expelling “the entire Indian population east of the Mississippi River” from their ancient homelands and situating these people on designated lands in the West.

When many on the Left and many progressives warn of what could happen here on US soil, remind them that it has already happened!

Advocates imagined, Foner writes, that colonization could bring about a society free: free from “both slavery and the unwanted presence of blacks.” A sort of “Make America Great Again” project in the Lincoln era. In a debate with then fellow presidential candidate Stephen Douglass, Lincoln refused to believe in the right of “black citizenship and civil and political equality.” What he did believe, however, was that “making slavery a target of the war effort would drive all the states of the Upper South to secede and shatter northern unanimity.”

As Douglass continued to call for total emancipation, or rather, as Foner points out in The Second Founding, the “abolition” of slavery, Lincoln, signs emancipation decrees in bits and pieces, still holding out what was for him the best option: colonization. Lincoln, writes Foner in TheFiery, seems to gravitate toward the “lowest common denominator of public sentiment.”

“There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of Lincoln’s ten years of public support for colonization; it had always been one part of a larger vision of how slavery might end.”

Image placeholder title

Douglass kept to his work, which drew its strength, as Blight notes, from his empathy with the lives of some four million human beings. “The wretchedness of slavery, and the blessedness of freedom, were perpetually before me. It was life or death with me.” Yet, Lincoln, Douglass observes couldn’t empathize with African Americans. If he recognized the lives of slaveholder who would lose their property, means of survival, how would this particular population fair in this country without their profitable livelihood? As Foner writes in The Fiery, “in all other proclamations [except the “final”], Lincoln never mentions the word slavery.” The Civil War is a “military operation” to suppress “insurrectionary combinations.”

But the question haunted Americans as it did President Lincoln, “What shall we do with the Negro.” And there is Frederick Douglass, shouting and writing frantically the answer. Douglass never gave up; he never failed to challenge the many forms white supremacy sounded like and looked like.

But again, Lincoln calls African American representatives to the White House, and this time, Douglass is invited. But it’s an all-Lincoln show, complete with charges that the war was the fault of Blacks in America! “But for your race among us there could not be war, although many men engaged on other side do not care for you one way or another,” Blight cites. Again, Lincoln asks the Blacks present, how could they expect this nation to accept “racial equality” in this nation? Recognize that slavery had “evil effects on the white race.” Speak no more of “equality.” “We should be separated.” Please, lead your people “to a foreign colony.”

Blacks still on plantations, some in border states on war camps, some “free” in the north, witnessed in real time a spectacle of violence as equally as destructive as the Civil War itself. How does one confront the ignorance and fear of a multitude, willing to say and do whatever it takes to stay in power?

As for Douglass, he feels betrayed but hadn’t he known this product of Western civilization all along?

Douglass refuses to waver in his belief, writes Blight, in “the instinctive consciousness of the common brotherhood of man.” In the meantime, African Americans won’t surrender to the idea of white supremacy!

Back at home, Douglass sits at his “editor’s desk.” He had done so many times, writes Blight. Douglass looks out “on the war.” And all these years later, we see that for him the “wretched” aren’t strangers. Shaking off despair, he picks up his pen, and begins to “speak for 4 million slaves.” Don’t be fooled, the war is the product of a “cruel and brutal cupidity of those who wish to possess horses, money, and Negroes by means of theft, robbery, and rebellion.” We will, Douglass continues, have our last struggle with the “monster” slavery…

...and its legacy of white supremacy and anti-blackness.

Emancipation arrives, eventually; the abolition, however, of tyranny is another matter.

In August of 1957, in his “West India Emancipation speech,” eight years before the “end” of the Civil War, Douglass speaks to Black Americans:

[dc]“I[/dc]f there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation are [people] who want crops without planting up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters… Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

Frederick Douglass’s words still speak to us today in the 21st Century.

Lenore Jean Daniels
Black Commentator