Frederick Douglass and Chris Rock
When Chris Rock made his deprecating and crude remark on July 4, 2012, I was reminded of the truly eloquent words of once-enslaved Frederick Douglass, whose lyricism still astonishes in the 21st century.
On July 4, 1852, Frederick Douglass penned the essay entitled "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" It is a stirring indictment of the hypocrisy of Americans who could celebrate independence while slavery still existed in this country. Douglass writes:
Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men too-great enough to give fame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.
They were peace men; but they preferred revolution to peaceful submission to bondage. They were quiet men; but they did not shrink from agitating against oppression. They showed forbearance; but that they knew its limits. They believed in order; but not in the order of tyranny. With them, nothing was "settled" that was not right. With them, justice, liberty and humanity were 'final;' not slavery and oppression. You may well cherish the memory of such men. They were great in their day and generation. Their solid manhood stands out the more as we contrast it with these degenerate times.
It is the prelude to the stinging words that Douglass will use to contrast the conditions of black Americans more than 75 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?
But, such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. 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. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day[?]
Fellow-citizens; above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day[,]
To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world. My subject, then fellow-citizens, is AMERICAN SLAVERY. I shall see, this day, and its popular characteristics, from the slave's point of view. Standing, there, identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July! ...I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the constitution and the Bible, which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery-the great sin and shame of America! 'I will not equivocate; I will not excuse;' I will use the severest language I can command; and yet not one word shall escape me that any man, whose judgment is not blinded by prejudice, or who is not at heart a slaveholder, shall not confess to be right and just.
And with great passion, impeccable logic, cogent biblical allusions, and a call to genuine Christian values of love and charity, Douglass "affirms the equal manhood of the Negro race" and the "glaring violation[s] of justice" that inhabited America at the time.
Shame on the country. Slavery is a blight that can never be forgotten.
But what was the point of Rock's comment? Was it to rile up the already heated racism that is all too prevalent in the Obama world when Eric Holder makes comments about "[his] people," forgetting that all Americans are his people? Are we supposed to go backwards and now make white people beholden to black masters in order to balance the score?
Is this yet another example of "sophistry and self-destructive illusions" as explained on the blurb of Shelby Steele's White Guilt: How Blacks & Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era? -- where "whites for their reasons, and blacks for theirs, embraced the idea that white guilt explains blacks' problems and can be the basis of policies for ameliorating them"?
Are we to ignore the burgeoning black-on-white attacks across the nation because, after all, it is whitey's turn now? Wouldn't all of society be better-served if Rock publicized the tragic drama that is now playing out in the black communities? According to Walter E. Williams:
... [e]ach year, roughly 7,000 blacks are murdered. Ninety-four percent of the time, the murderer is another black person. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, between 1976 and 2011, there were 279,384 black murder victims. Using the 94 percent figure means that 262,621 were murdered by other blacks. Though blacks are 13 percent of the nation's population, they account for more than 50 percent of homicide victims. Nationally, black homicide victimization rate is six times that of whites, and in some cities, it's 22 times [.]
Things certainly have changed in this country.
Frederick Douglass, who had every right to despise America, stated that:
... notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. 'The arm of the Lord is not shortened,' and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age.
Is Chris Rock just being humorous, as actors Don Cheadle and Zach Braff assert? Or is this indicative of a simmering anger, resentment, and animosity that is coursing through this country between the races? Each time another cultural pop icon makes these kinds of comments, it feeds into a victimization mentality. When you have the popularity that Rock has, why not exult about the achievements of black Americans? Why not get black children excited about the accomplishments of their forebears, whatever mix of family color?
I suspect that whatever heavenly perch Frederick Douglass is sitting upon, he must be viewing America with sadness and dismay, but for very different reasons from those he had in 1852!
Eileen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.