Frederick Douglass: He knew why the caged bird sang

From YouTube: This is a clip from the film 12 Years a Slave. The slaves sing “Roll Jordan Roll” during a funeral for one of their own.

Frederick Douglass, as I like to say, was the most eminently quotable man of his generation. This 19th century abolitionist, writer, publisher, orator, community activist, civil servant, and former slave, was perhaps the spokesman for the African American community during his lifetime.

In his memoir My Bondage and My Freedom – which was part of the slave narrative literary genre – Douglass spoke about the meaning of song to enslaved African Americans. Songs had many purposes. They were utilitarian: they helped overseers keep track of slaves working in the fields. They were flattering: they praised the slave master in a way that might curry his or her favor. And they were healing: they helped purge the soul of the pain that bondage brought to the body.

Douglass warned, don’t mistake the slaves’ songs as a sign of their contentment: “Sorrow and desolation have their songs, as well as joy and peace. Slaves sing more to make themselves happy, than to express their happiness.”

These are Douglass’ thoughts on the meaning and value of song to the enslaved, from My Bondage and My Freedom:

Slaves are generally expected to sing as well as to work. A silent slave is not liked by masters or overseers. “Make a noise,” “make a noise,” and “bear a hand,” are the words usually addressed to the slaves when there is silence amongst them. This may account for the almost constant singing heard in the southern states. There was, generally, more or less singing among the teamsters, as it was one means of letting the overseer know where they were, and that they were moving on with the work.

But, on allowance day, those who visited the great house farm were peculiarly excited and noisy. While on their way, they would make the dense old woods, for miles around, reverberate with their wild notes. These were not always merry because they were wild. On the contrary, they were mostly of a plaintive cast, and told a tale of grief and sorrow. In the most boisterous outbursts of rapturous sentiment, there was ever a tinge of deep melancholy.

In all the songs of the slaves, there was ever some expression in praise of the great house farm; something which would flatter the pride of the owner, and, possibly, draw a favorable glance from him.

I am going away to the great house farm,
O yea! O yea! O yea!
My old master is a good old master,
O yea! O yea! O yea!

This they would sing, with other words of their own improvising—jargon to others, but full of meaning to themselves. I have sometimes thought, that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress truly spiritual-minded men and women with the soul-crushing and death-dealing character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of its mere physical cruelties. They speak to the heart and to the soul of the thoughtful. I cannot better express my sense of them now, than ten years ago, when, in sketching my life, I thus spoke of this feature of my plantation experience:

I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meanings of those rude, and apparently incoherent songs. I was myself within the circle, so that I neither saw or heard as those without might see and hear. They told a tale which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones, loud, long and deep, breathing the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains. The hearing of those wild notes always depressed my spirits, and filled my heart with ineffable sadness. The mere recurrence, even now, afflicts my spirit, and while I am writing these lines, my tears are falling.

To those songs I trace my first glimmering conceptions of the dehumanizing character of slavery. I can never get rid of that conception. Those songs still follow me, to deepen my hatred of slavery, and quicken my sympathies for my brethren in bonds.

The remark is not unfrequently made, that slaves are the most contended and happy laborers in the world. They dance and sing, and make all manner of joyful noises—so they do; but it is a great mistake to suppose them happy because they sing. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows, rather than the joys, of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears. Such is the constitution of the human mind, that, when pressed to extremes, it often avails itself of the most opposite methods… The singing of a man cast away on a desolate island, might be as appropriately considered an evidence of his contentment and happiness, as the singing of a slave. Sorrow and desolation have their songs, as well as joy and peace. Slaves sing more to make themselves happy, than to express their happiness.

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The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro, by Frederick Douglass – Part 1: “for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.”

418px-Frederick_Douglass_portrait
Frederick Douglass
Image Source: Wikipedia Commons

The following is an excerpt from the iconic “Fourth of July” speech given by the African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass. The speech is so long that I have split it into parts, for the purpose of presenting it on this blog. This is the first of two parts.

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“The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” by Frederick Douglass
A speech given at Rochester, New York, July 5, 1852

Mr. President, Friends and Fellow Citizens:

He who could address this audience without a quailing sensation, has stronger nerves than I have. I do not remember ever to have appeared as a speaker before any assembly more shrinkingly, nor with greater distrust of my ability, than I do this day. A feeling has crept over me quite unfavorable to the exercise of my limited powers of speech. The task before me is one which requires much previous thought and study for its proper performance. I know that apologies of this sort are generally considered flat and unmeaning. I trust, however, that mine will not be so considered. Should I seem at ease, my appearance would much misrepresent me. The little experience I have had in addressing public meetings, in country school houses, avails me nothing on the present occasion.

The papers and placards say that I am to deliver a Fourth of July Oration. This certainly sounds large, and out of the common way, for me. It is true that I have often had the privilege to speak in this beautiful Hall, and to address many who now honor me with their presence. But neither their familiar faces, nor the perfect gage I think I have of Corinthian Hall seems to free me from embarrassment.

The fact is, ladies and gentlemen, the distance between this platform and the slave plantation, from which I escaped, is considerable-and the difficulties to be overcome in getting from the latter to the former are by no means slight. That I am here to-day is, to me, a matter of astonishment as well as of gratitude. You will not, therefore, be surprised, if in what I have to say I evince no elaborate preparation, nor grace my speech with any high sounding exordium. With little experience and with less learning, I have been able to throw my thoughts hastily and imperfectly together; and trusting to your patient and generous indulgence I will proceed to lay them before you.

This, for the purpose of this celebration, is the Fourth of July. It is the birth day of your National Independence, and of your political freedom. This, to you, as what the Passover was to the emancipated people of God. It carries your minds back to the day, and to the act of your great deliverance; and to the signs, and to the wonders, associated with that act, and that day. This celebration also marks the beginning of another year of your national life; and reminds you that the Republic of America is now 76 years old. l am glad, fellow-citizens, that your nation is so young. Seventy-six years, though a good old age for a man, is but a mere speck in the life of a nation. Three score years and ten is the allotted time for individual men; but nations number their years by thousands. According to this fact, you are, even now, only in the beginning of your national career, still lingering in the period of childhood. I repeat, I am glad this is so. There is hope in the thought, and hope is much needed, under the dark clouds which lower above the horizon.

My business, if I have any here to-day, is with the present. The accepted time with God and His cause is the ever-living now.

Trust no future, however pleasant,
Let the dead past bury its dead;
Act, act in the living present,
Heart within, and God overhead.

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?

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 light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth 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? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn you that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation whose crimes, towering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrevocable ruin! I can to-day take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people!

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, “may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!” 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! Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting.

America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.

Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, 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.

At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy-a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.

Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.

Frederick Douglass: Fighting Against a “White Man’s War”/Part 3

Part 2 of 3 of this Frederick Douglass birthday celebration is here.


President Lincoln recruiting the Negro: One good turn deserves another, London Punch, 1862.

The caption reads, “Why, I du declare, it’s my dear old friend Sambo. Course you’ll fight for us, Sambo. Lend us a hand, old hoss, du.” This cartoon was published a month before Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862. More details on the cartoon are here.

One notable aspect of the cartoon is that the black character is depicted realistically, while the Lincoln figure is caricatured. In American cartoons, it was common to show blacks as having exaggerated and buffoonish facial features, such as huge lips.
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I congratulate you, upon what may be called the greatest event of our nation’s history (issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation), if not the greatest event of the century…

In the hurry and excitement of the moment, it is difficult to grasp the full and complete significance of President Lincoln’s proclamation. The change in attitude of the Government is vast and startling. For more than sixty years the Federal Government has been little better than a stupendous engine of Slavery and oppression, through which Slavery has ruled us, as with a rod of iron. The boast that Cotton is King was no empty boast. Assuming that our Government and people will sustain the President and the Proclamation, we can scarcely conceive of a more complete revolution in the position of a nation…

I hail it as the doom of Slavery in all the States. I hail it as the end of all that miserable statesmanship, which has for 60 years juggled and deceived the people, by professing to reconcile what is irreconcilable.

We are all liberated by this proclamation. Everybody is liberated. The white man is liberated, the black man is liberated, the brave men now fighting the battles of their country against rebels and traitors are now liberated, and may strike with all their might, even if they do hurt the Rebels, at their most sensitive point. [Applause.] I congratulate you upon this amazing change—the amazing approximation toward the sacred truth of human liberty.
– Frederick Douglass, Speech at The Cooper Institute in New York, February 6, 1863

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By February 1863, Frederick Douglass was surely feeling joyful and triumphant. On January 1 of 1863, president Abraham Lincoln issued the final version of the Emancipation Proclamation. America’s slaves were declared forever free – with the caveat that the slave-holding Border States (Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri) and some Unionist or Union controlled areas in the Confederacy (such as Tennessee and Louisiana) were exempted. But that wasn’t a show stopper for Douglass; he believed that the Proclamation marked the beginning of the end of slavery. Time would prove him correct.

But in the short run, there was a war to fight. After the issuance of the Proclamation, the Union’s efforts to recruit black men into the army began in earnest. And it wasn’t a sure thing that black men would enlist.

Many blacks were angry that they were denied enlistment when the war started, being told this was a “white man’s war.” The Emancipation Proclamation, for all the hope it offered, did not free slaves in Union strongholds; this was not the unequivocal call for black freedom that many wanted to see. And blacks were infuriated when they discovered that colored soldiers were paid less than their white counterparts. Wasn’t a black man’s life worth as much as a white man’s, they asked?

But where some had doubts, Douglass had resolve. No black leader was more prominent, insistent, and supportive of black enlistment than Douglass, at least in the several months after the Proclamation. Earlier, he said that unless the Union committed to ending slavery, “they don’t deserve the support of a single sable arm.” Now that the Union made the commitment, Douglass was all in.

While freedom for the slaves was paramount, Douglass saw another purpose in black military service: it would give colored people the opportunity to prove, through manly courage and performance of duty, that their race was worthy of full citizenship. Douglass understood that freedom and equality were not the same thing. If the colored man was to attain his due rights and respect, he must fight to earn it. If whites were fighting for their cause, then blacks could do no less for their own.

In his March 1863 “Men of Color to Arms” speech, Douglass argued

From East to West, from North to South, the sky is written all over, “Now or never.” Liberty won by white men would lose half its luster. “Who would be free themselves must strike the blow.” “Better even die free, than to live slaves.” This is the sentiment of every brave colored man amongst us. There are weak and cowardly men in all nations. We have them amongst us. They tell you this is the “white man’s war”; and you will be “no better off after than before the war”; that the getting of you into the army is to “sacrifice you on the first opportunity.” Believe them not; cowards themselves, they do not wish to have their cowardice shamed by your brave example. Leave them to their timidity, or to whatever motive may hold them back.

Douglass’ play of the “coward card” was a harsh critique for those not wanting to enlist, coming as it did in a male dominated era where the willingness to stand-up for one’s self and fight was a necessary proof of manhood; and in a racist era where the black male was stereotyped as docile, submissive, and lacking in fortitude. His rhetorical challenge went to the heart of 19th century conceptions of what it meant to be a man: if you’re not man enough to fight in this war, Douglass argued to his fellows, then you deserve your degraded position in American society.
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Frederick Douglass: Fighting Against a “White Man’s War”/Part 2

Part 1 of 3 of this Frederick Douglass birthday celebration is here.

“Do you not know, Mr. Langston, that this is a white man’s government; that white men are able to defend and protect it, and that to enlist a negro soldier would be to drive every white man out of the service? When we want you colored men we will notify you.”
Ohio Governor David Tod, in response to freeman John Mercer Langston’s offer to recruit black Ohioans for the Union army

The American people and the Government at Washington may refuse to recognize it for a time; but the “inexorable logic of events” will force it upon them in the end; that the war now being waged in this land is a war for and against slavery; and that it can never be effectually put down till one or the other of these vital forces is completely destroyed.
– Frederick Douglass, Douglass’ Monthly, May 1861

…four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war… One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease.

Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.
– Abraham Lincoln, Inaugural Speech, March 4, 1865
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In his second inaugural speech, which followed several years of bloody civil war, President Abraham Lincoln was in a somber and reflective mood. We thought this would be a brief war, an “easy triumph,” he admitted. But the reality was much different. Prayers made had not been answered. He seemed to be pondering, What led us to this?

Slavery, he offered, had confounded them. “All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war,” but he wasn’t more specific. And nobody, he said, expected that “the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease.”

But Frederick Dougless always knew it would come to this. Douglass believed, from the start, that the war was caused by the slave states’ desire to protect their peculiar institution. He felt that if slavery could be toppled, the Confederacy would be toppled as well. But practical, political, and even constitutional issues prevented the Union from making the Civil War into a war for black southerner’s independence. Douglass saw that as folly. Sooner or later, he believed, it would all come down to the status of the negro – as a slave in the South; and perhaps also as a soldier in the North. The “inexorable logic of events” would force the issue upon them, he said.

By mid-1862, members of Congress and Lincoln cabinet were indeed feeling the force of events. A number of bloody battles, including conspicuous losses in Virginia, established that the war would not be an easy triumph. Lincoln’s initial call for 75,000 troops was now seen as inadequate. Many, many more soldiers would be needed for what would become the bloodiest war in American history. Continue reading