In honor of Black History month, which began yesterday, this month I’d like to talk a little about the African-American historical figures who’ve influenced and inspired me the most.
World-renown black leaders like President Barack Obama, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and El Hajj Malik El Shabazz (Malcolm X) actually come from a long line of inspired intellectuals and gifted orators. From W.E.B. DuBois to Booker T. Washington, from Shirley Chisholm and Angela Davis to Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells. But, since childhood, my favorite has been a man who history has seen fit to record, but the focus of that record has been primarily on one facet of his life.
The man I’m speaking of is the great Frederick Douglass, and the focus has been, of course, on his considerable involvement in the abolishment of slavery in the US. All Americans owe Douglass a debt of gratitude, for while presidents ultimately make the final decisions (at least we like to think they do), it’s the advisors who guide them and Douglass no doubt steered Lincoln towards his “better angels”, often against his will, let the truth be known.
I learned as a child that Frederick Douglass, as a child and a slave, taught himself to read and write, taught other slaves how to do the same, and eventually used this self-education to escape from slavery. As he would later put it “knowledge is the pathway from slavery to freedom.” And while the popular image of his time was of a slave getting his skin torn from his back by some sadistic overseer on some godforsaken cotton plantation, Frederick Douglass’ story also includes a fist fight with his master in which Douglass forcefully insisted that he never be beat again! And, after opening a can of whup-ass and coming out of the battle victorious, indeed he was never beat again.
It’s the kinda stuff urban legends are made of, right?
So, yep, I learned the value of reading and writing from studying about Douglass’ accomplishments. I also learned that, though the ability to find compromise is an admirable one, sometimes you just have to stand up and do battle, even if doing so will almost certainly result in an ass-whipping or death or worse.
Here was a compelling story. I was hooked. He instantly became my first historical hero. I read whatever I could find and comprehend about him. I’m certain my knowledge of Douglass, even as an elementary school kid, surpassed even my history teachers’ at the time.
About 8 years ago, however, I discovered a historical jewel. There I was thinking I knew essentially all there was to know about the man, when I stumbled upon this new bit of exciting information.
I was doing research for an editorial I was writing for a newspaper in New York that would run my stories from time to time. I had just returned from a three-week stay in Haiti, having gone there to visit a friend working for an NGO down there (Haiti being the island of NGOs these days) and witness the Bicentennial of the Haitian Revolution-the only successful slave insurrection in history, which laid the groundwork for the formation of the first and only Black Republic in the West.
Here was yet another little historical tidbit that doesn’t get the ink it deserves (I wonder why). While Haiti’s poverty, disease, political corruption and the recent natural disasters get ink by the barrel, not much is said about how Haiti came to be. Well, you better believe Loco gave it its due. (Here’s a link to the editorial I wrote for the newspaper) I’ve read that a movie is “in development” and it’s rumored that either Don Cheadle or Jeffrey Wright will star. I’m hoping both. There were enough heroes in the Haitian Revolution to go around, most prominently Toussaint L’ Ouverture, Jean Jacques Dessalines, Henri Christophe and Alexandre Petion.
But, that’s for another post.
As I was reading through several books about Haiti’s bloody amazing history, I learned not only of the effect this revolution had on the French (having their chapeau handed to them by a well-organized army of fed-up slaves) but on the U.S., as well. In the U.S., VERY nearby and still growing by leaps and bounds on free labor stolen from the same shores these Haitian revolutionaries originated from, a tsunami of fear swept across the Caribbean and right into the heart of the slave-holding Southern States of America. Mind you, the U.S. was still wet behind the ears as a Republic- 20 something years old at the start of the Haitian Revolution..
Can you imagine the headlines on the tabloids? Overworked, Undernourished Slaves kick Bonaparte’s ass! Take island by force and rename it Haiti! Want to open talks and discuss trade with the US!
No wonder they didn’t want slaves reading back then, right? Hell, the US slave trade probably would have ended, in blood (as all successful Revolutions do) long before Lincoln pulled his head out of his ass and decided to do what was best to keep the union together.
Yeah, well, Frederick Douglas understood the reason for black illiteracy perfectly well, and it only motivated him to study harder. Once he’d freed himself, he became a great orator and proponent for not only the Abolition of Slavery but for Women’s Suffrage as well. I mean, the man was driven and relentless.
I was a little vague on what he’d done after the Civil War. That’s probably why I missed this jewel. I came across it, ironically, not in my study of Frederick Douglass but in my research on Haiti. It seems that in 1889 the U.S., in its infinite wisdom, named Douglass the Minister-Resident and Consul-General to the Republic of Haiti. A post he held until 1891 when he resigned in protest of U.S. policies concerning Haiti. Not quite an ambassadorship but nothing to sneeze at either, especially in them days. Well, turns out that in 1893 Douglass gave a speech in Chicago that would send a chill up the leg of even President Obama.
It has come to be known as:
1893 Frederick Douglass Lecture on Haiti at the World’s Fair in Chicago
Of course there’s no recording of this speech. But, if you read it, all 10000 words or so, you will understand not only Douglass, not only Haiti, but indeed the U.S. in a way that you’ve never understood them before. I mean, just when you think you know a man, you come across a lecture, and lecture is the correct word to describe this, that upon completion will leave you feeling like you’ve taken a course on the subject at the finest university money can buy.
Here are a couple of excerpts so you can see what I mean:
“My subject is Haiti, the Black Republic; the only self-made Black Republic in the world. I am to speak to you of her character, her history, her importance and her struggle from slavery to freedom and to statehood. I am to speak to you of her progress in the line of civilization; of her relation with the United States; of her past and present; of her probable destiny; and of the bearing of her example as a free and independent Republic, upon what may be the destiny of the African race in our own country and elsewhere.”
“But a deeper reason for coolness between the countries is this: Haiti is black, and we have not yet forgiven Haiti for being black [applause] or forgiven the Almighty for making her black. [Applause.] In this enlightened act of repentance and forgiveness, our boasted civilization is far behind all other nations. [Applause.] In every other country on the globe a citizen of Haiti is sure of civil treatment. [Applause.] In every other nation his manhood is recognized and respected. [Applause.] “
“Yet, there she is, torn and rent by revolutions, by clamorous factions and anarchies; floundering her life away from year in a labyrinth of social misery. Every little while we find her convulsed by civil war, engaged in the terrible work of death; frantically shedding her own blood and driving her best mental material into hopeless exile. Port au Prince, a city of sixty thousand souls, and capable of being made one of the healthiest, happiest and one of the most beautiful cities of the West Indies, has been destroyed by fire once in each twenty-five years of its history. The explanation is this: Haiti is a country of revolutions.”
Yes, indeed, Brother Douglass brought the noise to the Chicago World’s Fair that April.
Thank you so much Mr. Douglass for teaching the power of the written and spoken word and for helping me not to take for granted education for it’s truly a blessing. By example, like those Haitian revolutionaries, you showed us all what even a slave could do if he doesn’t allow perceived limitations to rule his self-determination.
Whatever I’ve done and whatever I do, I hope it’s clear to you that it’s with gratitude for the efforts and sacrifices you’ve made.
Here’s a link to the complete lecture.
Check it out and see why he’s part of Loco’s Patronus!
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