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4/1/11 - "Frederick Douglass. Race and the Rebirth of American Liberalism" review by Cary Fraser, Ph.D.

Frederick Douglass. Race and the Rebirth of American Liberalism (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2008)

by Peter C. Myers

Review by: Cary Fraser, Ph.D.

Originally published in the "Trinidad and Tobago Review", September 8, 2009.

Frederick Douglass. Race and the Rebirth of American LiberalismAs Barack Obama’s odyssey as the first African American President of the United States unfolds amidst the most serious economic challenges since the Great Depression of the 1930s, two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that have demonstrated the limits of American military power, and widely televised displays of domestic discontent tinged with the potent elixir of American racism over health care reform, it is evident that the politics of race and governance in America has entered a new phase. Obama’s presidency will be a test of both his political acumen and the capacity of America to redeem itself from the troubled history of white supremacy that has defined its life and culture. In this context, this recently-published book on Frederick Douglass, the intellectually gifted African American who became a central figure in the abolitionist movement and a champion of a vision of viable citizenship for African Americans after the Civil War and Emancipation, offers an opportunity to understand the historical magnitude of the challenge that currently confronts Barack Obama as he seeks to transcend the torment of race in American political culture.

Like Douglass in the 19th century and Martin Luther King, Jr in the 20th, Obama in the 21st century has had to articulate a vision of American society that does not draw sustenance from the poisoned chalice of race. The fact that three intellectually gifted African American leaders have been unable to tame the demon of race serves as a reminder of the longevity and intractability of “The American Dilemma”.

Confronted from childhood with the insight that education “would forever unfit him to be a slave”, Frederick Douglass’ life was defined by the search to escape slavery, as both personal burden and as cultural and political pathology in American life. In escaping slavery, however, Douglass discovered that the agonies of slavery left a legacy of race as an indelible marker of difference and a fundament of American life—a legacy that has yet to disappear even after the first Reconstruction of 1865–1876 and the Second Reconstruction of 1954–1969. Throughout American history, the imagined differences of race have constructed a reality of American society as: (1) a deviant with respect to the idea that all men are created equal, notwithstanding the rhetorical commitment to the idea as a fundament of American national ideology; (2) committed to the idea that human difference should lend itself to the construction and perpetuation of a hierarchy of race based upon a fundamental illusion of “white supremacy”; and, (3) displaying a pathological obsession with the idea that phenotypical markers are transformed into mental/intellectual attributes in human beings. In effect, race in the American imagination has created its own versions of reality and, notwithstanding the challenges from legal, moral, and scientific efforts to repudiate the illusions of “white supremacy” and pernicious delusions about the “automatic inferiority” of people of colour, the idea that whites should be perceived as a “dominant race”—in the parlance of the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896—has remained a central feature of American life.

Myers’ exploration of Frederick Douglass’ thought that emerged over the course of his life that straddled the American Civil War, seeks to establish the importance of Douglass as a tribune of American Liberalism who continues to have resonance in contemporary America.

Myers’ concern with reasserting Douglass’ voice and his intellectual example in African American life is driven in part by a concern that “radical currents have gained such force among the generality of blacks as to threaten to displace the liberal mainstream of African American political thought.” (p.3) For Myers, “Virtually all observers agree that the present condition of black alienation is fraught with peril, for African Americans in particular and for America as a whole.” (p.7) To counter this alienation and its implicit rejection of the American experience by “the radical currents,” Myers argues that Douglass: grew quickly to affirm a vision of justice deeply rooted in American principles; and over the course of his long career, he produced the most powerful argument for the affirmation of those principles in the history of African American political thought. In the end, Douglass stands virtually unrivalled as the invincible adversary of black alienation, an exemplar and apostle of peculiarly American and African American forms of hopefulness. (p.7)

From this point of departure, Myers explores the significance of Douglass’ life and his writings over the course of the 19th century. He argues that Douglass was an architect of the African American intellectual tradition who sought to use American ideals, its Constitutional principles, his newspaper columns and speeches, and his access to both abolitionists and politicians in pursuit of black emancipation and full citizenship rights for African Americans. In Myers’ view, Douglass’ challenge to slavery seems to have been motivated by a firm belief that divine Providence was opposed to slavery and, moreover, the system represented a contradiction of natural law and stood against reason. As a consequence, for Douglass, to engage in respectful argument with proponents of the system was to dignify an unworthy system that was based on the dehumanisation of both the slave and the slave-holder. Further, he embraced the idea that the slave had a right to revolt against the system; adopted the view that the Constitution was, at heart, a weapon to be used against slavery and its champions; and welcomed the advent of the Civil War to destroy a monstrous system and expunge the moral blemish that slavery embodied.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, Douglass’ concerns focused upon championing the full integration of African Americans into the American political order and the development of a culture of self-reliance that could ensure African American survival as a free people and which would provide a way out of poverty and the other legacies of slavery. In addition, he inveighed against the proposals to expatriate African Americans by way of colonization schemes and the attempts to establish a racial caste system as the successor regime to slavery. In effect, after the Civil War, Douglass was engaged in the challenge to prevent the creation of another racial hierarchy that would institutionalize African Americans as a disadvantaged population.

Myers’ exploration of Douglass’ life and thought reveals the enormous complexity of the man and his sophisticated appreciation of politics in 19th century America. Douglass was both catalyst and combatant in the search for an alternative American order that would transcend slavery and race as markers of African American disadvantage. His thought reflected the struggles of an engaged intellectual and the challenges of both shaping and responding to shifts in the political context and the intellectual climate of a society. It is also a narrative of an exceptional man whose personal trajectory was a microcosm of the shifting historical context in America over the course of the 19th century, making him a man of, and for, his time. Just as important, his life and work would serve as precedent and parallel for other major African American figures like Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. DuBois, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Barack Obama.

While Myers has undoubtedly offered an interesting perspective on Douglass and his role in the development of African American intellectual and political life, his attempt to deploy Douglass as a counter to contemporary currents of alienation among African Americans is less successful. Given the structural inequality fostered by the politics of white supremacy that has defined American life for much of the country’s history, it is rather naïve to argue that the life and thought of a single individual of exceptional intellectual and intestinal fortitude could provide an alternative to the realities of racial disadvantage in the contemporary context. Individual accomplishment has a limited impact upon the processes of social change and the reversal of the culture of alienation that exists in contemporary America. Douglass as a role model has to be considered in a context where African American activists like Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr were all assassinated in the struggle to dismantle the “Jim Crow” regime in American life. While Douglass was able to live well beyond the end of the Civil War and continue to struggle to give meaning to black emancipation in the late 19th century, King’s prescient statement on the eve of his assassination in April 1968—“I may not get there with you.”—has a resonance and an immediacy that has not diminished in contemporary American life.

It would have been useful for Myers to have paid greater consideration to the sources of African American alienation in contemporary America, including the persistence of residential and educational segregation on the basis of race, employment and income disparities among racial groups, and the post-1968 resurgence of an American conservatism under the aegis of the Republican party determined to compromise the politics of inclusion that reshaped America in the 20th century. From the 19th amendment to the Constitution in 1920 guaranteeing female suffrage to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that restored and enforced suffrage rights for African Americans and other historically-disadvantaged populations, American politics over the course of the 20th century was defined by the expansion of citizenship rights to bring previously excluded groups into the democratic political order.

In response to the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of the mid-1960s, the Republican party began the assiduous courtship of Southern “Conservatives” that would pave the way for the election of Richard Nixon in 1968 and his Republican heirs to the Presidency—Ronald Reagan and the Bushes—who all sought to reverse the political empowerment of African Americans that was one consequence of the Civil Rights Revolution. As the Democrats had done after the end of Reconstruction in 1876, the Republicans pursued a strategy focused upon containing the growth of African American influence in American life. In effect, the Republicans after 1965 fostered a climate in which African American alienation from American political life gained ground as a response to the efforts to denigrate the politics of inclusive democracy after 1968. In his July 5, 1852, speech—What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?—Douglass had cited an excerpt of Psalm 137:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yea! We wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there, they that carried us away captive, required of us a song: and they who wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

It was a refrain that could be applied just as well to the Republican Ascendancy over the period 1968–2008 in American political life. It will be the success of the Obama administration in the adoption of an American liberal agenda that will determine whether a new vision of inclusive politics will reframe the American democratic order and the role of African Americans therein. In that context, Frederick Douglass’ life and thought will have considerable relevance as Myers has reminded the readers of his thoughtful volume.