— Frederick Douglass, Letter to My Old Master, 1848
I’m not sure if I’ve written about this or not—I may have.
I attended a training session for a volunteer exhibit guide for a new project here at the Rochester Museum and Science Center tonight. The exhibit is a product of the American Anthropological Association. It’s entitled: “Race: Are We So Different?” The event was phenomenal and I was able to engage people—young and old, of different races, ethnicities, sexes, genders, religious persuasions, etc—on an issue that is very important to me.
Race and racism may seem anachronistic for some—those, especially, who contend we live in a “post-racial” society. However, race and racism continue to beleaguer people all over this country in material ways. Education, housing, wealth, health care, income and a whole host of other indices of social thriving are colored—quite literally—by the effect of race and racism.
My interest in this issue finds its provenance in my own deep reflection on the concepts of race and racism. Fortunately, I have not been the object of racist oppression or denigration—not in any substantive way as, say, my grandmothers or my father might have been at some point during their lives. In this regard, I count myself a serendipitous exception to what seems like a rule in a country as race-centric as our own, even today: if you are a young man of color, chances are you have had some experience with this ugly concept.
However, on a more personal, introspective level, I have had what I think was a rather profound experience. It happened sometime last year when I was studying American Slavery and Freedom and taking a class on the thought and work of Dr. Cornel West. I found myself confronting, at least through the literature prescribed in these courses, this concept (and its history) of race.
I watched videos of James Baldwin on YouTube. I read Wikipedia and anything else I could get my hands on: David Walker’s appeal, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Ann Jacobs, etc. Race was all I could think about. I read about Drapetomania and the Civil War and all that I could; even a paper by one of our lesser known ‘founding fathers,’ Benjamin Rush, published in 1799, entitled, Observations Intended to Favour a Supposition That the Black Color (As It Is Called) of the Negroes Is Derived from Leprosy.
I remember stopping, though, one evening while in deep thought about all that I was learning, and asking myself: what if it’s true? What if they’re right? What if being black truly means being “less than”? What if it is the case that there are natural kinds called races? What if I am, by the color of my skin, naturally and eternally consigned to the lower echelons of the human species?
I actually sat there, profoundly confounded, wondering if I was less than human. Never had I ever even flirted with such a notion. Never. I thought I had a healthy self-image, a robust self-concept. My parents and my family, of course, educated me about the history; I read and learned throughout high school. But I never took the time to reflect on what that history meant to me—how I was part of it, and how it was connected to me.
So I took the opportunity, while enrolled in these germane courses at RIT last year, to seriously consider this history, this concept of race. That was really an astonishing moment for me. It was then that I realized the insidious potency of this idea, which before had never beset me with even a scintilla of self-doubt (not owing to race, at least). White supremacy, racism, these concepts have left an indelible history—with which we all are still contending—on the world.
And that moment, when I sat there wondering if somehow these narratives were true, I realized the power of an idea. No physical violence was necessary. No racial epithet was warranted. All that was required was an idea, which I took the time to read and learn about—and on which I intensely reflected (maybe longer than I should have). That was enough to bring me to such a watershed, introspective moment.
I know that I am somebody. I understand that I matter. I grasp my value as a person. I totally comprehend that the “rape of logic” (as Nietzsche put it) that is the idea of race is just that—a magnificent non-sequitur. But only after that conceptual nadir did this become incontrovertibly evident for me.
Now I don’t mean to make this moment sound like some world-historical juncture. It was something powerful for me. And I know something like what I experienced scarcely reaches the existential, physical, and spiritual suffering of those—my ancestors—who had to really coexist with brutal, explicit and violent expressions of racism and white supremacy. I’m not claiming that.
I’m simply claiming that there is power in an idea. There is so much power and energy there. I was challenged on the psychical and intrapersonal levels. But what are racism and white supremacy if not ideas of oppression that infect and affect us—all of us—at the psychical and physical levels? What if it is really a life and death matter?
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A history of Western political philosophy that runs from Plato to Rawls while ignoring the abolitionist, anti-imperialist, antisegregationist work of such figures as David Walker, Martin Delaney, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, C.L.R. James, Frantz Fanon, and Martin Luther King Jr. is a history insidiously political in its amnesiac denial of the centrality of slavery, imperialism, and Jim Crow to the history of the West.
“Non-Cartesian Sums” x Blackness Visible: Essays on Philosophy and Race x Charles W. Mills
Hence, my friends, every mother who, like Margaret Garner, plunges a knife into the bosom of her infant to save it from the hell of our Christian slavery, should be held and honored as a benefactress. ~ Frederick Douglass (1857)
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Frederick Douglass, What to the Slave is the 4th of July? (1852)
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Frederick Douglass, What to the Slave is the 4th of July?
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Frederick Douglass, What to the Slave is the 4th of July? (1852)
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Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom, 1855 (pg. 99)
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The slaveholder, having nothing to fear from impotent childhood, easily affords to refrain from cruel inflictions; and if cold and hunger do not pierce the tender frame, the first seven or eight years of the slave-boy’s life are about as full of sweet content as those of the most favored and petted white children of the slaveholder. The slave-boy escapes many troubles which befall and vex his white brother. He seldom has to listen to lectures on propriety of behavior, or on anything else. He is never chided for handling his little knife and fork improperly or awkwardly, for he uses none. He is never reprimanded for soiling the table-cloth, for he takes his meals on the clay floor.
He never has the misfortune, in his games or sports, of soiling or tearing his clothes, for he has almost none to soil or tear. He is never expected to act like a nice little gentleman, for he is only a rude little slave. Thus, freed from all restraint, the slave-boy can be, in his life and conduct, a genuine boy, doing whatever his boyish nature suggests; enacting, by turns, all the strange antics and freaks of horses, dogs, pigs, and barn-door fowls, without in any manner compromising his dignity, or incurring reproach of any sort. He literally runs wild; has no pretty little verses to learn in the nursery; no nice little speeches to make for aunts, uncles, or cousins, to show how smart he is; and, if he can only manage to keep out of the way of the heavy feet and fists of the older slave boys, he may trot on, in his joyous and roguish tricks, as happy as any little heathen under the palm trees of Africa.
To be sure, he is occasionally reminded, when he stumbles in the path of his master—and this he early learns to avoid—that he is eating his “white bread,” and that he will be made to “see sights” by-and-by. The threat is soon forgotten; the shadow soon passes, and our sable boy continues to roll in the dust, or play in the mud, as bests suits him, and in the veriest freedom. If he feels uncomfortable, from mud or from dust, the coast is clear; he can plunge into the river or the pond, without the ceremony of undressing, or the fear of wetting his clothes; his little tow-linen shirt—for that is all he has on—is easily dried; and it needed ablution as much as did his skin. His food is of the coarsest kind, consisting for the most part of cornmeal mush, which often finds it way from the wooden tray to his mouth in an oyster shell.
His days, when the weather is warm, are spent in the pure, open air, and in the bright sunshine. He always sleeps in airy apartments; he seldom has to take powders, or to be paid to swallow pretty little sugar-coated pills, to cleanse his blood, or to quicken his appetite. He eats no candies; gets no lumps of loaf sugar; always relishes his food; cries but little, for nobody cares for his crying; learns to esteem his bruises but slight, because others so esteem them. In a word, he is, for the most part of the first eight years of his life, a spirited, joyous, uproarious, and happy boy, upon whom troubles fall only like water on a duck’s back. And such a boy, so far as I can now remember, was the boy whose life in slavery I am now narrating.
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