On my most recent travels to Washington, D.C. I didn’t cross the Anacostia River to visit the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site which was the home of the former slave and iconic abolitionist, orator, and writer. My time in the city was then little and winding down, and my frustration ran deep as the locale which loomed large on tourist maps beckoned me. Yet the sun was setting, and I and my travelling entourage were tired, hungry, and thirsty. Of course, I knew of Frederick Douglass, and I had read some of his texts but not in the context of other African American thinkers and African American social philosophers. I knew of Frederick Douglass in the American context of the grand scheme of U.S History that is Founding Fathers, War of Independence, Abolition, Civil War, Civil Rights unto the present. In that context he is undeniably a hero. The hero.
In my current reading of the text Creative Conflict in African American Thought–a text published in 2004 and written by history professor Wilson Jeremiah Moses–I have had the opportunity to place Frederick Douglass in a historical context with other African American thinkers including Alexander Crummel, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Marcus Garvey. Mine is an opportunity rarely afforded African American youth given that our K-12 education system teaches of historical giants such as Douglass (when at all) within the grand scheme of U.S. history and as colonial appendages to the broader culture. During my own education before attending college, I don’t recall in depth studies of African American thinkers other than Martin Luther King. It took my own efforts as a teen to scour then extant L.A. bookstores and find the writings of Angela Davis, Sonia Sanchez, Malcolm X, etc. In the U.S. it isn’t until one attends college that one has access to a wide range of African American thought. Indeed, American universities are the vanguard of research on African-American history and culture with their researchers and professors distinguished by an enthusiasm, passionate curiosity and analysis that rarely reaches secondary education.
Euro-American popular culture disparages history, and as a people living in a colonial situation in the United States, our living experiences in many cases mimic White Americans while simultaneously being antithetical to White reality. Euro-American culture erases the blundering of Natives, forgets its own indentured servitude, and disregards the manner in which European and “white” non-European immigrants to America changed ethnic-sounding monikers to Anglo last names while, at the same time, this dominant culture professes a belief in never-ending progress based on bourgeois ideals. Given White Amnesia regarding history, it is not surprising that as Black Folk we don’t readily refer to our history in the United States within an African-American context. Not only do we not refer to the specificities of our U.S. history, we fail to put ourselves within the larger African diaspora that includes not just primogenial Africa but Blacks living in Europe and our distant cousins through enslavement throughout the Americas.
Frederick Douglass is full of history and fuller still within an African-American context wherein one sees him not only as an abolitionist, but as an assimilationist as well. A man of recognized mixed ancestry (born of the enslaved Harriet Bailey and a White father who would not recognize him), his predisposition was to view Whites as superior. He was not an advocate for Black racial pride nor ethnic solidarity and saw little use for Black institutions. He was indeed a follower of bourgeois conventions.
As African-Americans we act out our foremothers and forefathers frequently and regularly. The dominant culture would have us be only Frederick Douglass. Yet without acknowledgment we have our rebellious Angela Davis cerebrations, our unrelenting Malcolm or high-road Martin agitation, our Booker T. desires to start a Black Business, and our Du Bois integration frustrations that lead to yearnings of donning Ankara African fabric and returning for good to the African continent. Yet rarely are we put into that cultural context. As high school students we aren’t consistently afforded this mirror to look at ourselves. As writers we often fail to put Black Americans within the context of Black thought and its developments. And we most certainly cannot expect White America to do this for us. The result is a lack of recognition and awareness about how African American thought develops, how it turns on itself, and how it regresses. History is alive. It is under the surface of everything we do. It urges to manifest itself. As writers and educators, it is our duty to hear its call and reclaim African American history from under the mantle of alienation.
Writer and Teacher