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This might seem a very strange time to publish a book recommending that we read the voices from the past. Afterwards all, isn’t the present hammering at our door rather violently? There’s a worldwide pandemic; a presidential election is about to eat the attention of America; and if all that weren’t sufficient, we are entering hurricane season. The present is keeping us plenty busy. Who has time for the past?
But my argument is that this is precisely the kind of moment when nosotros need to take some time to stride dorsum from the fire hose of alarming news. (When I offset tried to type
burn hose, I accidentally typed
instead. Indeed.) Equally nosotros try to manage our dispositions, we need two things. First, we need perspective; second, we need serenity. And it’s voices from the past that tin requite us both—fifty-fifty when they say things we don’t want to hear, and when those voices vest to people who have washed bad things. 1 of the best guides I know to such an encounter with the past is Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave, America’s most passionately eloquent advocate for the abolition of slavery.
In Rochester, New York, on July 4, 1852, Douglass gave a voice communication chosen “The Meaning of July 4th for the Negro,” and it is as fine an example of reckoning wisely with a troubling past as I have e’er read. He begins by acknowledging that the Founders “were great men,” though he immediately goes on to say, “The indicate from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration.” Yes: Douglass is compelled to view them in a critical light, considering their failure to eradicate slavery at the nation’south founding led to his own enslavement, led to his being beaten and abused and denied every human right, forced him to alive in bondage and in fear until he could at long last make his escape. Nevertheless, “for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with y’all to honor their memory.”
What, for Douglass, fabricated the Founders worthy of honor? Well, “they loved their country better than their own private interests,” which is good; though they were “peace men,” “they preferred revolution to peaceful submission to bondage,” which is very proficient, and indeed truthful of Douglass himself; and “with them, zippo was ‘settled’ that was not right,” which is excellent. Possibly all-time of all, “with them, justice, liberty and humanity were ‘terminal’; not slavery and oppression.” Therefore, “you may well cherish the retentivity of such men. They were great in their 24-hour interval and generation.”
In their day and generation. But what they achieved, though astonishing in its time, tin no longer exist deemed acceptable. Indeed, information technology never could accept been so deemed, because they did non alive upwardly to the principles they and so powerfully historic. They announced a “final”—that is, an absolute, a nonnegotiable—commitment to justice, liberty, and humanity, but fifty-fifty those who did not own slaves themselves negotiated away the rights of Black people. Then Douglass must say these blunt words: “This Fourth July is yours, non mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”
I wonder whether I can even imagine what information technology cost Douglass to speak as warmly as he did of the Founders. In his autobiography, he describes a moment when he was 12 years one-time and came beyond a book containing a fictional dialogue betwixt a slave and his owner. “The more I read, the more I was led to abominate and detest my enslavers. I could regard them in no other low-cal than a band of successful robbers, who had left their homes, and gone to Africa, and stolen united states of america from our homes, and in a strange land reduced us to slavery. I loathed them as being the meanest as well every bit the most wicked of men.” The Founders could not take been exempt from this loathing: After all, many of them owned slaves, and others tolerated their slave-owning, They deserved denunciation no less than the men who had claimed buying of Douglass. And yet, in his Rochester speech, he conquered his indignation sufficiently to say: “They were slap-up in their day and generation.”
Decades ago, I read an essay past a feminist literary critic named Patrocinio Schweickart most how feminists should read misogynistic texts from the past. She counseled them to face the misogyny merely also to expect for what she called the “utopian moment” in such texts, an “authentic kernel” of man experience that tin be shared and celebrated. I recollect that’s what Douglass does. He has every reason, given what their sins and follies cost him and his Black sisters and brothers, to dismiss the Founders wholly, only he does not. “They were great in their day and generation.”
It would be utterly unfair to demand of anyone wounded every bit Douglass was wounded the charity he exhibits here. I would not e’er dare to inquire it. That he speaks every bit warmly of the Founders every bit he does strikes me as picayune less than a phenomenon. Only this off-white-mindedness was integral to Douglass’s massive success every bit an orator, as a persuader of the half-convinced and the faint of heart. He knew how to sift, to appraise, to return and reflect again. The idealization and demonization of the past are as easy, and immensely tempting in our tense and frantic moment. What Douglass offers instead is a model of negotiating with the past in a way that gives charity and honesty equal weight. This is why I say that, when confronted by the sins of the past, Frederick Douglass should be our model.
Reading those figures from the past, even when he disagreed strongly with them, gave him some perspective on his ain moment, and, because they left this vale of tears, some tranquility as well. After all, the dead don’t talk back to us—unless we invite them to. Nosotros control the encounter. We decide whether to pay our ancestors attention.
When we make that payment, when we plough aside from the “dire hose” and take a few deep breaths and enter into the world of the past, we can at-home our pulse a chip, have time to call back. No 1 demands anything of united states. Those figures from the past are willing to speak to the states when we are willing to mind. They may sometimes speak words of criminal offense, but they may also speak words of wisdom that we either never know or have forgotten.
Two thousand years ago, the Roman poet Horace wrote a verse letter to a friend. “Interrogate the writings of the wise,” he advised, “Request them to tell you how yous can / Get through your life in a peaceable tranquil way.” It was good advice so and information technology’s good advice at present.
This post is adapted from Jacobs’due south recent book,
Breaking Bread With the Dead: A Reader’south Guide to a More Tranquil Mind.
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