Woke up this afternoon to find Frederick Douglass trending on Twitter, which is a Good Thing, but an odd one. The usual sense of dread that comes from seeing a beloved figure’s name didn’t apply, since Douglass died more than a century ago. And we can’t be celebrating his birthday because we don’t know Douglass’ birthday — the Maryland plantation owners who pretended they owned Douglass never bothered to record the birthdate of the greatest American of the 19th century.
So what then?
Well, it turns out that some speechwriter tossed a reference to Frederick Douglass into remarks for President Trump who then, as he does, decided to ad lib an extended riff on the subject. David A. Graham of The Atlantic* describes the weird spectacle that followed:
The president mentioned the great abolitionist, former slave, and suffrage campaigner during a Black History Month event Wednesday morning, but there’s little to indicate that Trump knows anything about his subject, based on the rambling, vacuous commentary he offered:
“I am very proud now that we have a museum on the National Mall where people can learn about Reverend King, so many other things, Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice. Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and millions more black Americans who made America what it is today. Big impact.” Within moments, he was off-topic, talking about some of his favorite subjects: CNN, himself, and his feud with CNN.
Things got weirder later when White House spokesman and alternative-fact artist Sean Spicer was asked to clarify Trump’s remarks on Douglass. Spicer replied in a way that made it seem that he, also, hadn’t the foggiest notion who Frederick Douglass was and that he, like the president, seemed to think Douglass was still alive.
“I think he [Trump] wants to highlight the contributions that he [Douglass] has made,” Spicer said. “And I think through a lot of the actions and statements that he’s going to make, I think the contributions of Frederick Douglass will become more and more.”
Both Trump and Spicer come across sounding exactly like a student trying unsuccessfully to pretend they’ve read a book they’ve never even touched. This is, of course, hilarious — in the mordant way that it’s very funny to realize that men with so much power are also so staggeringly ignorant and detached from even the most basic familiarity with our history and our moral heritage and that these same men are now unchecked by any political counterweight and that one of them, in fact, has access to a nuclear arsenal that can destroy the world and omigodwe’reallgonnadie.
But still, kind of funny.
We should note, though, that Spicer’s empty-headed babble contains one absolutely true statement and one absolutely false assertion. The true statement is grammatically strange, but still undeniably true: “The contributions of Frederick Douglass will become more and more.”
Yes they will. Because in the Trump era, the most insightful and incisive voice of the 19th century is proving also to be the most insightful and incisive voice of the 21st century. The wheel has turned and turned again, but the truths that Douglass exposed and proclaimed remain true. As a wise man once told our new president, reality has a way of asserting itself.
And as Douglass’ contributions, um, “become more and more” it will also become more and more clear that Spicer’s initial assertion is untrue: Donald Trump really, really does not want to highlight the contributions that Frederick Douglass has made. To “highlight” those contributions — to see them and to understand them — threatens Trump’s agenda, his comfort, his political strategy and his entire sense of identity and worth. Douglass’ “contributions” are an existential threat to Donald Trump.
So let us highlight some of those contributions with Douglass’ own words — words that live on in much the same way that Trump and Spicer believe that Douglass himself does. This is from an 1852 speech responding to the political situation of 1852. It still works today:
I take this law to be one of the grossest infringements of Christian Liberty, and, if the churches and ministers of our country were not stupidly blind, or most wickedly indifferent, they, too, would so regard it.
At the very moment that they are thanking God for the enjoyment of civil and religious liberty, and for the right to worship God according to the dictates of their own consciences, they are utterly silent in respect to a law which robs religion of its chief significance, and makes it utterly worthless to a world lying in wickedness. Did this law concern the “mint, anise, and cumin” — abridge the right to sing psalms, to partake of the sacrament, or to engage in any of the ceremonies of religion, it would be smitten by the thunder of a thousand pulpits. A general shout would go up from the church, demanding repeal, repeal, instant repeal! — And it would go hard with that politician who presumed to solicit the votes of the people without inscribing this motto on his banner. Further, if this demand were not complied with, another Scotland would be added to the history of religious liberty, and the stern old Covenanters would be thrown into the shade. … The fact that the church of our country, (with fractional exceptions), does not esteem [this law] as a declaration of war against religious liberty, implies that that church regards religion simply as a form of worship, an empty ceremony, and not a vital principle, requiring active benevolence, justice, love and good will towards man. It esteems sacrifice above mercy; psalm-singing above right doing; solemn meetings above practical righteousness. A worship that can be conducted by persons who refuse to give shelter to the houseless, to give bread to the hungry, clothing to the naked, and who enjoin obedience to a law forbidding these acts of mercy, is a curse, not a blessing to mankind. The Bible addresses all such persons as “scribes, Pharisees, hypocrites, who pay tithe of mint, anise, and cumin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy and faith.”
The fact that Douglass’ words can be applied to more than one law, policy or initiative of our new president — and to the “stupidly blind or most wickedly indifferent” church of our country obsequiously cheering him on — only reinforces the truth and untruth of Spicer’s blather. Donald Trump does not want to highlight such words. But they will become. More and more.
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My favorite old and good thing from the magazine has nothing to do with Douglass, though. I mean the magazine’s mixed record on the poems of Emily Dickinson, which she submitted for the consideration of Thomas Wentworth Higginson — an editor at the magazine who seems like a character written, and assigned that name, by Charles Dickens. Higginson was bewildered and overwhelmed by this unsolicited correspondence, struggling to keep his footing and to find some category for something unlike anything he’d ever seen before. He wound up publishing some of Dickinson’s poetry, but also rejecting some of it too.
Look on Higginson with some compassion. Imagine some erudite art scholar in 1800. He knows his stuff and correctly thinks of himself as understanding what is what when it comes to art. Then he receives an unmarked, unsigned package and opens it to find Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. That was more or less what poor Higginson was up against and just exactly how utterly he was unprepared for it.
“Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive?” Dickinson’s first letter asked, timidly. “Should you think it breathed, and had you the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude.”
Higginson didn’t know what he was seeing, and he steadied himself by — somewhat pompously — replaying the roles and conventions of a prestigious poetry editor. But, to his credit, even though he didn’t know what else to make of it, he reassured her that, yes, whatever this was, it was certainly alive. It breathes.