Revisiting Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglas is dead. Last year this time, however, President Donald J. Trump didn’t appear to know that fact.

In kicking off Black History Month 2017, Trump hosted a “listening session” at the White House leaving listeners scratching their heads wondering if he knew Douglass — a self-liberated former slave turned abolitionist — died in 1895. The press looked to then-White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer to clarify what Trump meant regarding his comment on Douglass, but Spicer made it clear that he, too, didn’t quite know if Douglass is dead.

“I think he [Trump] wants to highlight the contributions he has made. And I think through a lot of the actions and statements he’s going to make, I think that the contributions of Frederick Douglass will become more and more.”

The remarks from both Trump and Spicer could have been an episode of Drunk History, a TV comedy series where an inebriated narrator fumbles recounting historical events, which illustrate why we need Black History Month and an intensive tutorial for the Trump Administration.

With the election of Barack Obama as president, queries arose concerning the future need for Black History Month. Millennials, in particular, whose ballots helped to elect the country’s first African American president, revealed celebrating Black History Month seem outdated. To them, the continuation of Black History Month is a relic tethered to an old defunct paradigm of the 1960s civil rights era and a hindrance to the country moving forward.

But in 2017, Trump became president. Queries about whether or not there was a need for Black History Month died down because Trump has tweeted out insults to just about every marginalized group in the country.

Since his first year in office Trump’s display of xenophobic, misogynistic, LGBTQ-phobic and racist remarks, to name just a few from his laundry list of bigotries, appears to have no cutoff point. Trump’s embrace of White supremacy showed itself in his statement about Black immigrants from what he depicted as “shithole countries.” And, Trump’s removal of White supremacist groups — Ku Klux Klan, Identitarians, Identity Christianity, Neo-Nazis, and Neo-Confederates, to name a few — from a violent extremist group list put out by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) highlights the Jim Crow era Trump wants the country to time travel back to when he say’s “Make America Great Again.”

His repugnant “blame on both sides” comment about the Charlottesville mayhem that took place last summer depicted the perpetrators as victims, too. By Trump condemning counter-protesters similarly as White supremacists and swastika-wielding thugs, many of his supporters are now more emboldened than ever before to not only contest the celebration of Black History Month, but to insist now on the celebration of White history month.

If Spicer was telling the truth last year that Trump’s administration will be highlighting Douglass’s invaluable contribution to America’s history, the acknowledgement should start with Douglass’s historic speech, “What, to the slave, is the Fourth of July?” delivered on July 5, 1852, to the Rochester Ladies Antislavery Society in Rochester, N.Y.

In the speech Douglass stated to a country then in the throes of slavery, “Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us….This Fourth of July is yours, not mine.”

Douglass’s speech then, as now, highlights the fight for Black independence and full citizenship. It informs our understanding of race relations today because it connects with contemporary themes of class and gender issues, economic disparity and the prison industrial complex, to list a few.

For many years, Boston’s Community Change, Inc. Library on Racism held an annual public event called “Reading Frederick Douglass.” At this participatory reading, people took turns reading aloud parts of Douglass’s 4th of July speech.

The website explains why that particular speech, “Reading Frederick Douglass,” causes us to think in new ways about our nation’s history, affords opportunities to open up discourse about race relations and citizenship (especially immediately before or after the speech), and raises awareness of the role slavery and race continue to play in our history and national discourse.”

In 2012, the Federation of State Humanities Councils awarded “Reading Frederick Douglass” the Schwartz Prize for the best overall program. The program is now held in Vermont.

Douglass’s indefatigable activism as an abolitionist helped end slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment made it legal. But it’s important to remember his remarks about the Thirteenth Amendment as a country moving forward: “Verily, the work does not end with the abolition of slavery, but only begins.”

In 1866, one year later, Frederick Douglass with other national African American leaders, met with President Andrew Jackson to advocate for Black citizens voting rights, which Johnson opposed.

Black voting rights are still a struggle today.

I hope Trump revisits Frederick Douglass.


Rev. Irene Monroe is a Huffington Post blogger and freelance journalist.