The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro, by Frederick Douglass

The following post is being made on the 155th anniversary of the deliverance of Frederick Douglass’s speech, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro.” The full speech (and not just the well-known excerpt erroneously entitled “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?”) is shown below. I did not post anything on the 4th of July–not out of spite, but because my mind was elsewhere. I haven’t even thought of, much less celebrated, this rather pointless holiday for many years. When I was a kid, July 4th was a time to go out and see the fireworks with family.  Today it’s just another day for an expat writer, watching his country fall apart from the vantage point of a neoliberal halfway house that somehow imagines itself to be “tolerant” and “multicultural.” 

Even the most casual reading of Douglass’s text will show one that very, very little has changed–in its essence–in the United States since 1852. We KNOW that slavery is gone, that there are no longer any “Indian Wars” where Native Americans are systematically stripped of their land (among other things), and that brutal 19th century-style colonial wars no longer take place–ON THE SURFACE. Scratch the surface and one can’t ignore the dozens of U.S. companies that utilize prison labor to manufacture their goods, as well as countless “illegals” who don’t get paid for cleaning out American toilets; we can’t ignore what happened and continues to happen Standing Rock, nor can one ignore Allen, South Dakota, on the Pine Ridge Reservation, where the average yearly income is a mere $1,539. And this is not to make mention of American law enforcement, whose crimes would not only disgrace savages but, if they saw them being committed live, would actually make them vomit!!

Anyhow, I’m too short on cash and time right now to be bothered even with writing something about the 4th of July. I have a new insurance plan under KSK (Kuenstlersozialkasse) and they keep climbing down my throat for money that I don’t really have.  

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This speech was given July 5, 1852 in Rochester, New York. The speech below is shown in its entirety.

Mr. President, Friends and Fellow Citizens:

He who could address this audience without a quailing sensation, has stronger nerves than I have. I do not remember ever to have appeared as a speaker before any assembly more shrinkingly, nor with greater distrust of my ability, than I do this day. A feeling has crept over me quite unfavorable to the exercise of my limited powers of speech. The task before me is one which requires much previous thought and study for its proper performance. I know that apologies of this sort are generally considered flat and unmeaning. I trust, however, that mine will not be so considered. Should I seem at ease, my appearance would much misrepresent me. The little experience I have had in addressing public meetings, in country school houses, avails me nothing on the present occasion.

The papers and placards say that I am to deliver a Fourth of July Oration. This certainly sounds large, and out of the common way, for me. It is true that I have often had the privilege to speak in this beautiful Hall, and to address many who now honor me with their presence. But neither their familiar faces, nor the perfect gage I think I have of Corinthian Hall seems to free me from embarrassment.

The fact is, ladies and gentlemen, the distance between this platform and the slave plantation, from which I escaped, is considerable-and the difficulties to he overcome in getting from the latter to the former are by no means slight. That I am here to-day is, to me, a matter of astonishment as well as of gratitude. You will not, therefore, be surprised, if in what I have to say I evince no elaborate preparation, nor grace my speech with any high sounding exordium. With little experience and with less learning, I have been able to throw my thoughts hastily and imperfectly together; and trusting to your patient and generous indulgence I will proceed to lay them before you.

This, for the purpose of this celebration, is the Fourth of July. It is the birth day of your National Independence, and of your political freedom. This, to you, as what the Passover was to the emancipated people of God. It carries your minds back to the day, and to the act of your great deliverance; and to the signs, and to the wonders, associated with that act, and that day. This celebration also marks the beginning of another year of your national life; and reminds you that the Republic of America is now 76 years old. l am glad, fellow-citizens, that your nation is so young. Seventy-six years, though a good old age for a man, is but a mere speck in the life of a nation. Three score years and ten is the allotted time for individual men; but nations number their years by thousands. According to this fact, you are, even now, only in the beginning of your national career, still lingering in the period of childhood. I repeat, I am glad this is so. There is hope in the thought, and hope is much needed, under the dark clouds which lower above the horizon. The eye of the reformer is met with angry flashes, portending disastrous times; but his heart may well beat lighter at the thought that America is young, and that she is still in the impressible stage of her existence. May he not hope that high lessons of wisdom, of justice and of truth, will yet give direction to her destiny? Were the nation older, the patriot’s heart might be sadder, and the reformer’s brow heavier. Its future might be shrouded in gloom, and the hope of its prophets go out in sorrow. There is consolation in the thought that America is young.-Great streams are not easily turned from channels, worn deep in the course of ages. They may sometimes rise in quiet and stately majesty, and inundate the land, refreshing and fertilizing the earth with their mysterious properties. They may also rise in wrath and fury, and bear away, on their angry waves, the accumulated wealth of years of toil and hardship. They, however, gradually flow back to the same old channel, and flow on as serenely as ever. But, while the river may not be turned aside, it may dry up, and leave nothing behind but the withered branch, and the unsightly rock, to howl in the abyss-sweeping wind, the sad tale of departed glory. As with rivers so with nations.

Fellow-citizens, I shall not presume to dwell at length on the associations that cluster about this day. The simple story of it is, that, 76 years ago, the people of this country were British subjects. The style and title of your “sovereign people” (in which you now glory) was not then born. You were under the British Crown. Your fathers esteemed the English Government as the home government; and England as the fatherland. This home government, you know, although a considerable distance from your home, did, in the exercise of its parental prerogatives, impose upon its colonial children, such restraints, burdens and limitations, as, in its mature judgment, it deemed wise, right and proper.

But your fathers, who had not adopted the fashionable idea of this day, of the infallibility of government, and the absolute character of its acts, presumed to differ from the home government in respect to the wisdom and the justice of some of those burdens and restraints. They went so far in their excitement as to pronounce the measures of government unjust, unreasonable, and oppressive, and altogether such as ought not to be quietly submitted to. I scarcely need say, fellow-citizens, that my opinion of those measures fully accords with that of your fathers. Such a declaration of agreement on my part would not be worth much to anybody. It would certainly prove nothing as to what part I might have taken had I lived during the great controversy of 1776. To say now that America was right, and England wrong, is exceedingly easy. Everybody can say it; the dastard, not less than the noble brave, can flippantly discant on the tyranny of England towards the American Colonies. It is fashionable to do so; but there was a time when, to pronounce against England, and in favor of the cause of the colonies, tried men’s souls. They who did so were accounted in their day plotters of mischief, agitators and rebels, dangerous men. To side with the right against the wrong, with the weak against the strong, and with the oppressed against the oppressor! here lies the merit, and the one which, of all others, seems unfashionable in our day. The cause of liberty may be stabbed by the men who glory in the deeds of your fathers. But, to proceed.

Feeling themselves harshly and unjustly treated, by the home government, your fathers, like men of honesty, and men of spirit, earnestly sought redress. They petitioned and remonstrated; they did so in a decorous, respectful, and loyal manner. Their conduct was wholly unexceptionable. This, however, did not answer the purpose. They saw themselves treated with sovereign indifference, coldness and scorn. Yet they persevered. They were not the men to look back.

As the sheet anchor takes a firmer hold, when the ship is tossed by the storm, so did the cause of your fathers grow stronger as it breasted the chilling blasts of kingly displeasure. The greatest and best of British statesmen admitted its justice, and the loftiest eloquence of the British Senate came to its support. But, with that blindness which seems to be the unvarying characteristic of tyrants, since Pharaoh and his hosts were drowned in the Red Sea, the British Government persisted in the exactions complained of.

The madness of this course, we believe, is admitted now, even by England; but we fear the lesson is wholly lost on our present rulers.

Oppression makes a wise man mad. Your fathers were wise men, and if they did not go mad, they became restive under this treatment. They felt themselves the victims of grievous wrongs, wholly incurable in their colonial capacity. With brave men there is always a remedy for oppression. Just here, the idea of a total separation of the colonies from the crown was born! It was a startling idea, much more so than we, at this distance of time, regard it. The timid and the prudent (as has been intimated) of that day were, of course, shocked and alarmed by it.

Such people lived then, had lived before, and will, probably, ever have a place on this planet; and their course, in respect to any great change (no matter how great the good to be attained, or the wrong to be redressed by it), may be calculated with as much precision as can be the course of the stars. They hate all changes, but silver, gold and copper change! Of this sort of change they are always strongly in favor.

These people were called Tories in the days of your fathers; and the appellation, probably, conveyed the same idea that is meant by a more modern, though a somewhat less euphonious term, which we often find in our papers, applied to some of our old politicians.

Their opposition to the then dangerous thought was earnest and powerful; but, amid all their terror and affrighted vociferations against it, the alarming and revolutionary idea moved on, and the country with it.

On the 2nd of July, 1776, the old Continental Congress, to the dismay of the lovers of ease, and the worshipers of property, clothed that dreadful idea with all the authority of national sanction. They did so in the form of a resolution; and as we seldom hit upon resolutions, drawn up in our day, whose transparency is at all equal to this, it may refresh your minds and help my story if I read it.

“Resolved, That these united colonies are, and of right, ought to be free and Independent States; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown; and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, dissolved.”

Citizens, your fathers made good that resolution. They succeeded; and to-day you reap the fruits of their success. The freedom gained is yours; and you, there fore, may properly celebrate this anniversary. The 4th of July is the first great fact in your nation’s history-the very ringbolt in the chain of your yet undeveloped destiny.

Pride and patriotism, not less than gratitude, prompt you to celebrate and to hold it in perpetual remembrance. I have said that the Declaration of Independence is the ringbolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny; so, indeed, I regard it. The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.

From the round top of your ship of state, dark and threatening clouds may be seen. Heavy billows, like mountains in the distance, disclose to the leeward huge forms of flinty rocks! That bolt drawn, that chain broken, and all is lost. Cling to this day-cling to it, and to its principles, with the grasp of a storm-tossed mariner to a spar at midnight.

The coming into being of a nation, in any circumstances, is an interesting event. But, besides general considerations, there were peculiar circumstances which make the advent of this republic an event of special attractiveness. The whole scene, as I look back to it, was simple, dignified and sublime. The population of the country, at the time, stood at the insignificant number of three millions. The country was poor in the munitions of war. The population was weak and scattered, and the country a wilderness unsubdued. There were then no means of concert and combination, such as exist now. Neither steam nor lightning had then been reduced to order and discipline. From the Potomac to the Delaware was a journey of many days. Under these, and innumerable other disadvantages, your fathers declared for liberty and independence and triumphed.

Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men, too-great enough to give frame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point 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. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.

They loved their country better than their own private interests; and, though this is not the highest form of human excellence, all will concede that it is a rare virtue, and that when it is exhibited it ought to command respect. He who will, intelligently, lay down his life for his country is a man whom it is not in human nature to despise. Your fathers staked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, on the cause of their country. In their admiration of liberty, they lost sight of all other interests.

They were peace men; but they preferred revolution to peaceful submission to bondage. They were quiet men; but they did not shrink from agitating against oppression. They showed forbearance; but that they knew its limits. They believed in order; but not in the order of tyranny. With them, nothing was “settIed” that was not right. With them, justice, liberty and humanity were “final”; not slavery and oppression. You may well cherish the memory of such men. They were great in their day and generation. Their solid manhood stands out the more as we contrast it with these degenerate times.

How circumspect, exact and proportionate were all their movements! How unlike the politicians of an hour! Their statesmanship looked beyond the passing moment, and stretched away in strength into the distant future. They seized upon eternal principles, and set a glorious example in their defence. Mark them! Fully appreciating the hardships to be encountered, firmly believing in the right of their cause, honorably inviting the scrutiny of an on-looking world, reverently appealing to heaven to attest their sincerity, soundly comprehending the solemn responsibility they were about to assume, wisely measuring the terrible odds against them, your fathers, the fathers of this republic, did, most deliberately, under the inspiration of a glorious patriotism, and with a sublime faith in the great principles of justice and freedom, lay deep, the corner-stone of the national super-structure, which has risen and still rises in grandeur around you.

Of this fundamental work, this day is the anniversary. Our eyes are met with demonstrations of joyous enthusiasm. Banners and pennants wave exultingly on the breeze. The din of business, too, is hushed. Even mammon seems to have quitted his grasp on this day. The ear-piercing fife and the stirring drum unite their accents with the ascending peal of a thousand church bells. Prayers are made, hymns are sung, and sermons are preached in honor of this day; while the quick martial tramp of a great and multitudinous nation, echoed back by all the hills, valleys and mountains of a vast continent, bespeak the occasion one of thrilling and universal interest-nation’s jubilee.

Friends and citizens, I need not enter further into the causes which led to this anniversary. Many of you understand them better than I do. You could instruct me in regard to them. That is a branch of knowledge in which you feel, perhaps, a much deeper interest than your speaker. The causes which led to the separation of the colonies from the British crown have never lacked for a tongue. They have all been taught in your common schools, narrated at your firesides, un folded from your pulpits, and thundered from your legislative halls, and are as familiar to you as household words. They form the staple of your national po etry and eloquence.

I remember, also, that, as a people, Americans are remarkably familiar with all facts which make in their own favor. This is esteemed by some as a national trait-perhaps a national weakness. It is a fact, that whatever makes for the wealth or for the reputation of Americans and can be had cheap! will be found by Americans. I shall not be charged with slandering Americans if I say I think the American side of any question may be safely left in American hands.

I leave, therefore, the great deeds of your fathers to other gentlemen whose claim to have been regularly descended will be less likely to be disputed than mine!

My business, if I have any here to-day, is with the present. The accepted time with God and His cause is the ever-living now.

Trust no future, however pleasant,
Let the dead past bury its dead;
Act, act in the living present,
Heart within, and God overhead.

We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and to the future. To all inspiring motives, to noble deeds which can be gained from the past, we are welcome. But now is the time, the important time. Your fathers have lived, died, and have done their work, and have done much of it well. You live and must die, and you must do your work. You have no right to enjoy a child’s share in the labor of your fathers, unless your children are to be blest by your labors. You have no right to wear out and waste the hard-earned fame of your fathers to cover your indolence. Sydney Smith tells us that men seldom eulogize the wisdom and virtues of their fathers, but to excuse some folly or wickedness of their own. This truth is not a doubtful one. There are illustrations of it near and remote, ancient and modern. It was fashionable, hundreds of years ago, for the children of Jacob to boast, we have “Abraham to our father,” when they had long lost Abraham’s faith and spirit. That people contented themselves under the shadow of Abraham’s great name, while they repudiated the deeds which made his name great. Need I remind you that a similar thing is being done all over this country to-day? Need I tell you that the Jews are not the only people who built the tombs of the prophets, and garnished the sepulchers of the righteous? Washington could not die till he had broken the chains of his slaves. Yet his monument is built up by the price of human blood, and the traders in the bodies and souls of men shout-“We have Washington to our father.”-Alas! that it should be so; yet it is.

The evil, that men do, lives after them,
The good is oft interred with their bones.

Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?

Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions! Then would my task be light, and my burden easy and delightful. For who is there so cold, that a nation’s sympathy could not warm him? Who so obdurate and dead to the claims of gratitude, that would not thankfully acknowledge such priceless benefits? Who so stolid and selfish, that would not give his voice to swell the hallelujahs of a nation’s jubilee, when the chains of servitude had been torn from his limbs? I am not that man. In a case like that, the dumb might eloquently speak, and the “lame man leap as an hart.”

But such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common.-The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fa thers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn you that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation whose crimes, towering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrevocable ruin! I can to-day take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people!

“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yea! we wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there, they that carried us away captive, required of us a song; and they who wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.”

Fellow-citizens, above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, “may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!” To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world. My subject, then, fellow-citizens, is American slavery. I shall see this day and its popular characteristics from the slave’s point of view. Standing there identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July! Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the constitution and the Bible which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery-the great sin and shame of America! “I will not equivocate; I will not excuse”; I will use the severest language I can command; and yet not one word shall escape me that any man, whose judgment is not blinded by prejudice, or who is not at heart a slaveholder, shall not confess to be right and just.

But I fancy I hear some one of my audience say, “It is just in this circumstance that you and your brother abolitionists fail to make a favorable impression on the public mind. Would you argue more, and denounce less; would you persuade more, and rebuke less; your cause would be much more likely to succeed.” But, I submit, where all is plain there is nothing to be argued. What point in the anti slavery creed would you have me argue? On what branch of the subject do the people of this country need light? Must I undertake to prove that the slave is a man? That point is conceded already. Nobody doubts it. The slaveholders themselves acknowledge it in the enactment of laws for their government. They ac knowledge it when they punish disobedience on the part of the slave. There are seventy-two crimes in the State of Virginia which, if committed by a black man (no matter how ignorant he be), subject him to the punishment of death; while only two of the same crimes will subject a white man to the like punishment. What is this but the acknowledgment that the slave is a moral, intellectual, and responsible being? The manhood of the slave is conceded. It is admitted in the fact that Southern statute books are covered with enactments forbidding, under severe fines and penalties, the teaching of the slave to read or to write. When you can point to any such laws in reference to the beasts of the field, then I may con sent to argue the manhood of the slave. When the dogs in your streets, when the fowls of the air, when the cattle on your hills, when the fish of the sea, and the reptiles that crawl, shall be unable to distinguish the slave from a brute, then will I argue with you that the slave is a man!

For the present, it is enough to affirm the equal manhood of the Negro race. Is it not astonishing that, while we are ploughing, planting, and reaping, using all kinds of mechanical tools, erecting houses, constructing bridges, building ships, working in metals of brass, iron, copper, silver and gold; that, while we are reading, writing and ciphering, acting as clerks, merchants and secretaries, having among us lawyers, doctors, ministers, poets, authors, editors, orators and teachers; that, while we are engaged in all manner of enterprises common to other men, digging gold in California, capturing the whale in the Pacific, feeding sheep and cattle on the hill-side, living, moving, acting, thinking, planning, living in families as husbands, wives and children, and, above all, confessing and worshipping the Christian’s God, and looking hopefully for life and immortality beyond the grave, we are called upon to prove that we are men!

Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? that he is the rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it. Must I argue the wrongfulness of slavery? Is that a question for Republicans? Is it to be settled by the rules of logic and argumentation, as a matter beset with great difficulty, involving a doubtful application of the principle of justice, hard to be understood? How should I look to-day, in the presence of Americans, dividing, and subdividing a discourse, to show that men have a natural right to freedom? speaking of it relatively and positively, negatively and affirmatively. To do so, would be to make myself ridiculous, and to offer an insult to your understanding.-There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.

What, am I to argue that it is wrong to make men brutes, to rob them of their liberty, to work them without wages, to keep them ignorant of their relations to their fellow men, to beat them with sticks, to flay their flesh with the lash, to load their limbs with irons, to hunt them with dogs, to sell them at auction, to sunder their families, to knock out their teeth, to burn their flesh, to starve them into obedience and submission to their masters? Must I argue that a system thus marked with blood, and stained with pollution, is wrong? No! I will not. I have better employment for my time and strength than such arguments would imply.

What, then, remains to be argued? Is it that slavery is not divine; that God did not establish it; that our doctors of divinity are mistaken? There is blasphemy in the thought. That which is inhuman, cannot be divine! Who can reason on such a proposition? They that can, may; I cannot. The time for such argument is passed.

At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy-a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.

Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.

Take the American slave-trade, which we are told by the papers, is especially prosperous just now. Ex-Senator Benton tells us that the price of men was never higher than now. He mentions the fact to show that slavery is in no danger. This trade is one of the peculiarities of American institutions. It is carried on in all the large towns and cities in one-half of this confederacy; and millions are pocketed every year by dealers in this horrid traffic. In several states this trade is a chief source of wealth. It is called (in contradistinction to the foreign slave-trade) “the internal slave-trade.” It is, probably, called so, too, in order to divert from it the horror with which the foreign slave-trade is contemplated. That trade has long since been denounced by this government as piracy. It has been denounced with burning words from the high places of the nation as an execrable traffic. To arrest it, to put an end to it, this nation keeps a squadron, at immense cost, on the coast of Africa. Everywhere, in this country, it is safe to speak of this foreign slave-trade as a most inhuman traffic, opposed alike to the Jaws of God and of man. The duty to extirpate and destroy it, is admitted even by our doctors of divinity. In order to put an end to it, some of these last have consented that their colored brethren (nominally free) should leave this country, and establish them selves on the western coast of Africa! It is, however, a notable fact that, while so much execration is poured out by Americans upon all those engaged in the foreign slave-trade, the men engaged in the slave-trade between the states pass with out condemnation, and their business is deemed honorable.

Behold the practical operation of this internal slave-trade, the American slave-trade, sustained by American politics and American religion. Here you will see men and women reared like swine for the market. You know what is a swine-drover? I will show you a man-drover. They inhabit all our Southern States. They perambulate the country, and crowd the highways of the nation, with droves of human stock. You will see one of these human flesh jobbers, armed with pistol, whip, and bowie-knife, driving a company of a hundred men, women, and children, from the Potomac to the slave market at New Orleans. These wretched people are to be sold singly, or in lots, to suit purchasers. They are food for the cotton-field and the deadly sugar-mill. Mark the sad procession, as it moves wearily along, and the inhuman wretch who drives them. Hear his savage yells and his blood-curdling oaths, as he hurries on his affrighted captives! There, see the old man with locks thinned and gray. Cast one glance, if you please, upon that young mother, whose shoulders are bare to the scorching sun, her briny tears falling on the brow of the babe in her arms. See, too, that girl of thirteen, weeping, yes! weeping, as she thinks of the mother from whom she has been torn! The drove moves tardily. Heat and sorrow have nearly consumed their strength; suddenly you hear a quick snap, like the discharge of a rifle; the fetters clank, and the chain rattles simultaneously; your ears are saluted with a scream, that seems to have torn its way to the centre of your soul The crack you heard was the sound of the slave-whip; the scream you heard was from the woman you saw with the babe. Her speed had faltered under the weight of her child and her chains! that gash on her shoulder tells her to move on. Follow this drove to New Orleans. Attend the auction; see men examined like horses; see the forms of women rudely and brutally exposed to the shock ing gaze of American slave-buyers. See this drove sold and separated forever; and never forget the deep, sad sobs that arose from that scattered multitude. Tell me, citizens, where, under the sun, you can witness a spectacle more fiendish and shocking. Yet this is but a glance at the American slave-trade, as it exists, at this moment, in the ruling part of the United States.

I was born amid such sights and scenes. To me the American slave-trade is a terrible reality. When a child, my soul was often pierced with a sense of its horrors. I lived on Philpot Street, Fell’s Point, Baltimore, and have watched from the wharves the slave ships in the Basin, anchored from the shore, with their cargoes of human flesh, waiting for favorable winds to waft them down the Chesapeake. There was, at that time, a grand slave mart kept at the head of Pratt Street, by Austin Woldfolk. His agents were sent into every town and county in Maryland, announcing their arrival, through the papers, and on flaming “hand-bills,” headed cash for Negroes. These men were generally well dressed men, and very captivating in their manners; ever ready to drink, to treat, and to gamble. The fate of many a slave has depended upon the turn of a single card; and many a child has been snatched from the arms of its mother by bargains arranged in a state of brutal drunkenness.

The flesh-mongers gather up their victims by dozens, and drive them, chained, to the general depot at Baltimore. When a sufficient number has been collected here, a ship is chartered for the purpose of conveying the forlorn crew to Mobile, or to New Orleans. From the slave prison to the ship, they are usually driven in the darkness of night; for since the antislavery agitation, a certain caution is observed.

In the deep, still darkness of midnight, I have been often aroused by the dead, heavy footsteps, and the piteous cries of the chained gangs that passed our door. The anguish of my boyish heart was intense; and I was often consoled, when speaking to my mistress in the morning, to hear her say that the custom was very wicked; that she hated to hear the rattle of the chains and the heart-rending cries. I was glad to find one who sympathized with me in my horror.

Fellow-citizens, this murderous traffic is, to-day, in active operation in this boasted republic. In the solitude of my spirit I see clouds of dust raised on the highways of the South; I see the bleeding footsteps; I hear the doleful wail of fettered humanity on the way to the slave-markets, where the victims are to be sold like horses, sheep, and swine, knocked off to the highest bidder. There I see the tenderest ties ruthlessly broken, to gratify the lust, caprice and rapacity of the buyers and sellers of men. My soul sickens at the sight.

Is this the land your Fathers loved,
The freedom which they toiled to win?
Is this the earth whereon they moved?
Are these the graves they slumber in?

But a still more inhuman, disgraceful, and scandalous state of things remains to be presented. By an act of the American Congress, not yet two years old, slavery has been nationalized in its most horrible and revolting form. By that act, Mason and Dixon’s line has been obliterated; New York has become as Virginia; and the power to hold, hunt, and sell men, women and children, as slaves, remains no longer a mere state institution, but is now an institution of the whole United States. The power is co-extensive with the star-spangled banner, and American Christianity. Where these go, may also go the merciless slave-hunter. Where these are, man is not sacred. He is a bird for the sportsman’s gun. By that most foul and fiendish of all human decrees, the liberty and person of every man are put in peril. Your broad republican domain is hunting ground for men. Not for thieves and robbers, enemies of society, merely, but for men guilty of no crime. Your law-makers have commanded all good citizens to engage in this hellish sport. Your President, your Secretary of State, your lords, nobles, and ecclesiastics enforce, as a duty you owe to your free and glorious country, and to your God, that you do this accursed thing. Not fewer than forty Americans have, within the past two years, been hunted down and, without a moment’s warning, hurried away in chains, and consigned to slavery and excruciating torture. Some of these have had wives and children, dependent on them for bread; but of this, no account was made. The right of the hunter to his prey stands superior to the right of marriage, and to all rights in this republic, the rights of God included! For black men there is neither law nor justice, humanity nor religion. The Fugitive Slave Law makes mercy to them a crime; and bribes the judge who tries them. An American judge gets ten dollars for every victim he consigns to slavery, and five, when he fails to do so. The oath of any two villains is sufficient, under this hell-black enactment, to send the most pious and exemplary black man into the remorseless jaws of slavery! His own testimony is nothing. He can bring no witnesses for himself. The minister of American justice is bound by the law to hear but one side; and that side is the side of the oppressor. Let this damning fact be perpetually told. Let it be thundered around the world that in tyrant-killing, king-hating, people-loving, democratic, Christian America the seats of justice are filled with judges who hold their offices under an open and palpable bribe, and are bound, in deciding the case of a man’s liberty, to hear only his accusers!

In glaring violation of justice, in shameless disregard of the forms of administering law, in cunning arrangement to entrap the defenceless, and in diabolical intent this Fugitive Slave Law stands alone in the annals of tyrannical legislation. I doubt if there be another nation on the globe having the brass and the baseness to put such a law on the statute-book. If any man in this assembly thinks differently from me in this matter, and feels able to disprove my statements, I will gladly confront him at any suitable time and place he may select.

I take this law to be one of the grossest infringements of Christian Liberty, and, if the churches and ministers of our country were nor 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 cummin”-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 so licit 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. A John Knox would be seen at every church door and heard from every pulpit, and Fillmore would have no more quarter than was shown by Knox to the beautiful, but treacherous, Queen Mary of Scotland. The fact that the church of our country (with fractional exceptions) does not esteem “the Fugitive Slave Law” as a declaration of war against religious liberty, im plies 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 ofÝ mint, anise, and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith.”

But the church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with the oppressors. It has made itself the bulwark of American slavery, and the shield of American slave-hunters. Many of its most eloquent Divines, who stand as the very lights of the church, have shamelessly given the sanction of religion and the Bible to the whole slave system. They have taught that man may, properly, be a slave; that the relation of master and slave is ordained of God; that to send back an escaped bondman to his master is clearly the duty of all the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ; and this horrible blasphemy is palmed off upon the world for Christianity.

For my part, I would say, welcome infidelity! welcome atheism! welcome anything! in preference to the gospel, as preached by those Divines! They convert the very name of religion into an engine of tyranny and barbarous cruelty, and serve to confirm more infidels, in this age, than all the infidel writings of Thomas Paine, Voltaire, and Bolingbroke put together have done! These ministers make religion a cold and flinty-hearted thing, having neither principles of right action nor bowels of compassion. They strip the love of God of its beauty and leave the throne of religion a huge, horrible, repulsive form. It is a religion for oppressors, tyrants, man-stealers, and thugs. It is not that “pure and undefiled religion” which is from above, and which is “first pure, then peaceable, easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and with out hypocrisy.” But a religion which favors the rich against the poor; which exalts the proud above the humble; which divides mankind into two classes, tyrants and slaves; which says to the man in chains, stay there; and to the oppressor, oppress on; it is a religion which may be professed and enjoyed by all the robbers and enslavers of mankind; it makes God a respecter of persons, denies his fatherhood of the race, and tramples in the dust the great truth of the brotherhood of man. All this we affirm to be true of the popular church, and the popular worship of our land and nation-a religion, a church, and a worship which, on the authority of inspired wisdom, we pronounce to be an abomination in the sight of God. In the language of Isaiah, the American church might be well addressed, “Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me: the new moons and Sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting. Your new moons, and your appointed feasts my soul hateth. They are a trouble to me; I am weary to bear them; and when ye spread forth your hands I will hide mine eyes from you. Yea’ when ye make many prayers, I will not hear. Your hands are full of blood; cease to do evil, learn to do well; seek judgment; relieve the oppressed; judge for the fatherless; plead for the widow.”

The American church is guilty, when viewed in connection with what it is doing to uphold slavery; but it is superlatively guilty when viewed in its connection with its ability to abolish slavery.

The sin of which it is guilty is one of omission as well as of commission. Albert Barnes but uttered what the common sense of every man at all observant of the actual state of the case will receive as truth, when he declared that “There is no power out of the church that could sustain slavery an hour, if it were not sustained in it.”

Let the religious press, the pulpit, the Sunday School, the conference meeting, the great ecclesiastical, missionary, Bible and tract associations of the land array their immense powers against slavery, and slave-holding; and the whole system of crime and blood would be scattered to the winds, and that they do not do this involves them in the most awful responsibility of which the mind can conceive.

In prosecuting the anti-slavery enterprise, we have been asked to spare the church, to spare the ministry; but how, we ask, could such a thing be done? We are met on the threshold of our efforts for the redemption of the slave, by the church and ministry of the country, in battle arrayed against us; and we are compelled to fight or flee. From what quarter, I beg to know, has proceeded a fire so deadly upon our ranks, during the last two years, as from the Northern pulpit? As the champions of oppressors, the chosen men of American theology have appeared-men honored for their so-called piety, and their real learning. The Lords of Buffalo, the Springs of New York, the Lathrops of Auburn, the Coxes and Spencers of Brooklyn, the Gannets and Sharps of Boston, the Deweys of Washington, and other great religious lights of the land have, in utter denial of the authority of Him by whom they professed to be called to the ministry, deliberately taught us, against the example of the Hebrews, and against the remonstrance of the Apostles, that we ought to obey man’s law before the law of God.2

My spirit wearies of such blasphemy; and how such men can be supported, as the “standing types and representatives of Jesus Christ,” is a mystery which I leave others to penetrate. In speaking of the American church, however, let it be distinctly understood that I mean the great mass of the religious organizations of our land. There are exceptions, and I thank God that there are. Noble men may be found, scattered all over these Northern States, of whom Henry Ward Beecher, of Brooklyn; Samuel J. May, of Syracuse; and my esteemed friend (Rev. R. R. Raymond) on the platform, are shining examples; and let me say further, that, upon these men lies the duty to inspire our ranks with high religious faith and zeal, and to cheer us on in the great mission of the slave’s redemption from his chains.

One is struck with the difference between the attitude of the American church towards the anti-slavery movement, and that occupied by the churches in Eng land towards a similar movement in that country. There, the church, true to its mission of ameliorating, elevating and improving the condition of mankind, came forward promptly, bound up the wounds of the West Indian slave, and re stored him to his liberty. There, the question of emancipation was a high religious question. It was demanded in the name of humanity, and according to the law of the living God. The Sharps, the Clarksons, the Wilberforces, the Buxtons, the Burchells, and the Knibbs were alike famous for their piety and for their philanthropy. The anti-slavery movement there was not an anti-church movement, for the reason that the church took its full share in prosecuting that movement: and the anti-slavery movement in this country will cease to be an anti-church movement, when the church of this country shall assume a favorable instead of a hostile position towards that movement.

Americans! your republican politics, not less than your republican religion, are flagrantly inconsistent. You boast of your love of liberty, your superior civilization, and your pure Christianity, while the whole political power of the nation (as embodied in the two great political parties) is solemnly pledged to support and perpetuate the enslavement of three millions of your countrymen. You hurl your anathemas at the crowned headed tyrants of Russia and Austria and pride yourselves on your Democratic institutions, while you yourselves consent to be the mere tools and body-guards of the tyrants of Virginia and Carolina. You invite to your shores fugitives of oppression from abroad, honor them with banquets, greet them with ovations, cheer them, toast them, salute them, protect them, and pour out your money to them like water; but the fugitives from oppression in your own land you advertise, hunt, arrest, shoot, and kill. You glory in your refinement and your universal education; yet you maintain a system as barbarous and dreadful as ever stained the character of a nation-a system begun in avarice, supported in pride, and perpetuated in cruelty. You shed tears over fallen Hungary, and make the sad story of her wrongs the theme of your poets, statesmen, and orators, till your gallant sons are ready to fly to arms to vindicate her cause against the oppressor; but, in regard to the ten thousand wrongs of the American slave, you would enforce the strictest silence, and would hail him as an enemy of the nation who dares to make those wrongs the subject of public discourse! You are all on fire at the mention of liberty for France or for Ireland; but are as cold as an iceberg at the thought of liberty for the enslaved of America. You discourse eloquently on the dignity of labor; yet, you sustain a system which, in its very essence, casts a stigma upon labor. You can bare your bosom to the storm of British artillery to throw off a three-penny tax on tea; and yet wring the last hard earned farthing from the grasp of the black laborers of your country. You profess to believe “that, of one blood, God made all nations of men to dwell on the face of all the earth,” and hath commanded all men, everywhere, to love one another; yet you notoriously hate (and glory in your hatred) all men whose skins are not colored like your own. You declare before the world, and are understood by the world to declare that you “hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; and are endowed by their Creator with certain in alienable rights; and that among these are, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and yet, you hold securely, in a bondage which, according to your own Thomas Jefferson, “is worse than ages of that which your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose,” a seventh part of the inhabitants of your country.

Fellow-citizens, I will not enlarge further on your national inconsistencies. The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretense, and your Christianity as a lie. It destroys your moral power abroad: it corrupts your politicians at home. It saps the foundation of religion; it makes your name a hissing and a bye-word to a mocking earth. It is the antagonistic force in your government, the only thing that seriously disturbs and endangers your Union. it fetters your progress; it is the enemy of improvement; the deadly foe of education; it fosters pride; it breeds insolence; it promotes vice; it shelters crime; it is a curse to the earth that supports it; and yet you cling to it as if it were the sheet anchor of all your hopes. Oh! be warned! be warned! a horrible reptile is coiled up in your nation’s bosom; the venomous creature is nursing at the tender breast of your youthful republic; for the love of God, tear away, and fling from you the hideous monster, and let the weight of twenty millions crush and destroy it forever!

But it is answered in reply to all this, that precisely what I have now denounced is, in fact, guaranteed and sanctioned by the Constitution of the United States; that, the right to hold, and to hunt slaves is a part of that Constitution framed by the illustrious Fathers of this Republic.

Then, I dare to affirm, notwithstanding all I have said before, your fathers stooped, basely stooped

To palter with us in a double sense:
And keep the word of promise to the ear,
But break it to the heart.

And instead of being the honest men I have before declared them to be, they were the veriest impostors that ever practised on mankind. This is the inevitable conclusion, and from it there is no escape; but I differ from those who charge this baseness on the framers of the Constitution of the United States. It is a slander upon their memory, at least, so I believe. There is not time now to argue the constitutional question at length; nor have I the ability to discuss it as it ought to be discussed. The subject has been handled with masterly power by Lysander Spooner, Esq. by William Goodell, by Samuel E. Sewall, Esq., and last, though not least, by Gerrit Smith, Esq. These gentlemen have, as I think, fully and clearly vindicated the Constitution from any design to support slavery for an hour.

Fellow-citizens! there is no matter in respect to which the people of the North have allowed themselves to be so ruinously imposed upon as that of the pro-slavery character of the Constitution. In that instrument I hold there is neither warrant, license, nor sanction of the hateful thing; but interpreted, as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a glorious liberty document. Read its preamble, consider its purposes. Is slavery among them? Is it at the gate way? or is it in the temple? it is neither. While I do not intend to argue this question on the present occasion, let me ask, if it be not somewhat singular that, if the Constitution were intended to be, by its framers and adopters, a slaveholding instrument, why neither slavery, slaveholding, nor slave can any where be found in it. What would be thought of an instrument, drawn up, legally drawn up, for the purpose of entitling the city of Rochester to a tract of land, in which no mention of land was made? Now, there are certain rules of interpretation for the proper understanding of all legal instruments. These rules are well established. They are plain, commonsense rules, such as you and I, and all of us, can understand and apply, without having passed years in the study of law. I scout the idea that the question of the constitutionality, or unconstitutionality of slavery, is not a question for the people. I hold that every American citizen has a right to form an opinion of the constitution, and to propagate that opinion, and to use all honorable means to make his opinion the prevailing one. Without this right, the liberty of an American citizen would be as insecure as that of a Frenchman. Ex-Vice-President Dallas tells us that the constitution is an object to which no American mind can be too attentive, and no American heart too devoted. He further says, the Constitution, in its words, is plain and intelligible, and is meant for the home-bred, unsophisticated understandings of our fellow-citizens. Senator Berrien tells us that the Constitution is the fundamental law, that which controls all others. The charter of our liberties, which every citizen has a personal interest in understanding thoroughly. The testimony of Senator Breese, Lewis Cass, and many others that might be named, who are everywhere esteemed as sound lawyers, so regard the constitution. I take it, therefore, that it is not presumption in a private citizen to form an opinion of that instrument.

Now, take the Constitution according to its plain reading, and I defy the presentation of a single pro-slavery clause in it. On the other hand, it will be found to contain principles and purposes, entirely hostile to the existence of slavery.

I have detained my audience entirely too long already. At some future period I will gladly avail myself of an opportunity to give this subject a full and fair discussion.

Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented, of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery.

“The arm of the Lord is not shortened,” and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from “the Declaration of Independence,” the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age. Nations do not now stand in the same relation to each other that they did ages ago. No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference. The time was when such could be done. Long established customs of hurtful character could formerly fence themselves in, and do their evil work with social impunity. Knowledge was then confined and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the multitude walked on in mental darkness. But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind. Walled cities and empires have become unfashionable. The arm of commerce has borne away the gates of the strong city. Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe. It makes its pathway over and under the sea, as well as on the earth. Wind, steam, and lightning are its chartered agents. Oceans no longer divide, but link nations together. From Boston to London is now a holiday excursion. Space is comparatively annihilated.-Thoughts expressed on one side of the Atlantic are distinctly heard on the other.

The far off and almost fabulous Pacific rolls in grandeur at our feet. The Celestial Empire, the mystery of ages, is being solved. The fiat of the Almighty, “Let there be Light,” has not yet spent its force. No abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light. The iron shoe, and crippled foot of China must be seen in contrast with nature. Africa must rise and put on her yet unwoven garment. “Ethiopia shall stretch out her hand unto God.” In the fervent aspirations of William Lloyd Garrison, I say, and let every heart join in saying it:

God speed the year of jubilee
The wide world o’er!
When from their galling chains set free,
Th’ oppress’d shall vilely bend the knee,

And wear the yoke of tyranny
Like brutes no more.
That year will come, and freedom’s reign.
To man his plundered rights again
Restore.

God speed the day when human blood
Shall cease to flow!
In every clime be understood,
The claims of human brotherhood,
And each return for evil, good,
Not blow for blow;

That day will come all feuds to end,
And change into a faithful friend
Each foe. 

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Cry, the Benighted Country: No More Gifts or, “Which Side are the Savages on?”

“This letter is a gift for you. Bear in mind, though, that some gifts can be heavy to bear. You don’t have to accept it; there is no obligation. I give it freely, believing that many of you will throw the gift back in my face, saying that I wrongly accuse you, that I am too sensitive, that I’m a race hustler, and that I blame white people (you) for everything.” George Yancy, “Dear White America,” New York Times, Dec. 24, 2015

I’m sorry, but statements like the above make my eyes hurt. I see exactly what the author intended in writing his open letter to White America. What I don’t understand is why he felt he had to write it.

Between this letter and the massive wave of police terror afflicting black and brown (and, apparently, young white) people in the United States, absolutely nothing is new. The only thing that has surprised me is the speed with which the scales have fallen from our eyes concerning America these past two years. In spite of a black President, in spite of the enormous contributions that African Americans have offered to those United States, we are still considered somehow inferior, unworthy of the same respect shown people who are not black. Even our own elite conspires to keep the bulk of us at the bottom of the world’s racial totem pole: by refusing to invest their hundreds of billions in poor black communities, by refusing to educate those of us who are semi-literate (or worse), house our homeless and keep the drugs off the streets and the gangsters from destroying the lives of our children. Better yet, our elite has never once given a thought to creating industries that can offer employment to millions of African Americans; instead they hoard their money somewhere on some little island in the Caribbean, and blow it on dope, hookers, fancy cars and McMansions. Meanwhile, everyday black people keep getting casually gunned down–if not by cops then certainly by thugs from within the community and racist scum from without.

I repeat: none of this is new, save for the cell phones recording it.

 

I have heard–and in some cases witnessed–horror stories involving the police wherever I’ve been in the United States. One of my older brothers, who is autistic, was brutally beaten by P.G.County Police about 20 years ago. My youngest brother, who doesn’t have a criminal record, was pulled over by the police for kicks and called “boy,” among other things. When I was a student at Howard University, I overheard a story about a young pregnant woman (in D.C.) who was body-slammed on the sidewalk by an irate rookie cop; the two drunks (both black) who were telling the tale were laughing about it. My mother spoke of an incident in the 80s in which a cop literally rode upon the back of a black “suspect” as one would ride a horse–in broad daylight. At Howard, the campus police could be as thuggish and corrupt as the police off-campus; in fact, campus police once casually brutalized a fellow student who turned out to be the son of Andrew Young. (As a side note: decades earlier, an uncle of mine was lynched in Depression-Era Florida by a mob of rednecks; my father witnessed it first-hand.)

I witnessed one loathsome incident back around 1992. It was directly in front of the Martin Luther King Memorial Library, ironically enough. There was a drunken black man being collared on the ground in front of the library being taunted and tortured by a black DC cop. I referenced this incident in my previous novel, “NATE,” published in 2006. The only people who had stopped to stare at the incident were blacks and an occasional white; everyone else kept passing by, I wrote, unmoved, unconcerned. It was true.

Many years later and I would find a cop in front of our door in Langley Park, Maryland, after my mother called to report a racist incident being perpetrated by our Latino neighbors. I recall talking to the cop and he appeared to be trying to say two things at once—the first thing being the words which could be heard and the second carefully couched whispers under his breath. I realized what the cop was telling me under his breath: fuck your mother. He said it more than once. It was a white cop with a Latino partner.

Naturally, I didn’t fall for the bait.

After that incident, and a number of others, I became convinced that a lot of the police brutality incidents were in fact carefully (and perhaps subtly) provoked by the officers themselves—they knowing full well that they are policing communities full of desperate, despairing, angry, divided, bitter people. And for sheer spite and a petty sense of their own omnipotence, these rogue cops continued to subtly and overtly push people around.

George Yancy wrote an article for the New York Times in December of 2015. The gist of the article was a plea—yet another—on the part of Black America to White America. After three centuries of such pleas on Black America it does not bear repeating what the gist of this plea is. We already know it, or should know it.

I have read many of your comments. I have even received some hate mail. In this letter, I ask you to look deep, to look into your souls with silence, to quiet that voice that will speak to you of your white “innocence.” So, as you read this letter, take a deep breath. Make a space for my voice in the deepest part of your psyche. Try to listen, to practice being silent. There are times when you must quiet your own voice to hear from or about those who suffer in ways that you do not.

In other words, it is the same old hoagie sandwich in a new wrapper. White America, I really am a human being. White America, accept me as your brother. For I really am your brother. I bleed like you. I eat, drink, vomit, defecate, urinate, copulate, walk, talk, sing, dance and even die like you. In fact, I may even be related to you.

The sad part about this plea is that—like countless other attempts on the part of black intellectuals to gain the ear of White America—it passed unnoticed, unheard. George Yancy shouted his self-effacing and mock-eloquent words into a massive white void where nothing of substance gets heard, anyway. It is hard to be heard above a sea of racial slurs, fat demagogues, ringtones and auto-tuned, Stepinfetchit gangsta rap.

What if I told you that I’m sexist? Well, I am. Yes. I said it and I mean just that. I have watched my male students squirm in their seats when I’ve asked them to identify and talk about their sexism. There are few men, I suspect, who would say that they are sexists, and even fewer would admit that their sexism actually oppresses women. Certainly not publicly, as I’ve just done. No taking it back now.

In my opinion, Mr. Yancy is demanding far more from White America than what it can possibly give. His plea is couched in abstraction and riddled with clueless idealism. I would assume that Mr. Yancy is not a stupid man, and not half as blind as he makes himself out to be. I say “blind,” because somehow Yancy conflates his sexist tendencies with the overwhelmingly oppressive power of a racist state which, as it turns out, is the most powerful nation on earth—a state that can literally erase him at the slightest whim, with not a tear shed, and with the flimsiest of alibis. Yancy confuses his having been “fed a poisonous diet of images that fragment women into mere body parts” with America’s massive adult entertainment industry, which actually provides such sexual malnourishment to hundreds of millions around the world.

Meanwhile, Michael Eric Dyson has a few choice words of his own–his own “gift” to White America, one could say–concerning America’s KKKiller KKKop Mania.

 You hold an entire population of Muslims accountable for the evil acts of a few. Yet you rarely muster the courage to put down your binoculars, and with them, your corrosive self-pity, and see what we see. You say religions and cultures breed violence stoked by the complicity of silence because peoples will not denounce the villains who act in their names.

Yet you do the same. In the aftermath of these deaths, you do not all condemn these cops; to do so, you would have to condemn the culture that produced them — the same culture that produced you. Condemning a culture is not inciting hate. That is very important. Yet black people will continue to die at the hands of cops as long as we deny that whiteness can be more important in explaining those cops’ behavior than anything else.

You cannot know how we secretly curse the cowardice of whites who know what I write is true, but dare not say it. Neither will your smug insistence that you are different — not like that ocean of unenlightened whites — satisfy us any longer. It makes the killings worse to know that your disapproval of them has spared your reputations and not our lives.

You do not know that after we get angry with you, we get even angrier with ourselves, because we don’t know how to make you stop, or how to make you care enough to stop those who pull the triggers. We do not know what to do now that sadness is compounded by more sadness.

Oh, well. Dyson says here what has been said countless times before, from Douglass to Baldwin to Ishmael Reed. The white majority response to such remarks has always been the same, their reprisals  only slightly softening with each passing decade. But from day one the overall intent of the white majority towards Blacks in the U.S. has been unwavering.

The intent is to keep the niggers corralled. Keep the niggers in their proper place. Keep the niggers from freaking out—or, to be more precise, to keep African Americans from fully recognizing that when they bleed, it is no different than when a European or a Euro-American bleeds; that like any other people on the planet, they have a right to their own outrage and moral indignation, and that they have the human right to redress and ultimately correct the injustices heaped upon them in any way they see fit.

But the African American is not an abstract concept that can be manipulated and defined by entertainment execs or U.S. senators or alt-right demagogues or Tom Wolfe. The African American is a human being, and demands to be recognized as a human being. The African American is not “different,” deep down. All we “want” is what everyone else wants—to live, no more or no less free as anyone else on this planet.

Screen-Shot-2014-11-13-at-11.11.02-AM
“Which side are the savages on? Where is barbarism?”

If your average white American bled like the black American bled; if the average white American lived merely one week in the body of the average black American; if the average white American were forced to live just for five months as a Native American in the bowels of the Oglala Reservation, or a Puerto Rican in Spanish Harlem, or a Salvadoran in Langley Park, Maryland, the entire country—and not just white Americans—would be screaming for a bloody revolution. The rest of the country would fall in line with the rebellious white man without a second thought, because in America—even today—whatever any white man says is elevated far above what anyone else has to say. The white American’s views of reality are held as the laws of the universe, and this unfortunate fact has led hundreds of millions of people around the world to embrace the neo-coon Rap culture, to beat niggers and firebomb mosques, or to take a fat, ignorant thug like Trump seriously.

In fact, it took far less abuse from England to rouse the American colonists to revolt against the British crown. And it is considered not only just, but necessary, for a Ukrainian, or a Chinese, or a Romanian, or an Egyptian, or a Libyan to take up arms against a corrupt regime. Of course one must remember that the American mass media takes great care in defining precisely which Egyptians, or Romanians, or Libyans are actual “revolutionaries” and which ones are simply “terrorists”; and those of us who understand the U.S. media know damned well that all too often, those freedom fighters designated as “terrorists” are those who are fighting for interests not compatible with those of the U.S. Government, or U.S. economic interests.

“They require of me a song,” James Baldwin once said, “less to celebrate my captivity than to justify their own.”

How the Black Lives Matter Movement fits into this remains to be seen; judging by the rough treatment they receive at the hands of American police, and their demonization in the American mass media, one would think that the aims of BLM are precisely in opposition to those of the American State. Actually, in a real sense, they are: for the American State—judging by its bloody record alone—has never given serious consideration to the civil rights or the human rights of African Americans. The 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution have been repeatedly violated in cases too numerous to mention here.

But I doubt this new movement’s ability to implement change in America. I have the gut feeling that BLM is essentially a controlled opposition, funded and directed by the same oppressive force it appears to confront. Maybe I’m wrong. But I have noticed a glaring difference between BLM’s reaction to the death of an African-American, no matter how socially dubious–and that of a non-black. When Dylan Noble, an unarmed, emotionally disturbed 19 year old white man, was casually killed on June 25th by Fresno, CA police, BLM was mum. They were equally silent when, in the previous week, six Latinos–Anthony Nunez, Fermin Vincent Valenzuela, Vinson Ramos, Melissa Ventura, Pedro Villanueva and Raul Saavedra-Vargas–were gunned down in cold blood by “America’s Finest.” Tactically, this is as mindbogglingly stupid as it is racially divisive. I’m no conspiracy theorist, but I feel that there is an ugly method in such madness from this new movement–if one can call it a movement.

Whether BLM will up the ante by striking at the heart of American racist oppression–that is, the American economy–remains to be seen. Their hearts appear to be in the right place. But at my age–and having seen a previous (and much milder) pro-black surge in the late eighties to early nineties–I know that these kids are barely making a scratch upon the behemoth of racist oppression in the United States. The “Black Lives Matter” movement is howling into that same white void–the void of white noise–that Dr. Yancy and Dr. Dyson shouted into, and with the same result: stasis.

*

Black America has given enough “gifts” to White America. Pick virtually any era and one can find such “gifts” in abundance. Our own bare, black asses were “gifts” from Africa, by which both Northern and Southern slave-owners used to build the very foundations of the American metropolis; indeed, much of the White House and the Capitol was built by slave labor. (And let’s not mention Crispus Attucks and Benjamin Banneker.) In the 1890s, at the beginning of the “Nadir” of race relations in the United States, Americans were given the gift of Ragtime—the first truly American musical art form. (Naturally, Native Americans mght dispute this, with good reason.) For decades after that the “gifts” came and went: Jazz (via King Oliver, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, etc.), The Negro Renaissance (via Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Alain Locke, W.E.B. DuBois and too many other names to mention here), and innumerable inventions such as the golf-tee, the light-bulb filament, the ironing board, the gas mask, mobile blood banks, the internet, the cotton gin, ice cream, the potato chip, and food which was actually edible and a way of speaking English that didn’t stink of England. And a new way of comprehending reality–particularly among black intellectuals–that offered a spiritual alternative to the colonial cultures imposed upon the rest of the world by Europe. Hip-hop was but one of the manifestations of this new spiritual reality.

I, myself, and many of my artist friends who are black, have offered our own gifts to America; some of us have pleaded and continue to plead with white America to recognize our humanity. I, for one, never bothered and will never bother to plead my humanity to a group of people who, collectively speaking, always thought of me and my life as a bad joke. I personally don’t see the point of giving anything to such a people. America, at this stage in history, is not worth the trouble. It persistently demands of Black America that we “like” them. Unfortunately, in America these days, there doesn’t seem to be very much to like. I don’t need to waste my time tallying a laundry list of America’s ills, since the reader can find these details elsewhere, and in abundance.

America is not the center of the Universe. There are certainly other nations on earth where a creative black person can apply his or her genius, talent and drive. White America imagines that we have no memories and no history; they are wrong. They have almost always been wrong about the world, and most particularly about their own countrymen. They have never known us, anymore than they have known themselves, or anybody else on earth. We already know what our past gift-bearers have gotten in return for their “love” of America.

No: it’s too late. Worse, actually: it’s over. Done.

*

When Frederick Douglass declared in his Fourth of July speech that the crimes committed against black Americans* would “disgrace a nation of savages,” he was not being hyperbolic, but stating a simple fact. The worst crime committed by these white American savages has not, ironically, been these countless lynchings, beatings, burnings, brandings, castrations, rapes, nor scorched-earth pogroms such as Wounded Knee or Elaine, Arkansas (where up to 600 blacks were butchered in 1919). It has been the outright insistence that the African American—particularly the African American—be “happy” in the face of such systematic dehumanization.

“They require of me a song,” James Baldwin once said, “less to celebrate my captivity than to justify their own.” The African American was told to smile when getting raped and to tap-dance after being castrated; and to add insult to injury, the narratives of such sickening racist brutality were either denied outright, dismissed as “paranoia” or, still worse, carefully re-shaped to appear as comedy. It makes one ask the question that Jean-Paul Sartre asked, in his well-known preface to The Wretched of the Earth, “which side are the savages on?”

 

*Douglass could have just as well mentioned Native Americans, or the Chinese or even the Irish.

A Requiem for Uncle Sam

 

Note: I completed this poem back in August of 2012. At the time I actually felt it was too strong to post online(!). Thankfully, in the following years, I decided to grow a pair of balls and put excerpts of it up for free. The rest will be featured in a poetry booklet due out later this year or early next year, regardless of the political situation in America.

 

A REQUIEM FOR UNCLE SAM

For Henry Dumas and Trayvon Martin

I

Now

Now is the time to tell the truth

About you

There is a conspiracy of silence

That must be broken

Concerning you

An elaborate system of manners

In referring to you

Must be violated

The universe

Must be exposed

From the bottom up;

The cover must be broken,

The compromises must cease;

It’s high time someone snatched

The veil from your face;

You’ve been too long

In self-imposed exile

From reality

 

If the time comes for me

To be arrested for saying these things,

To be sent to Guantanamo Bay,

Or imprisoned in a lunatic asylum,

Then let the chips fall where they may

All your Mickey Mouse novelists

And Hollywood shills

Can’t keep the truth sealed

Forever

No secret shall stay hidden,

Nothing is concealed

That shall not soon be revealed

I shall tell the truth

About You,

That you live in a bullet-proof

Glass house

With no mirrors:

Only flattering portraits

Hung on every wall, even

In your bathroom

No need to see what

You really look like, right?

No need to check if

All your hundreds of millions

Of flatterers and flunkies

Are actually bullshitting

After all, You think, the world

Loves you

Everyone wears your clothes,

Everyone listens to your music,

Everyone dines at your tables,

Eats your food,

Wipes their ass on toilet paper

Made in China

(for you)

And pukes in the same toilet bowls

You puke in,

Washes their hands with the same water

You drink from,

Reads the same newspapers

And books

You not only read, but wrote

Dreams the same silly fantasies

You not only dream, but conjured

Screams the same racist insults

You not only scream, but invented

Everyone is walking in lock step

Behind You, believing all

Your dreams, all your little

Fairy tales

Everyone believes in Santa Claus

And the Almighty Ringtone,

In Justin Bieber, Kanye West

And the War on Terror,

saline injections, Brazilian waxes

And the funny little notion

That Elvis is still alive

The whole world wants to live on your block,

Walking your dog,

Playing your video games,

Fucking your old lady,

Or sticking their face in your favorite

Glory hole,

Eating chocolate

And cream

before bedtime

No one is allowed to step inside your house,

Because no one is allowed to see your face

In fact, You never leave your house

Although you think the world

Loves You,

You don’t love the world.

 

Sir, your flunkies and flatters

Have deceived you

And as Nizar Qabbani writes,

It’s time to break the cover,

And let the people pass

Through the armed guards

To peep inside your house

And if the guards hold them

Back, I shall tell them what’s inside

Worse yet, I shall tell them what’s inside

You

The world hasn’t a clue,

they don’t know

How flowers and trees

Make you cringe,

How a simple act of making love

Arouses your indignation,

How the sight of a woman’s nipple

Drives you to homicidal fury…

How even the sunshine

And sea breeze

And fresh vegetables

And fruits

Nauseate You…

Everything, to You,

Must be contaminated

Everything must be filled with poison

Everything must be made ugly

And useless

Everything good and true must be rendered obsolete,

Every candlelight must be snuffed out,

Every breath of air must be stilled,

Every laugh must be choked

Or shoved in a barrel…

Every scent of jasmine

Must be fumigated…

Every old house in the world

Must be destroyed…

Beauty and Joy must be criminalized,

And Love made an alibi

For the death penalty…

Every conscience must be erased,

Every mind stuffed with your conceits,

Every bone filled with your cynicism,

Every heart weighed down with your

Hatreds,

And every soul possessed by your

Foul spirit

 

No

The world has no idea

Of what you have accomplished

In the name of Beelzebub

They have no idea

How you have silenced the world,

Silenced all your musicians,

Snuffed out all your poets,

Starved all your artists,

Bought out all your visionaries,

And assassinated,

Down to the last man

And woman,

Every single one of your leaders

It wasn’t (so much) their bodies that you killed,

But their memory

You shoved them under the rug of

What you think is your “history”

Turned them into cheap ad copy

For Burger King

Or stuck them on the shelves of libraries

Or the storage rooms of museums

(where Americans never go, anyway)

Or in the lurid bios

Of lying historians,

Eager to reveal all their flaws

To a perverted public

You call them heroes now,

But You called them terrorists

When they walked the earth

You still do, anyway, behind

Closed doors

You should know best what a terrorist looks like

Since You wrote the definitive edition

On terror

Stop screaming about the Arabs,

They are just doing your dirty work

(like Israel)

They have learned a lot from You, by the way

Was Osama Bin Laden not on your payroll?

Did Saddam Hussein not dine with You

At the Waldorf-Astoria?

Was it not true that the lunacy

Of Sayyid Quttub

Crystalized

When he came to your shores?

And was it not true that Hifter,

The Nathan Bedford Forrest of Africa,

Spent twenty years sucking at your

Sagging teat?

 

Shall I remind you of your crimes

With yet another roll call?

Shall I bore the reader (yet again)

With another long list

Of your fuck-ups?

Does Martin King

Ring a bell

Or is he just another holiday,

Another excuse to stay home

And get drunk while watching

the Super Bowl?

Is Malcolm

Only fit for the prurient speculations

Of yellow journalists

Or just a face

To be slapped on a t-shirt,

Or a meaningless name emblazoned

On a ten-dollar baseball cap?

Is John Brown still just a madman

With a funny-looking beard?

Was Huey Newton just a

Cocaine addict?

Were Sacco and Vanzetti

Just a couple of terrorists,

Or was Marcus Garvey just a big-time crook?

 

Is Leonard Pelletier just another wild,

Drunken Indian

Like Crazy Horse,

Or Geronimo, or Sitting Bull,

Or Tecumseh, or Montezuma,

Or Atahualpa?

Was Gabriel Prosser just another bad nigger?

Was Che Guevara just a loud, cigar-chomping

Spic?

Was Sojourner Truth just another Negress

with a funny accent?

Or was H. Rap Brown merely guilty

Of trying to break inside your glass

House?

__

 

How do you silence a musician?

Did Jack Purvis really kill himself?

Was Bix the jazz god You insist he was

Or are You ashamed that he dropped

Dead at 28, screaming of “Mexicans” under his bed?

Or Fats Navarro, dead at 25

Or little Hersal Thomas, dead at 16?

What was the real reason Yardbird flew away?

Or why The Prez started drinking

Or why The Hawk stopped eating?

Or why Lady Day

Was arrested on her death bed

With several hundred dollars

Between her thighs?

Remember Bessie Smith’s end

On the Mississippi backroads?

Remember Lee Morgan?

Louis Chauvin?

Scott Joplin?

Leon Roppolo’s last days in the

Nut house?

Or Buddy Bolden’s last days in the

Nut house?

Or Eric Dolphy, dying on the Ku’damm in Berlin,

Or Bud Powell’s last days in a Parisian stupor?

Remember Pinetop Smith catching a bullet

In the gut?

Remember Jelly’s last jam

Under a hoodoo curse?

Did the Melrose Brothers

Ever pay his royalties?

What became of poor Herbie Nichols

And his music?

Or Sam Cooke?

Or Chano Pozo?

Or Chu Berry?

Or Clifford Brown?

Or Billy Banks?

Or La Lupe?

Or Little Walter?

Or Little Willie John?

Remember when Gerry Mulligan died

And You chose to write an obituary of

Minnesota Fats instead?

Remember Fletcher Henderson, ending his days

as a pathetic charity case?

Remember when they found Wardell Gray

In the desert with a broken neck?

Remember King Curtis, stabbed by junkies on a

Harlem stoop?

Remember King Oliver, fat, blind, toothless, dying in a

Run-down pool hall in Savannah?

Or Tommy Ladnier, dying in a Harlem rooming house

With only a walking stick and a pair of underwear

To his name?

 

One could wrap a list of your fuck-ups

Around the world

Several times

And still have room for more

One need not go on

No need to explain why David Walker

Ended his days on a

Boston doorstep

Too many people have perished

On those same doorsteps

They are still perishing,

Their voices drowned out by billions

Of ringtones and screeching cop sirens

Nobody’s left to hang around

these stoops

Playing music

Or singing songs

Or reciting poetry

Or serenading a loved one

No one hears the screams of

Children playing

You’ve killed the children

with gangsta rap,

poisoned school lunches,

play stations, iPods or

Neo-Nazi message boards

Single parents beat them

Within an inch of their lives,

Murderous pedophiles

bugger them in

Every street,

Killer cops and gangstas

Use them for target practice,

And jail-like junior high schools

Teach them the law of the jungle

You’ve raised a new generation

Of faceless, soulless robots

Not one of them will rock the boat

Not one of them will lift a finger in resistance

Not one of them will give the lie

To all your crackpot sophistry

Everybody knows their place

Everybody knows when to keep

Their windows closed

One might as well, because outside,

There’s nothing but silence

Not even the howling of the wind

Not even the braying of a dog,

The chirp of birds

Or the yowling of cats

Not even the buzz of bees, flies or

Mosquitoes

We can’t even hear the rustling of leaves in the trees

Mother Nature has gone into exile

The sun is afraid to show its face

And roses are too ashamed to open their petals

In this hell

 

 

 

 

Notes for Today (1)…

berlin_asylum_frontcover
Coming to a website near you–in the Fall of 2016…

 

I’m merely flexing the muscles in my head today. It has been so cold over here in Berlin I can barely even think, let alone write. And yet I have a mountain of literary work prepared for this year; in fact I’ve been preparing this novel for the past six or seven years.

Ever since coming to Berlin I had promised myself to complete a whole laundry list of literary works, including a book of poems and a play, of all things. Very few of these things have actually been completed or even started. I still have the play in my head and an outline for it on paper (or to be more precise, on the hard drive). But anybody who has lived in this fucking city for any amount of time knows that it is extremely easy to get sidetracked into petty shit that has little or nothing to do with art. Worse yet, the city is full of so-called “artists” who spend much of their time hanging out in cheap dives (no, not “cheap” in regards to the food and drinks, but the decor and attitudes), generally just going through their phony shit. Ever see “Fritz the Cat”? (I mean, the animated movie, not Crumb’s cartoon.) The opening scenes dealing with those spaced-out, pretentious potheads in their “pads” having orgies and talking pseudo-left pablum are Berlin right down to a “T,” only I don’t see too many orgies. (Or maybe I’m not invited to them. Anyway, it doesn’t matter if I get invited to an orgy at a Berlin loft or not; I don’t find these hipsterettes, with their Mary Poppins clothes and 29-inch hips, to be all that sexy.)

So if I want to write, I simply don’t go out, I shut off the cell-phone (called “handies” over here) and, preferably, the internet. And since I’ve picked up the bad habit of composing music as a way of avoiding literature, I put my scores and midi files away. However, I can’t avoid the art. Most of it, admittedly, is not really serious art, but quasi-kitschy pinup art. I’ve been drawing these things for the past seventeen years and quite frankly, I’m tired of it. It’s boring. But people like this stuff a lot, and it brings in the bread.

51F5M8CH3WLThe creative stuff I do in the daytime and the grunt work I do at night. Or vice versa. When I begin the new series of novels I will have to get the grunt work (ie., pinups) out of the way during the day so I can write at night–I usually write at night, sometimes until 3 or 4 in the morning. I said series of novels. In reality what I’ve planned is a very large novel on the order of Hermann Broch’s Sleepwalkers. I would like to give out details but I do not want anybody stealing the fucking plot, so I will let it go at that.

Die Schlafwandler is actually a trilogy of novels dealing with the disintegration of values in pre-war Germany from 1888 to 1918. I like Broch’s idea, but not necessarily his approach; to me his writing is very detached, very dry, shorn of emotion, to the point where much of the novel reads more like sociology than fiction. One could call it “objectivism” in novel form. (I would use it sparingly, only where needed, when writing my own series of books.) But I like the idea of presenting the current American “disintegration of values” in book form, particularly over a series of books–maybe as many as five or six, but most certainly four. I like the idea of highlighting this disintegration through several different points of view, from various people from varying backgrounds. AND THAT’S AS MUCH AS I’M GOING TO SAY, THANK YOU. WAIT TILL THE BOOK COMES OUT.*

Berlin Asylum, the 673-page book I completed four-and-a-half years ago, will be published as a Kindle Book this fall. I have already designed a cover for it. I planned on something a little different, but as I was playing around with this design on CorelDraw last year I came up with something striking. I don’t think it’s too amateurish, don’t you? It’s a lot better than the “NATE” cover, which did not help in selling copies…

Coincidentally, it is the 10th anniversary of the publication of my second novel, Nate. Between 1993 and 2016 I’ve only published two novels. And back in the late 80s I naively imagined I would be a famous, rich and well-published novelist and pundit by now.(If I had only known!!) However, I think Berlin Asylum will do surprisingly well. I think. I would assume that people are finally fed up with the same old middle-class, semi-respectable voices detailing their tired semi-privileged lives in the redneck version of Paris.

*I already know the publishers won’t be much interested in some darky analyzing America’s own disintegration of values and destruction of ethnic identities in favor of a false multiculturalism that claims to celebrate Afro-Americanness, Asian-Americanness, Latino-Americanness–but is really keen on appropriating our identities and defining FOR THEMSELVES what a black, brown or yellow person is. But fuck the publishers, anyway.

*

Another note: the older I get, the more I find myself completely disgusted with every aspect of contemporary American culture, especially African-American culture. I no longer have any patience for these black idiots who keep on whining about how horrible Hollywood is when black America quite literally doesn’t need either Hollywood or Madison Avenue or Silicon Valley. Black America is stuck in a mental and spiritual time-warp; they seem to think it’s still 1962 or 1972 or 1982–whether that’s B.C. or A.D. is debatable.

It doesn’t matter a damn whether white people have a culture or not, or if they are basically still stuck on Plymouth Rock (especially regarding their religious or sexual mores). The fact is that it is increasingly clear that we do not need to put up with any more of their primitive and self-righteous shit. Black Americans are worth 1 TRILLION dollars a YEAR, for fuck’s sake. Rather than try to take over NBC, they would do better and create at least two or three completely independent media stations. But they don’t. They’d rather sit around and whine about “thug rap” (which I have already talked about and analyzed to death and will reprint the article shortly) rather than stop listening to that crap. After all, nobody is forcing them to watch “rap”. Nobody is holding them back from creating their own industries, AND IF THEY CAN’T DO IT IN AMERICA THEY CAN JUST AS WELL DO IT IN THE CARIBBEAN OR AFRICA.

After all, the first step towards a genuine revolution (providing that’s what Black America wants) is economic independence, economic autarky. Trying to buy NBC or trying to be the first African-American head of Mutual of fucking Omaha is not revolutionary.

Brief Reflections on What a “Black” Writer Should Do (or, rather, what I think “Black” writers should do)

In the global media, the African American has been obliterated as a human being and as an historical and cultural entity. In fact his identity and humanity are subject to change and manipulation at any given moment by forces more or less beyond his control. One moment he is an amusing entertainer, a powerful and loveable athlete; the very next he is a wild, raging beast who needs to be subdued.

Black American writing should be an effort to reclaim and reinvent, or reconstruct, a history and identity which has been relentlessly trivialized. Americans deny the importance of history because if they were to remember anything that they had truly done in their past, they would probably hang themselves in shame. American history, for the most part, is an ugly testimony to humanity’s failure; it shows one just how exceedingly monstrous people can be towards other people and towards their environment, and above all, just how immeasurably stupid, cruel and callous. The “history” is built on lies, and for a very simple reason that James Baldwin pointed out earlier: in order to tell the truth about the African American, one must tell the truth about every other American, particularly white Americans, and their interaction with African Americans. Such a truth telling would render virtually every American history book useless. The lies continue to the present day: idiots like T-Pain and T.I. and 50 Cent and the rest of the thug bunch were invented and hyped for a clear reason: so that the world can’t see the rest of us. The thugs are a smokescreen.

In the Name of The Father

In the Name of the Father

 

for Nizar Qabbani, Pablo Neruda, Federico Garcia Lorca, Henry Dumas, Harold Carrington

 

 

In the name of the Father, the Son

And the Holy Ghost.

 

We, The People,

 

Thank you for your blessings

These past ten thousand years:

 

We thank you for not listening to

A single one of our prayers.

 

Thank you, O lord, for stuffing

Your blessed ears with wool,

 

for turning your backside to us,

for an eternity of neglect.

 

Thank you for mocking our struggle,

 

For making of our misery

A source of endless entertainment.

 

Thank you for gangsters and thugs,

Thank you for allowing cops

 

In New York, San Francisco,

Washington, Milwaukee, Houston,

 

Toronto, London, Paris, Budapest,

Cairo, Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro,

 

To beat us with impunity,

To kick us in our genitals

 

And sodomize us in filthy alleys

And police stations.

 

Glory be to God,

For blessing us with a nation

 

Of Nigger-lynchers:

Praise Allah for the most honorable

 

Obeidah tribe of East Libya,

Who aims to finish the honorable work

 

Of Nathan Bedford Forrest.

 

Thank you, O lord, for upstanding men

like Pinochet, the Assads, the Obammys,

 

the Reagans, the Bushes, the Rockefellers;

Thank you for Hosni Mubarak.

 

Thank you for Syria

and a mountain of rubble

and an avalanche of corpses.

 

Thank you for Dylan Roof

and Jim Jones at Guyana,

thank you for understanding

that Yes, indeed, Black Lives

don’t really matter.

 

Thank you, O lord, for deposing our King;

Thank you, O lord, for killing Thomas Sankara;

 

Thank you, O lord, for Tupac Shakur,

Zip Coon, Amos and Andy, J.J., Nicky Barnes,

P. Diddy, Rick Ross, Hip-Hop, Crack, Crunk,

And the brilliant minds who produced it all.

 

Thank you,

Glory be to God.

 

Thank you for the International Monetary Fund,

And guys like Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

 

Thank you for reality shows,

Thank you for Jersey Shore and Bensonhurst.

 

Thank you for Maury Povich, and all

The lumpens who parade

 

Through his camera lens—the better to

Distract us from Afghanistan.

 

Thank you for Michelle Malkin, Ann

Coulter, Michael Savage, Ken Hamblin,

 

Joseph Goebbels, Julius Streicher, Rush

Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Howard Stern,

and Donald Trump.

 

Thank you, O lord, for Obama’s waffling

And Oprah’s mammy-made re-runs.

 

Thank you for Wolf Blitzer,

Thank you for Likudniks,

 

Thank you for Ricki Lake, Jerry Springer,

Judge Judy, the Supreme Court Justice

 

System, for Homeland Security, for the Trans-

Portation Security Administration, and all

 

The perverts who grope girl’s pussies

For plutonium.

 

Thank you for playing worker against worker,

straight against gay,

 

Thank you for playing man against woman,

Old against young, north against south, east

 

Against west, spics against niggers,

gooks against spics, kikes against

 

gooks, Ay-rabs against

kikes, and so on and so forth;

 

Thank you for the Middle Passage, for

Nanking, for Hiroshima, for Libya,

for Baghdad, for Afghanistan,

 

Thank you for all the Holocausts, for

All the Conquistadors, for King Leopold and Tippu Tib,

 

Thank you for the destruction of Timbuktu,

Benin City, and Tulsa’s Black Wall Street,

 

Thank you for burning our libraries,

Thank you for destroying our culture,

 

Thank you for forcing us to live in the ghetto,

Thank you for making us hock our kidneys

 

Just to eat a hamburger;

Thank you for killing us

 

For stealing a slice of pound cake:

 

Thank you.

 

Thank you for flooding Harlem with

Heroin, Hipsters and Walt Disney,

 

Thank you for Hipsters, Hipsters, Hipsters,

Hipsters, Hipsters, and more Hipsters,

 

Thanks for gang-bangers

Who shoot at the drop of a pin.

 

Thank you, O lord, for forcing Cuba

To eat its own shit,

 

For forcing Haiti to grovel in the dirt

For yet another century,

 

For forcing Somalia to choose between

Starvation and piracy,

 

For forcing Mother Africa to sell

Her ass again.

 

Thank you, O lord, for bringing back

Torture camps and Inquisitions,

 

Thank you, O lord, for the guys

Who hacked off the manhood

 

of Hamza Khatib—

 

I mean, it was really his fault that

He was a mere thirteen year old,

 

Wasn’t it? And maybe his big, fat

Stomach should not have been in

 

The way of the bullets that struck him,

And maybe his dick should not have

 

Been in the way of the knife that

Removed it.

 

Glory be to the Creator, to God,

To Jehovah, the One and only—

 

Et benedictus,

 

Thank you, thank you, thank you,

 

Thank you.

 

We are eternally grateful that our

Earth has been hopelessly poisoned.

 

Thank you.

 

We are eternally grateful for facing extinction

at the hands of morons.

 

Thank you.

 

We are eternally grateful for you,

British Petroleum: you’ve done it again.

 

We are eternally grateful for the

Radiation eating out our insides,

 

O great guys of TEPCO:

Thank you for not telling the truth,

 

We did not need to hear it.

 

Thank you.

 

 

© 2011-2015 Philip Lewis

Review of “The Kid,” by Sapphire

(Note: this review was written for Transition magazine back in 2012, but apparently never accepted.)

Whether through expectation or intent, too many American black writers take the low road into petty-bourgeois minstrelsy: think Mary B. Morrison, Carl Weber or Michael Baisden. A huge moral evasiveness damns much of their work; it is far more insidious than in the works of white writers who, generally speaking, make considerably less noise about “keeping it real.” Urban life, as depicted by the K’wans and Vicki Stringers is, for the most part, imaginary: a collection of prurient fantasies tailored for a public—largely middle-class, and often white—that could care less how “real” they are. Their books clutter the shelves of Barnes and Noble and sell by the truckloads on Harlem street corners, and are as iniquitous as and possibly even more dangerous than anything written by Thomas Dixon: the very blackness of these authors lends them a credibility they do not deserve. There is no need to consider their artistic “integrity” since these authors are simply, in effect, selling crack—only to be read, not smoked. Cynical, churlish and childish, their inevitable response when questioned about their total inability to think is “if you don’t like it, don’t read it.” This, of course, is the exact same thing real crack dealers say on these very same streets.

Fantasies these books are, indeed—and from a purely technical standpoint, singularly unambitious in scope and atrociously executed. Dale Peck, in writing of Stanley Crouch’s benighted first attempt at a novel, stated that a bad book can be a blessing. I presume so, if the “blessing” lay in an overrated author leaving himself open to a long-awaited and well-deserved scrutiny. With Sapphire’s second attempt at a novel, The Kid, I am tempted to refrain from passing unduly harsh judgment on a book which, sad to say, is anything but a blessing. I am compelled nonetheless to be honest about the book’s overall construction and content. As for the former, it is a rambling, 374-page falsetto shriek with little in the way of insight and intelligence, to say nothing of plot; the latter, about Abdul Jones, the son of the late Precious Jones (the narrator of her previous book, Push), is distinctly unmemorable—this in spite of our being exposed to virtually everything that Abdul thinks and does in his tortured path from an orphaned childhood to a shaky, confused manhood.

At the tender age of nine, Abdul is hurriedly whisked away from his Aunt Rita in Harlem after witnessing his mother’s funeral. I may be wrong, but I find it far-fetched that a black kid growing up in the bowels of Harlem would know virtually nothing about death, let alone that of his mother. The kid is apparently so ignorant that he knows nothing of new-fangled trash bags: “Rita hands me a shiny plastic square that opens out to be a garbage bag” (p. 28). At times he even sounds like a caricature of an African native attempting to speak English:

Coffins? Graveyard? Spooky place from Halloween movies on television. Dracula climbing out the casket with spiderwebs and stuff. Dark, scary stuff. But when the car stops, it’s like a pretty park, green grass, sky blue with fluffy white clouds. I lean back on the seat close my eyes, hear car doors open people talking, hear this car door open, open my eyes, get out…Green grass, the gravestones are little houses; a person is under each one? First a person then they turn into bones? (p. 23)

In fact the stupidity of the Harlem denizens depicted is beyond belief. We all know that ignorance, illiteracy and vulgarity damns far too many folk in true-to-life, impoverished Harlem, but the funeral scene itself is absurd; it reads like a racist caricature of a “colored” church gathering, with profanities mixed in to give an illusion of authenticity.

Indeed, one could merely cut to the chase and state unequivocally that the entire novel reads this way, as little Abdul moves from childhood to adolescence. In Book Two, appropriately titled “Falling,” Abdul is now pushing fourteen, six feet tall and attending St. Ailanthus School for Boys. Heretofore exposed to things African and African-American by his late mother Precious, he is further drawn into blackness (so we are led to believe) by occasional visits to the Schomburg Center, where he sees “faggots like Martin Luther King and astronauts and shit” (p. 61). He has a spate of new friends, some of whom, like four-feet Jaime Jose Colon, he rapes for kicks:

He’s shivering with excitement. I’m hard. I grab him with both hands, raise his little booty to me. I jam him…It’s so good, tight. He squeal, I slam his face in the pillow, kill that. OOOHHHH this shit feel good!…Bed creaking turn me on more. The in-out creak music. I hear that sound in the dark, turn me on, I know somebody getting it on. Fucking him I wanna sssscream but I don’t…He start to cry. Stupid! Stupid motherfucker (p. 54)

St. Ailanthus is a cesspool of pedophilia and religious hypocrisy. Brother John and Brother Samuel in their respective turns have their way with the confused and vulnerable Abdul. “I’m no faggot,” he repeats to himself throughout the book, while “tak(ing) his penis into my mouth” (p. 67). Abdul continues to clown around, eating the food off other student’s plates and screwing his pals until he is expelled from St. Ailanthus for raping Richie Jackson. Despondent, he moves into a foster home with an ex-whore from Mississippi he sneeringly calls “Slavery Days,” apparently from the antiquated way she speaks:

Yeah, honey, I was sittin’ up on a rock away from de picnic tables ‘n de music. Lookin’ down de road. Sky blue fluffy clouds, hog on de spit, good smell up yo’ nose. Nigger Boy pluckin’ de banjo. Banjo stop. Somebody start up on guitar. Black shadow cross me, Nigger Boy’s pant legs. Hair on my arm stand up. ‘Youze lookin’ for yo mama?’ (p. 177)

It gets worse than this—much, much worse. The monologue is flat-out minstrel dialect, straight out of Octavius Roy Cohen or Thomas Nelson Page. Now even Abdul’s sudden interest in African and Haitian dance does not dampen our suspicions about this novel’s true intent. It may sound cynical, but the writer suspects that the raves for this abysmal book have less to do with its supposed documentation of a soul’s birth and more to do with its resurrection of cheap Nigger Minstrelsy, the hundreds of times the word “motherfucker!” is shrieked, and its graphic depictions of blowjobs between young boys.

My cynicism about this book was not mollified by Abdul’s passage into manhood, his newfound artistic ambitions and erotic encounters with My Lai, a Vietnamese dancer, or his struggle with encroaching mental illness. At times I suspended disbelief and imagined the novel was something of a satirical blast from National Lampoon. It certainly does read like a parody of urban fiction, exemplified by Percival Everett’s “My Pafology,” a novel within a novel (Erasure). Reading “My Pafology” side by side with The Kid one is disturbed at the alarming similarities between the two narratives. Only there’s one problem: The Kid does not attempt to function as satire.

The most ironic and telling thing about Abdul Jones is that, in spite of our knowing virtually his every thought, his every emotion, and having heard his every scream and seen his endless freak-outs and masturbations, he remains as grotesquely one-dimensional as a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. Endless episodes of Abdul raping anything that moves, slitting his wrists, cursing life, cursing humanity, the universe, while pretending to be an “artist” do not a character make. Certainly, he does nothing to challenge hardening prejudices against young black men, for as James Baldwin states, “(a)s long as I react as a “nigger,” as long as I protest my case on evidence or assumptions held by others, I’m simply reinforcing those assumptions” (Katz, The Invention of Heterosexuality, p. 105). Any non-black reader with a modicum of prejudice toward African Americans can find one’s prejudices further reinforced simply by reading The Kid, for it reveals nothing of the complexity and the humanity of the African American, whether gay or straight, rich or poor, young or old, male or female.

It is not simply a moral failing on Sapphire’s part, but an artistic failing as well. None of The Kid’s non-black characters, such as My Lai or Brother Samuel, are even remotely memorable. The praise that this book has been given seems incomprehensible: “A fascinating novel that may well find a place in the African American literary canon,” writes the Philadelphia Inquirer; “brilliant, blunt, merciless,” Newsday calls it. Well, two of the aforementioned adjectives certainly apply to this book; brilliant isn’t one of them. It is, quite simply, a cartoon, and a bad cartoon at that—specifically tailored for those non-blacks who wish to go slumming inside the mind of a savage Harlem native without, God forbid, going through the trouble of knowing an actual African American. One leaves this book feeling not that one has witnessed the “birth of a soul,” as Entertainment Weekly claims, but insulted, degraded, and swindled out of twenty-six dollars.

 

The New Absurdism: the emergence of an American literary sensibility (or, don’t conceal the real)

Absurdism is not the cheap toilet-paper irony of white school children who have just learned to masturbate. Absurdism is rooted in a blues sensibility and a blues aesthetic. Once again, it must be made perfectly clear just what we mean when we define a “blues aesthetic” in neo-modernism and absurdism. It is not merely “singing the blues,” let alone wearing Ray-Ban sunshades and pork-pie hats and playing bad imitations of Son House. The “blues aesthetic,” for us, is rooted in an acknowledgement of our historical and contemporary struggles to stay afloat in a hostile universe. Fiction, like the Blues, is a vehicle by which we give expression to our anger, our sense of confusion and outrage; it is a vehicle by which we keep alive the “jagged edges” of the experience and by which, we transcend that experience, at least through art. To quote Elif Batuman in “Get A Real Degree,” her rebuttal of Mark McGurl’s defense of “program writing”:

At a certain point in the history of the novel, Jewishness, having ceased to be a merely comic or villainous attribute, had come to operate as a reality principle that exposed the machinery of social life. Swann’s way – the prosaic way of the narrator’s half-Jewish next-door neighbour – revealed the truth about the Guermantes way, and Jewishness became, to an extent, identifiable with the mechanism of the novel itself: the comic, slightly vulgar exposure of the world as a place where would-be knightly heroes have to eat, sleep and carry money…. To justify its perpetuation, the novel itself had somehow to become Jewish. Jewishness, which had once been a codeword for the changing of the times, came to represent a kind of tragedy that would never change, no matter how much time passed. (Italics mine)

As with us, the American and/or modern novel, if it is to exist, must become Black. Our fiction requires distillation, rejection of the academic aesthetic and creation of and/or appropriation of older techniques and aesthetics in expressing what is real to us: we, the so-called “marginalized,” whose thousands of deaths each year barely get an inch of space on some off-beat web-blog. It should be understood that the academies of the West, or even the non-West, are not going to take us seriously; they have trained themselves not to take us seriously, except when we function in the capacities they have created for us. And these capacities, of course, have nothing whatever to do with so-called “high” art.

We writers need to assess for ourselves what constitutes “high” art. How any form of art became “high” in the first place is cause for careful examination. Students of Dante Alighieri often forget that the Divine Comedy was written in what was considered a “low” language of 13th century Florence: Italian. Before Pushkin Russian literature, as a rule, did not exist; the Russian elite wrote and spoke in French. Russian was considered a “rude” language.

*

The African American is in more of a disadvantageous position than he or she realizes. The main disadvantage has less to do with the sorry state of the American publishing industry and more to do with actual matters of craft–or, to be more specific, matters of language. Each black American writer (providing he is serious, and not a hack) has to reinvent the American literary language in his or her own way. He must virtually reinvent the Black vernacular by reclaiming it, by taking it out of the hands of rednecks and clueless minstrel rappers. This is not an easy task. Much of the so-called Black vernacular defines African-Americans in ways that are just as trite, just as stale and stereotyped, as that of the dominant American vocabulary. (Which is tantamount to saying that no true Afro-American language really exists!!) Furthermore, the Vernacular itself often comes off as sounding really hackneyed–the whole “whassup, nigga” thing is more than just played out. Enough should be enough: it’s time to step outside of the narrow confines of the American and Afro-American vocabularies and at last give a true account of what it means to be black and American in the world today.

The African or Arab writer, by contrast, has it easier: armed with his or her own language, he or she is already in an advantaged position over the poor native black writer: the Ghanaian-American or Nigerian-American–unlike the native black–already speaks a language that does not define him as a nigger. This is not to say that African or Arab writers don’t have their own hurdles to jump over. The Nigerian novelist, by and large, writes in English, not in Edo, Yoruba or Hausa, nor in any of the dozens of languages of Nigeria. The “Arab” writer, who in reality is an Egyptian, a Yemeni or a Moroccan, writes in a language that virtually no Arab speaks anywhere in the world. This is tantamount to saying that Egyptian literature, for example, doesn’t really exist…

African-American literature doesn’t really exist, either: when Amiri Baraka proclaimed “Negro Literature” to be a “myth” he was not necessarily hyperbolic. There are a few examples but by and large, African American literature has been deformed by the expectations and demands of American publishing editors, almost exclusively white, who think they know what “black” writing is supposed to be like. “Black” literature has been largely tailored to the expectations of a reading public that wishes to see what it wants to see of Black America, and the end result is that there is a distinct unreality about most Black writing, as it is for Latino, Asian and Native American writing. (For white writers, the problem is virtually the same, save that ethnicity and race are more or less out of the question. There is a 180-degree difference between Raymond Carver in book form and Raymond Carver on manuscript. “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” was not written by Carver; it was written by Gordon Lish. Carver merely handed in the manuscript.)*

*

Today, in place of Absurdism, we have polite writers (largely white and upper-middle-class) who–to be concise–are in the business of concealing more about life on this planet than revealing it. To genuinely reveal anything in literature one must be willing to face reality: our inner reality, our true feelings and passions as well as the sorry state of the world outside of ourselves, outside of our neighborhoods, outside of our cities. Reality is often unpleasant and unnerving; it all to often provokes feelings which make us, in some form or another, extremely uncomfortable. Contemporary Anglo-American literature functions in much the same way as cutesy-poo cat designs on the panties of Japanese schoolgirls: cheap kitsch to conceal the real.

American literature does not exist. Maybe it had existed in the past, but it does not now. In order for American literature to exist the point-of-view must change; the cultural referents must be considerably broadened to take in the Asian as well as the African, the Latino as well as the Native American, the Jewish as well as the Arab, and so on and so forth. Meaning that from now on the American writer, if he or she is to be a writer, must have a lot more on the ball than before. No more of that cozy provincialism of the past decades, slumming in one’s own ethnic ghetto writing only of Puerto Ricans or Jamaicans or Italians or Jews or Jordanians. And no more of that phony inclusion, writing of Puerto Ricans, or African Americans, or Jews, or Irish, or Armenians, as mere gaudy novelistic decoration to make the book “colorful.” A thorough grounding in the concerns and problems of each group is necessary before any real American literature is to be written, and as always, the viewpoint must be that of an outsider, one who has rejected the national fantasies.

*I will make more personal observations on Raymond Carver later.