Justice. Today I am contemplating the meaning of the word justice, and what it means to be fair and reasonable. And then one step further, the meaning of fairness, of reason. And then one step beyond that, I am contemplating too the boldness and ferocity of character that steps forward to declare injustice when he or she sees it.
It is July 5, 2012, the 160th anniversary of Frederick Douglass’ oration “The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro,” which he delivered in Rochester, NY, on a day probably much like today, which is beautiful. Warm. Sunny. A slight breeze to lift the hair, the hem of a skirt slightly. A passing cloud for shade. When Douglass spoke, our young nation was 76 years old. A generation had embraced the ingenuity and freedom of the young nation, its aspirations, its dreams. And it’s lie. In 1852, slavery continued as a savage blight south of the Mason Dixon line and men like Douglass, free in the North, free to speak, were elevated in what whites may have believed was stature. But it was caricature. It was torture. Douglass was no more free to enjoy fairness and reason than the enslaved in the south.
Gathered on the common behind the City Hall in Worcester, Mass., today, I stepped out of my everyday life along with nearly 50 others to step into the life of Frederick Douglass. We did so momentarily, as the passing participants in the public reading of Douglass’ speech. Sponsored by Mass Humanities, the public reading of Douglass’ speech has become an annual event, an annual reminder that to move forward in our quest for justice in today’s world, we need to embrace the still vivid stories of our past. More than 100 others came to listen to his impassioned, righteous and haunting words.
“The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common,” said Douglass “The rich inheritance of justice, liberty and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life 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.”
Among the crowd, there were many of many colors, ages, occupations and financial resources. I cannot speak for anyone but myself about why I wanted to speak the words aloud. Which is this: The legacy of slavery and its harsh decendant, segregation, is but a breath away from each of us. Justice and equity among all, is still a dream away from a dream away from a dream.
This is no more evident in the continued fantasy “birther” movement targeting President Obama. It is no more evident in the fearmongering of Tea Party politics, or even more evident in the color (and gender) of the faces of nearly every operational, advisory and organizational board of directors and trustees at colleges, universities and corporations nation-wide. And perhaps most shamefully evident of all is the injustice in our own elected bodies, who are supposed to represent fairly and with reason as they contemplate and weigh the benefits and detriments of every law in our country. Look at their faces and say there is representative justice. It cannot be done.
I often feel a level of powerlessness in helping to shift our collective consciousness into one of reason, fairness and equity, instead of competition, rancor and fear. Racial divides, gender divides, economic divides all stem from a core fear for our individual survival. Scapegoating and finding small windows of weakness, or using force or wealth to create categories, allow individuals and groups to manipulate heirarchy and control what things we might have in our lives to enjoy, to survive. Somewhere along the eons, we missed the chance to recognize that an intellectual society need not be driven by methods of survival of the fittest.
I spoke Douglass’ words today to remind myself, and those in my presence, that injustice lives among us still. It is stealth and it is fierce. It is insipid and heinous. When I listen to my dear friend Jess tell of her struggles in an urban center of the U.S., of breaking free from perpetuating the stories of oppression among her family, friends and colleagues, and the even harder struggles her partner Dee faces as a black man in the city: the job shutouts, the expectations for failure, for fulfilling others’ stories of struggle and deprivation, my heart aches. While there is love between us, there is still a divide and stories that go untold.
“At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed,” said Douglass. “O! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would, today, 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; conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed.”
In the end, we each will only have our stories to tell to one another. Not our riches or fame. Only our stories. I do not want to know that I carried shame by not calling out for a better way of living, for identifying wrongs. And I do not want to know that I gave away my hope of possibility, and vision.
Douglass told the story of injustice, and in doing so, spurred the movement forward to justice. I can do my part. Bit by bit. And then tell my story about it too. And to be willing to step forward and and identify what I see: Generational fear that has no cause, the profiling that results, the targeting of groups, genders and gender identification, ages, colors, all the many profiles that continue to ostracize because of a history of fear of survival and a legacy of dominance. These chains are often so hard to recognize as wrong since the capital of our society, our economy even, are built upon them. And I am no different. That is my story as well. The legacy I carry from my parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and those who came before.
Yet, despite the laser of his vision on the condition and inequity of the 1852 black condition, which he scathingly describes in detail, Douglass also had faith in the future, that things would change. At the close of his oration, he did so with grace with a call for a shared compassion and change:
“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.”
We must continue to overcome, and it must be done together. My story. Your story. Our story.