Meaning and Movement in the 4th of July

Three years ago on this holiday I posted Fredrick Douglass’ famous address “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” This year, as a flurry of progressive sites in my feed do the same, it’s given me the chance to read it with fresh eyes.

Delivered in 1852 in the midst of an escalating effort to free more than 3 million people from bondage, and rid the United States of the “peculiar institution” of slavery, Douglass’ words illuminated a critical moment. The revolution which had founded this nation, as well as the people who had fought and died in it, were fresh memories for many in the audience. Coming only 76 years after the Declaration of Independence, most in the crowd likely had one or more relatives whose sacrifice made them directly part of this past. Their patriotic exceptionalism, growing ever more palpable with each succeeding generation, further made the occasion of this nation’s birth a personal affair.

Douglass walked the fine line between celebrating the heroism and exceptional character of the Founding Fathers, and with them the fundamental premise of the nation, while chastising the crowd for their own hypocrisy, assuming a man who spoke for slaves could celebrate such an occasion.

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 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 [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.

It is that tension that frames Douglass’ address that I think is lost on some of us today. He can simultaneously use his admiration for the founding principles of this nation (and even their inciting events) to celebrate the occasion in one manner while also framing a critique of present-day inequalities.

I’m not as generous or high-minded as Douglass. I balk at patriotism, often unable to view it for any positive attributes it may possess beyond the horrific acts against humanity it serves to excuse and obfuscate. But I think Douglass is all the more significant for me for this reason.

Douglass is a reminder to us all to seize as our own the aspirational principles embodied in this imperfect nation. He shows us how preserving that optimism is at the heart of meaningful critique. He also provides perspective.

It strikes me as hyperbolic to compare our present with his past while ignoring the differences. He spoke at a time when more than 3 million African-descent people lived in chattel slavery. Draw all the similes you like, our present inequality is but a whiff of this past, even on it’s worst days. It also seems to me careless to take away from his speech only the polemical tone without also confronting his humanistic love for freedom and democracy.

This isn’t a call to celebrate today as all others do; but neither is this a charge to dissent. It is a recognition of our responsibility to continue the work Douglass and others performed in their time–the work of building justice. It is also a bold reminder that our most powerful weapon is the humanism of the principles many uncritically celebrate today.


Senate Apologizes for Slavery

From CNN, a story on yesterday’s passage of a nonbinding resolution in the U.S. Senate which “acknowledges the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality and inhumanity of slavery, and Jim Crow laws” as it “apologizes to African-Americans on behalf of the people of the United States for the wrongs committed against them and their ancestors who suffered under slavery and Jim Crow laws.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid declared “In the nearly 150 years since the Emancipation Proclamation, America has taken serious and sincere steps to heal the deep wounds of one of history’s greatest crimes against humanity.  This resolution is another one of those steps.”

Slavery has been illegal in the United States for almost 150 years.  Many forms of legal segregation and discrimination have been illegal for over thirty years.

Sometimes the most powerful lessons from these kinds of resolutions is not in the content of the acknoweldgement but in the timing and context compelling its passage.  That is, I think we have a lot more to gain by thinking about why it took over a century for the Senate to do this and why they did it now.

The Oppression We Condone

Imagine a young, college student loading a bong and taking a hit. Then, imagine somewhere else, another person bites into a salad and swallows a small tomato. Neither person thinks they are hurting anyone by their actions. Neither thinks for a moment their action is connected to other people.

But both are wrong.

Two tragic articles bring this home. The first is a piece on the drug war in Mexico, featured in the latest issue of Foreign Policy.

“Mexico’s hillbilly drug smugglers have morphed into a raging insurgency. Violence claimed more lives there last year alone than all the Americans killed in the war in Iraq. And there’s no end in sight.”

It is a sad reminder of the brutal human cost that comes with the criminalization of drugs and drug use, yes, but it is also damning of U.S. consumption.  Even if marijuana and other drugs were legal in the U.S., the scale of our consumption would still create and nurture many of the power dynamics currently at play in the hemisphere.

If you doubt that, read this article on the production of tomatoes in South Florida. Featured in Gourmet magazine, it details the presence of modern slavery in the U.S.

“If you have eaten a tomato this winter, chances are very good that it was picked by a person who lives in virtual slavery. “

This perfectly legal food is  produced in ways which view their Latino laborers as nothing more than an ingredient to production, like dirt, water, or seed.  While this situation is both simple and complicated, the suffering is undeniable.

Halting our consumption of items which produce human suffering is a small change anybody can make.  Consumption feeds the continuation of the systems in question, both of which exact immeasurable human costs.  But that won’t do much to change the real problem.

James Baldwin once wrote of the indifference of whites to black suffering saying “It is their innocence that constitutes the crime.” What he meant is that “not knowing” isn’t a sign of innocence. Not when we live in a world where suffering is so easily evident.  Instead, it’s a sign of our guilt because it is the product of effort–effort to not know, effort to not associate yourself as linked to another you know is in pain, effort to preserve your need (for whatever) at the cost of others’ needs for human dignity and life.

When we open our eyes and see that the suffering of others is our suffering, then we are prepared to begin the hard work of creating the kinds of change called for in these situations.  What would you do to stop the abuse of your brother?  What would you do to save the life of your sister?

The article in Gourmet came to my attenton via Harvesting Justice, the wonderful blog of the non-profit advocacy group Farmworker Justice.

Modern Slavery and Latino Migrants

This shocking story comes from today’s Fort Meyer’s (Florida) News Press.  It is a sad reminder of the continued existence of global slavery, even within the borders of the United States.

September 3, 2008

Five plead guilty in Immokalee slavery case

Immokalee residents brutalized farmworkers


Five Immokalee residents pleaded guilty in federal court Tuesday to charges of enslaving Mexican and Guatemalan workers, brutalizing them and forcing them to work in farm fields.

The 17-count indictment in the case – one of the largest slavery prosecutions Southwest Florida has ever seen – was originally released in January. It alleged that, for two years, Cesar Navarrete and Geovanni Navarrete held more than a dozen people in boxes, trucks and shacks on the family property, chaining and beating them, forcing them to work in farm fields in Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina while keeping them in ever-increasing debt.

Chief Assistant U.S. Attorney Doug Molloy called it “slavery, plain and simple.”

One of the six original defendants, Jose Navarrete, pleaded guilty in May to five charges.

The two ringleaders, Cesar and Geovanni Navarrete will likely serve 12 years and face fines between $750,000 and $1 million each. Sentencing is set for December.

Although the case was set to go to trial Tuesday, the defense and the government reached plea agreements at the last minute.

“In federal court, if you go to trial and lose, the sentences are extremely severe,” said Geovanni Navarrete’s attorney, Joseph Viacava of Fort Myers. “We were happy to negotiate a resolution that caps our client’s liability and puts him in a favorable position come sentencing.”

Molloy is happy too.

“This is an excellent resolution,”

he said. “The bad guys go to jail and the many victims get to go on with their lives.”

Plus, he said, every time there’s a slavery conviction, “We get two or three more reports of similar cases. So getting the word out about these prosecutions is extremely important,” Molloy said.

Members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which has helped prosecute six slavery cases (including this) that freed more than 1,000 workers, also were pleased with the outcome.

“The facts that have been reported in this case are beyond outrageous – workers being beaten, tied to posts, and chained and locked into trucks to prevent them from leaving their boss,” said coalition member Gerardo Reyes.

“How many more workers have to be held against their will before the food industry steps up to the plate and demands that this never – ever – occur again in the produce that ends up on America’s tables?”

Enough of the “Race Card”; Let’s Talk About the Whole Deck

Does the United States become more equal, more equitable, and more just over time? Is it a forward progression that never turns back? Does it just happen? Or does it take work and struggle?

As a teacher of race and ethnicity, I find all the recent political talk about “playing the race card” suggestive of what we call a “teachable moment.” This concept which has so many meanings and uses (a floating signifier of sorts) is a rich example of many of our most significant gaps in understanding with respect to “race” in both our past and present social relations.

One of the things I find most interesting about its usage is the ways it is reflective of the fervent belief that “we” as a nation have become more racially tolerant and fair over time. “Playing the race card”—whether it means accusing whites of manipulating racial prejudice, securing support via white guilt, or any number of other actions—is seen transgressive. Doing so is seemingly suggestive of our collective racial past instead of our present. We become seemingly uncomfortable if the race of the candidate is even brought up, let alone if their race is somehow used in their campaign. Progress equals silencing of racial differences.

None of this meets my mind as progressive. In fact, I don’t see it as progress at all. Most of the racially-focused political dialogue I’ve heard in the past month leaves me thinking “we” haven’t moved all that much from the past.

Last week, while re-reading Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia—a classic in U.S. historical scholarship—I was struck by the historian’s analysis, first published in 1975. He wrote:

The men who came together to found the independent United States, dedicated to freedom and equality, either had slaves or were willing to join hands with those who did. None of them felt entirely comfortable about the fact, but neither did they feel responsible for it. Most of them had inherited both their slaves and their attachment to freedom from an earlier generation, and they knew that the two were not unconnected. The rise of liberty and equality in America had been accompanied by the rise of slavery.

That two such seemingly contradictory developments were taking place simultaneously over a long period of time, from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth, is the central paradox of American history. For the historian it poses a challenge to probe the connection: to explain how a people could have developed the dedication to human liberty and dignity exhibited by the leaders of the American Revolution and at the same time have developed and maintained a system of labor that denied human liberty and dignity every hour of the day…

To a large degree it may be said that Americans bought their independence with slave labor.

As I read these lines, I thought how they seemed radical not only for their time but for mine. If these words had been written in the 1990s, they would have been met by an organized movement of conservatives, criticizing this kind of analysis as “anti-American” or “revisionist.” This movement took shape after the time Morgan’s book was published. It helped elect Ronal Reagan and, in many ways, turned back the tide on civil rights. Yes, time does not always bring with it progress and betterment.

In his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. responded to the suggestion that civil rights protests were unrealistic in their demand for immediate change, since justice is inevitable, in time. He wrote:

Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely rational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively.

In practical terms, Morgan’s analysis isn’t precious. I mean, is far more radical things are published by mainstream academic presses every month. Yet it is hardly commonplace. To me, it served as a reminder of how social progress does not always unfold over time. That such a direct and provable assertion could still be seen as a radical revision of the traditional interpretation of the U.S. past is, in itself, sort of depressing.

Likewise, one of the sobering realities of our current political discourse is that we have failed terribly in our collective effort to learn from the struggles of the past. Acknowledgment of race was never the problem. The problem was how that acknowledgment served a system of white supremacy. Today, we can add to that the myriad ways our avoidance of acknowledging race serves that same system.

Quoted texts can be found in Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1975), 4-5; and Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963. King’s letter was first published in the The Christian Century, June 12, 1963.