Posts Tagged Barack Obama

“Historian Links Obama With Frederick Douglass” (Lyn Schoch for ‘The Juilliard Journal’)

As part of the Liberal Arts department’s speaker series, Neil Roberts, assistant professor of Africana Studies and faculty affiliate of political science at Williams College, presented a compelling lecture titled “Frederick Douglass and Barack Obama: Fugitive Refashioning of American Democracy,” in Juilliard’s new Writing Center on February 20.

Historian Neil Roberts

Historian Neil Roberts, a professor at Williams College, presented a lecture on February 20 titled “Frederick Douglass and Barack Obama: Fugitive Refashioning of American Democracy,” for the Liberal Arts speaker series.
 (Photo by Lyn Schoch)

Roberts, who holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Chicago, is the recipient of fellowships from the Andrew Mellon Foundation and Social Science Research Council, and is a member of the Caribbean Philosophical Association board of directors. His present writings deal with the intersection of Caribbean, continental, and North American political theory with respect to theorizing the concepts of freedom and agency.

Roberts began his lecture by saying that even if one does not care about American abolitionist and statesman Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), it is probably safe to say that he or she has an opinion on Barack Obama. Expressing his discomfort with the intense comparisons being made between President Obama and Abraham Lincoln, Roberts suggested that people were perhaps a little too quick to make those connections; after all, George W. Bush, in his glory days, was also compared to Lincoln. The first work to explore the connection between Douglass and Lincoln was just published in 2007. Roberts takes another step and suggests that, since Douglass was compared to Lincoln and Lincoln was compared to Obama, perhaps Douglass might be connected to Obama.

According to Roberts, we must first discuss how we think about democracy. The word itself originates from two Greek roots: demos, or “people,” and kratia, or “rule, strength.” Interestingly enough, as Roberts pointed out, if you look at Plato’s Republic, the original Greek word that was used actually means “constitution.” There was an elite conception of how citizens were viewed; for example, Aristotle is now viewed as representing high philosophy, whereas in his day he was technically a resident alien. In other words, Aristotle was never actually a citizen of Athens, and therefore would not have been able to vote—he only lived and worked there.

Even before Obama won the primaries, he seemed invincible, just as Frederick Douglass, who was also biracial, was “the one” in his time. Roberts remarked that, like Douglass, Obama is a biracial black leader who has culturally adopted his African-American heritage. But what makes him different is that he represents a multiracial America.

As expressed in his narratives, Frederick Douglass saw that there was a difference between “in fact” and “in form.”

Form relates to moral psychology, or how you view yourself regardless of the law, while fact refers to the actual law itself. Douglass writes about being a free man in fact, versus being a free man in form. In his life, he made the transition from being a slave by law, as well as in his own view of himself, to legally being a free man and seeing himself as such. In between these two extremes, Douglass went through a period when he was legally a slave, yet he thought of himself as a free man. Even today, individuals are constantly faced with moments in which their identity is challenged, and people can accept many different kinds of identity. Roberts summed it up in his remark: “Some people are free in the law but they are enslaved to their own ill wills.” The most ideal situation, he said, is to be free in fact and in form, but even today, this can be a challenge.

At the conclusion of the lecture, an audience member asked Roberts how he felt President Obama would feel about this connection to Douglass. Scholars (and Obama himself) have pushed the Lincoln-Obama comparison too far, in Roberts’s opinion—for his inauguration, Obama requested the same Bible on which Abraham Lincoln was sworn in—but even so, the president didn’t mention Lincoln anywhere in his acceptance speech, and in terms of actual principles, the connection isn’t explicitly clear. How does it serve us to say that Obama is like Lincoln, when the markets are collapsing and the arts are continuing to be devalued? Besides rhetorical appeal, Roberts said, he is not sure what this comparison to Lincoln does besides suggest a figure that can lead a country at a trying time.

“Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will,” said Frederick Douglass in 1857. There must be a struggle before there is progress, and Douglass understood this, just as President Obama recognizes it today. Roberts quoted President Obama’s election victory speech from November 4, 2008: “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”

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Deadline: Barack & Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground reportedly working on film adaptation of “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom,” which cites “Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia” 8 times

Image result for president obama frederick douglass“Higher Ground is producing a feature film adaptation of Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, for which author David W. Blight won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in History.”

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Frederick Douglass: “What I Would Do If I Were President”

Library of Congress

More than a century before Barack Obama was elected the first black President of the United States of America, the most prominent black man of the 19th century jotted down his thoughts on the matter, “What I Would Do If I Were President.”

It seems a little absurd for one in my position to be asked, or to answer the question as to what I would do or not do if I were President of the United States, since no such contingency has even one chance in sixty-million to be realized. But if that chance should happen, it would probably be my experience and my misfortune to make as many blunders and give just cause for as much criticism as any one, who has ever occupied the Presidential chair. One thing how-ever I would do or try to do. I would employ every means supplied to the President by the constitution of the United States, to secure to every citizen of the United States, without regards to race, color, sex or religion, equal protection of the law. No citizen, however poor or despised, should be able to say at the close of my administration that he had suffered any injustice or had been in any way oppressed or injured by any act of mine while acting as President of the United States.

Frederick Douglass

Although Congresswoman Norton (D-DC) has shown no interest or intellectual rigor in truly honoring Frederick Douglass’s legacy of advocacy in Washington, D.C. that doesn’t mean you can’t. The Frederick Douglass Papers at the Library of Congress are easily accessible online which include thousands of correspondence, ephemera of daily life, and some of his best known and lesser known speeches.

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Charles Douglass calls swearing-in of Senator H.R. Revels “one of the greatest days” in “the history of this country.” Tells his father “the door is open, and I expect yet to see you pass in”

The first black American seated as a member of the United States Senate was Hiram Rhodes Revels representing Mississippi. Revels filled the seat vacated by Jefferson Davis, who left to serve as the President of the Confederate States of America, truly the personification of Lord Byron’s famous line in the long-form poem, “Don Juan,” that “truth is stranger than fiction.” Indeed.

According to Black Americans in Congress, “Revels arrived in Washington at the end of January 1870, but could not present his credentials until Mississippi was readmitted to the United States on February 23. Senate Republicans sought to swear in Revels immediately afterwards, but Senate Democrats were determined to block the effort. Led by Senator Garrett Davis of Kentucky and Senator Willard Saulsbury of Delaware, the Democrats claimed Revels’s election was null and void, arguing that Mississippi was under military rule and lacked a civil government to confirm his election. Others claimed Revels was not a U.S. citizen until the passage of the 14th Amendment in 1868 and was therefore ineligible to become a U.S. Senator. Senate Republicans rallied to his defense. Though Revels would not fill Davis’s seat, the symbolism of a black man’s admission to the Senate after the departure of the former President of the Confederacy was not lost on Radical Republicans. Nevada Senator James Nye underlined the significance of this event: “[Jefferson Davis] went out to establish a government whose cornerstone should be the oppression and perpetual enslavement of a race because their skin differed in color from his,” Nye declared. “Sir, what a magnificent spectacle of retributive justice is witnessed here today! In the place of that proud, defiant man, who marched out to trample under foot the Constitution and the laws of the country he had sworn to support, comes back one of that humble race whom he would have enslaved forever to take and occupy his seat upon this floor.”

Up in the Senate Gallery that day, taking all of this in, was Charles R. Douglass. In a February 26th letter, to his “Father,” Frederick Douglass, Charles wrote,

Yesterday was one of the greatest days to me, in the history of this country. I was present and listened to the dying groans of the last of the Democracy, it was on the occasion of administering the oath to H.R. Revels as U.S. Senator. The Democrats fought hard, but were met on all sides with unanswerable arguments on behalf of justice and right. The fight was on the citizenship of colored men. Even that dead & odious “Dred Scott Decision” was lugged in by the Democrats to show that blacks were not citizens, but Senators Scott of Pennsylvania, Drake of Mo., Stewart of Nev., Nye of Nev., Sawyer of S.C., Trumbull & many others knocked that decision higher than a kite, by their strong and logical arguments. Senator Wilson appeared to be the happiest man in the whole body not even excepting Revels, who advanced to the desk and took the oath in a very dignified manner. I hope that he may bear up under the new responsibilities, but I fear he is weak.

Many voices in the Galleries were heard by me to say, ‘If it would only have been Fred Douglass,’ and my heart beat rapidly when I looked into that crowded Gallery, and upon the crowded floor, to notice the deep and great interest manifested all around, it looked solemn and the thought flashed from my mind that that honor, for the first time conferred upon a colored man, should have been conferred upon you and I am satisfied that many Senators would much more willingly see you come there than to see that Reverend gentlemen who has just taken his seat.

But the door is open, and I expect yet to see you pass in, not though, as a tool as I think this man is, to fill out an unexpired term of one year, earning from a state too that has a large majority – of colored votes; but from your native state to fill the chair for the long and fullest term of either Vickers or Hamilton – who only yesterday, made long wails and harangues against negro citizenship.”

Frederick Douglass never did run for a seat in the United States Senate, nor was he appointed.

To this day there have only been six black American members of the United States Senate, five elected. Only three have served full-terms. The six are Revels (R) Mississippi, Blanche Kelso Bruce (R) Mississippi [full-term], Washington, DC’s own Edward Brooke (R) Massachusetts [full-term, 2], Carol Mosley Braun (D) Illinois [full-term], Barack Obama (D) Illinois (vacated his seat when he won the 2008 Presidential race), Roland Burris (D) Illinois (filled seat vacated by Obama).

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