One of our political parties has declared a war on modern America. Writing in the Washington Post after the Supreme Court ruling to take away a constitutional right in overturning Roe v. Wade, Jennifer Rubin framed the issue succinctly and correctly.
(I)t’s not right to say “Roe is on the ballot” in November. The 21st century is on the ballot. At risk is the America in which the definition of equality has expanded, in which the state is prohibited from micromanaging our lives, in which one’s right to make personal decisions is not governed by Zip code. (Emphasis in original.)
Today’s Republican party is willing to overturn elections that do not go their way. A radical and post-truth Supreme Court plays fast and loose with the facts of a case to reach the decision they are seeking. The more extreme among the party will threaten those who oppose them with violence and even death, with no public pushback from their leadership.
To many who grew up straight, white, and (in my case) male — in other words, privileged — belief in an America that would always move forward toward progress was part of our DNA, and the recent turn of events can seem shocking. Yet there is another group of citizens that looks at the new-found horror of the privileged and shakes their head. They have a question for us: “What took you so long?”
People of color in America know that we have been here before. And judging from what they are writing and saying both historically and in today’s moment, many of them are damn tired of waiting for the rest of us to face reality.
What is happening in America today is not new. This is our history. Frederick Douglass and James Baldwin, among many other courageous voices, have written it for us to understand.
In 1883, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1875, using language and logic that foreshadowed the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision in which the Court found that separate but equal facilities for blacks and whites were constitutional.
Frederick Douglass made a remarkable speech on October 22, 1883, at the Civil Rights Mass Meeting held in Washington, D.C.’s Lincoln Hall after the court ruling had been announced. His words remain so appropriate for today.
Using poetic language, Douglass first spoke of decisions made in support of freedom.
When a deed is done for Freedom / Through the broad earth’s aching breast / Runs a thrill of joy prophetic, / Trembling on from east to west.
Douglass then asked his listeners to contrast that thrill of joy with the feeling when a decision is made to oppress.
But when a deed is done from slavery, caste and oppression, and a blow is struck at human progress, whether so intended or not, the heart of humanity sickens in sorrow and writhes in pain. It makes us feel as if some one were stamping upon the graves of our mothers, or desecrating our sacred temples of worship. Only base men and oppressors can rejoice in a triumph of injustice over the weak and defenceless, for weakness ought itself to protect from assaults of pride, prejudice and power.
It mattered little, as Douglass eloquently noted, that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 had been discussed for months, debated in Congress where “every argument against it has been over and over again carefully considered and fairly answered” and when its constitutionality has been especially discussed. The bill passed both houses of Congress and was signed by the President. It was a law of the land for almost a decade, and the country largely assented to it.
One would think in those circumstances that “the reasons for declaring such a law unconstitutional and void, should be strong, irresistible and absolutely conclusive.”
But alas, this is America with a Supreme Court that has lifetime appointments.
The Supreme Court is the autocratic point in our National Government. No monarch in Europe has a power more absolute over the laws, lives, and liberties of his people, than that Court has over our laws, lives, and liberties.
The Court, however, made a decision that
“has inflicted a heavy calamity upon seven millions of the people of this country, and left them naked and defenceless against the action of a malignant, vulgar, and pitiless prejudice. It presents the United States before the world as a Nation utterly destitute of power to protect the rights of its own citizens upon its own soil. It can claim service and allegiance, loyalty and life, of them, but it cannot protect them against the most palpable violation of the rights of human nature, rights to secure which, governments are established. It can tax their bread and tax their blood, but has no protecting power for their persons. Its National power extends only to the District of Columbia, and the Territories — where the people have no votes — and where the land has no people. All else is subject to the States. In the name of common sense, I ask, what right have we to call ourselves a Nation, in view of this decision, and this utter destitution of power?
So much of what Douglass said about the Supreme Court, its arbitrary decision to overturn the law of the land, and the consequences to our national experiment hold true today.
I have also been reading James Baldwin over the past few weeks, from a book I bought in Paris where Baldwin moved for nine years to seek his calling and to view a different way of life from the oppression against blacks in America.
Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son (1961) is Baldwin’s powerful collection of thirteen essays written during the 1950s. James Baldwin “bore witness to the unhappy consequences of American racial strife” as one observer stated, and he writes of “blacks’ aspirations, disappointments, and coping strategies in a hostile society” in a very personal way that convicts the reader.
Each essay brings forth serious questions and challenging, almost damning, portraits of where America stood at the beginning of the modern Civil Rights movement. In the introduction he writes that “Nothing is more desirable than to be released from an affliction, but nothing is more frightening than to be divested of a crutch.” He knows we, as Americans, have both. We still have them.
“Fifth Avenue, Uptown: A Letter from Harlem” paints a devastating picture of the areas of our cities where Blacks are forced to live, while also speaking to the police presence that is a constant reminder of the residents’ second class (at best) citizenship. These are men and women “whose only crime is color.” And when the place inevitably blows up from the tension, the reason is always the same.
Negroes want to be treated like men: a perfectly straightforward statement, containing only seven words. People who have mastered Kant, Hegel, Shakespeare, Marx, Freud, and the Bible find this statement utterly impenetrable. The idea seems to threaten profound, barely conscious assumptions. *
Baldwin’s work, like that of Frederick Douglass, remains powerful and applicable in the 21st century. But as I look at attempted coups, Court decisions to strip women of their autonomy, and rising political violence, I think about which writers of color we should read today. Certainly people like Ta-Nehisi Coates and the other writers I mentioned after the George Floyd murder. But I feel that at the time of the overturning of Roe v. Wade we have a special obligation to listen to women writers of color, who can speak out of personal experience to the moment we live in. People like Michelle Alexander, who has detailed in The New York Times her harrowing story of being raped while attending Stanford Law School, which resulted in a pregnancy and her decision to have an abortion.
This is such a crucial time for all of us to be awake. Each will have to decide what specific actions to take. But, as Frederick Douglass said, there is a lesson that we all need to acknowledge in times like these.
The lesson of all the ages on this point is, that a wrong done to one man, is a wrong done to all men. It may not be felt at the moment, and the evil day may be long delayed, but so sure as there is a moral government of the universe, so sure will the harvest of evil come.
More to come…
*The words “Negroes” and “men” are both Baldwin’s words which perhaps we would not use in the same way today.
Image from Wikimages from Pixabay.