Learning from Black History

Learning from Black History
By Grace Lee Boggs
Michigan Citizen, Sept 1, 2009

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, rain without thunder and lightning.”

For most people, including myself, this oft-quoted passage from Frederick Douglass has summed up all that we had to learn from him. We viewed revolutionary struggle mainly as the oppressed standing up, rebelling against an external enemy, and (not yet) as two-sided transformation. So revolutionary leadership meant only agitation and mobilization.

Douglass was a revolutionary leader who developed beyond agitation and mobilization.

As a young man, in 1840, after having been brutally beaten for rebelling, after having taught himself (and others) to read, after having bought a book on oratory to develop his skills in public speaking, and after working in Baltimore for wages which he had to turn over to his master, Frederick Bailey decided that the time had come to take a train north and free himself from slavery.

During the next 20 years he changed his last name to Douglass, established contact with William Lloyd Garrison and (mainly white) Abolitionists, inspired audiences in this country and England with the story of his degradation as a slave and his struggles to reclaim his humanity, wrote different versions of his autobiography, decided to purchase his freedom rather than continue to risk capture as a fugitive slave, married and fathered four children, and established his independence from Garrison and the abolitionists by publishing his own newspaper.

In making these hard choices, Frederick Douglass matured and transformed himself. By the time Lincoln was elected president and the Civil War began, he was no longer only a black leader. He had evolved into the kind of Citizen leader needed by all Americans, a leader who was not mainly a politician like Lincoln (or Obama), but one who recognized that in order to free ourselves, Americans had to fight the Civil War not only as a war to preserve the Union but as a war to abolish slavery. In so doing, we/they would not only be freeing blacks, We/they would be acknowledging the terrible damage we/they have done to our own humanity by enslaving African Americans, taking the land from Native Americans, and exploiting peoples all over the world.

Frederick Douglass did not succeed in converting Lincoln. But by sticking to his principles and by recruiting 200,000 blacks to fight on the side of the North, he won Lincoln’s respect and helped push him towards issuing the January 1963 Emancipation Proclamation.

To get a sense of this kind of Citizen leadership that we now urgently need, I recommend the little book Slave and Citizen: the Life of Frederick Douglass by Nathan Huggins. Huggins is the author of Black Odyssey, an invaluable account of how Africans were living materially and spiritually before the slave traders arrived and how coming to America in chains, they also had to create themselves anew.

Huggins was that rare black intellectual willing to struggle openly with other black intellectuals. I’ll never forget his disagreeing so seriously with Bob Moses at the October 1986 symposium (convened to discuss how to celebrate MLK’s birthday as a national holiday) that he tore up his prepared speech in order to challenge Moses. His essay (“Martin Luther King Jr, Charisma and Leadership”) explaining the profound questions at issue in this disagreement is in Revelations, a collection of his writings compiled posthumously by his widow, Brenda Smith Huggins.

When he died in his early 60s, Huggins was W.E.B. DuBois Professor of History and Afro-American Studies at Harvard University, the position now held by Henry Louis Gates Jr. Today we sorely need intellectuals like Huggins who do not fiddle while Rome burns.



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