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SLAVERY, FREDERICK DOUGLASS AND THE STORY OF AMERICA
THE BLACK MAN AS THE SOURCE OF AMERICA'S REMEMBERING
To look at slavery in America and its continuing echo of racial hatred and injustice is to see more than a condition that America is obliged to repair with all the moral and social energy it can bring; it is also, for Needleman, to see the inner human condition. It is to see that America too, no less than the slave-masters of Egypt and Rome, no less than the blind, murdering armies of every nation in history, is asleep to conscience. Slavery and its omnipresent effects have the power to never let us forget that we have to become different beings as well as act according to the good laws of the land. Laws by themselves, the Constitution by itself, cannot bring justice. Needleman then turns to Frederick Douglass.
Born into slavery in 1818, Frederick Douglass had escaped to the North at the age of 20 and had become widely respected for his courage and intellect as he travelled throughout the northern states speaking about the meaning for America of slavery and its horrors. His great gifts as a writer and speaker, and in the actions of his life, was not only to make white Americans feel the monstrosity of slavery, but also to present to them, with unsurpassed insight and sensitivity, the meaning of the idea of America itself. He understood America and deeply embraced its ideals even as he recoiled at what American had become.
In an impassioned oration in 1858, he comes to his central idea. Like man, America imagines it is free, imagines it is one, imagines it prizes independence, liberty and justice – but in fact, like man, America swarms with contradictions. It is precisely because America was only yesterday conceived as an expression of humanity's greatest moral ideals that its contradictions and failure of will call out most clearly and sadly.
America then, for Douglass, must bow its head at the contradiction it represents. Then and only then can a man, a people or a community, really begin to repair its crimes; because only then through this process of remembering what it is and what it was meant to be, only then does it allow into itself the process whereby it can repair its own moral and spiritual contradictions. America must remember its contradictory self. And it is the slave, the black man, living in chains, physically or otherwise, who is the instrument of remembering.
THE OPPRESSED PEOPLE STILL CONTAINED THE ORIGINAL FIRE
Douglass, in Needleman's view, interiorized the American Revolution. It is a revolution from within that is being spoken of as such – from deep within the Self. American then was becoming rich and successful, but inwardly it was already dying and drying up. But the people it had oppressed and enslaved still contained the element that had brought the original fire to the nation. The crime of slavery (in both its broad and narrow meanings) was the outward expression and echo of the deeply human sin of forgetting the inner Self that is the only real source of power and virtue in a human being or in a group or in a culture.
And Douglass' rebellion is one of a thousand echoes – most of the others are lost in historical obscurity – of the process of remembering the Self that in the past had brought
about the glory of the Revolution and was destined to bring about the agony of the Civil War, and which eventually led to Lincoln's decisive redefinition of the meaning of America. Indeed this became the basis of such hope for the world: the idea of a nation founded on the intrinsic sacredness of all men and women – in Christian language the equality of "all souls".
Yet blind to its own contradictions, America's twisted perceptions, coldness of heart and brutality of deed amount to nothing less, for Needleman, than a rejection and forgetting of its own essential nature, its own Self. In every nation and civilization, every active thrust toward the good has met its resisting force from within its own bosom. What is harder to recognize are the occasions in history when the opposing force is understood for what it is and where a third principle – in Christian language, the Holy Spirit – reconciles the two opposing forces. We need to understand that to a significant extent, the American Constitution, according to Needleman, was created to allow forces to confront each other in a manner that makes room for the appearance of the reconciling principle that preserves and even deepens unity, union. Louis Herman will revisit such in the next, emergent chapter, heralding our primal future.
The Constitution itself, then, is to be understood as that essence of America which will allow the descent from above of the force that will bring reconciliation between White and Black. This is the myth, that is to say the sacred story, the sacred meaning that is echoed by the structure of the American nation. To deny this possibility, to assert that the essential mind and heart of America serves to favour slavery, favour the monstrosity of evil, that would be an unforgettable sin, that would be, for Needleman, the death of America.
For Douglass finally, paraphrasing Isaiah 59:
... a change has now to come over the affairs of mankind. Walled cities and empires have become fashionable. The arm of commerce has borne away the gates of the strong city. Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe. Oceans no longer divide, but link nations together . space is comparatively annihilated . the iron shoe, the crippled foot of China must be seen . Africa must rise and put on her yet unwoven garment.
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