By Dr. William Small, Jr.
What does one write about on the fourth of July when the script remains the same and only the title changed? I came to the computer to write an essay for this national holiday. I cannot think long about the fourth of July without quickly drifting into a prideful reconnection with the spirit of Frederick Douglass’s July 5th, 1852 speech. To me Douglass viewed the world with a kind of prophetic clarity and more importantly, he had the courage and skill to recite his opinions with a degree of force, succinctness and compelling truth, all of which have kept his words alive for over a century.
I became both acquainted with and inspired by Frederick Douglass as youngster in junior high school. There was no scholarly formal interest that inspired our connection. In fact, I was drifting about as efficiently as the public education system would permit back in the 1950’s. I had shed my delusional attachment to Roy Rogers and Gene Autry as practical heroes and as heroic public images. There were few, if any, in that circle who looked like me. Don Newcombe lived only a few blocks away, but because of the highway and the age difference, I had only heard of him. Jackie Robinson certainly qualified as a celebrated figure in the mind of my community, but I never knew that he had been an officer in the US Army or had attended college. It seemed as if the discourse in my community was all about baseball, boxing legends and integration. None of these things contributed to making school more exciting. On the upside, at least baseball and boxing were fun to think about.
What public schools offered in my town at the time was decent libraries and a cadre of teachers who viewed themselves as professionals. We had regular library periods and every student was expected to explore “the stacks” and come back with a book of their interest that they were expected to read. There were reasonably uniform standards and performance expectations in place and, it was there in that environment, that I met Frederick Douglass.
In one of our library sessions I found and selected a book, There Was Once a Slave, by Shirley Graham (who I later learned was the wife of W.E.B. Du Bois). It was an age appropriate biography of Frederick Douglass. Voila! I had discovered my first superhero and he looked exactly like the people in my world whom I loved and admired. I did not know if he could throw a curve ball or steal second base, but I beamed upon discovering that he could “whip hell” out of a would be, so called master. That was sufficient to take a young fellow in search of heroes to the next chapter.
My parents, like so many others in our community, were a part of the wave of black Americans who left, and in some cases escaped, the South to avoid the restrictions, violence and psychological ravages of Jim Crow segregation. I was never taught or told to hate, but “little pictures have big ears.” I heard adults speak of oppression, unfair labor conditions, lynchings and racially inspired confrontations that were inherent in what amounted to a neo apartheid social system that both framed and contained much of black America life. Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and Superman never addressed those conditions, but Frederick Douglass did. His examples of unapologetic resistance, eloquence and his expectation of the highest order of respect and fairness from every quarter of American society have made his work an enduring reservoir of inspirational examples of black manhood. What a befitting memory for Independence Day?
Through my interest in the life and work of Frederick Douglass I was encouraged to explore the struggles and contributions of other heroic freedom fighters of African descent. They were males and females, ancient and new, young and sometimes old, but all still very much “alive and teaching.” They had names like, Delaney, Tubman, Truth, Blyden and Garvey, Cabral and Diop. These are, but a few of the black voices that speak the unaltered truth about our enduring unrest from their final resting places throughout the Diaspora. Their voices affirm without question that our struggles and condition as a people have been and continue to be universal.
Today, decades from the day in junior high when I met Frederick Douglass, I now live in the South Carolina Lowcountry. When I walk down Beaufort’s Craven Street and see Robert Smalls grave, talk to relatives about William J. Whipper contributions to the struggle, visit Savannah and face the monument commemorating military contributions of Haitian soldiers who fought to establish this nation—I experience the universality of our condition and the potential inherent in our acceptance of that connection.
The years have been instructive. I have found the heroes that were so important to framing the definitions of self, power and capacity that I needed in order to help find myself on this journey. Perhaps the greatest revelation is that in reality I did not have to look very hard or far to find them. Heroes and heroines were present all the time. Perhaps most importantly, I found them in my immediate family. My parents built pipelines to independence and security for themselves and for others. They, and millions more with limited means (but blessed with the courage and will to self-define and struggle “to breathe life” into each other’s dreams), are not to be forgotten when we celebrate our independence. Their story contains the formula for our collective success and it must never be diminished or forgotten.
May we never let their flame be extinguished? May we never simply become cursers of the darkness? May we always strive to insure the presence of the light in order to responsibly interpret the lessons of history? May we always possess the courage to hear and respond, without apology, to the suffering tones of dreams deferred emanating from our conscience and from distant places in our Diaspora?
Happy post-Independence Day reflections to all.
Dr. William Small, Jr. is a retired educator and a former Trustee and Board Chairman at South Carolina State University.