One of the joys and terrors of teaching is the problem of exploring the partial answer, opening the partial door. We are not the ultimate authority, we teachers, though tradition generally places us at the front of the classroom. Sometimes we try to disrupt simplistic prejudice students have acquired: fear of gay people or of homosexuality; stereotypes about ethnic groups or different generations. Other times we perpetrate comforting falsehoods in the interest of closure. Let the students find out the more painful realities later – in college or graduate school or life itself.
Two recently released books will find their way into classrooms and will surely force teachers into the uncomfortable conversations, especially since young people have a way of looking into questions deeply, unfettered by the myths that keep us ignorant.
The first is a new edition released by City Lights Books of The narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave. This is often assigned to student in high school and stands as one of the most powerful testimonials concerning the fundamental reality of stolen black labor that build the wealth of the U.S. This new and critical edition includes an introduction and two "Lectures on Liberation" by Angela Y. Davis, a well known as a 60’s African American activist, but someone who is still on the cutting edge of scholarship and activism for racial justice, women’s rights, and peace.
Douglass’ description of his life in slavery, his resistance, and his flight to freedom could not be more timely or more meaningful to students. At a time when education officials are wringing their hands about how difficult it is to teach black students literacy, Douglass demonstrates how the struggle for literacy has always been a part of the struggle for liberation. When his owner’s wife began to teach him letters, the slaveholder forbade it:
Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further, he said, "If you five a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master – to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now," said he, "if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy." These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understandings had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty – to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.
Douglass’ narrative continues like this, weaving between events and reflections, through a quick 150 pages. His indictment of the institution of slavery, and more importantly the legal framework that made it the law of the land, is withering. We are forced to step back and wonder, did this really happen, was this normal life only so recently? Yes, it was. And it demands that we ask: what is the common sense, what is the accepted business-as-usual that our children’s children will blanch at decades from now?
We can start with Douglass’ theme: literacy and education. Today we have been conditioned to believe that black failure in school is some kind of moral, cultural, or intellectual failure on their parts. We talk of the deficit in black attainment, the achievement gap. But when this reality is eventually overturned, and it will be overturned only when we change the whole game, the colonialist approach to teaching and learning, we will recognize that it has been not an achievement gap but what Gloria Ladson-Billings called an educational debt, a debt that the US owes to black youth (and others who have been marginalized and ejected). It is a debt which is accumulated through unequal resources, racist assessments, and contemptuous educators.
This is where Angela Davis injects her considerable insight. Her introduction connects Douglass critique to the struggles for liberation in the 60’s and 70’s, demonstrating the same courage, audacity, and clarity of vision that was required to see through and defy the slave system. In addition to an astute examination of women and the anti-slavery struggle, as well as the role of religion in oppression and resistance, she zeros in on another oft-quoted Douglass comment, this from an 1857 speech. Usually people quote one or another phrase but whole paragraph is so worth repeating:
If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress…
Besides the Angela Davis introduction to this volume, City Lights has dropped in a series of two lectures she gave at UCLA on Frederick Douglass. These were created under duress, while the regents were attempting to fire her for being a communist and later while she was on trial for murder on trumped up charges of providing guns for the failed attempt to break George Jackson out of prison. Her lectures emphasize first the insight of Douglass concerning oppression and resistance, that the relationship of slavery, or colonialism, or oppression, requires the participation of both sides – the oppressor and the oppressed. So, she confirms, "the first phase of liberation is the decision to reject the image of himself that the slave-owner has painted, to reject the conditions that the slave-owner has created, to reject his own existence, to reject himself as a slave." She goes further: "Here the problem of freedom leads us directly into the question of identity. The condition of slavery is a condition of alienation… That recognition is at the same time the rejection of that condition. Consciousness of alienation entails the absolute refusal to accept that alienation." Think about that for awhile. It’s hard for students who are daily scorned and miseducated to continue taking it, taking all the slander thrown at them, if they read Douglass and Davis and really pay attention to it.
Exploring the relation of slave and owner, and its relevance to today, Angela Davis makes another devastating conclusion. She explores the actions, and the mind, of the oppressor. She points out: "How could the master have been independent when it is the very institution of slavery that provided his wealth, that provided his means of sustenance? The master was dependent on the slave, dependent for his life on the slave."
In this insight, she explores the alienation, the isolation, that is a condition of oppression. In some stark ways, this is in contrast to the life of solidarity, of mutual support, that is key to the life of the oppressed. Douglass examines this in the world of the community of those held in slavery – a condition which you might imagine keeps each person stultified, narrowed, and kept isolated. He describes a period of his enslavement when he was hired out for work in Baltimore:
For the ease with which I passed the year, I was, however, somewhat indebted to the society of my fellow-slaves. They were noble souls; they not only possessed loving hearts, but brave ones. We were linked and inter-linked with each other. I loved them with a love stronger than anything I have experienced since. It is sometimes said that we slaves do not love and confide in each other. In answer to this assertion, I can say, I never loved any or confided in any people more than my fellow-slaves, and especially those with whom I lived at Mr. Freeland’s. I believe we would have died for each other. We never undertook to do anything, of any importance, without a mutual consultation. We never moved separately. We were one; and as much so by our tempers and dispositions as by the mutual hardships to which we were necessarily subjected by our condition as slaves.
Today the same slanders impinge on the black community, the myth that black dysfunction, the pathology of poverty, the personal failings of individuals, make the educational failure of black students not only inevitable but in some ways just. Of course, no one in policy or planning would state such a position out loud. But scratch the surface, read the code language, and it is all there. Douglass speaks up for the dignity, the heroism, of a people most despised by the powers that be.
In an incredibly sharp example of this issue, attorney Jeffrey Haas of Chicago’s Peoples’ Law Office has just released a book that is both a memoir and a political cliff-hanger. His new book, The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police murdered a Black Panther is an exposé containing elements that have already been proven – but for some reason the implications of the story have never sunk in to the culture, either in political discourse or in education. Something more gruesome was going on in the 60’s and 70’s than the simple (and false) binary that is taught in schools – the peaceful Martin Luther King and the angry Malcolm X.
The incredible truth that sinks in is something that still takes me great effort to believe, after all these decades of radical activism. It is that the government itself, the people who we pay taxes to, had decided that one element of society, one side of the debate, was wrong and needed to be harassed, jailed, and even assassinated. The nation was shocked at the Watergate affair, in which government operatives broke in, spied on, and kept tabs on political rivals. But when it came to radical activism to fundamentally change conditions in the black community – as well as Latino, Native American, and other communities – the attacks were much more serious.
Call it my liberal suburban privilege, but I still have a general feeling that the government, all the institutions of the state, act as an instrument of democratic rule, as an arbiter between contending interests and classes. That works fine as long as there is no conflict, no possible challenge to those who one and control things. In such time, the state reveals itself as capable of the same repression at home as it uses against its enemies overseas. You saw this clearly in Chile. Once the broad democratic process led to the election of socialist Salvador Allende in 1970, the Chilean ruling class and the military, with the connivance of US corporations and intelligence operatives, decided to overthrow and murder him. Democracy was useful as long as no one came along to challenge the fundamental power of the ruling class. US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger famously remarked that Chile could not be allowed to "go Marxist" just because its people are irresponsible.
So it was with the Black Panther Party. While they mostly devoted their time to the breakfast program, to selling the newspaper, and to political education, they were a harbinger of things to come – a demand to change social relations in US cities, for community control of the police, for decent housing, schools, and health care. The neutral façade of the state came off. Hundreds of lawyers, FBI operatives, district attorneys, and police officers – all in the pay of the government and sworn to uphold the law – conspired to commit political attacks, to foster splits, and ultimately to assassinate leaders of the movement. Under the FBI’s COINTELPRO (Counterintelligence Program), these projects were given the official stamp of approval and carefully documented and filed by government employees – as if this were the everyday business of government. They did succeed in their stated aim, to "expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize" black power organizations. And today the community still suffers from indecent housing, schools, and health care.
In that context, can we only wring our hands and wonder what’s wrong with those black kids? Why won’t they get better grades and test scores? When a social movement developed that would have changed the conditions, that would have changed social power relations, it was crushed by the forces of government. Jeff Haas’ book takes us through the process step by step, from his first acquaintance with Fred Hampton in Chicago, to the police raid and killing, and through a series of trials, grand juries, civil suits, each of which uncovered another layer of the conspiracy and cover up. It took 13 years to finally prove the complicity of the federal, state, and city forces in this killing. His book should be read in schools across the country. It will help students to ask the fundamental questions, look deeply into the structures of society.
Indeed, it will make the story of Frederick Douglass all the more relevant and important today. It can propel our history classes to take a closer look at William Lloyd Garrison, John Brown, Martin Delaney, and so many others who defied the state and the common sense of the time, as did so many in the liberationist period of the 60’s and 70’s. Recent crises have demonstrated that history, and ideology, are indeed not ended – and the current generation is coming to terms with its power and possibilities. These new works, about struggles in the mid 19th and mid 20th centuries, are tremendous contributions.