This might seem a very strange time to publish a book recommending that we read the voices from the past. After all, isn’t the present hammering at our door rather violently? There’s a worldwide pandemic; a presidential election is about to consume the attention of America; and if all that weren’t sufficient, we are entering hurricane season. The present is keeping us plenty busy. Who has time for the past?
But my argument is that this is precisely the kind of moment when we need to take some time to step back from the fire hose of alarming news. (When I first tried to type fire hose, I accidentally typed dire hose instead. Indeed.) As we try to manage our dispositions, we need two things. First, we need perspective; second, we need tranquility. And it’s voices from the past that can give us both—even when they say things we don’t want to hear, and when those voices belong to people who have done bad things. One of the best guides I know to such an encounter with the past is Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave, America’s most passionately eloquent advocate for the abolition of slavery.
In Rochester, New York, on July 4, 1852, Douglass gave a speech called “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” and it is as fine an example of reckoning wisely with a troubling past as I have ever read. He begins by acknowledging that the Founders “were great men,” though he immediately goes on to say, “The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration.” Yes: Douglass is compelled to view them in a critical light, because their failure to eradicate slavery at the nation’s founding led to his own enslavement, led to his being beaten and abused and denied every human right, forced him to live in bondage and in fear until he could at long last make his escape. Nevertheless, “for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.”