The Power of Truth, Love, and Justice Now

A 21st Century Conversation with Frederick Douglass

In early February, my 7th grader and I took a walk to our local coffee shop for a conversation. About what, I had no idea. A father-and-son visit to our neighborhood coffee shop had been a tradition of ours since he was around 9 years old: every now and then, when our busy family schedule would permit, I would treat us both to a drink – a mocha for me usually, and for him a hot chocolate or, as he grew older, a chai – and we would talk about whatever was on his mind. A middle class parenting luxury built on leisure time and disposable income.

I quickly learned to let him set the agenda, and then engage with whatever degree of seriousness he brought to the topic. Sometimes I was able to anticipate his choice of subject; sometimes his declared interest was startlingly unexpected. Over the years, topics had ranged from the extremely heavy (“Can we talk about genocide, Dad?” he had inquired on one occasion and, on another, “What is ‘rape’?”) to the comically complicated (“Can I be a polytheist and be Jewish at the same time?” he once asked his non-Jewish, secular father).

This time, I expected my son wanted to talk about politics, specifically, the newly installed presidency of long-time icon of post-industrial capitalism, Donald Trump. As we walked to the coffee shop, Trump was entering into the third week of his presidency. There already had been mass protests against the new administration’s efforts to shut down the country’s international refugee program, protests against intensifying deportations of immigrant workers, against misogyny and sexism, against a new officialdom that would weaken public supports for working people, environmental protections, education, and access to health care. The phrase “Trump’s America” had become a commonplace in the mass media, to the indifference of some Americans, to the delight of many, and to the horror of many more.

I was a bit surprised, therefore, to discover that what my son wanted to talk about most was race and racism. His primary interest was not who now held official power but why racism was such a persistent obstacle to the goal of equality. He understood, he said, “that race is a made up thing,” and yet knowing that fact “doesn’t seem to make it go away.” He proposed that we read a book together. Something non-fiction “on the subject of race, civil rights, and equality,” was his preference. He made it clear he wanted to understand better the history of race and racism in the United States.

“Race is a pretty big topic,” I exhaled, after a long, thoughtful breath. I was mulling possible choices, and feeling daunted by the problem of identifying just one book, accessible to a middle schooler no less, that would allow us to explore the history of race and racism in our country. Then, thinking about recent political news, I asked him “Do you know who Frederick Douglass was?” “No, I don’t,” he replied. “The current president of the United States may not either,” I observed wryly, and explained how, just a couple of days before, Trump had awkwardly used the present tense in a strikingly vague public remark about the famous ex-slave and abolitionist (who died in 1895): “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice,” he had said.

Trump’s comments, delivered at the start of Black History Month, were widely interpreted as evidence the nation’s chief executive had no idea who Frederick Douglass was. “That’s pretty weird,” the 7th grader assessed. “I mean, I didn’t know who Frederick Douglass was until you told me, but I’m in middle school.” We talked about how it’s okay to admit you don’t know things, and about how some things are important enough that everyone should have some knowledge of them. We returned to a theme of a few previous coffee shop conversations – that history is an important dimension of the present – and decided that Frederick Douglass should be on our reading list. This would be our little act of rebellion against official forgetting.

What my son and I didn’t know at the time of our initial conversation was how much, and how clearly, Frederick Douglass would speak to us of the present. Over the two and a half months that followed, as we read and discussed our way toward the final page of his Narrative, we found ourselves confronted, over and over, with the vitality and relevance of what Douglass has to say. It wasn’t just the two of us talking about Douglass’s narrative, a couple of white, middle class people chatting in the abstract about an artifact of black history. Douglass spoke to us of our country, unsettled us in the quiet and comfort of the local coffee shop. He spoke to us about who and how we need to be, now.

Voice and Property

The first thing one notices about the Narrative is Frederick Douglass’s voice. “He’s such a great writer, Dad,” my son repeatedly enthused over the course of our readings together. Douglass’s eloquence and clarity were astounding, he explained, because he had been enslaved from birth through young adulthood. “That he can write like that, when he wasn’t supposed to, after all they did to him …”

My thirteen-year old loves reading and is enamored of language, word play, and storytelling. For his bar mitzvah a few months prior to our reading of Douglass, he had written a d’var Torah (a commentary on a passage of the Torah) in which he retold the story of Abraham and Isaac from Isaac’s perspective, revealing from within the canonical story about faith another tale, one of domination, betrayal, and abuse of authority. He had, in other words, recently developed a commitment to, and appreciation for, amplifying the unheard and the silenced. He understood immediately what Douglass was doing with his Narrative. As I read aloud from the text, my son heard the sound of defiance, of liberation. He heard an Isaac telling his own story.

Douglass’s voice is strong, and his strategy to expose the moral abomination of slavery is to attend, through his personal testimony, to all of the forms of dominance and degradation it employs. Douglass speaks bluntly of slavery’s emotional violence. The very first paragraph detains the reader with the fact that Douglass doesn’t know his own birthday or age. “[T]he larger part of slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs,” he writes. And in the first couple of chapters Douglass takes time to describe the material conditions of enslavement. He itemizes, for example, the food and clothing allowances for the enslaved: 8 lbs. of fish or pork and 1 bushel of cornmeal per month per adult; 2 shirts, 1 jacket, 2 pants, one pair of stockings and one pair of shoes per year. Children who did not work in the fields were given no shoes, stockings, pants, or jacket. “Children from seven to ten years old, of both sexes, almost naked, might be seen at all seasons of the year.”

He draws his readers’ attention to the life of the enslaved child. One can discern here the intersection between Douglass’s own experience as a piece of property, on the one hand, and the economics of slaveholding in the United States on the other. Whereas other countries in the hemisphere replaced their slave population – the way a factory owner replaces worn out machine parts – through importation of newly enslaved Africans, the United States banned the international slave trade in 1808 and so, at the time of Douglass’s writing, the country’s slave population was maintained mostly through births. Children born into slavery represented a renewal or replacement of fixed capital, to use the language of economics. Logically, when children are conceived as things, as inputs useful for the accumulation of wealth, it is not normal human development that is required to reach their potential, but instead a process of thingification. Birthdays are thus irrelevant. Or, more to the point, the elimination of birthdays, of the annual ritual of celebrating the individual life and its progress, becomes necessary. Similarly, clothing for the child is an investment input that makes limited economic sense prior to the age of productivity.

We spoke a bit – as odd as it might seem, it feels right to include Frederick Douglass in that “we” – about how the emotional brutality of slavery stunted the development of not just the individual but the entire community. Much of our first conversation centered on this passage in particular:

It is a common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age. Frequently, before the child has reached its twelfth month, its mother is taken from it, and hired out on some farm a considerable distance off, and the child is placed under the care of an old woman, too old for field labor. For what this separation is done, I do not know, unless it be to hinder the development of the childʹs affection toward its mother, and to blunt and destroy the natural affection of the mother for the child. This is the inevitable result.

Douglass presents this organized assault by the propertied class on the parent-child relationship as evidence of the immorality of slavery. But this is no mere sociological observation on his part. This is personal. He tells us he has no knowledge of his own father, and little memory of his mother, who labored until her death a dozen miles away from where he spent his early childhood. What is most powerful here – a power I could see in my own child’s reaction, and feel in my own parent’s heart – is how Douglass voices the experience, from within the otherwise silenced position of the child, from the dark inside of a system of economic subjugation: “Never having enjoyed, to any considerable extent, her soothing presence, her tender and watchful care, I received the tidings of her death with much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of a stranger.” Isaac denounces his bindings.

A voice from within the machinery of enslavement – this is what Douglass brings to discussion of the history of racism in the United States. Our reading sessions, and our reflections, became premised on the recognition of Douglass’s as an improbable voice that, against all odds, was not suffocated forever under the reifying weight of a racist economic system, the way countless others were. As our conversations continued, Douglass recounted to us tales of the life of the enslaved on Colonel Lloyd’s Great House Farm. Chapter three of the Narrative opens with a description of Lloyd’s prize fruit garden and the temptation it represented for the enslaved, who were “severely whipped” if suspected of even trying to take fruit. This passage is followed by a description of Lloyd’s horses, which “were of the finest form and noblest blood,” and how Lloyd would beat the horses’ enslaved caretaker for any perceived inattention to the horses’ needs.

I pointed out to my son that the combined, and likely desired, effect of Douglass’s stories was to illustrate the place of the enslaved person within the master’s estate. The slave was property, but of dramatically lesser value than a garden, and of much lesser value than a horse. Both the garden and the horse were possessions of great prestige, and required constant care and attention, of a sort the master himself was not willing or able to provide. The master was proud of his garden and his horses. Meanwhile, his treatment of the enslaved person was uniquely punishing and arbitrary.

Then, we read the final anecdote of the chapter: Colonel Lloyd owned so many afro-descendant people laboring on so many farms that he did not recognize them all, and many of them did not recognize him. And thus one day, Lloyd happened upon “a colored man” and interviewed him about who was his master and whether he was treated well. The man replied that Colonel Lloyd was his master and “No, sir,” Lloyd did not treat him well. Speaking this truth resulted in Lloyd ordering him chained and sold to a Georgia trader, “forever sundered from his family and friends, by a hand more unrelenting than death.”

“What is this story about?” we asked ourselves. Separation. A stripping away of relationships. A purging from the “thing” of emotional attachments. A cruel punishment to be sure, and, once again, undeniable evidence of the rank sociopathy of slavery. But punishment for what? At its heart, the story is about voice – about the fate of voice under the dominion of a particular regime of property. Asked to speak the truth, the unsuspecting slave does precisely that, and in doing so violates the logic of property that governs the master-slave relationship. The slave was entrapped by the master in an act of public speech, an attempt to speak of justice. The master’s response was a re-assertion of the process of thingification. Property has no voice. That power is reserved for the propertied.

This is not the only place where Douglass focuses his readers’ attention on the silencing of voices by the political economy of his America, of our America in the mid-19th century. In chapter two, when Douglass discusses at length the songs of the enslaved, that very same problem of voice, of the erasure of voice, and therefore of truth and of public appeals for justice, resonates with the clarity of a bell. “To those songs I trace my first glimmering conception of the dehumanizing character of slavery,” he tells us. “The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears. At least, such is my experience.” And then he adds, “Crying for joy, and singing for joy, were alike uncommon to me while in the jaws of slavery.” And yet, he notes, even in the northern states there are those “who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness.”

Douglass seems to use music to teach that the problem of voice extends to the ear. Whose voice? Whose ear? The Narrative is an act of public speech, directed at the nation. We were delighted as we imagined Colonel Lloyd’s angry, threatened, disapproval. But the most important truth, as with the banishment of Lloyd’s truth-telling slave, was that even though a voice may be heard, it must be listened to in order to matter. Douglass wants his readers to hear the inner life of the property relationship. Not the voice of the haves, but of those who have been had. He speaks to his readers directly about hearing the slave’s voice as evidence of injustice, entered in the public record and evaluated: “The singing of a man cast away upon a desolate island might be as appropriately considered as evidence of contentment and happiness, as the singing of a slave; the songs of the one and of the other are prompted by the same emotion.”

My son’s interest in music, an omnivore’s appetite for all things musical, made it important to spend some extra time with this. Although Douglass does not explicitly mention minstrelsy – a popular form of entertainment at the time of his writing, in which white men blackened their faces with grease paint and sang and danced their mockery of slaves –his discussion of music is clearly a counterpoint to minstrelsy’s stereotyping of the enslaved as happy and simple-minded. We talked about those racial stereotypes and their long historical shelf-life, of Disney’s absurdly upbeat slave song “Zip-a-dee-dooh-dah” from Song of the South (which won an Academy Award in 1947, more than a hundred years after the publication of Douglass’s Narrative) and how you can catch a glimpse of our country’s racial history in the smiling face of Aunt Jemima making the magical promise of labor-free meals to American consumers. American history is littered with this kind of racial ventriloquism.

We talked as we read, surreally sipping our coffee-shop drinks alongside Douglass. We practiced listening and looking carefully, to better hear and see our country’s racial history. We listened to Odetta’s haunting deep-toned rendition of the traditional lullaby “All the Pretty Little Horses,” and talked about the injustice recorded in the lyrics. The master’s baby is promised “all the pretty little horses” while another child – the baby of the enslaved mother who sings the master’s child to sleep – suffers the absence of its mother. Odetta’s version of the lyrics sings of separation, emotional devastation, and the slave child’s voice: “Bees and butterflies/Picking on his eyes/ Poor little thing is crying Mammie.” We noticed that many versions of the song exclude that troubling stanza. Whose voice and whose ears, indeed.

Separation. If my son and I could have spoken to Douglass, across all that separates us, we would have had to confess that the emancipation of the enslaved is remembered in America today with little real grasp of the social and emotional abjection systematically visited upon African American communities by generations of economic and political elites. We would have had to inform him that, in this country that speaks so proudly and loudly of freedom, that there still is no national celebration of the abolition of slavery. Overwhelmingly, whites are hardly even aware of Juneteenth celebrations in African American communities. We would have to acknowledge that we were discussing oppression from a place of comfort. Separation, Frederick Douglass might answer back, is a strategy of the powerful.

The 7th grader and I discussed at length about how the abolition of slavery only changed the law, and that abolishing the culture and relationships organized originally around the economics of slavery is a longer, slower, more fraught undertaking. About how our society hasn’t shed a political economy in which some of us are “less than.” About how voice is still mostly a power of the propertied.

My son and I spoke to each other in the guiding presence of Douglass’s voice as we slowly made our way through the Narrative. We were confronted with questions, not all of them immediately about race. How does one begin to understand the long, cold shadow cast by slave-holding practices across our nation’s history? What forms of silence govern us now? What kinds of separation punish and contain unauthorized voices? Whose voices are absent from the public conversation? Who is listening to the nation’s Isaacs?

Resistance, Past and Present

We realized, as we read, that Douglass had written a story of origins – like a superhero origin story, but rivetingly real. As the story unfolded, Douglass learned to read and write, resisted the will of his masters, physically battled a slave-breaker, eventually committed himself to his own liberation, and finally escaped to the north and became a vocal opponent of slavery. The Narrative, in other words, tells the genesis story of his voice, of the public power of his truth telling and activism. We realized we were, in a sense, holding Douglass’s “super power” in our hands, all the while reading about how it got there.

The superhero analogy is mainly meaningful for how it doesn’t fit. To be sure, Douglass presents plenty of villainous behavior, including whippings and murder, brutal working conditions, denial of food and clothing and health care – conduct that he describes, aptly, as evil. But what organizes that behavior is not an evil mastermind, as the comic books would have it. The organizer is a system of exploitation, and the relationships that system imposes on human potential. The powers the hero develops are not super human, but grounded in the basic, civic skills of reading and writing, and in the cultivation of relationships of love and solidarity. Unlike superhero stories (and, frankly, a broad spectrum of popular entertainment), in Douglass’s account what is wrong is more far-reaching and systemic than we would like to believe. Meanwhile, the power to right what is wrong is more within our grasp than we would like to admit.

What was wrong with America in the mid-19th century was profoundly wrong. In chapter four my son and I encountered horrifying descriptions of murders of black people by white people, murders that were not prosecuted partly because slaves had no legal status to serve as witnesses. “I speak advisedly when I say this,” Douglass reports, “that killing a slave, or any colored person, in Talbot county, Maryland, is not treated as a crime, either by the courts or the community.” Infamously, the U.S. Constitution accounted for slaves as three-fifths of a person, for the purposes of system maintenance (i.e., calculating political representation and taxation), and categorically denied citizenship to non-whites. Douglass indicts the legal system and a dehumanizing culture. “It was a common saying, even among little white boys,” he tells us, “that it was worth a half-cent to kill a ‘n—–‘ and a half-cent to bury one.” Law and culture and economics conspired villainously against black Americans.

Something electric arced between past and present when we read these passages in the Narrative. “To be accused was to be convicted, and to be convicted was to be punished, the one always following the other with immutable certainty,” Douglass told us. My son made an immediate connection between the murders of three different slaves known to Douglass and the litany of African-Americans brutalized by the authorities in recent years, victims of violence whom Black Lives Matter activism has effectively made into household names: Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, and, gut-wrenchingly, on an on. We could feel the righteous anger in Frederick Douglass’s description of the murder of Demby by Colonel Lloyd’s overseer, Mr. Austin Gore. We could hear “Say his name!” and “Black Lives Matter!” in Douglass’s voice, one hundred and seventy-two years back. In the quiet comfort of our local coffee shop, the many silences of our country’s history, past and present, were roaring in our ears.

Douglass describes a systemic and relational evil. In chapter five Douglass recounts his first taste of the possibility of a life different from the plantation when he is sent to a new owner in Baltimore, and meets Mrs. Auld: “And here I saw what I had never seen before; it was a white face beaming with the most kindly emotions.” But in chapter six, he observes the corrupting power of the economic order on what had felt like a promising relationship: “That cheerful eye, under the influence of slavery, soon became red with rage; that voice, made all of sweet accord, changed to one of harsh and horrid discord; and that angelic face gave place to that of a demon.” Douglass describes slavery as “irresponsible power,” a corrupting force that debases both master and enslaved. Mrs. Auld’s most laudable qualities are destroyed by the master-slave relationship: “the tender heart became stone, and the lamblike disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierceness.”

We returned to this insight – that the way a society is organized can shape human character and possibility – throughout our conversations with Douglass. We talked about how our relationships are molded by forces and structures that came before us, by roles into which we are pushed by institutions and economics, by demands imposed and forms of authority that must be negotiated with, like it or not. We talked about the ways we are possessed by the past – about how people still talk about “dialing” the phone, when nobody has dialed a damned thing in decades; about the dead hand of centuries of slavery hanging similarly on the steering mechanisms of our country. I felt a fleeting despair (What exorcism can expunge such possession?), but when I asked how do we abolish those vestiges, my son responded without hesitation: “White people need to learn that they aren’t superior to anybody.”

Learning is important action. As we read of the origins of Frederick Douglass’s voice, we began to see that learning was, in fact, an important part of Douglass’s response to what was wrong with America. After his move to Baltimore, Mrs. Auld’s efforts to teach Douglass (who was around 8 years old at the time) the alphabet and writing were discovered by her husband and immediately forbidden. “If you teach that n—– how to read,” Douglass quoted Mr. Auld as reasoning, “there would be no keeping him.” As a result, Douglass resolves (in his first deliberate act of resistance) that he would learn how to read. “From that moment I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.”

Education, the great equalizer; knowledge as power; learning sets us free. All comforting notions for an already comfortable middle class reader, and an educator, like myself. Comforting and familiar also for my son, a student. It would be easy to accept education as the answer to what is wrong, past and present, and I suspect that this is precisely how Douglass’s Narrative is read by many Americans – as an individual’s progress through adversity, raised up and out of subjugation by his own wits and dedication to self-improvement.

But my son and I sensed there was something more to Douglass’s story. The most immediate object of Mrs. Auld’s fury – after Douglass’s literacy had been forbidden – drew our sharp attention. “Nothing seemed to make her more angry than to see me with a newspaper,” Douglass observes. Reading (and eventually writing) certainly allowed Douglass to escape some of the logic of the master-slave relationship. Nonetheless, I argued in our discussion of the passage, it was not just reading that was off limits to the slave. Douglass was denied the events and perspectives of civic life. The public arena was fenced off, policed. No voice, no ear for the slave.

This partition between white and black America is underscored by Douglass’ mention of The Columbian Orator, a book Douglass states he “got hold of” and read covertly “at every opportunity.” This book is one of a couple of texts from the public arena that Douglass references in chapters seven and eight (the second being an anti-slavery poem by the Quaker abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier). After a little research, I discovered that the Orator was a widely used schoolbook (especially in the north) that taught civic virtue through eloquence, public speaking viewed as a mode of moral action fundamental to democracy. It contained, among other texts, public speeches by George Washington, first president of the republic, and an anti-slavery dialogue between a master and a slave concerning the slave’s freedom. Douglass’s newspaper habits and auto-didactic civic education (through a book he “got hold of”) were studied violations not only of the master-slave relation but of the very boundaries constructed, by race and property, around citizenship in the United States.

So, yes, learning was critical to Douglass’s journey to freedom. He wasn’t breaking out, though – he was breaking in. He was knowingly trespassing in the public arena. He was negating separations imposed by official power, not retreating into the privacy and individualism of self-help. He studied the newspaper, and he appropriated a civics reader, but he also sought to develop proficiency in reading and writing by “making friends of all the little white boys whom I met in the street.” With these children Douglass engaged in public dialogue about slavery – “You will be free as soon as you are twenty-one, but I am a slave for life! Have not I as good a right to be free as you have?” he argued to an audience of his peers. He reports that “they would express for me the liveliest sympathy.” Voice and ears convened around issues of common concern. His transgressions were relational: A counterpower to the politics of separation.

These were “poor white children in our neighborhood.” My son noted that these children probably also had a limited experience of freedom because of their poverty. He argued that, because they were children, they were also deprived of rights until reaching adulthood, a fact of social life that Douglass explicitly recognized. (For his 7th grade history project my son had been reading Janusz Korczak, an early advocate of children’s rights who was killed by the Nazis at Treblinka, and so children’s subordination and exclusion from public life was on his mind.) Douglass experienced real solidarity with these kids: “It was to those little Baltimore boys that I felt the strongest attachment.” There is no voice, we learned from Douglass, without ears. There is no public arena without relationships. Relationships – that is where power is defined.

Love and Citizenship

Douglass tells us his first attempt to escape was a group effort. He had shifted from an earlier personal, even internal liberation (“I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact”), to a collective and solidarity-based orientation. This meant defining freedom in a different way. Freedom was no longer an individual objective: “I was no longer willing to cherish this determination alone. My fellow-slaves were dear to me. I was anxious to have them participate with me in this, my life-giving determination.”

Their plan discovered, Douglass and his co-conspirators are jailed. In describing their predicament and treatment, Douglass emphasizes the group over individual experience. “The fact was, we cared but little where we went, so we went together. Our greatest concern was separation.” Douglass uses the word “separation,” or some variant, five times in the space of three paragraphs. Domination versus resistance: “Their object in separating us was to hinder concert.” We thought back to the slave-owners’ practice of separating mother and child, and my son noted that the opposite of separation appears to be love, in Douglass’s telling. He focused my attention on Douglass’s language when describing his earlier efforts to create a school: “The work of instructing my dear fellow-slaves was the sweetest engagement with which I was ever blessed. We loved each other.”

Little wonder that, after escaping north, Douglass dedicated himself to the liberation of others. We asked ourselves now, as we finished reading the Narrative, just as we had asked before, “What is this story about?” Over the course of our studies with Douglass, the theme of separation had been voiced many times, a bright thread woven through his text. Separation of parent from child, separation of slave from community, separation of white from black, separation of those who make liberation a common cause. Relationships caught in the gears of the social order.

Douglass cultivated relationships alternative to those imposed by a system that literally banked on his silence. He stubbornly insisted on access to the public sphere, for himself and others. He developed civic skills denied by the system, and used them to promote systemic change. Entangled in the systemic villainy of America’s 19th century political economy, these were Frederick Douglass’s responses. The story of the emergence of his voice is a story of resistance to reification, of a refusal to be reduced to a mechanism of the status quo. Telling the story was itself a public act of resistance.

Frederick Douglass’s flight to freedom, we decided, was a carefully planned invasion of the public arena. Born into slavery, he refused his legally assigned status as someone else’s property. In effect, he expropriated himself. Fenced off from citizenship, denied full and equal belonging to the national community, he cut a hole in the fence, shouldered his way in, and demanded recognition of his truths and their relevance to the public interest, to justice. He was, in the parlance of today’s debates around immigration (every deportation a separation), an illegal.

Importantly, he did not think of his freedom as a flight into the private pursuit of individual happiness. His Narrative is all the evidence required to appreciate this. In his text Douglass becomes an “I” who speaks publicly among equals, his readers a nation of “thous,” voice and ears gathered together in defiance of the prohibitions and separations of the existing order. His voice convokes, speaks to, new relational possibilities. Which is to say, Douglass “does” citizenship in a way different from most of us, who accept all kinds of atrocity and exclusion, as long as our own back yard is unaffected. A citizenship that abides separation, versus his politics of love.

Here we were, generations later. Douglass had us wondering, questioning. Who profits from defining freedom as private happiness instead of engagement with the public good? Who among us labors without a public voice? What kinds of relationships define us as a nation? What kind of citizens are we now?

On the final page, we couldn’t help but notice how Douglass signed off. Not just “sincerely,” but also “faithfully relying upon the power of truth, love, and justice – and solemnly pledging my self anew to the sacred cause.” One hundred and seventy two years later, Douglass addressed himself to the kind of citizens we need to be now. Committed to a different kind of power, arising from relationships defined by truth, love, and justice. Able to hear, even in (especially in) the quiet comforts of our personal freedom, a din of silences all around.

Bruce Campbell teaches Latino/Latin American Studies, among other things, at College of St. Benedict/St. John's University in MN. He is the author of Mexican Murals in Times of Crisis (University of Arizona Press, 2003), ¡Viva la historieta!: Mexican Comics, NAFTA, and the Politics of Globalization (University Press of Mississippi, 2009), and the English translation of Santiago García's On the Graphic Novel (University Press of Mississippi, 2015). Read other articles by Bruce.