Has Trump done his research on this abolitionist yet?
Frederick Douglass is dead. During Black History Month, Americans across the country commemorate his birthday (he was born 200 years ago this February).
Around this time last year, however, President Donald Trump appeared to not know any of this.
Kicking off Black History Month 2017, Trump hosted a “listening session” at the White House that left listeners scratching their heads, wondering if he knew that Douglass—a self-liberated former slave turned abolitionist—died in 1895. Instead of clarifying what Trump meant by his comment, then-White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer made it clear that he, too, didn’t quite know if Douglass is dead.
“I think he [Trump] wants to highlight the contributions he has made. And I think through a lot of the actions and statements he’s going to make, I think that the contributions of Frederick Douglass will become more and more.”
The remarks from both Trump and Spicer could have passed for an episode of Drunk History, and illustrate why we not only need Black History Month, but also an intensive tutorial for the Trump administration.
With the election of Barack Obama in 2008, there was a question among some people about whether Black History Month is still needed. Millennials, whose ballots helped elect the country’s first African-American president, especially thought the concept seemed outdated, a relic tethered to an old defunct paradigm of the 1960s civil rights era.
But then Trump became president. And queries about the the continuation of Black History Month died down, as the POTUS has insulted every marginalized group in America. Since his first year in office, Trump’s display of xenophobic, misogynistic, LGBTQ-phobic, and racist remarks, to name just a few of his many bigotries, appears to have no cutoff. His embrace of white supremacy, the statement about “shithole countries”—all reveal what his followers mean by “Make America Great Again.”
Specifically, Trump’s repugnant “blame on both sides” comment about the Charlottesville mayhem that took place last summer depicted the perpetrators as victims. Such comments, and actions like condemning counterprotesters more than swastika-wielding thugs, have helped to further embolden his followers, some of whom are now contesting the celebration of Black History Month and in some cases even insisting on the celebration of white history. Boston-born white supremacist Richard Spencer, a Trump supporter, sees no need for Black History Month and has stated that “I would never say something like, ‘I don’t like black people,’ just that, ‘Africans have benefited from white supremacy.’”
If Spicer was telling the truth last year, and the Trump administration wants to highlight Douglass’s invaluable contribution to American history, they should start with his historic 1852 speech, “What, to the slave, is the Fourth of July?” In it Douglass stated, “Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence. … I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. … This Fourth of July is yours, not mine.”
Douglass’s speech highlights the fight for Black independence and full citizenship, then and now. And it informs our understanding of race relations today, because it connects with contemporary themes of class and gender issues, economic disparity, and the prison industrial complex, to list a few.
Douglass’s indefatigable activism as an abolitionist helped end slavery. Still, it’s important to remember his remarks about the country moving forward after Congress passed the 13th Amendment: “Verily, the work does not end with the abolition of slavery, but only begins.”
One year later, in 1866, Douglass, along with other national African-American leaders, met with President Andrew Johnson to advocate for Black voting rights, which remains part of the struggle today.
I hope Trump revisits Douglass.
Rev. Irene Monroe can be heard on the podcast and standing Boston Public Radio segment ALL REV’D UP on WGBH (89.7 FM). Monroe’s syndicated religion columns appear and the Boston voice for Detour’s African American Heritage Trail. She is a s a Visiting Researcher in the Religion and Conflict Transformation Program at Boston University School of Theology.