“Women and people of low birth are very hard to deal with,” said Confucius. “If you are friendly with them, they get out of hand, and if you keep your distance, they resent it.”
Confucius knew what was up. The funny thing about oppressing people is, the smart ones don’t like it. They don’t like it, and they don’t like the rules and the power structure you’ve set up to keep them in their place and you in yours. They’re very hard to deal with. They resent your assumption of superiority. They get out of hand.
There was a black Baptist preacher named Earl Little who had a habit of preaching pride and self-reliance to his congregation, and the white folks didn’t tend to like it. His family got run out of town, and had their house burned down in the new town. The preacher died under suspicious circumstances, his widow lost her mind, and their seven kids grew up hard. One of them went to prison, and in prison he started to read books. Lots of books. He became Minister Malcolm X, and he was a man who got out of hand. He challenged the power structure of his day. He challenged white racism and black complacence. He gave people hope. He gave people pride. He helped change America.
When George Washington was President of the United States, there was a man in New York State named James Baumfree. James was from Africa, from what is now Ghana, and he was a man who had been strong enough to survive the deadly voyage to America in the hold of a slave ship. He married a woman, Elizabeth, whose parents had lived through that same voyage. James and Elizabeth had thirteen children, all slaves like their parents. Slavery is much more profitable when it’s hereditary. One of those slave children was Isabella, who was about nine when she was put up for auction. John Neely got Isabella and a flock of sheep for $100, and he beat her and raped her till she was eleven, and then sold her for $105. Passed from master to master, Isabella managed to grow up and fall in love. The man she loved — the father of her first two children — was beaten so severely that he died, and a couple years later her master married her off to an old man of his choosing, by whom she had three more children. Freed from slavery when she was about thirty, Isabella felt called by the Spirit of God. She changed her name to Sojourner Truth and went up and down the northern states preaching abolition, women’s rights, and pacifism. She favored prison reform and preached against the death penalty. She got out of hand, and she helped change America.
There was a slave baby born in Maryland when James Monroe was President. That baby never knew who his father was, and he was taken from his mother in infancy. They let him stay with his mother’s mother till he was seven; then his master died and he was given to a new mistress, who sent him to Baltimore to serve her brother-in-law. In Baltimore, when he was twelve, his master’s wife started teaching him to read. His master didn’t approve. It was against the law to teach a slave to read and besides, a slave who could read would grow unhappy with his lot in life. That man was right. The slave boy, Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, grew very unhappy with his condition. He ran away twice before he was twenty, but they caught him and bought him back. In 1838, carrying papers provided by a free black man, he went by boat and by train to New York City. He changed his name to Frederick Douglass, and spent the rest of his life campaigning for freedom and equality.
Frederick Douglass was a prophet for his time. He castigated not only the pro-slavery churches but the anti-slavery churches that had fellowship with them. He left his own church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, because its leaders’ witness for equality wasn’t strong enough. When the progressives of his day decided to concentrate on getting black men the right to vote, and put off women’s suffrage till a later date, Douglass rose in protest. He could not, he said, accept the right to vote while that right was denied to women.
Frederick Douglass was a powerful witness for freedom and equality, and an uncompromising witness to the best truth he could see. He was a great man. He was, if you ask me, the greatest American who ever lived. He started as low as you could go in American society, a fatherless, motherless slave. But one white woman taught him to read, and that changed everything.
I don’t think we’ll see the like of Frederick Douglass again. The American people, most of us, are either fat or slowly starving, complacent or desperate, and in either case dazzled by bullshit. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and the government tightens its control over your life. They read your emails, if they want to, and listen to your phone calls. They can follow your every move if they like. They can strip you naked and prod your private parts before they let you board a plane, and if you protest — even if you decide not to get on the plane — they can arrest you for it. The President has the power to declare anybody, even a citizen, an enemy combatant and to detain him indefinitely without charging him for any crime. Our former President openly brags about being a war criminal, and nobody does anything about it. Justice is not politically expedient. You do not have the right to walk down the sidewalks of your town without identifying yourself to any policeman who asks. If you want to exercise your right to free speech, they put you in a little pen with the other activists and call it a free speech zone. You have no right to privacy, and your private papers can be in the hands of the authorities whenever they wish, without your consent and without even your knowledge. They tell you it’s all for your own good. There are terrorists in the world, you know. We can’t be too careful.
If any of these things bother you, you can become an acolyte of one of the major parties. One party will tell you that the Democrats’ piss-poor failure to enact sweeping healthcare reform was a great victory, the greatest thing since Social Security, if not even greater. The other will tell you it’s a Communist plot and will bring the end of everything that’s good and holy about America. And while they distract you with their shell game, and exhort you to the polls with the illusion that you have a choice, both parties are working for the same corporate masters, and both parties are putting shackles on you that you don’t even see or feel because you’re so caught up — if you give a damn — in the show of politics, or — if you don’t give a damn — in World of Warcraft or “Dancing With the Stars” or whatever other bullshit they’ve hypnotized you with. The program changes, but the game remains the same.
Women and people of low birth can change the world, but they have to be strong, they have to be smart, they have to be determined, and they have to get a break somewhere, somehow.
Frederick Douglass was slave, but at least he knew he was a slave. You don’t even know you’re a slave. You don’t know what it’s like to be free, because you’ve never been free or even dreamed of any freedom greater than a mindless job with “benefits” and a house that you’ll spend the best years of your life paying the bank for. And nobody’s going to teach you to read. God knows, nobody’s going to teach you to read. You get your news from the same folks who own the politicians, and you think what you’re told to think.
Or do you? Have you taught yourself to read? Can you?
Have you found your voice? Your voice. Not the one the politicians or the preachers or our corporate masters want you to have, not the one your friends want you to have, and not one I want you to have, but your voice. Can you find it?