'Violence is Really the Only Language That America Understands': Author Casey Gerald on Frederick Douglass and the Fourth of July

Frederick Douglass's image is projected on the Robert E. Lee Monument as people gather around on June 18, 2020 in Richmond, Virginia. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

In July 1852, abolitionist and scholar Frederick Douglass delivered a keynote speech which asked the question "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?"

The answer, Douglass said, is this: "[A] day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery."

On this Fourth of July weekend, amid Black Lives Matter protests and calls for sweeping criminal justice reform, KQED Forum host Ariana Proehl spoke with Casey Gerald, author of the memoir "There Will Be No Miracles Here", about the legacy of Douglass' speech, and what the Fourth of July means today.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Do you have a memory of the first time you heard about, or read that speech by Frederick Douglass? 

The first time I saw it, I was in college at Yale. I was a senior, and at the Beinecke rare manuscript library is a first printing of "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July". And it was really holy for me and I, kind of, pocketed that memory.

I think of the position that [Douglass] stands in while he's given that speech. These people, I'm assuming, invite him thinking, "wow, how incredible that this formerly enslaved person is able to be so eloquent, and shouldn't we feel good about ourselves, about inviting him here?" And he turns it on its head.

I similarly thought about my role with writing "There Will Be No Miracles Here". I had accomplished, by my late 20s, about everything a kid is supposed to achieve in a society. I had gone from this poor, Black, queer, damn-near orphan in the forgotten world of Texas, and gone off to Yale and Harvard Business School and done all these things. But I was really cracked up.

So, I set out with this book to trace those cracks. And, in so doing, to trace this stuff that I had seen of America from the very bottom to the very top. It wasn't so much an indictment of the American dream, but a document that showed the bankruptcy of the American machine in our time. This American machine that leads so many people from nothing to nowhere while picking off the chosen few, like me.

I think what Douglass is doing ... it's almost like he calls us to this Declaration of Independence, calls us to the Constitution as the instruction manuals of the machine. And he doesn't indict the instruction manual. He indicts the people who've so perverted the instruction manual.

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I know that in the beginning [of your memoir] you talk about the longing for something to believe in. And you say that in your search for that something, you made it to that mountaintop. But "I have come with urgent news. We must find another mountain, if not another world to call our own."

Do you see some of the uprisings that have come after the killing of George Floyd potentially in that vein of another mountain, another world?

I do, on two fronts.

Someone asked me the other day, "why are you hopeful? Is there anything about this moment that you are hopeful about?" And I said, the clearest sign of hope for me has been the violence. Has been when those young people set the third precinct in Minneapolis on fire, set the Daughters of American Confederacy building on fire, went and tore down the statue of John McDonogh — a big slaver in New Orleans, beheaded the statue of Christopher Columbus.

Violence is really the only language that America understands.

And Douglass highlighted that more than anybody. He really highlights the hypocrisy of those who counsel moderation and who counsel, "well, let's just talk about it." The history of this country has been a history of people employing very extreme violence to either defile the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, or to bring it closer to bear. So that's one piece that makes me hopeful.

The other piece, in terms of this mountain and turning it on its head, I've been very struck by this grappling within Black people at this moment. And ... what does this, sort of, collective liberation look like in this country?

I see this grappling internally. But I think it's gonna play in the revolution going forward. It's not just that we're interrogating who gets to the mountain, it's interrogating why it is that we have accepted this hierarchical society that only allows a few people to make it, while leaving the rest of us languishing in poverty or in despair, et cetera. And I think that kind of deeper sense of a collective liberation is something that makes me very hopeful.

Are we at a national age where one could say that America is a failed experiment? What are your thoughts on that?

I'm not sure that I would get to the place of saying we're a failed experiment and it's over. And maybe then, in some ways, how we might think about this Fourth of July is just like we think of any other birthday. You know, you turn 30 and you have to take this whole stock of your life.

Every birthday gives you a chance to really reflect on: Have I lived the life I want to live? And with the time that I have left, what do I want to do?

"Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" — what would that look like for you? What do you hope it looks like for the United States?

I go back to Douglass.

I spent a great deal of time thinking about him, and sitting with his work. And one of the things that I just jotted down as I was reading, I said:  Wow, what would this beautiful, brilliant man have done with his years on this planet, had not this country committed him to human bondage? And afterwards had not trapped him in this role, fighting for something that should not have had to be fought for.

When I think about life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, we didn't need the Declaration of Independence to tell us that the human spirit yearns and reaches.

The human spirit demands that we reach for, and strive for and believe in life, liberty and our happiness. That's why we've come on this planet, not to save and die for America.

I'm not particularly interested in any more Black people dying for America. But I do appreciate the efforts, starting with Douglass and long before him, that so many Black people have made to improve this country. And I ask our white brothers and sisters to put as much on the line as so many other people have done in this urgent time.

Listen to the full conversation with author Casey Gerald here.

 

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