by Janice Celeste
When I learned that one of my dear friends was a descendant of the late great Frederick Douglass, I knew she would have a powerful perspective on the United States Independence Day as a mother of two young girls, a wife and as Douglass’ descendant. As I read Faith Skinner’s words, I can hear Douglass’ tone from his original speech, “What Is The Meaning Of The Fourth of July To The Negro?” reverberating and can feel the connection. This interview is part one of two parts that will be released over two consecutive days.
1) How are you and your family related to Frederick Douglass, and when did you first learn that you were related to him?
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t realize I was a direct descendant of Frederick Douglass. His portrait towered over a space just inside the entrance of my home. My family made sure I knew about him. And the fact that he was the great grandfather of my paternal grandfather, Frederick Sprague Weaver, was a matter of public record. My grandfather was the last child of Frederick Douglass’s granddaughter, Estelle Irene Sprague Weaver.
2) What does being related to a hero in our history mean to you and your family?
“…the hypocrisy of declaring one’s independence while simultaneously denying freedom to others…”
On one level, it means a lot. On another, I always say that and $2.75 will get you on the subway. The meaning of the relationship really is all in what you make of it, and there are people in my family who have done and are doing a tremendous job with maintaining the legacy. My grandfather, Fred, certainly did so in his time through his writings and political work. And I have a distant cousin, Kenneth B. Morris, Jr., who runs the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives, which shines a light on modern-day human trafficking. There is so much I’d like to say about the work he is doing, but you can check it out for yourselves at www.fdfi.org. I’d really like to encourage you to follow him on social media, and find out more about what slavery looks like in the world today, and how you can be a part of bringing modern-day slavery to an end.
Otherwise, there were decades when I didn’t talk much about being related to Frederick Douglass, and I’m not alone on that. The silence began early on in my life — so let’s unpack that idea of being related to a “hero” first, because it really is relevant to the topic of raising African American children with a sense of pride and self-esteem in this country.
For starters, when you are a child you quickly learn that while Frederick Douglass’s accomplishments may be important, NONE of your classmates have any idea who he is. You aren’t going to hear his name mentioned by your teachers. You won’t see his face in your history books. And in a world where heroes are powerful, masterful and in control, the place your ancestors hold in this country seems anything but masterful or powerful. And since we are taught early on that might-makes-right, and to the victor goes the spoils, the very concept that a slave or former slave can even be a hero just doesn’t fit within how we’ve taught children the hero paradigm. In that way, we have psychologically written the African American out of the canon of possible childhood heroes. Yet ironically, the Confederate is a traitor and a loser who can be worshipped as a hero in this country. Go figure.
On top of that, our first history lessons teach us that the ‘Founding Fathers’ of this country were men of unassailable character. To teach the history of African Americans, Native Americans, and Women at the same time as we introduce our children to Christopher Columbus and the Founding Fathers, immediately calls into question the infallibility of men who hold a place not far below God and Jesus, to some. So of course, we learn “American” history first and foremost without the mess and without the full complement of its cast and characters, because we don’t like complications. We crave simplification. And we perhaps fear our children wouldn’t love this country’s heroes if we told them they had flaws. Hence, the importance of Black History Month, in particular and the variety of ethnic and gender-oriented history months in general.
Unlike when I was a child, today, there are lots of children’s books that discuss the life of Frederick Douglass in words and pictures that children and pre-teens can understand. I heartily encourage parents to fill their children’s bookshelves with children’s books that discuss Black history. I think it’s extremely important to explore a wider concept of heroism with African American children, because if we don’t make an effort to do so, we won’t be able to counteract the silent messages that society is giving our children and that message is that heroes don’t look like us; we have never made any important contributions to our country’s history; our history is something to be ashamed of; and that we have no reason to take pride in the strength, endurance, ingenuity and and nobility of our ancestors. Then, as you grow to understand how amazing he truly was, and frankly I think you have to be an adult to even begin to get a real grasp on what he endured, and how unlikely it is that anyone could overcome what he went through so magnificently, well at that point unless you really have a huge ego, the sense that any of your accomplishments pale within his shadow can be overwhelming! I can personally say that there were times when I felt obligated to just make this huge difference in the world and if I hadn’t made it yesterday, I hadn’t earned my ration of oxygen for today.
And the great thing is if you inherit the family gift for gab, along with that strong sense of wanting to fight for social justice, you really DO feel like it’s a part of your destiny to make a difference in the world. We have an inordinate number of writers and politically active people in our family, so I honestly think political activism is in the blood. Still, there are members of my family who have found real meaningful ways to incorporate Douglass’s outsized legacy into their lives in a way that serves a purpose much larger than simply drawing attention to themselves. I feel my grandfather, Frederick Sprague Weaver, did a superb job of keeping Frederick Douglass’s life and spirit in the public consciousness through his writings and public speaking. And my distant cousin, Kenneth B. Morris Jr. is a modern-day abolitionist. He really is a dynamo. He used his Frederick Douglass Family Foundation to shine a light on the problem of human trafficking in the United States and throughout the world. When people realize he [Frederick Douglass] has descendants that are alive and well and people you can meet, it helps them realize this person isn’t just some image in a history book. This person was real. He lived. He had a family. His accomplishments become more real.
As we move further and further from the time when Douglass was alive, and from the Civil Rights movement, it becomes more and more important to let people know these struggles were NOT ancient history. That these people on either side of the slave issue are not so unlike us. We are very much the same as they were. There is no reason to imagine that under the right circumstances, you could not have been on the wrong side of history. And if we are not careful, we can be on the wrong side of history, today.
3) Do you and your family celebrate the Fourth of July and if so how? If not, why not?
I have family members who would never acknowledge the Fourth of July. The sting of the injustice and hypocrisy this country was founded in is like a fresh wound. It’s a source of continuing outrage. However, personally, I wouldn’t say we “celebrate” the Fourth of July, as much as I’d say we “recognize” it. I take my children to fireworks celebrations. If we are invited to a barbecue, we show up. My emotions about the day are mixed, at best. And at the end of the day, I think what I teach my children about the Declaration of Independence, the men who wrote and signed it, the lofty ideas, and the hypocrisy of declaring one’s independence while simultaneously denying freedom to others, is a lot more important overall than whether we join in or opt out of the festivities of the day. And it’s all so complicated because on one level, American history is MY history — all of it. I have a birthright claim to every bit of it. This really IS my land, and that Declaration of Independence is the declaration of the indecencies of a country my family helped build with blood, sweat, tears, joy, ingenuity and determination above all odds. But this country is one heck of a messy family. Historically speaking, we’ve got family members we are proud of, and family members we don’t speak about. We’ve got highlights and lowlights. We’ve got men of profound and noble ideas, with skeletons in their closets. And how do we, as African Americans, reconcile our birthright to this country while carrying all that historical baggage? European Americans seem to be able to just ignore what they want about our history with very little consequence. And that brings us to the first of Frederick Douglass’s speeches that resonated with me in my youth, What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? It was the first speech I had read where I just clearly understood the hypocrisy of inviting a former slave to speak about the celebration of an independence that had been denied so many by law and custom! I could feel the passion, the scorn and the outrage of Douglass’s stinging rebukes in my very soul. I think his speech about the Fourth of July is the perfect choice for introducing adolescents to his work, because the preteen and early teen years are ones in which children are losing the feeling that the adults around them are infallible. They are in the process of coming to terms with adult hypocrisy, and the question: How can a country’s heroes declare the right to freedom while holding other humans captive, will resonate with them during a time when they are grappling with how to respect those far from perfect adults in their lives.
“I think his speech about the Fourth of July is the perfect choice for introducing adolescents to his work, because the preteen and early teen years are ones in which children are losing the feeling that the adults around them are infallible.”
Now, I do have family members who absolutely would never celebrate the Fourth of July for any reason. As I grow older, I’ve become keenly aware that many of the civil rights battles of the past need to be fought again. For instance, I am very much disturbed by attacks on our voting rights. And while I may never feel the issue of mass incarceration of nonviolent offenders, it affects me personally. I’ve seen over the years, people who are just like me, become the systematic targets of injustice in the criminal justice system. My mother’s family is from Ohio and they are very patriotic, so I grew up with a kind of cultural schizophrenia. I’m both very proud of the ideas we celebrate in this country, and yet profoundly saddened by the hypocrisy and murderous ways so many used to violate the very ideas they claim to stand for. The county’s founders were being called out on the hypocrisy even as they claimed their struggle was to be free from British tyranny. At that very same time, the British were calling them out for claiming to want freedom in a land where they were protecting the rights of ownership of other human beings. There just has never been a time in this country where we have claimed certain ideas, while hypocritically doing the opposite. Even in our most recent elections, we’ve seen the hypocrisy of how we say we want to protect people’s rights to have free and democratic elections, and yet in this country the people’s vote can easily be over-ridden. You really have two choices in life: you either stay and fight to make things better or you become disgusted with the lack of progress, give up, and perhaps leave. Believe me, there are days when I’m pretty disgusted. I’m raising daughters in this country, but what if I were raising boys? How much could my heart endure seeing them treated as threats, or worrying about if they would come home at night? Even as it concerns my daughter’s future spouses? At this time, I really worry for young, Black men in this country. But then I consider that Frederick Douglass stayed and fought for improvement, and I have to acknowledge that what I’m dealing with is nothing in comparison to what he had to endure. I realize that I have to stiffen my own backbone, summon my own courage, and above all that I should not lose hope.
“I’m raising daughters in this country, but what if I were raising boys? How much could my heart endure seeing them treated as threats, or worrying about if they would come home at night?”
4) We keep hearing the same rhetoric from some of the majority that if Black people don’t like this country, then we should go back to Africa as if they’re a disgruntled buyer trying to renege on a purchase and forgetting that we have American freedom to go to Africa and come back to America. That’s American freedom that our soldiers White and Black have fought for. What do you have to say to this?
Oh my goodness, it is so very hard to reason with ignorant and hateful people, isn’t it? For starters, these people seem not to realize that much of the wealth of this country was built on the very backs of African people. We simply would not be the country we are today without the stain of human exploitation and the theft of labor. So when they look around and feel they enjoy so much in this country, they need to remember that the blood of the indigenous Native Americans and African people made so much of this possible. How do you steal my forefathers’ labor and build this country, and then tell me I need to go home? And the hysterical thing about it is that often, the people saying you need to go back to Africa are people who are a generation or two out of Europe, themselves! We truly have every bit as much a right to be here as anyone else who is not a part of the indigenous people of this country’s soil. Aside from that, no country becomes a great one, or stays a great one, without dissent. There is no way to make improvements or to keep this country on track to attaining the ideals it was founded for if we do not call out the hypocrisy and the areas in which we are failing the citizenry. None of us will be truly free until all of us are truly free. But sometimes, when people think they have the upper hand they think they are free. It reminds me of what it feels like when you try to keep a ball underwater. You feel like you are above it all. You feel as if you are in control of the ball. But if you want that ball to stay submerged, it’s really you that’s stuck trying to flaunt the natural order of things.
Editor-in-Chief | @JaniceMCeleste