“To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.” ~ Frederick Douglass.
Upstate New York is an idyllic place, a place of woods and hills and dappled light. There are place names that reveal the original owners of the land, along with some of the more recent land claimers. There is Cheektowaga and Schuylerville; Canajoharie (a Mohawk name meaning the pot that washes itself) and Cobleskill (kille being the Dutch word for riverbed). The road winds leisurely through long stretches of rolling hills, passes through quaint towns, hints at summer camps and getaways for city dwellers, there are log cabins and hidden retreats. It was one July 4th some years ago, while stopping at the home of an older relative that I heard the speech given by Frederick Douglass. He told the audience of abolitionists: “This fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.” Anyone who has not heard (James Earl Jones does a powerful rendition), or read it should do so.
It was a harsh contrast to the tall leafy trees, the feeling of calm serenity in those upstate places. It was a reminder that many stories are left untold, swept under the carpet and locked away. But the power of language is that almost two hundred years later, the pain and disgrace of a nation can be exposed.
I grew up in a house where stories were shared. We were encouraged to learn new words, to look them up and then use them. We didn’t hear cursing (certainly not surprising in the home of a parson), some of the saltiest words would be ‘gosh’ or ‘golly’. We were discouraged from using slang, encouraged to use proper diction. Without realizing it, this gave us an edge in our education. But words and language are powerful tools, used carelessly they can demean and belittle.
The man I married used Jamaican bad words as punctuation in any conversation. At first I guess I was shocked, but they were so ubiquitous that they soon lost their power. His father was just as bad. He often would start his reading of a person of questionable character by addressing them as ‘You, Mr. R**s’ (Jamaican bad word). But it was through my husband that I learned to be even more aware of how language can be used socially and politically to maintain the subjugation and oppression of people. This country has had a history of ‘disappearing’ the origins of groups of minorities. By labeling the original landowners ‘Red Indians’ they eradicated the fact that they found them on this continent, reduced them to a color. They then became caricatures, savages, wild things. The enslaved Africans became known only for the color of their skin, taken from the Latin descriptor. When polite society tried to eliminate the word which had taken on such a cruel power, they came up with ‘colored’ – still the superficial minimalization of a human race.
After the civil rights activism of the 60s, a new pride swept through those descendants of enslaved Africans, and ‘Black Power’ was the phrase. Those who had been cursed embraced the term and turned it into ‘Black is beautiful’, ‘I’m Black and Proud.’ Towards the end of the 20th century, in an acceptance of the origin of the racial features – the complexion, the hair, the culture, the history, the traditions, the wealth that had originated in Mother Africa, the term Afro-American came in vogue. Of course, this was confusing to some who descended from the same people but had grown up on a different plantation. To this day there are those who are confused by the term, wondering why the prefix is needed. Well, when you are striving for identity in a country of ‘Irish-Americans’, ‘Italian-Americans’, ‘White Anglo-Saxon Protestants’, why wouldn’t you want to honor your ancestors while pointedly reminding your compatriots of your citizenship?
When we who are privileged start to get upset about those who point out the injustices in society, in language, in terminology, it is good to stop and ask questions. In nursing school we teach about the importance of taking the patient’s culture into account. We teach broad facts about culture, religion, ethnicity in the hopes of raising awareness that something which means nothing to you could be of great significance to someone else. But we also teach that a good starting place is in a simple request: “Please tell me what I need to know in taking care of you.” Do you have certain dietary dos and don’ts? Do you need time each day to pray? What do I need to know about you?
My friend Willa wrote a powerful piece yesterday. She was born in Daytona Beach, Florida, grew up in the 60’s and 70’s, and saw how hard her mother had to work to keep her father and brothers ‘pumped up’. They were the descendants of enslaved Africans, but she reminded them they were descended from greatness, that they had worth, that they were better than the treatment they got every day at work or at school. She fought for them, stood up for them, a daily battle in a nation that told them they were worthless. Willa is my age. She is not talking of a bygone era, her grandmother’s time. Her mother succeeded. Willa and her brothers are educated, successful high achievers. Her words reveal the effort it took and still takes today, to be Black in the USA.
“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him more than any other days in the year the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is a constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; …- a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages” (Frederick Douglass, 1852).
On this day of all days, a weekend when we are being told once more to hunker in place as we try to contain a pandemic, it would be good for us all to go to our rooms and think on these things. What do we still need to learn? How should we be phrasing our arguments? Are we trying to see things from the point of view of others? Are we watching our language, listening to the pain behind the words, ready to let freedom ring?
Have a wonderful weekend, Family. Stay safe.