The Evil Men Do

Slavery in America is an important, but shameful time in our nation’s history. In his Independence Day Oration, Frederick Douglass, presents his thoughts on slavery and how it contradicts the foundation of America. Long after the abolishment of slavery, there is still discrimination against African Americans as explained in The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Within Douglass’s oration, it is said that the evil men do goes beyond their generation. The two readings can be connected by this idea, where Douglass explains the current situation of slavery and Coates describes the aftermath, several generations past its abolishment.

Douglass was honored to be speaking at such an event on an important day for Americans, however he was upset by how ironic the situation was. The founding fathers risked death to overthrow the British “home” government because they felt oppressed and unfairly treated. So this day of joyous occasion, the liberation of America, was not enjoyed by everyone. “I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, today, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them,” (Douglass). This is where the irony lies. Frederick Douglass accuses America for not being truthful to the foundation upon which it was built. “We fear the lesson is wholly lost on our present rulers,” (Douglass). It is ignorant to celebrate a day considered so great for overcoming oppression while we subject an enormous amount of people to enslavement. Nothing pro slavery is found in the constitution, it is not a constitutionality argument because we know it to be immoral and wrong. There are many things in the constitution however, that are unsympathetic to slavery. Frederick Douglass within his speech states that because America is so young, there is hope that everything could be turned around. Until then, this country is based on a lie and should be ashamed for not sticking to the same values as its founding fathers.

A famous quote used in Douglass’s oration was one that connects well with The Case for Reparations. “The evil men do, lives after them, The good is oft interred with their bones,” – William Shakespeare. In this article we see how African Americans were not much better off after the abolishment of slavery. Discrimination and acts of terror were a common sight. Many former slaves became farmers and lived in constant debt to their landowners. Refusing to work meant arrest on sharecrop farms, blacks were punished more harshly for their crimes, and where freed slaves lived were “ecologically distinct” from white neighborhoods. Frederick states in his oration that blacks were left out of the celebration of Independence Day because they were not considered Americans. The same case is seen here. The economic power that modern day America has become is largely due to cheap or free labor from slaves. Even after slavery, blacks were still exploited and discriminated against solely to show disrespect. The article finishes up saying that reparations would equate to “. . . the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences,” (Coates). Even today we have not reached this point.

The recent and current effects slavery still has on our nation supports that the malevolent things we do goes beyond our life time. Hundreds of years after slavery has ended in America, African Americans continue to deal with racism, inequality, and oppression. Coates recognizes that black lives in America are improving, but we still have a long way to go to undo the damage caused by past generations.

To Speculate Darkly

If you caught this year’s Walter Harding lecture by Prof. Pier Gabrielle Foreman, “To Speculate Darkly: Slavery, Black Visual Culture, and the Promises and Problems of Print,” you may be interested in visiting the website of the art exhibit from which the lecture’s title is drawn.

To Speculate Darkly: Theaster Gates and Dave the Potter was an exhibit hosted by The Milwaukee Art Museum in 2010.

Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates explains the origins and aims of the exhibit in this video on his website. As Gates explains, the exhibit

explores the history and legacy of Dave Drake (also known as Dave the Potter). A slave in antebellum South Carolina, Drake produced stoneware pottery and famously adorned his pots with poetic couplets. Though historians and art historians have explored Drake’s career in detail, Gates is the first artist to reinterpret his work and to make it pertinent to a broader set of concerns about the place of labor and craft in present-day America. The exhibition’s provocative installation, titled To Speculate Darkly: Theaster Gates and Dave the Potter, features a gospel choir that engages the enigmatic, emotional works of poetry found on Drake’s pots. Gates created the captivating sound piece with musicians from both Milwaukee and Chicago. Gates further collaborated with local tradespeople to develop original ceramic works for the show. Thus, the project, as intended, has brought together two very different groups of people in partnership, and promises to create lasting relationships across the city.