By: Elaine Lehman
On February 7, 1870, famed abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass spoke to the congregation of the Ward Chapel African Methodist Church in Peoria, Illinois.
The address he delivered on that occasion is titled ‘Our Composite Nationality.’ The membership of all races in one great human family was among Douglass’ favorite themes, and this conviction drove Douglass’ work as a champion for many human rights causes: for the rights of Chinese and other foreign-born immigrants and citizens; for universal suffrage; for freedom of thought and religion; for improved conditions and wages for laboring people; for providing education to the disadvantaged; for just treatment of Native Americans; for prosecuting lynchers; and for many, many more.
On that day Douglass said,
‘I am told there is objection to this mixing of races. We do not know what the original race was. It does not matter whether there was one Adam, a dozen Adams or 500 Adams. ‘A man’s a man for a’ that.’ I begin with manhood. Smiles and tears have no nationality. My two eyes tell me I have a right to see, my two hands, that I have a right to work. Almond eyes are not solely peculiar to the Chinaman. Hues of skin not confined to one race… I close, as I began, in hopes for the republic. Let us rejoice in a common sympathy and a common nationality supporting each other in peace and war, and to the security of a common country.’
A central figure in the United States and African American history, Frederick Douglass was born a slave in 1817, to an enslaved mother and white owner. He escaped at the age of 20 and rose to become one of the most powerful leaders of the anti-slavery movement, working as an advisor to Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War and later becoming the first African American citizen to hold a government position. He wrote three autobiographies aimed at the hearts and minds of the readers: their greater purpose was to attack and to contribute to the abolition of slavery in the United States and to argue for the full inclusion of black Americans into the nation, as well as to counter early charges that someone so eloquent as he could not have been a slave. In 1845, Douglass wrote and published his first autobiography, the Narrative. It brought Douglass fame in the United States and the United Kingdom. He set off on an extraordinary 19-month trip to England, Scotland, and Ireland, lecturing against slavery in the United States and where he experienced a degree of equality unimaginable in America. Douglass returned to the United States in 1847 a free man: British abolitionists had purchased his legal freedom.
In his quest for recognition of the African diasporic peoples in the United States, he expanded his notion beyond the binary and argued that the United States ought to be a home for people “gathered here from all quarters of the globe.” All come as “strangers,” bringing distinct cultures with them, but American creeds can offer a common ground. Though conflict may ensue, a nation of “strength and elasticity.”
Frederick Douglass is an exemplum of the politics of self-determination for enslaved and subjugated communities.
Douglass’s message resounded in the actions of African American soldier David Fagen and his comrades who, even in the face of certain defeat, cast their lot with the Filipinos in the Philippine revolution against American colonial rule, for dignity, popular sovereignty, and democracy. In a now historic speech at the 1900 Pan-African Congress convened in London, W.E.B. Du Bois, who participated in the Anti-Imperialist League opposed to U.S. suppression of the darkskinned Filipinos and took notice of the universal plight of “the darker races of mankind” by prophetically announcing that “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the colour line – the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in American and the islands of the sea.”
Carter G. Woodson, a Black educator who earned his bachelor’s and master’s degree at the University of Chicago, went to the Philippines in 1903 to help establish a new education system there. He observed how the materials and coursework that Filipino children were being taught excluded their own story and circumstances. The curriculum written and designed by white Americans overseas excluded the Filipino landscape in its indoctrination. This experience profoundly impacted Woodson and helped him further develop his understanding of social conditions and context.
Similar to the “education” of colonized Filipinos that he was sent to implement, African Americans were receiving instruction that had also excluded their own story. He dedicated his lifework to nurturing the philosophy of inclusive and meaningful education.
On February 7, 1926, Woodson founded Negro History Week, to encompass the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln – both men being great American symbols of freedom – as a way of remembering the important achievements and contributions by people of the African diaspora. In 1970, Black History Month became a reality and eventually led to the founding of other heritage and history months so that we may have an accurate knowledge of our age and see authentic record containing it.