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Multiculturalism, we use it so loosely that we don’t even know what it means anymore. Well, Douglass knew what it meant. It meant the dream put into reality that people of every kind of creed, every kind of race background, ethnicity difference, even though they’re going to fight it out, they’re going to fight like hell over the sources, and meaning, and religion, and interpretation. They’re going to fight like hell, but it’s possible to create a democracy in which all of them can actually live.
Let’s talk about your way into this man who, he’s one of these figures where… I think this is sort of the case a little bit with Hamilton and Chernow’s biography and then the musical, which is that, sure, it’s not like Alexander Hamilton is not famous. He’s famous. We know Hamilton’s a founding father, but the depth of complexity of the guy’s life, it’s like you read it. And you’re like, “Whoa, wow.” And Frederick Douglass is in a somewhat similar category in so far as like, yes, we know Fredrick Douglass. When we see his picture, we recognize him. But the sheer volume of his thought, his writing, his speaking, his political influence, his life experience. I had no idea the life this man lived.
Well, to go right back to your central point in your introduction. He did have a vision of a multiethnic, multiracial, multireligious America in a more robust way than almost anybody of his own time. Long before an idea like multiculturalism was any form of consensus in this country. He was the prose poet, if you like, of American democracy in the 19th century. He was a creature of words. We can come back to that if you want of just how a former slave, a kid who grows up a slave spends 20 years as a slave, become such a genius with language. But he managed to find in language, written prose, autobiographical prose, political editorials, thousands of speeches, even one work of fiction. He found ways to penetrate and explain, describe and explain the experience of slavery as both physical and mental. The experiences of racism, they didn’t use that term in the 19th century. They called it racial prejudice, et cetera. And, and he found ways to explain what was happening to the American nation, the country itself, because of this issue of slavery and its aftermath, like nobody else.
Whether he belongs on a Mount Rushmore. I don’t know, on that issue, it’s worth talking about as we go through these monument wars, whether we’ve almost been too obsessed with people on monuments, and maybe we need to think more and more about memorialization, about ideas and concepts and events and processes, and so on. This obsession with heroes sometimes just gets us in trouble because everybody’s got flaws. That’s why George Washington is now in trouble, right, on the monuments.
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