Sunday, January 20, 2013

Litany at the Tomb of Frederick Douglass -- A Criticism

Martín Espada
Poet, Essayist, Editor & Translator
Mount Hope Cemetery, Rochester, New York
November 7, 2008
This is the longitude and latitude of the impossible;
this is the epicenter of the unthinkable;
this is the crossroads of the unimaginable:
the tomb of Frederick Douglass, three days after the election.

Political poetry has good and bad to it. Because of the conflicting nature of polics and ethnic identity, the program can shut itself off from many readers who may or may not identity with its values or its import.

"Three days after the election" -- which election? The President of the United States is elected, or reelected, every four years. The very nature of the political process ensures that these dynamic changes are not magnetic or tectonic. The Framers did not want the American electorate to tie up their hopes in one man, or in any government. Their final instrument, the Constitution, intended for power to be frustrated in the minds of the few and diffused to the hands of the many.
This is a world spinning away from the gravity of centuries,
where the grave of a fugitive slave has become an altar.

Frederick Douglass would likely be appalled at such affirmation, or deification. Frederick Douglass was not the self-righteous partisan which modern politics has depicted. The world is spinning away, all right, but more like the "widening and widening in the gyre" foretold by William Butler Yeats in the Second Coming.
This is the tomb of a man born as chattel, who taught himself to read in secret,
scraping the letters in his name with chalk on wood; now on the anvil-flat stone
a campaign button fills the O in Douglass.The button says: Obama.

Has poetry been reduced to impolitic political soundbytes? Really? Someone need to remind this poety that Douglass was a free-thinking abolitionist, but he would be appalled at the expansive, expensive welfare state which has brought minorities, including blacks, into a different bondage of servitude.
This is the tomb of a man in chains, who left his fingerprints
on the slavebreaker’s throat so the whip would never carve his back again;

Yes, Douglass fought against Edward Covey, but not because he was a "black" man, but because he was a man made in God's image. He may have been a slave in form, but he was no longer a "slave in fact". He stopped identifying the denigrating slaveowners' depiction of himself.
now a labor union T-shirt drapes itself across the stone, offered up
by a nurse, a janitor, a bus driver. A sticker on the sleeve says: I Voted Today.

Labor unions are as cruel, if not as overt, as plantation owners. They take away a man's livelihood with compulsory union dues, then they spend the money on candidates and causes which most of the men and women do not support. It's wage slavocracy, to say the least.
This is the tomb of a man who rolled his call to arms off the press,
peering through spectacles at the abolitionist headline; now a newspaper
spreads above his dates of birth and death. The headline says: Obama Wins.

President Obama has subjugated the very Constitution and rule of law which Douglass cherished. This fatuous peaen to race as identity is offensive and effusive in self-congratulatory praise.

Honestly, is there any merit in praising one black President who has done more harm than good to African-American citizens in this country?
This is the stillness at the heart of the storm that began in the body
of the first slave, dragged aboard the first ship to America. Yellow leaves
descend in waves, and the newspaper flutters on the tomb, like the sails

There is no stillness, sir. The stillness of a tomb speaks of the only great equalizer, or emancipator, ad that would be Death. Darker than color, the more potent prejudice, which offends  man because something deeper than ethnic pride insists that "death is wrong", yet death laughs at the "Black and Brown power" of academic elites and marauding gangs.
Douglass saw in the bay, like the eyes of a slave closing to watch himself
escape with the tide. Believers in spirits would see the pages trembling
on the stone and say: look how the slave boy teaches himself to read. 

Believers in spirits? This poet admitted that he haas not faith in the Divine, but he has faith in the inane notion that a man is defined by the color of his skin. The slave boy was taught to read with the help of a sympathetic white boy in Baltimore, yet I suppose this poet left that white element blank because it does not fit in with the self-glorification of race at the expense of the true spirit of man.
I say a prayer, the first in years: that here we bury what we call
the impossible, the unthinkable, the unimaginable, now and forever. Amen.

This man prays, but to what? Within himself, like the rich young ruler, or the older one who was rich towards men but poor towards God? The poet is praying to himself, and thus he is praying to no one. With God, nothing is impossible. Without God, without the Divine, there is nothing indeed but an empty tomb.

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