Trump Opens Black History Month, But Doesn’t Know Who Frederick Douglass Was

I think this month over in the US is Black History Month, which is when teachers, historians and educationalists try to bring to mainstream attention the numerous Black figures, who have contributed to the shaping of modern America. Trump went on TV to announce it this week, and paid tribute to great figures of the Abolitionist and Civil Rights movement Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. However, he didn’t seem to know quite who Douglass was. He described him as someone, who has done great work, and is increasingly being recognised. Which makes it sound as though Drumpf thought he was an historian of the Black contribution to America. Douglass wasn’t. He was one of the major figures of the 19th century Abolitionist movement. His autobiography is one of the classics of Abolitionist and Black American literature. One of his most controversial and inspiring speeches was ‘What To The Slave Is the Fourth of July?’, in which he pointed out how hollow and meaningless the rhetoric surrounding Independence Day, with its talk of resisting tyrants and slavery, for America’s Black people, who were still held in servitude.

In this clip from The Young Turks, John Iadarola and Ana Kasparian discuss Trump’s apparent ignorance. They give him due credit for recognising the contribution of the above Black leaders, and the millions of other Black people in business and politics, which Trump also mentions. They make the point that his apparent ignorance shows the need for Black History Month, as Douglass was an obscure figure until Black scholars rediscovered him. They take issue with the opposition some people have to the Month. Some object to it on the grounds that a separate period for Black history shouldn’t be necessary, and historically marginalised figures like Tubman, Parks, Douglass, MLK et al should be incorporated in general history. They don’t dispute this. They do attack the claim that there simply shouldn’t be Black history month, or there should also be a White History Month, on the grounds that White history is taught every year, throughout the year, from January to December. And they point out too that teaching Black history is necessary, as some schools in very right-wing states have deliberately removed Black leaders and figures like MLK from the curriculum, in order to teach right-wing political figures like Phyllis Schlafly. In an earlier video, The Young Turks reported, if I recall correctly, how the schoolboard in Arizona had stopped teaching the pupils there about slavery, and replaced that part of the school curriculum with Reagan’s speeches. Which very much bears out their point. As for Phyllis Schlafly, she was a Conservative activist, who was anti-feminist and very much anti-UN.

Trump in his speech also takes the time to correct the rumour that he does not treasure the bust of Martin Luther King and had it removed from his office. This, he says, is wrong. He states that it is his most treasured object. This is interesting, as it shows how MLK has been ‘whitewashed’ so that even a Conservative like Trump can approve of him. Those, who’ve studied MLK and his work have pointed out that the man was much more radical than is commonly recognised. He’s seen now simply as standing up for Black equality and racial reconciliation between White and Black. Which is true. But he also bitterly hated capitalism for its exploitation of the poor, whether Black or White, denounced the US’ attacks on Cuba and was very firmly opposed to the Vietnam War, for exactly the same reasons Mohammed Ali did. I dare say Trump would have been shocked to know any of that. It definitely wouldn’t have made MLK one of his favourite Black leaders, as the great man would have despised everything that Drumpf, and indeed recent American presidents, including Obama, stand for regarding the bombing and wars in the Middle East.

Trump also pays due to tribute to his Black staff members and co-workers, especially for taking him into areas, he didn’t know anything about and had not visited before. Iadarola and Kasparian give Trump credit for not going on about the problems of Black inner city ghettoes, which is the prism through which Drumpf usually views the Black community. They also note at one point, Trump characteristically turns it around so that he is, once again, talking about himself and his campaigning, rather than the issue at hand.

If you’re interested in following up Frederick Douglass’ life and work, his autobiography most certainly has been republished. I think it’s in print both individually, as a part of anthologies of American slave writings. There are very many history of slavery and the slave trade. One that’s particularly useful for American history is Harry Harmer’s, The Longman Companion to Slavery, Emancipation and Civil Rights (Harlow: Pearson Education Ltd 2002). This has separate chapters on slavery in different regions and periods, such as in South America, North America and so on. It also presents the most important points as bulleted facts, and as its title says, continues the story into the Civil Rights period.

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