She-Wolf: Transitioning to the New Year of 2012

Tulips in Bloom, Chicago

Right now I’m caught up in series of novels titled Game of Thrones, and the HBO series based on the novels.  Creatures called dire wolves–from the Ice Age and now extinct–are central to one of many over-lapping  story-lines, with dire wolves in symbiotic relationship with young royals. 2011 transitioned so quickly cart-wheeling into 2012, and I am embracing my she-wolf. I don’t bite but am running hard and fast down two different paths: the environment and health. Like the story-lines in Game of Thrones, the two paths have and continue to overlap. I’m including some of my favorite photos from 2011 some with and without rhyme and reason in relationship to the text. Put simply, these photos like so many I took last year simply touched me.

The first path is environmental. I continued my life’s work, a ministry to people and the earth, sharing the gospel of African Americans and the environment. Back in 2010, I published Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage. Continuing into 2011, non-profit organizations invited me to do speaking engagements, some of the content based in part on the book:

At Barnes & Noble with a Little Fan

I also did a radio interview with Groovin 1580 FM and a book-signing with the Wildlife Federation at Georgia Tech. In 2012, I will continue to share an environmental gospel, speaking at the Tuskegee Institute Historic Site in Alabama and Getty College in Pennsylvania.

From Fall 2010 to Summer 2011 when I  continued my environmental opus, I was in an intensive Clinical Pastoral Education Program training for chaplaincy. I managed to complete the program, while still blogging.

Interestingly, the Rooted in the Earth WordPress Annual Report differs from my favorite blogs “penned” during part of the program. The highest ranking blog going back to 2010 was (drum roll please) Predators: Survival of the Fittest in a Busted Paradise. Perhaps not so surprising since my blogs on film and television ranked higher than some of the historical blogs. People like popular culture. Well, so do I.

Grand Isle, Louisiana, 2007 (ok, not 2011!)

I also love history and my personal favorites included Kentucky, African Americans, and the Environment, Harriet Tubman Working Nature, Barack Obama: An Alternate Environmental History, and 2011 MLK Day: Remembering Martin Luther King, the Environmentalist. Hey, I’m a historian. What can I say. I’m back on the steep happy hill–that’s the she-wolf in me on the move–blogging again in 2012 with a call for blogs for a State of Diversity and the Environment Blog Carnival.

So what’s that second path as I continue loping on winding path?  Back in 2010, I never imagined that graduating with an M.Div. in “Faith, Health and Science” at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University would be life changing concerning my health. Over the last year I lost 17 pounds and hope to lose about 20 more. No rush. One pound at a time. Jenny Craig, Nutrisystem, Weight Watchers . . . make it happen like Mariah belts out in the recent Jenny Craig commercial.

I continue being heart healthy with nutrition and exercise. I serve as a pastor at Crafton United Methodist Church and some of the members have followed my example joining Weight Watchers. Others have been serving healthy options like veggies at Coffee Hour after church. And yes, I found time to blog about spirituality and religion at BeingEphesus.com.

Korean War Memorial, Washington, DC

I am grateful to everyone in my personal life who patiently listened to my stories about being on paths of the environment and health. In addition, so many colleagues invited me into their institutions trusting me to share one vision of  an African American environmentalism. I did not take that trust for granted because many of the people in the audience were college students. I honored to continue working with young people, my favorite “demographic.”

Now I stand among many talented and committed in an environmental family with shared interests in diversity. One kind and generous person in stood out in 2011: Na’Taki Osborne Jelks. I knew Na’Taki for years going back to 2005 when I went on a hike with Keeping It Wild in Georgia. It wasn’t until she organized several events for me that I got to know her better. I am grateful for Na’Taki and so many others devoted to the cause.

I invite you to continue with me embracing your inner-she-wolf (or whatever creature works for you) on paths to protecting the planet and good health, with a dash of science. Thank you for coming along with me.

Photos by Dianne Glave

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Film The Tree of Life: Spiritual and Cosmic Paintings in Motion

Terence Malik’s The Tree of Life sweeps the film-goer into the universe and the life of Jack O’Brien, the character at the center of the film, along with his family. The cyclical and arcing non-linear narratives of universe and daily human life overlap one another with metaphors galore. The film is a complex masterpiece; it is a series of paintings on celluloid.

The film’s title, The Tree of Life, is significant as it points to everlasting life in the Garden of Eden in the book of Genesis. The counterpoint to this tree is the tree of knowledge of good and evil. God instructs Adam and Eve to stay away from the tree of knowledge. As is human, both were tempted to eat from the tree knowledge, and God cursed them with death rather than everlasting life on earth. Good and evil are central to Jack and his family lives, a dot really in biblical stories of the Garden of Eden and the origins of the universe and life.

The film opens with passages from Job 38:4, 8 which frames the film:  “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding . . . Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?”

If you missed these first words in the film, then you missed critical themes of the origins of life–foundation of the earth, water–H20 as life-giving and -altering, revelation–a door as transition and change, and the womb–birth as part of the meaning of human life irrevocably tied to death.

Malik’s overarching themes of religion, based in part on the Bible’s book of Job as a signpost, are origins of all kinds including the universe and Jack’s birth are traced throughout the film, well is actually the film.

The seemingly simple lives of the O’Brien’s are embedded in the Big Bang and religion. Jack’s birth is paralleled with the first spark that becomes the universe transitioning to simple and later complex forms of life-anemone to dinosaur–on earth.  Jack and Mrs. O’Brien, his mother, narrate the entire film with whispered phrases filled with cosmological and theological meaning set against the backdrop of an expanding universe and evolution:

  • Death of one of the middle O’Brien children at 19: “He’s in God’s hands now.”
  • As the universe becomes . . . : “Who are we to you? Answer me.”
  • In the midst of crashing water and moving clouds: “We cry to you . . . Hear us.”
  • A meteor hits the earth slamming earth into an ice age: “You spoke to me through her . . .I loved you, believed in you. When did you first touch my heart?”
  • A boy drowns in a swimming pool: “Was he bad? Will you die too? You’re not that old yet, Mom. Where were you? You let a boy die. You let anything happen. Why should I be good if you aren’t?”

The last words intertwine with recurring themes of good versus evil–consider the Garden of Eden once again–central to Jack as he grows up. He’s born as raw material like the universe. Jack grows into evil; does the universe move along the same path? He vents his frustration when another brother, ultimately the middle child, is born. Jack’s anger expands and pulses like the universe as he bristles under the control and abuse by his father, and becomes his father full of anger and resentment. Both son and father’s ethics are skewed as Jack breaks a neighbor’s window and his father tells his children you have to look out for yourself. Is the universe, is God free of these ethical dilemmas? It seems Malik asks these and other question through the images and words in the film As is true of life in which we ask the big questions of who is God and how did the cosmos come into being, questions often remain unanswered.

Middle-aged Jack contemplates his life, the painful death of his brother, his damaged relationship with his father and mother, the meaning of the universe and life; it is all revelatory and cosmic. The towering trees and skyscrapers (spiraling urban trees)–reaching up to God vertically for comfort and answers; the water–a source of life, the skies–celestial heavens where God prevails are all part of a visual symphony that brings Jack around full circle from birth to death to after-life. His life parallels the universe which ignites with the Big Bang and closes with a supernova leading to a black hole, perhaps where the universe first begins again.

Another layer of the many narratives is religion paralleling in many ways the expansion of the universe, evolution, and human life. Jack’s experience is salvific. He is born unaware of sin, clay to be molded into good or evil. Ultimately, his father’s oppression turns in on Jack reinforcing evil. Jack does bad things like breaking into a neighbor’s, a woman’s, house stealing her underwear. He feels guilt even as a boy growing into adolescence. At the end of the film, Jack revisits his life through memories walking through a door, representing transition, to meet his family as if re-experiencing childhood. The family forgives the father with loving gestures. The 19-year-old son who died also appears as a child signifying reconciliation of past hurts. Perhaps Jack has died and is in heaven on the beach, experiencing a reinvention, redemption, happy times with his childhood family, much different from reality of his childhood.

At the end of the film, Malik shifts to scenes of a dying universe that parallels Jack’s experience of salvation–original sin, grace, repentance, justification, regeneration, sanctification, and perfection–coming around full circle. Interestingly, the last scene mirrors the second scene of the origins of the universe as flame-like. I saw the bosom of a woman in the flame at the end of the film. Perhaps the woman was Jack’s mother, reflecting grace through her gentleness and kindness toward her children. Malik closes the film with by returning to the beginning echoing words from earlier in the film by Mrs. O’Brien: “No one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.” 

Like a Picasso, a cubist painter, The Tree of Life is what you make of it. And it changes with every frame and every viewing. The universe. Evolution. Humanity. Salvation.

127 Hours: The Movie

We are soft sitting in front of computers and flat screen televisions. Yet the idea of rugged individualism remains with us. Americans pushed the frontier. Pioneers moved forward on the frontier after landing in the East at the edge of the Atlantic with settlements like Jamestown during the 17th Century. Americans kept going, moving, crossing the Mississippi River until reaching the wall, California and the Pacific Ocean.

What does this have to do with 127 Hours? Hold on. The movie recounts the harrowing and true story of Aaron Ralston, lover of the great outdoors. As he rushes out the door leaving behind a message from his mother, civilization, he hurdles towards the frontier.

Aaron drives his car  in the middle of the night headed to Utah. He arrives at a dry barren startling vista barreling off on his bike for some time spent bouldering, the cousin or variation of rock climbing.

He’s alone, he’s the rugged individual who would have been comfortable in the world described in Frederick Jackson Turner’s in “The Significance of the Frontier in American History”(1893). Ralston is much like a mythologized figure described by Jackson: “Daniel Boone, the great backwoodsman, who combined the occupations of hunter, trader, cattle-raiser, farmer, and surveyor-learning, probably from the traders, of the fertility of the lands of the upper Yadkin, where the traders were wont to rest as they took their way to the Indians, left his Pennsylvania home with his father, and passed down the Great Valley road to that stream.” (http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/TURNER/)

Being a rugged individual comes at a high cost. Most went to the movie aware of the harrowing dénouement: Aaron’s arm gets caught between boulders and after a grueling 127 hours, he amputates that arm himself.

During the 1990s, I went hiking alone all the time. I’m no rugged individual but I do love having church by myself under the trees. No talking. No distractions from someone moving along beside or behind me. Alone. I gave it up because my mother and brother asked me to. Sigh. I go to a local state park alone of late. Many people are on the more active trail. And I let someone know I’m out there. I also keep my phone with the number of the park ranger. And I don’t forget my red whistle.

See the film for the love the outdoors, beautiful vistas, and the morality tale of checking in before hiking or bouldering. The latter is a critical point.

Memory of 911: No Photos, No Images, Just Memories

911 has profoundly affected the nation. I’m originally from New York having grown up in Queens and worked in Manhattan including downtown. So now-gone World Trade Center and the death of so many people has changed me too.

I was living in Los Angeles when the planes hit the Twin Towers. I was getting ready for work at a local university. The TV was off so I had no idea that NYC, the United States, and the world was changing. My mother rang me and told me to turn on the television. I won’t describe what I saw because so many of us saw the footage repeatedly on CNN and other channels.

I called my cousin who worked steps away from the World Trade Center. People everywhere were jamming phone circuits. I like so many other people were worried about family and friend could not get through. I called my mother again and I learned my cousin had not gone into work that day. She was safe.

In shock, really feeling like a zombie, I went to work. LAX, the international airport in Los Angeles, stood between me and work. The airport and the streets around were shut down by the authorities. So I drove and drove until I found a hole to go through.

At the university, I went to administration and asked if classes were in session. No one had ever experienced anything like this so I got no answers. They too were in shock.

I headed to my first class and five of my students were waiting for me. We all knew what had happened and were stunned. I asked them what they were thinking and feeling. Each student shared. And then we all cried. I didn’t go to any of my other classes.

I did go to Faithful Central Church in Inglewood where a service had been quickly organized for the evening. I wept and fell over unable to stand up to the atrocity and destruction. Three women caught me before I hit the ground. The women held me for a long time.

A few days later I had to get on a plane for work. There were military everywhere with semi-automatic weapons. It was the beginning of the restrictions on traveling and luggage. I was scared to get on a plane but I forged on. It’s that New England stoicism I suppose.

In November, just a few months later, I went to New York to meet my cousin and my parents. My cousin resisted me when I said I wanted to walk around downtown. I did get out alone though.  The cut-through of buildings I’d used in the past  as a short-cut to avoid crowds on the streets were heavily guarded and were no more. Military were everywhere. I was asked to show my ID, which was my driver’s license. It was disorienting downtown  in a different and frightening way. It was not the bright lights, big city disorientation.

My parents arrived downtown a few hours after my arrival. We ate lunch with my cousin and then my father wanted to go to the World Trade Center. He had worked most of his adult life at Banker’s Trust across the street from the towers so this place had great significance for him.

We walked over and my father stood silent in front of the barriers that made it impossible to see anything that remained of the buildings. Fliers covered the wall of missing friends and family–all those missing loved ones. My mother did not understand his silence and started to rush him to go. She had not worked in Manhattan so the destruction meant little to her. I turned to my mother and said, “You have to give him time, Mom. This is where he spent most of his work life. This is where he met his colleagues and most of his friends here at Bankers Trust across from the World Trade Center.” So we waited. He said nothing but turned away from where the towers once stood and walked. We followed silently behind him.

I will always remember the World Trade Center and the people. I cannot count how many times I got off the subway early in the morning with a flood of dresses and suits with people. All of us ran swiftly through of the towers on marble floors. I ran up the stairs instead of taking the escalators with my jacket or sweater flapping around me into the streaks of sunlight and the drift of clouds, into the cool air of fall. That was my World Trade Center.

Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage: An Excerpt

In my book Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage, I open each chapter with literary or fictional vignettes. Read the first paragraphs of Chapter 4 titled “Resistance: Rebellion, Sustenance, and Escape in the Wilderness:

Joseph dreams that he is a revered priest in West Africa, where his people, the Gruma of the Akan, all call him Minkah, which means justice. Some of his priestly duties revolve around nature—blessing a field, pouring libations with water onto the ground to revere the ancestors, and tending to the village’s earth shrine. Minkah strides through the forests and sees a vision of a long leaf pine that weeps and shakes like a small child.
Awaking from his reverie, Joseph realizes that he is this child, who has ended up enslaved. Now, north of the city of Mobile between the Tombigbee and Alabama rivers, he is far from his ancestral home in Africa. Yet he is comforted by the familiarity of leaves falling from the branches of the trees onto the uneven floor, a patchwork of sunlight and shadows in the forest.

Joseph’s visions and dreams have momentarily liberated him from the bondage of enslavement with thoughts well suited for the making of a runaway. Intuitively, he is comfortable and familiar with the woods and waterways surrounding the plantation. Joseph runs away for one- to three-day stretches, relying on his knowledge of nature, which originated in Africa, to survive. The first few times Joseph runs, Matthew Samford—the slaveholder of a two-hundred-acre plantation kept productive by seventy-five enslaved people— tracked him with dogs . . . (57-58)

My goal in using the fictional vignettes was to give thehistorical perspective of the book some “flesh.”

Kanye West’s Power: Religious Metaphors Including Those in Nature

Kanye West’s Power, his latest video, is a locomotive painting. The director Marco Brambilla draws from Greek, Judeo-Christian, Egyptian, Hindu, and Buddhist religious metaphors in what is a visual video masterpiece.

The video opens with West’s eyes lit as if superhuman.

Behind him are Ionic columns, typical of Greek architecture. The director choose the Ionic columns over the Doric and Corinthian design because the latter are more complex in architecture, design, and engineering. Among the Greeks and according to architects, the Ionic design is the greatest of the three columns. The Ionic is more complex in design including scrolls representing education and vertical lines akin to rams horns. In addition, unlike the other designs, the engineering, the design is more resistant to earthquakes.

Behind West and the columns are clouds that grow darker from the beginning to end of the video. I see something similar in scripture. In the Torah and the Old Testament, Moses went up into the mountain where God was the cloud (Exodus 24:15). When God was angry there was thunder and lightning, making the people tremble. (Exodus 19:16)

Returning to West, an industrial chain hangs around his neck. It is far heavier than any human could hold up, indicating his godlike power. From the chain hangs a rather large pendant or ornament with the Egyptian god Horus. He was the greatest of the Egyptian gods with the head of a falcon and the body of a man. In his many manifestations, he was a god of war, protection, and the sky. As the god of the sky, a connection could be made to the clouds in the sky, the backdrop in the video.

Fanning out away from the clouds, the columns, and West are two women with antelopes horns and pounding staffs. The horns are those of antelopes. Two Hindu deities, Vayu, lord of the winds, and Chandra, a lunar god rode on antelopes. The pounding staffs allude to Moses using the lowly herder’s staff to do God’s will: Moses faced Pharaoh as they struggled over freeing the Hebrews from bondage. In one memorable moment Moses staff transformed into a snake. Pharaoh’s magicians did the same but Moses’ snake devoured the magicians snakes.

Winged human creatures sit at Kanye’s feet with connections to two religious images. Cherubim protected the ark containing the stone tablets of the Ten Commandment as noted in the Old Testament. In Hinduism and Buddhism, the garuda is a bird-like human that is divine.

Above West are a pair on either side pouring out oil from jars filled with never-ending oil. Throughout the Old Testament, powerful kings like David are anointed with oil by prophets to affirm their power and leadership through God’s anointing. In the New Testament, Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with a perfume–in some translations it is oil or ointment.

The video is only 90 seconds and begins to speed up towards the end. A veil drops, perhaps a reference to the rent or torn veil at the temple after Jesus’ crucifixion. For Christians this tear represents abandoning the temple; the old, Judaism is replaced with the new, Christianity. The power shifts.

In the far corners of the video, grapes are in a bowl, proffered as an offering by two women. This is certainly a reference to Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and fertility.

Throughout the video, we see images of knives and swords in the hands of men. A knife comes down from above through a gold crown or Celtic circlet–consider the shift of Celtic tribalism to kingdoms in which kings and queens wore crowns to industrialism represented in the chain around Kanye’s neck–above West’s head. As the video comes to a close, two men come down on West with swords as if in ritual sacrifice.

The video ends. We never learn West’s fate. Does he remain powerful? Was his power an illusion? Does he live? Does he die?

Do a few lines from the lyrics might answer these questions: “No one man should have all that power//The clock’s tickin’, I just count the hours//Stop trippin’, I’m trippin’ off the power”?

Everything but West is a mirror image in the video. Why? We should look at ourselves in the mirror as we struggle with the meaning of power. One look at the image and there is human frailty.

The video with all its metaphors is a masterpiece.

Wonderful Fresh Food! The New Farmers Market in South Memphis

Inaugural South Memphis Farmers Market

The South Memphis Farmers Market is selling  fresh local produce to the South Memphis community. This is good news since the area is a food desert, meaning access to fresh food is not always possible. The farmers market is filling the void through the hard work of many people in the community who pushed for the passage of the South Memphis Revitalization Action Plan  (SoMe RAP). As a result, the predominantly African American community in South Memphis can benefit from fresh fruits and vegetables. Reverend Kenneth S. Robinson, pastor of St. Andrew AME Church and local politicians were on hand to mark the occasion.

Read more at the Memphis Commercial Appeal in Farmers Will Sell at Market in South Memphis. Watch on Eye Witness News: South Memphis Farmers Market Gets Set To Open. The Works has been instrumental, among many other local organizations in making the market happen. Read what The Works had to say in South Memphis Farmers Market Opens Tomorrow. Check out the White House, that would be in Washington, D.C. post titled Just Opened: The South Memphis Farmers Market.

Photos by Dianne Glave

Faith Temple COGIC in Memphis: Promoting Health

Bophelo means life in South Africa!

Faith Temple COGIC in Memphis, Tennessee promotes bophelo, holistic healing drawing on spirituality and healthcare. On Sunday, July 11, 2010, the church offered a health-screening to members and visitors.

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Anyone could get their blood sugar or blood pressure tested.

Photos by Dianne Glave

Predators: Survival of the Fittest in a Busted Paradise?

SPOILER ALERT

To know your enemy, you must become your enemy.    ~ Sun Tzu, The Art of War

If you’ve been on this planet long enough you’ve seen Predator, Predator 2, and Aliens vs. Predators (AVPR). The latest installment is Predators.

 

Beyond the earlier films, Predators is a product of many influences and reflects history. It is  an homage to Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game,” a short story of humans hunting humans. I think of slaveholders hunting the enslaved in the forests and swamps of the American South up to the mid-19th century. Ultimately, the film is about “survival of the fittest,” a term used to describe one of Charles Darwin’s scientific theories.

The story or plot. A multicultural group is dropped by parachute into what looks like the Amazon. Paradise? I think not. Battle-ready mercenary types–all except for a doctor who is the odd one out–do not know their where-a-bouts.

Soon they learn two things: that this aint planet earth and they are being hunted. How do they know it isn’t planet earth? First, a leaf dropped in water spins as if the gravitational pull is out of wack. Second, the sun doesn’t move. Perhaps in both these instances the rock they are on is no longer spinning on its axis? And third,  they walk to edge of a ravine looking up to see three planets above them with one so close it looks like it could be touched. Perhaps the ravine is the point where the planet broke apart. Are they on a moon? An asteroid? A planet? A chunk of a shattered planet? No matter. They are trapped.

The hunted realize they are being hunted in a jungle of a game preserve. They are the animals. One by one, they get picked off. The first to go are a Latino and African American–both men. The screenwriters and director stuck to the old horror/science fiction trope of killing off the men of color first. A second African American man (Lawrence Fishburne is hilarious) isn’t far behind when he is blasted to pieces by the predators, the hunters.

Throughout the film, one character attempts the philosophical concluding that hunting has alway been primal to humans, what it means to be human. So are those hunted in the movies just as soul-less as the alien predators? Is this a morality tale concerning predation by people of other creatures and the planet earth in 2010? Maybe the filmmakers aren’t that smart. The predators are getting to know the humans.

Homo sapiens throughout time have been aggressive.  Much of the first activity of humans in pre-history was hunting and gathering as means of survival. Farms, villages, towns, and cities came much later. A sly visual reference to this pre-history are the stegasaurus-hunting dogs encountered by the game/humans. Since pre-historic times, in modern times, humans have become the mightiest hunters on the planet.

Sadly, for the people in the movie the tables have been cruelly turned, and they are hunted. Royce, the central character, played by ripped Adrien Brody is the chorus of this Greek tragedy, the narrator of the human/alien murder and mayhem. As the plot progresses, he muses out loud, “We’re being hunted,” “we are the game,” “we are being flushed out and tested.” Duh.

Mud was a critical plot device in the the first Predator, and water and dirt sources of life, show up again in Predators. It will save the humans. If you saw the first movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, then you know what I’m talking about. Mud once again become emblematic or symbolic of life, as one hunter is triumphant over another. Go see the movie to learn the meaning of the mud, and how Royce figures out the Predators’ game.

 

In the end, two survive, a man and a woman. We are left with the image of Adam (Brody) and Eve (Alice Braga), two busted people left to muck it out in  busted jungle paradise. Or have they already been kicked out of paradise, and this alien rock are the wages of sin? Looks like hell to me.

At this point Adam and Eve need to be on a first name basis because all they have are each other:

 

Adam says, “I’m Royce.”

Eve responds: “Nice to meet to meet you, Royce. I’m Isabella.”

He closes with: “Let’s find a way off this *&^*^%* planet.”

Ah, courtship and romance.

With that said, I see a Predators 2 in the works with more stegosaurus-hunter dogs–agains shades of runaway slaves trapped in a tree by a hound–bounding through the jungle, along with a star-studded array of aliens skulking about.  Nimrod Antal–one can only hopes he directs again–bring it.

Frederick Douglass’ “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro:” An Environmental Perspective

I am blessed with the inalienable rights of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” described in The Declaration of Independence. Thanks to race leaders like Frederick Douglass, I am free to spend my Fourth of July weekend any way I please: sitting in Overton Park in Memphis, typing my thoughts on my computer; going to the hair salon; visiting Graceland, walking down Beale Street, and more. I am black and a I am woman. I am free.  

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass gave his famous “The Meaning of the July Fourth for the Negro Speech” on July 5, 1852 at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York. As a backdrop to his speech, the United States was decades beyond the American Revolution and the signing of the Declaration of Independence during the 18th century. Yet African Americans were still enslaved, most in the American South until 1865 at the end of the Civil War. Most were neither free in the South or independent even in the North with the threat of being captured, forcibly relocated, and enslaved in the South. This was the setting for Douglass’ famous speech that decried enslavement and in racial equality.   

He introduced the speech, saying, “He who could address this audience without a quailing sensation, has stronger nerves than I have. I do not remember ever to have appeared as a speaker before any assembly more shrinkingly, nor with greater distrust of my ability, than I do this day. A feeling has crept over me, quite unfavorable to the exercise of my limited powers of speech. The task before me is one which requires much previous thought and study for its proper performance. I know that apologies of this sort are generally considered flat and unmeaning. I trust, however, that mine will not be so considered. Should I seem at ease, my appearance would much misrepresent me. The little experience I have had in addressing public meetings, in country school houses, avails me nothing on the present occasion.” (Douglass)    

Later in the speech, Douglass quoted the bible pointing to nature, imagery, and place: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yea! we wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there, they that carried us away captive, required of us a song; and they who wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.” (Douglass)    

Quoting scripture, he referenced two places, Babylon and Jerusalem, two very different places with different meanings. Babylonian conquest meant subjugation of the Hebrews much like enslavement in the American South. Returning to Zion literally represented freedom and home for the Hebrews; in much the same way Jerusalem was freedom for people of African descent where whites subjugated and oppressed African Americans.  

The imagery of harps hanging in the willows reinforced the focus on place. Willows represented a strength in the midst of sorrow in Babylon. The harps or the music from the harps represented beauty even in the lament, something to cling to in the midst of sorrow as the Babylonians forced Israelites to leave Jerusalem. The metaphors ring true for both the Hebrews and African Americans.    

Douglass was hopeful towards the end of his speech: “Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work The downfall of slavery. “’The arm of the Lord is not shortened,” and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope.” (Douglass) Enslavement of the Hebrews and enslavement had to end!    

I believe much work remains as racial inequality, and that includes environmental racism, still exists in the United States. Yet and still, I am grateful for all Frederick Douglass sacrificed for each American, black or white, for the sake of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” more than a century ago.  

Image From http://www.nps.gov/history/museum/exhibits/frdo/visionary.html