963: Frederick Douglass

963: Frederick Douglass

963: Frederick Douglass


I’m Major Jackson and this is The Slowdown.

It seems that all across the country, curriculum is being examined. As I write, the state of Florida just restricted the teaching of AP Psychology to 12th grade only. This limits the age where students discuss gender identity and sexual orientation at an academic level. Many see this as part of a conservative movement. And in more progressive universities and community workshops, poems featured on syllabi are under scrutiny. Many long-cherished poems appear to some to fall outside prevailing notions. These poems appear to reify destructive attitudes that undermine rather than amplify our students’ sense of humanity.

When we debate the relevance of what is taught in schools, if given the opportunity to revise the canon, I truly wonder what would happen if we tossed out all these classic poems. What would be the implications? Bye bye Billy Shakespeare. Au revoir Ms. Dickinson. See ya later Langston. What would replace these iconic poets and what contemporary poems are worthy of supplanting their genius?

However frustrating I sometimes find it, I am inclined to embrace this moment. I am witnessing society struggle to evolve and adapt, hopefully for the better. This is what it must have been like to have a front row seat to the Renaissance. What was considered socially entrenched is challenged by the sheer fact that old categories used today deny a person’s ability to live with dignity and without shame.

Our efforts will only be successful if we at once relish the journey up to this moment and abandon a cultish relationship to the past, which I admit I am guilty of.

I bristled last year to learn some published poets do not read poetry other than their own, and definitely not poetry from the past. It feels like a lost opportunity to gauge one’s humanity. Every poem we encounter, new or old, invites us to grasp their relevance and power in relation to all the poems we have read before. It’s a way to feel how well poetry itself revises how we perceive each other through language. And while we cannot have the language of the yesteryear guide us, we need monuments rather than mirrors to measure how far we have traveled.

Today’s monumental poem keeps alive the fighting spirit of one of the great minds of the 19th century, whose eloquent speeches and books brought into focus freedoms we sometimes take for granted.

Frederick Douglass
by Robert Hayden

When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful
and terrible thing, needful to man as air,
usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all,
when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole,
reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more
than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians:
this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro
beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world
where none is lonely, none hunted, alien,
this man, superb in love and logic, this man
shall be remembered. Oh, not with statues’ rhetoric,
not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone, 
but with the lives grown out of his life, the lives 
fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.

“Frederick Douglass” from COLLECTED POEMS OF ROBERT HAYDEN by Robert Hayden, copyright © 1966 by Robert Hayden. Used by permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation.