Politics and general political theory has always been both a polarizing and controversial topic to write on. The readers often come from various political and social backgrounds that have shaped their views of the world and society. Consequently, poetry, stories, or whatever one is creating which envelops the political theme, is often not well received by those who think or believe differently. It is a rare occurrence when the topic or theme the author is exploring in their work is so universally correct, and innate common sense that it is accepted among readers who are from all different backgrounds. This is true in Martín Espada’s Litany at the Tomb of Frederick Douglass, a poem illustrating the eternal and healing impact the life of Frederick Douglass brought to people of all walks of life, especially those of African American descent. The poem illustrates the stark differences between the inclusive and diverse times of modern day America and the segregated times Douglass had to fight through to achieve change. The equality Douglass fought for reached its height when Barack Obama was elected president.
Written in the wake of President Barack Obama’s historic 2008 presidential election victory, the poem reveals a deeper level to Espada’s overall work and aim for writing. In this poem, the speaker describes the scene of post-election chaos and celebration that centered around Douglass’ grave for days, weeks, and even years after such a historic and defining event such as a political race. But more than that, it describes the scene of Douglass’ life and accomplishments foremost in the speakers mind; a tale of triumph and profound change despite much of the country against him.
Frederick Douglass was born into slavery and did not know a life apart from it. The defining and remarkable characteristic of Douglass that has caused him to be so influential is that he could read and write. He, save for a few lessons by his master’s wife, mostly taught himself how to be literate. He employed this knowledge of how to read and write once he escaped slavery and was renowned among abolitionists and free slaves alike (“Face of His Race”). He used his rhetorical and oratory skills to shed light on his personal experiences as a slave and fought for an absolute reformation and great awakening among the different people groups of America.
Douglass was, and in many capacities, still is, a prominent figure in fighting for equality; working towards civil rights and empowered African Americans to develop their own skills and to take responsibility for their actions in this life. Douglass was quoted as saying, “You have seen a man made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man” ( Douglass 102). This quote sums up the work Douglass did on behalf of the hundreds and thousands of people who had no voice, who did not have the platform he so powerfully held.
The poem rejoices in the profound change Douglass brought about in the country and the change he enacted, all in the backdrop of the latest presidential election. Through his writing, Espada reflects on how the nation has overcome its infamous reputation of racism, contrasting Douglass’s time with the present:
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; now a labor union T-shirt drapes itself across the stone, offered up by a nurse, a janitor, a bus driver. (Mays, 768)
Perhaps the most visible failure of this country has been the lack of voice and representation of the minorities that help to populate it. White supremacy and racial injustice plagued the people for so long. This is why the election of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States was such a remarkable feat. There seemed to be a collective sigh of relief that rippled across each and every state. The country had, for the most part, moved past their collective racism and racial profiling, so much so, that they had elected a black president. The people had elected a person of color to lead, fight for, and protect them in their most vulnerable of times. They had put the type of man, who at one point in history, was considered only ⅗ of a person into the highest office of the land. This showcases a population, once segregated by absolute hatred of anyone and everyone who did not look like them and the transformation they underwent to become diverse and inclusive. The writer’s didactic words intend to speak on the heroic life and accomplishments of Frederick Douglass, not the succession of Obama. This is not to say that praise and adoration is not to be placed on Obama but rather, to remember all of the countless sacrifices figures like Douglass had to make to ensure that a present day America can exist. The intent of this powerful poem is to illuminate the difference between Douglass’s beliefs and the modern America that has become one of inclusivity and change. This is exemplified in the opening lines of the poem:
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 (Mays 768).
Douglass’ life and accomplishments were just that; seemingly impossible, unthinkable, and unimaginable. His accomplishments were solely a pipe dream for those who were like him. The poem conclusion forms a religious perspective and Espada implores and pleads with the reader that the seemingly impossible feats of this life are not unreachable.This poem as a whole shows the transition of Fredrick Douglass’s life from a poor slave who was not allowed to learn, who overcame that and taught himself, and became the pinnacle of what it means to be an American. He was an American who was given the privileges and rights that are spoken of in the Declaration of Independence. In regards to the poem, the ontological mystery is the mystery itself of the change in the course of history. This work reveals itself as a sort of canticle saying, “I say a prayer, the first in years, that we bury the what we call the impossible, the unthinkable, the unimaginable, now and forever, Amen” (Mays 769). D.H. Dilbeck says, “Douglass’s America is not our America. A chasm of historical change separates us, much of it nearly unimaginable when Douglass died. And yet, we’re still heirs of the history Douglass faced and forged. The “malignant prejudice of race” lives on, a mockery of our common Creator and the likeness of the God we share” (Radical Faith of Frederick Douglass). The author prays that the country forgets those words and starts living the way they were meant to live, pursuing the life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, as an equal and free nation.
- Dilbeck, D. H. “The Radical Faith of Frederick Douglass. (Cover Story).” Christianity Today, vol. 62, no. 1, Jan. 2018, pp. 46–50. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=127098390&site=ehost-live.
- “The Face of His Race.” Civil War Times, vol. 58, no. 4, Aug. 2019, p. 10. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=136399029&site=ehost-live.
- Mays, Kelly J. The Norton Introduction to Literature. 12th ed., W. W. Norton & Company, 2016.
- Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass. 12th Media Services, 2019.