November 22, 1932 [I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang]

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang--enraged by injustice but tortured by powerlessness--led my mind toward a speech by Frederick Douglass, all but overcome by the irony of being asked to speak in 1852 on the 4th of July. It is worth my time copying out the bitter words, his own declaration of all that is left to him:
At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could reach the nation's ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.
I cannot pretend to know his helplessness--nor that of Paul Muni’s James Allen, a victim of circumstance and the chain gang, of fleeting liberty and false promises--a victim even of his own sense of honor, trampled like “the constitution and the Bible,” as Douglass accuses the slave-owners. But I do know that sometimes only irony is left, the sole weapon and harsh balm. There are things I will not name--personal and public, my life and those of my fellow Americans, of all of us--that loom above us, exceeding our grasp in disdain of our reach--and I yearn for Douglass’ mighty tower of ridicule, so I can climb on it and stand taller than Babel--because I fear I will go mad with despair, like Allen at the end, his face a wild oval in absolute blackness, receding from love and comfort, alive only because he steals.


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