Memories In Time: From Frederick Douglass To Ferguson And Beyond

Memories In Time

From Frederick Douglass To Ferguson And Beyond

By Professor Bill Lawson (Memphis University)

March 17, 2015       Picture: Brett Myers of Youth Radio/Flickr.

This article is part of The Critique’s exclusive Black Lives Matter: The Problem of Race and Police Ethics.

“Well, the nation may forget; it may shut its eyes to the past and frown upon any who may do otherwise, but the colored people of this country are bound to keep fresh a memory of the past till justice shall be done them in the present.” Frederick Douglass, 1888

Was the Emancipation Proclamation a “stupendous fraud”? In 1888, Frederick Douglass thought so.[1] That year, he gave a speech in Washington, D.C, in which he proclaimed the Emancipation Proclamation a fraud and swindle. Douglass had just returned from a tour of the Southern United States and was troubled by the social, economic, and political plight of the black people there. The failure of the federal, state, and local governments to do their duty to protect the lives and property of their new black citizens depressed Douglass. He was deeply disappointed. Douglass had hoped, like many people black and white, that the country would protect the rights and privileges of black citizens. Douglass’ 1888 speech was an expression of his frustration and disappointment. It might seem strange or perverse to start a reflection on the recent shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, with a discussion of a Frederick Douglass speech given in 1888, yet there is a very real and powerful connection between Douglass’ reflections on emancipation and the public reaction to the shooting of Brown. In both cases, there was profound frustration and disappointment.[2] I want to explore, briefly, the concept of disappointment.

Frederick Douglass (1817?-1895) Circa 1874/Flickr
Frederick Douglass (1817?-1895) Circa 1874/Flickr

The concept of disappointment has received little philosophical treatment. [3] This neglect may be due to the fact that disappointment is ubiquitous. Disappointments can be minor, or they can be major. Most people have experienced disappointment in their lives. Disappointment occurs generally when someone fails to satisfy the hopes, desires, or expectations of someone. Disappointment also occurs when someone frustrates or thwarts the hopes, desires or expectations of someone. Disappointments can come from many sources. We can be disappointed by our own failings, others’ failings or when events do not turn out the way we expected. Is disappointment an emotion or a disposition? It is a cognitive attitude with an emotional component. To say “I am disappointed” is to say “I expected and wanted ‘x,’ and ‘x’ did not happen, and not because something ‘y,’ which is better than ‘x,’ happened instead.”[4] Of course, many different emotions and dispositions may be associated with disappointments by different individuals. What is interesting is how we deal with the experience of disappointment. Think of disappointment as a function, “D,” that ranges over various entities. Thus, there is an “x” such that D (x). What are the possible values of “x,” i.e., what can be disappointed? A person, of course, but not just individuals: stockholders, a board of directors, the Senate and so on. Of course, not all disappointments are equal. Disappointment presupposes some expectations, e.g., if I fail to win a lottery that I didn’t expect to win, I cannot sensibly be said to be disappointed. Some disappointments are minor, while others can be life changing. Our responses to experiences of disappointment vary according to the social context in which the person finds himself or herself and to the level of expectation of outcome. The social understanding that one brings to the events can also have an impact on the response to the experience of disappointment.[5]

We encounter many examples of disappointment in our personal lives. However, I want to consider the experience of disappointment in the more specific context of the lives of blacks in the United States. I am not concerned with the day-to-day experiences of disappointment, but with the experience of disappointment that comes from the failure of the government to satisfy the political expectations of the majority of blacks.[6] I call this type of disappointment “social disappointment.” I take social disappointment to be the failure of the government to do its duty to protect the social and political rights of a group of citizens and the experience of disappointment that follows. Social disappointment comes about when the expectation of the government to protect a group of citizens has not been realized. This has been the experience of African Americans, hence, social disappointment.

To put the social disappointment of blacks into perspective, we need to consider the period in American history that historian Rayford Logan called the nadir of race relations in the United States.[7] According to Logan, the period from 1877 to 1901 was the lowest point for race relations between black and white citizens in the history of the country after slavery. What makes this moment so abominable is that when blacks should have been experiencing the blessings of their new citizenship, the nation turned away from granting political rights and social recognition to its black citizens.[8] There were many people, like Douglass, both black and white; who thought the blessings of liberty would be bestowed on these new black citizens.[9] This was a country conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men were created equal.[10] The country had just fought a civil war to save the Union and free the slaves. As citizens, blacks had the right to feel and expect that they would be treated as equal members of this nation. The blessings of full citizenship were not the order of the day. Instead, the nation became more racially segregated during this period: Jim Crow Laws[11], governmentally sanctioned segregation[12], sundown towns[13], lack of political protection, and, of course, racial violence against blacks in the form of lynching.[14]

John Dyer/Flickr
John Dyer/Flickr

However, these violent acts were not just limited to Southern states or to the period between 1877 and 1901.[15] The expectation of fair and just treatment for blacks was not met, and Douglass and others were deeply disappointed. Blacks, as citizens, expected to receive the full status and privileges white citizens received. The social and political climate was anything but welcoming to America’s new citizens. There were failed expectations, and it is no wonder that blacks suffer from “social disappointment.”

“Social disappointment comes about when the expectation of the government to protect a group of citizens has not been realized. This has been the experience of African Americans, hence, social disappointment”

In this regard, the “social disappointment” of blacks is a socially contingent phenomenon. As philosopher Rita Nolan notes, “It is unproblematic that some things are socially contingent phenomena: They would not exist or would not be the kinds of things that they are, but for the fact that there are certain types of interpersonal relations.”[16] The de facto and de jure racist laws and racist social practices form an important part of the interpersonal and interracial relations in the United States. The enforcement of racist laws and the support of racist practices by the government can be seen as flashpoints for frustration and disappointment. In part, the “social disappointment” of black Americans is caused by the knowledge that those people charged with protecting black people are often the perpetrators of crimes against blacks, particularly black youths. In addition, blacks can see the government protecting the citizenship rights of whites with its full force.[17] The government always worked to protect white lives and property when the rights of blacks are involved.[18] Knowing that your government has no respect or regard for you, as a citizen, is disappointing. We must remember that liberal ideology has at its core an essential principle of respect for the individual. When a state, one that espouses basic respect for the individual, fails to protect and respect individuals because of their membership in a racial group, the state is failing to live up to its political responsibilities. The failure of the state to ensure the full force of citizenship rights and privileges to black Americans has impacted on the interpersonal relationship between the races in the United States. The memories and actions of these interpersonal racial relations help form both the manner in which blacks identify what it means to be a U.S. citizen and how whites perceive blacks. The members of the state, whose expectations of fair and equal treatment are not met, suffer social disappointment. This gives social disappointment cognitive and emotive components.

“We must remember that liberal ideology has at its core an essential principle of respect for the individual. When a state, one that espouses basic respect for the individual, fails to protect and respect individuals because of their membership in a racial group, the state is failing to live up to its political responsibilities”

The history of race relations in the United States has not been a happy story. Paradoxically, blacks are often asked/forced to take an ahistorical view of race relations in the United States, that is, to act as if the history never occurred or that it does not matter to their current lot. This view often means that we should be colorblind in regards to race. This view is taken to mean that race should not be a consideration in one’s deliberations. This claim, of course, needs clarification and I will put off that discussion to a later date. I will add here that some versions of colorblindness require that we be, as noted, ahistorical.

However, if we take an ahistorical view of American history, we must disregard the lack of regard for black rights in the United States. [19] We must disregard the knowledge that during the aforementioned nadir period, white social scientists, political scientists, philosophers[20], sociologists, and anthropologists[21] were doing everything academically possible to establish that black people were a criminally and culturally deprived group.[22] We must disregard the manner in which the federal, state, and local governments failed to do what was necessary to protect the lives of its black citizens.[23] We must disregard the fact that the U.S. Senate, in 2005, passed a resolution for the purpose of apologizing to the vic­tims of lynchings and to the descendants of those victims for the failure of the Senate to enact anti-lynching legislation. From the Congressional Record, June 13, 2005:

“Year after year, the Federal Government and State and local governments failed to respond effectively to the danger. The perpetrators had little reason to fear that they would be prosecuted or convicted. In some cases, scheduled lynchings were announced in newspapers beforehand, demonstrating the unwillingness of local law enforcement to intervene. Photos of lynchings show onlookers grinning at the camera. The failure of local authorities to prevent these atrocities dehumanized, demoralized, and terrorized black Americans. When the 370,000 African-American soldiers who served in World War I returned home, many believed that they had earned the equality they had previously been denied. Their hopes soon turned to frustration, as the discrimination of the pre-war years was renewed and reinvigorated. Even newly discharged soldiers were lynched, still wearing their uniforms. Lynching was more than isolated acts of brutality. It was vigilante mob murder that became systemic, ritualized and condoned by a racist society. It became a cruel weapon of white supremacy which took the lives of many African Americans and terrorized whole communities. Along with Jim Crow laws, segregated schools and dismal lack of property rights, lynching was used as an organized weapon of oppression that denied the fundamental rights of tens of millions of African Americans. As W.E.B. DuBois stated, the things that “the white South feared more than Negro dishonesty, ignorance and incompetency, [were] Negro honesty, knowledge, and efficiency.” Lynching was part of an organized attempt to oppress African-American communities and exclude them from the American dream”.[24]

“The history of race relations in the United States has not been a happy story. Paradoxically, blacks are often asked/forced to take an ahistorical view of race relations in the United States. However, if we take an ahistorical view of American history, we must disregard the lack of regard for black rights in the United States”

Apologies aside, shootings and malicious behavior by the police are emotional triggers for the feelings of the failure of the government to protect black people.[25] The social identity of black people in the United States is intimately connected to the liberal understanding of respect of the individual. The failure of the nation to protect black people collectively and individually has worked to foster a sense of what it means to be black in America. Black Americans, in 2014, have to collectively feel disappointment that the police can murder black men and women at any given moment, for no apparent reason. Regrettably, the police are the symbol of the state’s lack of protection as they are often seen as instruments of state violence.

Given the 125 years of anti-black rhetoric, since the Douglass speech, that attempts to criminalize black people as a group, incidents such as the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson will continue until those who are supposed to protect and serve the public respect black lives. This history of condemning black citizens highlights the interplay between governmental actions and the manner in which black citizens view their status as citizens, i.e., as unprotected citizens. Indeed, this rhetorical history has shaped the views many citizens of the United States have on the moral acumen of black citizens, including the police, i.e., the masses of blacks are seen as criminals and socially deviant. While the claim of universal black criminality and social deviants is patently false, it has been a factor in the formation of public policies regarding black citizens at all levels of government and impacts on the interactions between blacks and the police.

Douglass’ reaction to the lack of governmental protection in the 19th century and the current public outcry over the Brown shooting denote the same concerns. Black citizens cannot trust the agents of the government, particularly the police, to protect them. This assertion is not meant to dismiss the value of the Emancipation Proclamation or the societal progress of the past 125 years, but to note that the memories of social disappointment lives on as part of the reality black U.S. citizens face today.[26] Indeed, Douglass’ comments on the suffering by Southern blacks after the Civil War, as well as the anger of the black citizens of Ferguson and across the United States today, direct our attention to the lingering memory of America’s failure to protect the lives and property of its black citizens. This claim may seem to overlook all of the valiant acts by the police in black communities, but those acts are often outweighed by the memories and pain of the history of the failure of the state to protect black people.[27] These memories are revived every time a police officer kills another unarmed black person. Black people are disappointed in that it seems that there appears to be no more respect for black life or protection from the government in 2014 than there was in 1888. Shootings like those of Rekia BoydJonathan A. Ferrell, and Michael Brown are social-disappointment triggers for the memories of the lack of protection black men and women receive in this country at the hands of those who are supposed to protect and serve. Sorry to say, black U.S. citizens cannot be ahistorical. Frederick Douglass reminds us that black people must remember the past, until they no longer experience the disappointment of not having their expectations of receiving fair treatment and justice, as full citizens, realized. Expectation of justice must be met in order to prevent profound disappointment and deep betrayal.[28]

Footnotes & References

[1] Frederick Douglass, Philip Sheldon Foner, and Yuval Taylor, “I Denounce the So-Called Emancipation as a Stupendous Fraud,” in Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 1999), pg. 711-723.

[2] Darryl Fears Wesley Lowery, “At Michael Brown Funeral, Grief and Calls for Change,” The Washington Post, August 26, 2014, accessed September 19, 2014,

[3] This papers draws on my article “On Disappointment in the Black Context” in Existence in Black, Edited by Lewis Gordon, Routledge, 1996, pp.149-156. This article is taken from my more extensive work on Social Disappointment and the Black Sense of Self.

[4] I want to thank Rita Nolan for her insightful comments on this point.

[5] Lawson, On Disappointment, p. 154.

[6] A shout-out to Uncle Ruckus!

[7] Rayford Whittingham Logan, The Negro in American Life and Thought: The Nadir, 1877-1901 (New York: Dial Press, 1954).

[8] David Carroll. Cochran, The Color of Freedom: Race and Contemporary American Liberalism (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999),

[9] Marcus Wood, The Horrible Gift of Freedom: Atlantic Slavery and the Representation of Emancipation(Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010)


[11] “In the momentous Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896, the Supreme Court ruled that “legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts’ and laid down the ‘separate but equal’ rule as a justification of segregation. The actions of the Southern states had federal sanction.” Adam Lively, Masks: Blackness, Race, and the Imagination (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2000), pg. 163.

[12] “Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896),” Plessy v. Ferguson, accessed Sept. 19, 2014,

[13] Elliot Jaspin, Buried in the Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America (New York: Basic Books, 2007)

[14] Manfred Berg, Popular Justice: A History of Lynching in America (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2011) and Ida B. Wells-Barnett, On Lynchings (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 2002)

[15] I contend that the nadir lasted from 1877 to 1954, at least.

[16] Rita Nolan, Cognitive Practices: Human Language and Human Knowledge (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1994), 151

[17] I want to thank Avril Fuller for her insightful comments on this point.

[18] Derrick A. Bell, Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)

[19] A. Leon Higginbotham, In the Matter of Color: Race and the American Legal Process (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980)

[20] Bill E. Lawson, “Philosophical Blacknuss: American Philosophy and the Particular,” The Black Scholar 43, no. 4 (Winter 2013), 86 – 93.

[21] Lee D. Baker, From Savage to Negro: Anthropology and the Construction of Race, 1896-1954(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), and Robert V. Guthrie, Even the Rat Was White: A Historical View of Psychology (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1998),

[22] Khalil Gibran Muhammad, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010)

[23] Manfred Berg, Popular Justice: A History of Lynching in America (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2011)

[24] “Congressional Record, Volume 151 Issue 77 (Monday, June 13, 2005),” Congressional Record, Volume 151 Issue 77 (Monday, June 13, 2005), accessed September 20, 2014,

[25] Bill E. Lawson, ““Microphone Commandoes: Rap Music and Political Philosophy”,” in Hip Hop and Philosophy: Rhyme 2 Reason, ed. Tommie Shelby and Derrick Darby (Chicago: Open Court, 2005), pg. 161-72.

[26] Bill E. Lawson and E. Renee Sanders-Lawson, ““Trayvon Martin, Racism and the Dilemma of the African American Parent,” in Pursuing Trayvon Martin: Historical Contexts and Contemporary Manifestations of Racial Dynamics, ed. George Yancy and Janine Jones (Lanham: Lexington Boos, 2013), pg 183 -192

[27] None of what is said here is meant to excuse the behavior those who use the social disappointment of blacks for their own ends, be they black or white.

[28] I thank Rita Nolan, Avril Fuller, Sharon Baker, and Renée Sanders-Lawson for valuable comments on earlier drafts.

Bill Lawson
Bill Lawson
Professor Bill Lawson received his Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina. His area of specialization is African-American Philosophy and Social and Political Philosophy. His published works include Pragmatism and the Problem of Race, (2004) edited with Donald Koch, Indiana University Press; Faces of Environmental Racism, Second Edition, (2001) edited with Laura Westra, Rowman & Littlefield; Frederick Douglass: A Critical Reader, (1999) edited with Frank Kirkland, Blackwell. He was a 2011-12 University of Liverpool–Fulbright Fellow at the University of Liverpool, Liverpool UK.
Recent Posts
Contact Us

We're not around right now. But you can send us an email and we'll get back to you, asap.

Not readable? Change text. captcha txt

Start typing and press Enter to search