Saturday

Sep. 22, 2007

Frederick Douglass

by Robert Hayden

SATURDAY, 22 SEPTEMBER, 2007
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Poem: "Frederick Douglass" by Robert E. Hayden from Collected Poems of Robert Hayden. © Liveright Publishing Corporation, 1966. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Frederick Douglass

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.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1862 that President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring slaves in rebel states free as of January 1 the following year. The war was not going well and the emancipation of the slaves was meant to build morale in the North. Lincoln waited for a Union victory before he announced it. The Union Army beat back the Confederates at Antietam, the bloodiest single day of the war. Five days later, on this day in 1862, Lincoln read the Emancipation Proclamation to his Cabinet. By the end of the war, more than 500,000 slaves had fled to freedom behind Northern lines. About 200,000 black soldiers and sailors, many of them former slaves, served in the armed forces. They helped the North win the war.

A few months before he died, Lincoln said, "[The Emancipation Proclamation] is the central act of my administration, and the greatest event of the 19th century."


It was on this day in 1961 that President John F. Kennedy signed legislation that created the Peace Corps. In the first five years, the number of volunteers grew from 500 to more than 15,000. There's been an average of about 10,000 volunteers each year since then, including the writer Paul Theroux, who taught school in Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer. He wrote, "In this schoolroom there is a line of children, heads shaved like prisoners, muscles showing through their rags. They are waiting to peer through the tiny lens of a cheap microscope so they can see the cells in a flower petal."


On this day in 1776, a 21-year-old Yale graduate, Nathan Hale, was executed in New York City for espionage by the British. George Washington needed a spy to go behind British lines and map their fortifications and asked for a volunteer, and Nathan Hale was the only soldier who stepped forward. He was caught by the British and on the day of his execution he stood on the gallows and uttered his famous last words: "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country."

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