On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass stood in Corinthian Hall in Rochester, NY, in front of the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society and told the crowd, “Feeling themselves too harshly and unjustly treated by the home government, your fathers, like men of honesty, and men of spirit, earnestly sought redress.” The British denied the redress, and thus the “fathers” fought the American Revolution. Douglass says that years after the fact it’s easy to say “that America was right, and England wrong,” but during the moment, that did not occur.
Throughout What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? Douglass praises the revolution, but he couches that praise in the fact that it did not bring about democracy and equality for all, as he notes by calling the revolutionaries “your fathers.” He does not include himself within that discussion. He praises George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and others, but he also says that Washington’s “monument is built up by the price of human blood, and the traders in the bodies and souls of men, shout — ‘We have Washington to our father.’” Douglass points out, a little over 70 years following the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the power of myth making and the ways that it serves to placate a populace and also to maintain social hierarchies.
Ultimately, Douglass, as I’ve written before, calls upon us to think about the myths that we create and the ways that those myths perpetuate systems of oppression. Rodney Barnes and Jason Shawn Alexander deal with this exact same theme in their series Killadelphia, and specifically in issue #27 where we see the vampiric George Washington contemplate his mortality and the myths constructed around his life and role in the founding of the United States.
As Washington fights Tousaaint L’Overture in present-day Philadelphia, he closes his eyes and conetmplates the past as he thinks back to “the battlefield of old, waging war in the name of freedom.” Alexander provides three panels of Washington and others fighting the British, and the final panel on the page returns to Washington’s eyes, in the present, as blood runs from his eyes down his cheeks. He finishes his thought by narrating, “In the name of America. States united in freedom.” Washington thinks about his role in the Revolution, his role as “hero.” Barnes and Alexander’s Washington views himself as a man, not as a mythological “hero.” Instead, as Washington says, following his death, “society did its best to weave my achievements into its delicate tapestry.”
Soictey’s weaving of Washington into the nation’s tapestry causes him t question, as he stabs people in the streets of Philadelphia, “Was it me they were honoring? Or a symbol, canonized in the name of national propaganda?” Head bowed as he things about this, Washington intones, “In reality I was just a man.” We move to the past again, seeing Washington on his deathbed, and laying there, as he transforms into a vampire, his teeth, “which myths have described as wooden, and in actuality belonged to those [he’d] enslaved” fall out of his mouth. We see the teeth hit the floor, and in this panel, Barnes and Alexander drive home the power of myths and tales that do not tell the truth but rather wash it over.
Thinking to the present, Washington contemplates his face on the dollar bill, educators teaching about him in the classroom, his portrait in the White House and elsewhere, and the monuments erected in his name. In the classroom, he narrates that his story has become a “doctored legacy” that has been “implanted into the minds of children.” This is the perniciousness of myths and their tentacles. Even in 1852, people were detailing the realities of the past; however, the myths that we imbibe today won out, making them harder and harder to disentangle. William Wilson, David Walker, Frederick Douglass, Solomon Northup, and more throughout the early part of the 19th century pushed back, trying to set the record straight as we, as a nation, sought to formulate our national identity.
When Toussaint prepares to cleave Washington in two, Washington thinks to himself, “I am not the hero America has painted me to be. Nor am I the villain. I am but one who did the best with what he was given.” Douglass’s speech touches on Washington’s thoughts here when he references Marc Antony’s words in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “The evil that me do, lives after them. The good is oft’ interred with their bones.” Marc Antony’s words highlight our humanity. They highlight that we are individuals who live and die. However, they also highlight that what we do in our lives carries on beyond our passing, especially the evil. While Washington may have done “the best with what he was given,” he did not push back against the enslavement of others; rather, he benefitted from it. He was a hero, but he was also a villain.
Here, I think about James Baldwin’s “Negroes are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White” when he writes about the ways we determine who is a “hero” and who is a “villian.” Baldwin uses the Warsaw ghetto uprising as an example, saying, “The Jew is a white man, and when white men rise up against oppression, they are heroes: when black men rise, they have reverted to savagery.” Washington, for many, is an American hero because he stood up British tyranny and helped birth democracy. Douglass points to this as being a good thing, a noble thing. However, he also notes that during the moment, many, even in the colonies, viewed the revolutionists in a negative light because they upended the status quo.
The point here is that nothing is ever as it truly seems: the past or the present. The past becomes mythologized, perpetuating the status quo that oppresses others. It impacts the present because the stories we tell confirm for us who are “heroes” or who are “savages.” The truth gets lost in the mix, and the myths become the “truth.” Douglass worked to disentangle the myths back in 1852; Baldwin worked to do it in the mid-1900s; Barnes, Alexander, and countless, countless others work to do it today. Myths are powerful, and they serve a purpose, both good and bad. However, when the myths become weapons to perpetuate oppression, we must work to correct the myths, forging new narratives that do not serve as a balm to soothe “hurt” feeling but as the foundations to start a new beginning.
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.