Either the United States will destroy ignorance or ignorance will destroy the United States.
– W.E.B. DuBois
On the night that Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush, died, June 30, 2021, I had The Rachel Maddow Show on, and was aghast to hear her say that Rumsfeld had owned Mount Misery. “Who would wanna live in a place called Mount Misery?” she asked. “Then you get to the reason it was called Mount Misery. It was the home, it was the actual home, it’s the same building that’s been standing there since 1804. Frederick Douglass was tortured there in 1833 and 1834. It’s the same actual physical place in which the Great Frederick Douglass was tortured and beaten and worked nearly to death every day for a year. Whether or not you think that place should be purchased by this country and made into a memorial for the worst most violent evils of slavery and their role in turning on America’s conscience to end slavery, and that’s a substantive and interesting proposal. Whether or not you’re into that idea, would you wanna live there yourself? Would you like to wake up there in the morning and plan breakfast? Have that be your home? Who would do that?” Rumsfeld, distinguished for his embrace of torture as a means of extracting information from suspected terrorists, bought Mount Misery while he was leading the nation into the Iraq War as a getaway from Washington DC. All during his retirement he spent time at his antebellum vacation home on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, and didn’t sell it until a year before he died. Rumsfeld was clearly untroubled by its history to purchase it as a country home. But as a Black man who’s lived my whole life experiencing racism, and fighting racial injustice in America, I cannot fathom how anyone can make Mount Misery a home. I found it menacing, like I was watching a horror movie.
Mount Misery was owned by slave-breaker, Edward Covey who enjoyed the execrated reputation of being a first rate hand at breaking young Negro slaves. Frederick Douglass’ slaveowner sent him to Covey to turn him into a docile slave who would work without question whereupon he would be returned to his master. The plantation is a monument to the hell that Frederick, who was only sixteen years old at the time, and countless other Black slaves, went through there. Frederick wrote of his time there in his book, My Bondage and My Freedom “I shall never be able to narrate the mental experience through which it was my lot to pass during my stay at Covey’s. I was completely wrecked, changed and bewildered; goaded almost to madness at one time, and at another reconciling myself to my wretched condition. Everything in the way of kindness, which I had experienced at Baltimore; all my former hopes and aspirations for usefulness in the world, and the happy moments spent in the exercises of religion, contrasted with my then present lot, but increased my anguish. I suffered bodily as well as mentally. I had neither sufficient time in which to eat or to sleep, except on Sundays. The overwork, and the brutal chastisements of which I was the victim, combined with that ever-gnawing and soul-devouring thought—I am a slave—a slave for life—a slave with no rational ground to hope for freedom—rendered me a living embodiment of mental and physical wretchedness.”
I hadn’t read the book in over ten years, but watching and listening to Rachel all those chilling, haunting, disturbing feelings that pierced me when I first time read it came back—a grim phantasm of consciousness and thought gripped my mind. In this imagined postulate, I saw a grand play on what white caste Americans really mean when they say, “Make America Great Again.” A call for social progress to be reversed, freedom to be re-denied, and slavery—which through racism still reigns supreme—to again enjoy the impunity of a suppressive social order. I watched America revert the nation back to its “glory days” of antebellum. I watched myself and every other Negro snatched from the streets of freedom and progress. I could not shake off from my spirit this mental construct, as if my spirit was forced to abandon reason and logic together. My fear of the increased level of racism in America was real, at a zenith I had never experienced, and not some ill-minded pestilence that a psychiatrist could diagnose and prescribe medication. I asked myself, Was living in such a place pure entertainment for Rumsfeld? Are we Blacks nothing more than an assemblage of chattels in some antebellum reenactment performance? Antebellum Redux: The Greatest Show on Earth! Get your tickets here! Come see the deviant darkies wearing the original slave wrought iron spike collars and muzzles! Is it a sign of the times, or something more disturbing—a warning of what is coming? This caused me deep consternation, grabbed hold of every synapse in my brain, and set them on fire. I questioned if I was that broken by the racism I had experienced and witnessed? Was I that defective?
I decided to go online to see what Mount Misery looked like when Rumsfeld owned it. Images of the original floors, doors, mantels, five fireplaces and staircase were just as sinister as the detailed cruelty Douglass described. Measuring 4,052 square feet, the four-bedroom, 4.5-bath Georgian brick structure on four acres was restored in 1954, and then expanded and upgraded by Rumsfeld in 2003. He had updated the kitchen, dining room, multiple living spaces, a gym, and an office. I spent a solid ten minutes staring in the paralysis of fear. When I snapped out of it, I did I came across an article in The Philadelphia Tribune published in November during the 2016 election campaign entitled “Would America Vote to Reinstate Slavery? In it was a YouGov/Economist poll done by The New York Times in which the supporters of then candidate Donald Trump were asked if they approved or disapproved of emancipation for Blacks. One in five didn’t approve of freeing the slaves. That was an astonishing 47 percent who disapproved, had some reservations, or weren’t sure. A meager 53 percent believed my ancestors should’ve been freed from slavery. I sat and stared at the screen in disbelief riddled with anxiety.
Then I came across an article in Time magazine by Tavis Smiley, entitled, “Why I Fear America Could Enslave Black People Again” Tavis had appeared at Lehigh University for a talk. At the conclusion, he was asked a question by a student that “still haunts me,” he said. “Mr. Smiley, do you believe that given the crisis state of our democracy, we Black folk could ever find ourselves enslaved again?” “Whoa,” Tavis wrote. “Didn’t see that one coming. Neither did the mostly white audience. A quiet fell over the room. I swallowed hard. Looking directly at the student, I could see he was dead serious, and I wanted to treat his question with the soberness it deserved. But, truthfully, I stumbled as I began to respond, not knowing how to properly frame my response. My answer? Yes.” Tavis believed that the evidentiary support for his answer was based on senate republicans blocking President Barack Obama’s constitutional duty to replace Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court. Republicans had blatantly mocked our Constitution.
As possible as it seemed for slavery to return, it seemed more implausible at the same time, given the 13th Amendment which Abraham Lincoln fought so hard for, refusing to end the Civil War until it was enacted. I found the gumption to move on until I came across another harrowing article in the Baltimore Sun written by the editorial board entitled, “Slavery is still constitutionally legal in the U.S.; that must end.” A stipulation in the 13th Amendment states: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” This clause created what is the basis for the book, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. This clause has led to mass incarceration of Black men who have been imprisoned more than whites, denied Blacks basic human rights, and America having 20 percent of the world’s incarcerated population. These were all sobering facts and statistics that my reeling mind struggled to grapple with. I never imagined, envisioned, even in my wildest nightmare, in my worst racist experience in all of my American life the slightest chance America could return to the days of antebellum.
My parents raised me in the quiet predominantly white neighborhood of Warwick, Rhode Island. The belief was that our lives would be better by living there and I would get a better education going to Warwick public schools, which were at the time considered some of the best public schools in the state. But time would prove that belief to be false. As soon as I started elementary school I felt the racism and hatred for my Black skin. When I was in the first grade, I went over to one of my white classmates and asked him to play. He told me, “I’m not allowed to play with niggers.” It disturbed me so much that I went home that day and told my mother and she told Mrs. Hickey, my first-grade teacher. My mother and Mrs. Hickey then told the principal. The principal called the parents of the boy and they all had a meeting in his office. The parents said, that that was how they were raising their children. So for the rest of the school year, they kept us away from each other. That six-year-old Negro endured enormous psychological trauma from that. I was a lab rat for racist whites to learn how to have their children not interact with Blacks, and for me to know what white spaces I was allowed in. That encounter shattered my perception of myself, made me feel so alien, the lowest of the rungs, but I held it together and wouldn’t let it affect my faith in white America’s humanity.
After that incident I did whatever I needed to do to fit in. I changed my mannerism, my dress, and my dialect to mirror that of my classmates, as I was only one of two Black kids in the entire school. As I grew to love and embrace this new way of life, my Blackness disappeared. Many of the Black folk I encountered said that by changing my dress, and my accent, I diluted my authenticity, but I purposefully ironed out mine in order to adapt. People have since accused me of selling out, claiming that having good diction was almost equivalent to being a “coconut”: Black on the outside, white on the inside. This was a fissure that led to my unravelling as I tried to carve out an identity that kept me in good graces with my white classmates. Because as accepted as I became by the white students, it gave me a false sense of reality. I emulated whites so well they never mentioned my color again, and I felt anything was possible for myself to accomplish. But when I left high school, I found how I spoke, dressed, or behaved didn’t stop the racism from happening. I was called every racist epithet and saw racist hatred and violence spewed at Negroes. From the Rodney King beating, to Henry Louis Gates Jr. getting arrested for breaking into his own house because he locked himself out, to hearing my own friends call other Blacks niggers. Each time, I held strong in my belief that these were rare, individual incidents, that most of white America wasn’t racist, and that we would one day rid the country of this. I had little doubt. I never got scared. I had no fear. I wouldn’t let the racism get into my psyche. I went on with my life and pursued my dreams. Everything I wanted to accomplish I did, from being the first in my entire family to go to a private college outside the state and receive a master’s degree to being the only one in the entire family to publish in some of America’s most esteemed literary journals. I did it, just what I set out to do.
As I went on accumulating and acquiring accomplishments and accolades I noticed that I continued to be the only Negro in every space I entered. On the entire fund accounting/corporate actions floor of Skudder Kemper Investments where I worked as a pricing analyst at Two International Place in Boston, at The Harvard Crimson where I interned, Natural Health and Muscle & Fitness magazines where the masthead hadn’t one Negro, and at Emerson College journalism graduate school. I can count on one finger the number of Black editors of literary journals I have worked with. There are even fewer Black writers of my own generation I can look to emulate. It wasn’t until 2011 when I took a course at Harvard University with Paul Farmer in which Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks was required reading that I learned what I had been doing—“prove at all costs to the Whites the wealth of the Black man’s intellect and equal intelligence,” as Fanon wrote—was nothing more than a vicious cycle that needed to be broken. I went on to read numerous Black authors, and the more I read, the more I understood that white culture, white space was dismissing me. While this was a wake-up call, it didn’t wake me up. My life went on the same. There were days when I felt that the nation was making progress. Then there were nights when I believed that the racists had won. I concluded that while we may be a fully evolved society, and may be legally integrated, emotionally we will always be segregated. The cracks in my identity, my double consciousness began to expand.
Those fissures increased and widened on February 23, 2020, the day unarmed twenty-five-year-old Ahmaud Arbery was hunted down and shot dead on the neighborhood streets of Georgia in broad daylight; with the brutal murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd; with Kentucky republican Senator Rand Paul blocking the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, Wisconsin republican Senator Ron Johnson blocking the Juneteenth bill, the racist white police officers brutalizing 2nd Army Lt. Caron Nazario, the January 6th insurrection, republican Georgia Governor, Brian Kemp, signing into law the Election Integrity Act of 2021 while sitting under a painting of the Callaway slave plantation as half a dozen white men stood by watching him, and now discovering Rumsfeld owned the slave plantation Mount Misery. Maybe I don’t belong here? I said to myself. And that’s when the cracks created a rupture that has lasted to this day. At times in my life I had been able to fuse those cracks together, but the gap between them now was just too big. How can I be American when much of America refuses to accept my Blackness and makes it clear that I am not welcome? Those public displays of racism took me right back to my first experience with racism in elementary. My identity felt as if it was under attack like it was that first day of school. I didn’t know what I should do to combat the feelings. This intense pain triggered a response that was so powerful it felt like my brain had assumed this was the state in which I was going to have to survive from now on—so it shed all of the synapses that relate to the things that gave me pleasure, and strengthened the synapses that relate to fear and pain.
I was yet another Black man whose mind had malfunctioned, short circuited, and needed repair. I felt homeless, unwanted, that the country upon which my feet stood was shaky, unsettled. I tried for decades to prove my belonging by showing whites through my education, through mimicking them how Blacks are just as smart, as similar in scope and design. I lacked the comprehension to understand why so many whites still saw us Blacks as untamed beast after hundreds of years of us proving the opposite. A comprehensive galaxy of insight I would of needed to understand why white men cloaked in immense power were so brazenly, publicly revealing their contempt and disgust for Black, and white police officers abusing and killing us were getting away with it. When I turn on the television, all I see are our lawmakers, our rich, and our powerful who are majority white men. I hear subliminally that they’re the only people who count in this country, and I know my chances of joining are vanishingly small. Flick through a glossy magazine and a Negro-looking body is rarely featured because it looks disgusting to whites. Go to work and I have to obey the whims of a distant white boss earning hundreds of times more than I know I’ll ever be able.
“Will America be poorer if she replace her brutal, dyspeptic blundering with the light-hearted but determined Negro humility; or her coarse, cruel wit with loving, jovial good humor; or her Annie Rooney with Steal Away?” Asked W.E.B. DuBois in his essay, Strivings of the Negro People. It was a dilemma that burdened my heart and head. Racism is a mental illness, and one that was making my mind ill. We know from more than a century of studying animals in captivity that when animals are deprived of their natural environment, they develop extreme despair. Parrots will rip their own feathers out. Horses will unstoppably sway. Elephants will grind their tusks—their source of strength and pride in the wild—against the walls of their cells until there is nothing left but stumps. Some elephants sleep upright for years they’re so traumatized being held captive, moving their bodies neurotically the whole time. Most animals won’t have sex, which is why it’s so hard to get animals to mate in zoos. None of these animals behaves this way in nature. Nearly every animal deprived of their environment they evolved to live in becomes distressed. Why would it be any different for us Negroes? I pondered to myself. There’s nothing in nature that makes us humans an exception. Animals and nature laughed and mocked humans to scorn with this notion millennia ago. Living beings have an innate need to be free from captivity, physically, spiritually, and psychologically, which cannot be benumbed. Whites cannot understand the intense agony of mental slavery which every Black American lives under. Life in mental bondage, the tempest and tumult of the brain is like the rush and roar of wind and rain growing more and more intense in a hurricane. A monster lingering in the thoughts. A vivid presentiment flashing upon the walls of the cranial every public place Negroes enter like a horror film on the silver screen. This feeling isn’t a result of some spontaneous misfiring of our brain chemistry. It’s a common response to the circumstances in which we have to live, a shared problem attributable to the kind of society I live in. When do we as a society confront the ghost that’s trying to destroy our future? What will it take to crush this institution in America called racism? Many whites have a view of the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Martin Luther King Day, and most recently, Juneteenth Day as kindling up gratitude, but it had the opposite effect on me. I makes me feel uncomfortable, embarrassed to receive my rights this way. These are rights that every living being is given in nature. And I fear that by passing laws to gives us rights, might, possibly, ease whites’ conscience, and make them feel themselves pretty honorable, and say, It is accomplished! But we know that the Supreme Court and the states have been gutting those laws until our equality is wrested from us, leaving me not in good odor, and wondering, is this a devious stratagem? Questions like those rendered me chafed and disconsolate.
I spent that whole summer trying to figure out how to rid my mind of anguish, and stop dragging around the heavy chain with a cinderblock attached to it called racism, cumbering every move I made. On the day of the autumn equinox, I decided to go to God’s Little Acre in search of answers. Newport, Rhode Island is home to the burying ground that Negroes commonly called God’s Little Acre. Dating back to 1705, this section of Newport’s Common Burying Ground along Farewell Street has the oldest and largest original burial markers of enslaved and free Africans in America. It was an accidental discovery I made last spring, a few days after George Floyd was murdered. I needed to clear my mind, and decided to drive to places I had never been in my home state. Since that day I have been to God’s Little Acre multiple times. It has given me a sense of peace and comfort knowing, connecting with my ancestry.
The autumn afternoon aurora ravished and conversed with the green where my ancestors’ bodies are buried. A gentle zephyr curled the harvest-time grass. Soul-enchanting melodious music dwelled on the tongues of the maple trees, filled the mead, winged its passages through the yielding breeze and sailed off to the sea. The sun’s effulgence illuminated my sable veil as I stepped out of my car, and walked down the dirt path holding My Bondage and My Freedom in my hand, the Frederick Douglass book that Rachel Maddow had mentioned. Something inside of me told me that I would find the answers I needed within it. I sat down underneath a shady, leafy maple in the middle of the cemetery, close to the crumbling, weathered tombstones of Occramer Marycoo’s wife, Limas, and three daughters. January 4, 2021 marked the 195th anniversary that eighty-year-old Occramer Marycoo, known by his slave name Newport Gardner of Newport Rhode Island, and his retinue sailed on the brig Vine from Boston to Liberia. Before his voyage to the continent of his birth, he said, “I go to set an example to the youth of my race. I go to encourage the young. They can never be elevated here. I have tried it sixty years,—it is in vain. Could I by my example lead them to set sail, and I die the next day, I should be satisfied.”
Cross-legged, my back up against the maple’s trunk, I pried open the book, peering with propitious eyes onto the pages as they voraciously devoured the words as the day passed. A giant orange moon poked its head over the horizon. The coat of the high-tide briny sprayed its salty water onto my skin. A thick canopy of red, yellow, orange, brown, green, and pink leaves limitless in their appearance hung over me, camouflaging the cardinals and canaries perched on its soughing boughs. The earthy fragrance of fungi and bacteria that decomposes plant matter in the soil filled the mellow autumn air I inhaled without a single answer to any of my questions. I came to the end of the book as the late-afternoon sun started its descent. I set the book down on my folded legs and stared off in a daze. When my eyes came back into focus they were arrested by a bumblebee crawling out of a little well underneath a fallen leaf besides Occramer’s wife’s headstone. I had never seen a bee come out of the ground before. Mystified I watched as the bee flew off, landing on the sedums that were in full bloom. All of a sudden another popped out of the hole in the ground and followed the same track as the first. The pink autumn joy sprouting from the sedums made them look like pink bombshells along the rock wall where they were planted. I watched as another bee ascended from the underworld and made its way towards the sedums. That’s what came to mind as more and more bees came and went from what appeared to me to be the entrance—an entrance to the underworld. The bees were reincarnated souls of my ancestors, traveling between this world and the underworld. Why else were they coming out of the brown flesh of the ground where my ancestors are buried? Extracting the sweetness of life to feed their roots. Our roots reach down into the brown flesh of the ground and bend and do whatever they have to do to find nourishment. They are the lifeblood of this part of the planet for without them America would not be America because it is us who were jailed down to build it. For it is nature who for centuries witnessed it. In its memory are Negro spirituals sung in its cotton fields, runaway slaves trekking through its streams, Negro blood spilling in its rivers, Black corpses lying on its shores, hanging in its trees, floating in its seas, and forever are the screams of Africans’ whippings. For there isn’t a corner of this nation’s atlas without a piece of my raven race growing inside of it. This soul-shaking moment awakened my spirit and lifted my mind.
The book slipped off my legs in that moment and opened to the appendix. It was where I found a quote in a reception speech that Frederick Douglass had given at Finsbury Chapel in Moorfields, England on May 12, 1846 that he believed was the one way to defeat slavery:
I expose slavery in this country, because to expose it is to kill it. Slavery is one of those monsters of darkness to whom the light of truth is death. Expose slavery, and it dies. Light is to slavery what the heat of the sun is to the root of a tree; it must die under it. All the slaveholder asks of me is silence. He does not ask me to go abroad and preach in favor of slavery; he does not ask any one to do that. He would not say that slavery is a good thing, but the best under the circumstances. The slaveholders want total darkness on the subject. They want the hatchway shut down, that the monster may crawl in his den of darkness, crushing human hopes and happiness, destroying the bondman at will, and having no one to reprove or rebuke him. Slavery shrinks from the light; it hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest its deeds should be reproved. To tear off the mask from this abominable system, to expose it to the light of heaven, aye, to the heat of the sun, that it may burn and wither it out of existence, is my object in coming to this country. I want the slaveholder surrounded, as by a wall of anti-slavery fire, so that he may see the condemnation of himself and his system glaring down in letters of light. I want him to feel that he has no sympathy in England, Scotland, or Ireland; that he has none in Canada, none in Mexico, none among the poor wild Indians; that the voice of the civilized, aye, and savage world is against him. I would have condemnation blaze down upon him in every direction, till, stunned and overwhelmed with shame and confusion, he is compelled to let go the grasp he holds upon the persons of his victims, and restore them to their long-lost rights.
This exposure tactic, which for centuries Blacks have been using to combat slavery as well as racism, has not transcended the realm of difference of opinion into the realm of demonstrable fact, unfortunately. I don’t think Frederick Douglass could’ve envisioned the United States of America reneging on its own Constitution especially after he watched the ratification of the 13th and 14th Amendments. There had never been legislators or a White House completely ignored their Constitutional mandates until now. Nor had there been, a mass news media working in cohorts to push their lies and agenda, and another mass news media cowardly complacent, too frozen by fear to report exactly what was happening. It’s just politics, they said. That’s exactly what they said when they portrayed Trump’s campaign as a joke. But he won. And he could win again.
Legal scholars, historians, politicians, and even everyday people in America as well as around the world will find the question ludicrous and laughable. But it wasn’t too farfetched for that young Black student who pressed Tavis Smiley or the editorial board of the Baltimore Sun to take such a risk of losing readership to write about its own fears of slavery possibly returning to the nation. It’s at least grab the attention of a few democratic legislators. Maryland Senator Chris Van Hollen along with Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, and Representative William Lacy Clay of Missouri introduced the Abolition Amendment last year, which would remove the “Punishment Clause” from the 13th Amendment and finally, truly abolish slavery in this country. But we Blacks know righting racial wrongs is not a priority for most members of Congress. It’s taken Congress over 120 years to pass an Antilynching bill, and when it came to the senate floor in the summer of 2020, Rand Paul bemoaned, “This bill would cheapen the meaning of lynching by defining it so broadly as to include a minor bruise or abrasion. Our national history of racial terrorism demands more seriousness of us than that.” This is a man whose close aide, Jack Hunter, and co-writer of his 2011 book, The Tea Party Goes to Washington, spent years as a pro-secessionist radio pundit and neo-Confederate activist, called himself the “Southern Avenger,” and expressed support for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. In 2004, Hunter said, “Although Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth’s heart was in the right place, the Southern Avenger does regret that Lincoln’s murder automatically turned him into a martyr.” Hunter then wrote that he “raise[s] a personal toast every May 10 to celebrate John Wilkes Booth’s birthday.”
We are living in the most fraught time in the history of our republic. The rewriting of our history, as well as the return of antebellum is an incredibly soul-crushing, psychologically-terrorizing prospect, but one which we must prevent from happening. Because honestly? With the gut-churning, blood-curdling, life-threatening low road America is currently tracking, I shudder to believe that our democracy will one sad day be governed by racist constitutional amendments if we don’t make our way to higher ground.
Allen M. Price’s essay ‘Racism: A Prelude to a Negro’s Suicide Note’ is a finalist in Witness magazine’s 2023 Literary Award Nonfiction Contest. His essay ‘My Friend Blackness’ won Blue Earth Review‘s 2022 Dog Daze Flash Creative Nonfiction Contest. His essay ‘The Jailed Down Negro’ won the 2021 Columbia Journal Winter Contest (chosen by Pamela Sneed). He’s a 2023 and two-time 2022 Pushcart Prize nominee. His work appears or is forthcoming in Post Road, North American Review, upstreet, Zone 3, Sweet, The Masters Review, Terrain.org, Shenandoah, Hobart, Transition, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Juked, River Teeth, The Fourth River Jellyfish Review, Bayou, Sou’wester, The Saturday Evening Louisville Review, among others. He has an MA in journalism from Emerson College.