THURSDAY Column with Mohammed Adamu
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By Mohammed Adamu
The late William Safire, one of two presidential speech writers who coined the famous anti-media digs of the 60s, ‘nattering nabobs of negativism’ and ‘effete corps of impudent snobs’, narrated how Fredrick Douglas, the oratorical fugitive-slave and leading black evolutionist of the Lincoln era, was stopped by the police at the entrance to Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural reception in 1865. Lincoln himself was said to have rushed to the door announcing “Here comes my friend Douglas”, saving America the embarrassment of turning back the leading black spokesman of a post-slavery America from an inaugural event of the emancipator himself.
Fredrick Douglass would later confess that although he could not say that Abraham Lincoln was incapable of racism, nonetheless he believed the man was “free from ‘popular prejudice’ against the colored race”. ‘Popular prejudice’ in the sense that ‘racial bigotry’ against especially blacks, was at that time in America the ‘norm’ and not the ‘exception’. And so, it was Lincoln’s ability to rise above the ‘norm’ and not necessarily his inability to be racist per se, that Douglas said he was particularly enamored of.
But Douglas himself had to be free first from the ‘popular prejudice’ of his black community, to appreciate the quality of that virtue in his white American friend, Lincoln. And you bet for a man born and raised in slavery, and one who had to combine dehumanizing drudgery with scrounging self-education, Douglas had no difficulty freeing himself from the ‘righteous’ popular prejudice even of his terribly wronged and therefore justifiably aggrieved black community.
Just being prejudicial is bad enough. But ‘popular prejudice’ is like an epidemic of a virulently contagious disease; it is the benign disease of ‘prejudice’ degenerating into malignant gangsterism of the afflicted; it unleashes itself often as the riotous gambit of the leprous ones in Sembene Ousman’s ‘Beggers’ Riot’ –men who are destitute of mental and physiological wholesomeness using their un-healable afflictions to blackmail society.
It is said that ‘prejudice SEES what it pleases but IGNORES what is plain’? Well then when prejudice gets gangsterously popular, it is what it chooses to see that is ‘plain’ and not necessarily what it chooses to ignore. Popular prejudice is symptomatic of the demise of collective conscience –whereby it is with plain malice aforethought that the pretentiously righteous arrogate to themselves the right both to gang-judge and to gang-convict those that they malevolently hate. And this they are happy to do even in the absence of material facts. Popular prejudice walks not with a scale to weigh right and wrong, good or bad, truth or falsehood, guilt or innocence. Rather it moves desperately with a scaffold to hang necks, a guillotine to slit throats, the hemlock to poison and the gun to shoot.
And victims of ‘popular prejudice’, poor them, usually have recourse neither to the regular courts of law nor even to the popular ‘court of public opinion’ –because this malevolent army of the afflicted, whenever it exercises its jaundiced jurisdiction as a court of ‘popular prejudice’, it sits both as the accuser and as the judge. The court of ‘popular prejudice’ arrogates the discretion to ignore even the principle that says no one should be a judge in his own case. The principle of ‘Nemo judex, in cause sua’ is for the observance of the regular, ‘time-wasting’ courts of law; not the court of ‘popular prejudice’, which gloats about being guided by a totally different kind of creed, -the rule of the jungle. It allows no presumption of innocence; it gives no benefit of the doubt. To this debouched court ‘popular prejudice’, all is fair in war, and “ten to one” -as some villainous Shakespearean character would say- “is no impeach of valor”.
Fredrick Douglas would prove, in 1876 that he was truly free from this affliction when he was invited to speak at the ‘Freedman’s Monument’ in Washington where he said that although Abraham Lincoln “saved for the whites a country” (by fighting a civil war), and making him “preeminently the white man’s President”, it must be admitted that Lincoln also “delivered us from bondage”. Douglas admitted, without prejudice, that although in fighting the civil war, the Union was more to Lincoln “than our freedom or our future”, yet it was because of Lincoln’s war to keep the Union that “we saw ourselves lifted from the depth of slavery to the heights of liberty”. Meaning that although ending slavery was merely incidental to the objective of fighting the civil war, nonetheless blacks still owed Lincoln gratitude even for the inadvertent good that his warmongering had occasioned.
Nor did Douglas fail to acknowledge that neither white America nor the black Negro trusted Lincoln. In fact as Lincoln labored to openly prove to white America that his object was keeping the Union alone, so did he labor to prove to the Negroes that his mission for the war included liberating the Negro from servitude. Many had said that Lincoln’s lot was the most unenviable of presidential lots; that every now and then he had to beguile one racial group, even as now and then also he had to beguile the other; telling a necessary lie here and there, and suppressing an inconvenient truth there and here; –all so that he could keep a united front of the Union-seeking white America and still retain the goodwill of an insecurely-skeptical freedom-seeking Negroes; the object being, decisively to take on a rebellious, secessionist South without a divided house.
Douglas appreciated Lincoln’s dilemma –that if he favored the abolition of slavery over the salvation of the Union he would lose the support of white America and render the “resistance to (Southern) rebellion impossible”. Thus he appreciated Lincoln’s strategy of openly patronizing white sentiment for preserving the Union, even at the expense, sometimes, of openly disillusioning the black hope for emancipation. Not being subject to the popular prejudices that his black community was already captive of, Douglas knew that although “Mr. Lincoln shared the prejudices of his white fellow countrymen against the Negro” he was sure that in Lincoln’s “heart of hearts he loathed and hated slavery”.
This was the lot of Abraham Lincoln. And in fact, as Douglas empathized: “Few great public men have ever been the victims of fiercer denunciation than Abraham Lincoln was…He was often wounded in the house of his friends (and) Reproaches came thick and fast upon him from within and from without, and from opposite quarters. He was assailed by abolitionists; he was assailed by slaveholders; he was assailed by the men who were for peace at any price; he was assailed by those who were for a more vigorous prosecution of the war; he was assailed for not making the war an abolition war; and he was most bitterly assailed for making the war an abolition war”. But that “Despite the mist and haze that surrounded (him); despite the tumult, the hurry and confusion of the hour, we were able to take a comprehensive view of Abraham Lincoln, and to make reasonable allowance”
Yes, making ‘reasonable allowance’; giving the accused benefit of the doubt, presuming that he is innocent, until he is proven guilty, discountenancing rumors and hearsays –right of a fundamental nature that we have turned privileged luxuries for the late Abba Kyari; so that even in death we presume him guilty until he proves himself innocent.
To be concluded