Preface to Reading Frederick Douglass (for whom it indeed concerns)

Go thou, and like an executioner
Cut off the heads of too fast growing sprays,
That look too lofty in our commonwealth:
All must be even in our government.
Richard II. III.iv. 33-36
In a chapter on Shakespeare’s Richard II, James Boyd White proposed “that every claim of authority we can make, on any subject and in any language, should be regarded as marked by a kind of structural tentativeness, for every claim implies its counter within its language and every language implies a host of others answering it” ( Acts of Hope: Creating Authority in Literature, Law and Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994: 77).  If there is validity in this positioning of claim and language, it is obvious that our speaking, our struggles to transform the actual into the materiality of American English sounds, is a defense mechanism (either a learned motion or an instinctive reflex) to conquer abject insanity.  White’s statement may reduce fear of political language, but it intensifies dread of devastating political action.  Should we commend White for arming our minds to deal with the disconnection of language and action since January 20, 2017?
Courtesy of
White’s civility and Donald Trump’s barbarity arrive at an identical point of structural tentativeness as we make choices about what we can tolerate in a democracy and what (not who I hasten to note) we should murder therein. Our priority is to defend ourselves and  to murder systems not human beings.
Neither the aesthetic enlightenment of Richard II nor the rhetorical insight of Acts of Hope is sufficient, because we are condemned by common sense and existential necessity (if we do want to survive) to deal brutally with the New Fascism which has replaced the Old Jim Crow and the debatable efficacy of an American Dream.
Should we not master the structural tentativeness of Frederic Douglass’s oration, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?: An Address Delivered in Rochester, New York, on 5 July 1852,” and treat it as more than ritual remembering or historical ceremony?  Contemporary slaves are rainbow—- indigenous, African, Hispanic, Caucasian, Hebraic,  of Islamic ancestry, Asian, and diversely gendered.  These slaves constitute the total population of the United States of America.  Should our bodies follow our minds through the portals of Douglass’s language and fight in the toxic combat zones engineered each day by the Tribe of Trump?  The answer is in your brain.  Do you believe that “all must be even in our government”? 

Jerry W. Ward, Jr. is Professor Emeritus of English at Dillard University, Honorary Professor at Central China Normal University, and HBW Board Member (Emeritus).