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Power to the Powerless

It's almost the 4th of July which is why I have Frederick Douglass on my mind. Douglass said: "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. If there is no struggle, there is no progress."  This quote came to mind when my trainer told me he has never voted. A right our ancestors marched and died for he feels is useless because of a system he deems “rigged”.

In one stroke of a pen, the Supreme Court seemingly proved him right by rewriting the constitution and challenging this nation's declaration of independence and democratic framework. In one stroke of the pen, they support my trainer’s argument: “all they have to do is change the rules because they make the rules and whatever power we think we have is gone. the system is rigged.” It’s rigged by those white men some call the “founding fathers” along with their offspring who commit genocide to take other people’s land and enslave others to build their wealth and collective power.

What I thought was a conversation about voting became one about power. When he says the system is rigged, he is saying that he feels unheard and unseen, and sadly he is not alone. SOAR’s core mission is to use writing as a tool to honor voices of people who have traditionally been unseen and unheard to create a space they can claim using their pens. If nothing else, the Supreme Court has shown us how people will use the power of their pens to retain their collective power when they feel it is in jeopardy. So, I asked him: “how do you get power when you feel powerless?”  He was stumped because he had not thought about his not voting as an exhibit of his being powerless. As a people, this is not our first rodeo to wrestle power from the powerful.

No one could have felt more powerless than those Africans shackled to the bottom of a boat, brought to a foreign land where they had to use their genius to create a language out of a language that was not their own to communicate with others to create pathways to free themselves. Equiano is proof of that. Wheatly is proof of that. Banneker is proof of that. David Walker and Harriet Tubman and Douglass are proof of that. There is a reason most people of African descendent don’t know the first University in the world was built in Africa in Timbuktu. There is a reason they want to dismantle African American studies. There is a reason they want to dismantle the board of education. When you don’t know who you are they are able to tell you who they think you are and who they want you to be. 

My seven-year-old grandson asked me: what makes July 4th a celebration? I could not say it celebrates the founding fathers and their writing of the declaration of independence. I wanted to tell him this holiday ain’t got nothing to do with us as black people. Instead, I will take him to Frederick Douglass’ house on the 4th to listen to Douglass’ answer to the question that is still valid: “What to the slave is the fourth of July?” My trainer contends that the chains have changed. He is not all wrong. Power is an illusion that appears to change hands; it’s not a tangible thing. Power is not man-made. No one can take what is God given.


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