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Inspiration for Vigil from Frederick Douglass

For years and years I think back to, and recite to myself (and sometimes to others) the wonderful words of Frederick Douglass at Canandaigua in 1857—I associate them with the time of the Vigil because Durham civil rights leader Howard Fuller would always quote them.  So here, from the banks of my memory and into the present (with a little help from Google), are those stirring words. I have no doubt that others of you will remember them, too.  They are still true.

 “Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.”

“This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. In the light of these ideas, Negroes will be hunted at the North and held and flogged at the South so long as they submit to those devilish outrages and make no resistance, either moral or physical. Men may not get all they pay for in this world, but they must certainly pay for all they get. If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others.”

Oh, as long as I am citing something, there is a “story” and a particular line that I associate with the Vigil. It occurs in a novella by Tillie Olsen, in a book that takes its title from the novella: Tell Me A Riddle.  The protagonist is an old woman, come from the East Coast to California to die.  She recalls her youth (of ultimately unsuccessful protest) in Tsarist Russia.  The struggle she engaged in half a century before remains before her as a great example of what she has lived by, and for. 

What she remembered from the collective struggle, what she longed for in the future, is for me summed up in her line: “Somewhere an older power that beat for life. Somewhere coherence, transport, meaning.”  I think that is what the Vigil is for me, a place where I could for a brief moment feel “coherence, transport, meaning.”  The search for that, and to make it ongoing in life, is a residue, for me, of that time in our lives.

Huck Gutman is a professor of English at the University of Vermont and former chief of staff to U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont).  He received an M.A. and a Ph,D. in English from Duke. He’s published four books, three academic titles (on Norman Mailer, Michel Foucault, and American literature overseas) and co-authored Outsider in the [White] House with Sanders. He teaches 19th-and 20th-century poetry at the University of Vermont. His work on bringing poetry to a larger world than academia has been featured in a number of newspapers, among them the Washington Post and the Boston Globe.


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