Still enslaved to a white man, Frederick Douglass is climbing to the top of a hill. After some time he reaches the very top where he now has a vantage of the whole bay—beneath him the ships are rolling into the dock with piercing white sails, men are unloading the boats and setting up wagons in the town, and high above him the clouds are swaying back and forth in the currents; leaves attached to invisible, celestial branches.
It was this moment in the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave that I was starting to see that the most horrifying thing about slavery and racism isn’t the violence alone. Although obviously shocking and horrible to any sound mind, it is something else that Douglass was horrified by. He is watching how the landscape has been terraformed by white men, rebuilt in their image. He shows us the whole speechless other-thing of racism; at the top of the hill he is looking at the engine of the economy and he lifts the curtain to reveal that every cog inside is a black body being ground into dust.
Reading Douglass’s autobiography as a white man and at the age of 16 I could somewhat imagine the madness and cruelty of slavery—although it would take me many, many years to see the effects of Britain’s empire and its vast evil—but I couldn’t grasp this other-unidentifiable-thing that Douglass was desperately trying to show me. He had spent his entire life pointing at it, this unstoppable racist engine. And more than a century later I was reading his thoughts in my bedroom, catapulted backwards through time, trying to follow along and clearly see what he was showing me, forcing myself to imagine the pure unending horror of this nameless other-thing.
That other-thing, what I think of now as the apparatus of racism, was what Douglass and so many others had pointed at, fought against, and died trying to give us a brief glimpse of. And now perched at the top of a hill, sitting under those leafy clouds, Douglass was holding our hand and making it visible; not all evil is violence, he is telling us. It’s in the bricks and the mortar, it’s in the railroads and the shipping lines, buried in the cities and the network of highways connecting them, it’s etched in the foundation of each and every building—bungalow, factory, and capitol.
It was all built in support of this other-thing, the apparatus that we cannot see. And now I know that as a white man I will never fully see it, no matter how much Douglass tries to show me. But that doesn’t mean I should give up, it only means that I should try even harder to see it.
And then somehow work towards destroying it.