Frederick Douglass by Robert Hayden: Reading and Meditation

May 25, 2020  • Todd Breyfogle

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Frederick Douglass, Robert Hayden


Today the United States celebrates Memorial Day, a day to remember those who have died in war. Originally called “Decoration Day”, Memorial Day originated in the years following the Civil War and became a federal holiday in 1971, in the midst of the Vietnam War. We do well to remember the dead and the ideals for which they died. Robert Hayden’s encomium to Frederick Douglass is a celebration of the principle of liberty, “this beautiful/and terrible thing, needful to man as air”. Liberty for Hayden is not only the air we breathe, but the blood that circulates within us, the instinct that motivates us, the part and parcel of what it means to be free. It is…or ought to be. The poem praises liberty only to remind us that liberty is still not enjoyed by all. Is the sacrifice of those who have died in vain? Not at all. The struggle for liberty, even unto death, bears fruit—however imperfectly—in human lives, not as an abstraction but in the embodiment of dignity. Beautiful and terrible: both the loss, and the promise of liberty unrealized. What and how do we mark this day? Whom do we remember, and how? What are we called to do to honor liberty and justice for all? 


Todd Breyfogle, Denver, Colorado

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