In a spirited debate, a panel of four black ideologists sort of answered a pivotal question posed by Frederick Douglass, the statesman, orator and former Maryland slave who, some 21 years after Congress and President Lincoln abolished slavery in the nation's capital, stood inside a D.C. church and asked: "How stands the [N]egro today?"
The moderator of Saturday's "Great Debate" as it was officially titled — televised by BET from the newly reopened Lincoln Theatre in recognition of the D.C. Emancipation Act — posed several questions of his own, including one that reflected Lincoln's view that a "house divided against itself" over the peculiar institution called slavery cannot stand.
America certainly is a house divided — and the irony is that we are divided because we have the right to exercise unparalleled freedom and the pursuit of happiness as we see fit for ourselves and our families, yet we view race as a divisive issue.
The debate — conducted by the skillful hands of moderator T.J. Holmes — included panelists Julianne Malveaux, educator and remarkable economist; the Rev. Al Sharpton, activist extraordinaire and TV talk-show host; Michael Eric Dyson, educator and social commentator, and the Rev. Joe Watkins, TV political analyst (and the sole Republican).
After laying out those titles, I'll leave it to you to imagine whose rhetoric was liveliest.
But allow me this: I expected a debate more in line with the timing ofDouglass' thought-provoking question, which he invoked long after America had waded through the rough-and-tumble era of Reconstruction.
See, I'm thinking America is in the throes of a 21st century reconstruction period.
Whereas the latter half of the 20th century saw what once unfathomable forward process — equal legal protections under federal, state and local laws — American blacks today are in many respects still holding the short sticks, whether those sticks are marked schooling, housing, making ends meet, healthy lifestyles, jobs, entrepreneurialism, justice or the economy.
So my answer to Douglass' question is the same as the panelists: There is no question that blacks are better off than they were before and after the War Between States divided America.
It's just that I wholeheartedly agree with Ms. Malveaux, who says the issue of race is still dividing us, and we're moving backward in some respects.
That's why I anticipated a debate about moving forward.
Instead of trying to find a cure for America's "birth defect" — as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice once characterized the nation's race problem — we continue to use hate, blame, color, religion and partisan sniping to further rip the seams of our common bonds.
If we truly believe that Americans are "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights," and "that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness," then we should march to the beat of that drum.
What's past is prologue — the Second Amendment and Trayvon Martin, an economy that has many in a woe-is-me state of mind and the 1 percenters, school-choicers and public-education purists, right-wingers, progressives and everyone in between.
The election of America's first black president is on the list, too, as it left many voters making merry like Christmas, but our ancestors were jubilant and realistic about the promises of 19th century Reconstruction, too.
Now's the time to 'fess up sincewe know where "stands the Negro today."
The question on this very day, the 150th anniversary of D.C. emancipation on April 16, 1962, is where will we stand tomorrow. (Genealogytrails.com/washdc/slavery/barber1862petition.html offers incredible details about D.C. slaves and their owners who petitioned for compensation.)
With that history, let's begin debate about the prospects of black America in a different context, a great debate about where we're going and how we're going to get there.
What an honor that would be to our black ancestors and our young people, who are looking for leadership and a far brighter future.
• Deborah Simmons can be reached at email@example.com.
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