Frederick Douglass and the Tibetan struggle

Cover of the book Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, written by David W Blight, showing a portrait photo of Frederick Douglass.

Cover of the book Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, written by David W Blight Photographer unknown

By Tenzin Dorje

BERKELEY, CA, US, 15 May 2020

There are many leaders, past and present, that Tibetans can look up to for inspiration and ideas in their struggle for freedom from China. Frederick Douglass (FD), the former slave and great American abolitionist who fought for the “negro” race in the 19th century, is one such figure. He spoke “truth to power” and pointed out the hypocrisy of the American ideals of justice and freedom in their treatment of the black people. He fought both in his actions and through his powerful words to black and white audiences. FD helped in the escape of slaves from the southern Confederate states, recruited black soldiers to the Unionist/Anti-slavery side in the American Civil War, and campaigned for universal suffrage for the black people. I believe that some of Frederick Douglass’ ideas and thoughts can offer a critical perspective on freeing the ‘red face/race’ from the chains of the ‘yellow/Han race’. I have put together some key points and quotes (I am a fan of good quotes) which might relate to the Tibetan struggle. These are based on my reading of a remarkable biography, Frederick Douglass — Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight. (A film is planned about Frederick Douglass, and former President Obama is involved in it).

Some of the points mentioned here might sound pure non-sense, and it also will not cover the spectrum of the issue facing the Tibetan struggle. However, I do hope readers will find it interesting and will provide some ideas of discussion and food for thoughts to strengthen the struggle. I think there is a lack of hard and deep internal dialogue within the Tibetan community that pushes the boundary of possibilities on the Tibetan struggle. Frank and open discussion is necessary to build a strong and firm path for Tibetans to face the coming challenges and opportunities.

1. National problem, not Tibetan/ethnic problem

Some Tibetans nowadays, due to some sort of sensitivity to the “feelings of the Chinese people”, emphasize in their statements that the Communist Party of China (CPC), not the Chinese people, is the main source of the problem for the misfortune facing Tibetans in Tibet. However, I think Tibetans should not shy away from widening the ‘blame’ if we like to call it that. The ‘Tibetan problem’ or the ethnic problem is a ‘National (China) problem’ that involves “greater China”. Frederick Douglass reminded his sympathetic and curious white audience that slavery is “not a negro problem, not a race problem, but a national problem … The problem is whether the American people have honesty enough, loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough to live by their constitution.” I think such views are relevant in how Tibetans in exile and in Tibet frame the Tibetan issue, rather than framing it in some narrow (sometimes hyper-nationalistic) way. It is not only the Chinese state, but also the people, who drive changes, and that is part of the problem and solution.
I believe there is a broader complicity of the Chinese people in what Tibet is and what it will become. While there are Chinese brothers and sisters who risk themselves in giving support to the “Tibetan cause”, the vast majority are either silent spectators or “patriotic” Chinamen and women who think and do what the “mandate of heaven” or CPC asks of them. Then there are those who “mouth awkward half-truths of support” that matter less. The Chinese people and the CPC feed on each other for their survival and identity, so Tibetans cannot separate the Chinese people from the regime when figuring a path forward. I believe that powerful pressure on the CPC should not only come from the minorities and international community, but also from the majority Han people. They should be alongside the Tibetans and other oppressed minorities, like the white abolitionist and civil rights fighters in the United States.

Chinese people need to be reminded that their “feelings” and “dreams” do not include the voices of millions of their own citizens, especially the Uighurs and Tibetans. If the Chinese people are true patriots for their motherland, they should do more to understand their ‘backward’ and ‘uncivilized’ citizens, in the “wild”, “exotic” west. Rather than only believing “Uncle or Dictator Xi” and the propaganda machine, Chinese citizens must seek the truth of their fellow citizens and not believe the lies. We can only see the global impact of believing the Chinese authorities in how they respond to the Corona virus outbreak. It’s also important to note that the half-truths and untruths have a big hold of a large number of Chinese people, but it should not discourage Tibetans from speaking forcefully to the “consciousness” of the Chinese people and point to their role in bringing about justice and equality in China and Tibet. Eventually, the Chinese people must themselves come to the truth. I believe that individuals and society will seek the path of righteousness in the long arc of justice and freedom.

2. Slavery and oppression

One of Frederick Douglass’ great skills was his ability to keenly analyze the race problem and the psychology of the slave/master or oppressed/oppressor. FD stated “to make a contented slave, you must make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and as far as possible, to annihilate his power of reason… the slave must know no higher law than his master’s will.” Chinese policies, both soft and hard, are meant to serve that goal. While slavery as such in its vicious or literal form might not exist in modern China, its ideology and core purpose exist amongst the Han chauvinists and the CPC. The CPC’s final solution for the ethnic people (already quite successful in China with the help of technology and various policies) is to make the Tibetan and Uighurs as contented and thoughtless “slaves”.

The essence of the slavery trade in America was the total subjugation of the mind, body and soul of the black people. Slavery is a form of mental torture that kills the human spirit. Once that soul is lost, one is left with a lifeless being. FD further stated that “slavery was not what took away any one right of property in man, it took man himself and from himself dooms him a degraded thing.” The final solution, after Sinicization or yellow-washing of the ethnic minorities, is to leave millions of lost souls drifting in a maze controlled and directed by the Chinese authorities, like the dystopian society in Aldous Huxley’s novel, Brave New World. No matter how much violence and injustice are meted out on the Tibetan people, the Tibetan people must never let China subjugate the mind. Every effort must be made to keep that mind free and independent from the chains of the authoritarian regime as well as from the people who don’t value Freedom and Liberty.

Not all Chinese people are oppressors or have a colonial mentality (and Tibetans need their support), but I think that mindset exists consciously and unconsciously in the minds of the Chinese people. These paternalistic folks are quick to point to the blessing of modernity brought by China on the ‘backward and feudal’ Tibetan society, without caring to know what Tibetans want. Changing such hearts and minds is not easy, as it deals with deeply-ingrained ideas and thoughts, which are influenced by history, personal experiences, and the highly effective propaganda. Nevertheless, broader support and push by Chinese brothers and sisters are crucial for effective change, and an effective approach should be discussed.

3. Radical hope

FD often spoke of radical hope to his audiences during his breathtaking speaking tours across America. Radical hope for Douglass was the will and power to move forward and seek a new reality in the face of tremendous loss and devastation for the black people. This ‘radical hope’ has been the catalytic ingredient at the heart of successful social movements across the globe. Radical hope, as opposed to false optimism or outright delusion, provides the courage to let go of the past, the momentum to step forward, and the endurance to fully commit to this turbulent journey of personal resurrection. For FD, radical hope came about from his personal experience as a former slave who was able to escape the system and become one of the greatest statesmen in American history. His strong Christian faith and spirituality added extra weight to his quest for freedom for the black race. Tibetans likewise carry that strong faith through their Buddhist teaching and collective consciousness, which can be better harnessed to seek “Liberation”.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has symbolized that radical hope for the past 60 years and it is paramount that such hope is not lost. That hope is losing its mojo or power in these fragmented and uncertain times, in exile and in Tibet, but Tibetan leaders must inflame radical hope if they wish to keep the struggle strong and long-lasting. If that hope loses steam, Tibet will face its dark days filled with hopelessness and apathy. The Tibetan people could end up being mere spectators of their own destruction — identity and land. It’s critical now for the leaders to better communicate or even redefine that radical hope that is consistent and effective with the current times!

4. Self-reliance

Frederick Douglass preached the values of self-reliance and independence of the black people from the chains, seen and unseen, of the white state and society. He preached that his fellow black people take upon themselves the responsibility to stand on their own feet and not be reliant on the false generosity of the “superior” and “savior” white race. Frederick Douglass, a Republican who shared a conservative viewpoint on self-reliance, thrift, and hard work, refused to see his black fellow men tied to poverty and to the whims of the white race in America. Following are some quotes that I found interesting on the theme of self-reliance (also google FD’s “Self-made man” speech).

  • “We [black people] must not talk about equality until we can do what white people do … as long as they can build vessels and we cannot, we are their inferiors … as long as they can found governments and we can not we are their inferiors.”
  • “Do not measure the negro by the stand of the splendid civilization of the Caucasian … measure him by the depth out of which he has risen.”
  • “Self-made men are those who are not brought up but are obliged to come up … often in derisive defiance of all the efforts of society to repress, retard and keep him down.”

I think there is a grain of truth in the above quotes when they relate to the Tibet-China issue and the exile community. For example, some Tibetans inside Tibet might be measuring themselves against Chinese “superiority” in how they live and progress as people in China. To some level it is understandable, given the increasing pressure of the onslaught of the Han Chinese. However, to completely emulate Chinese ways and thoughts would be a catastrophe for the Tibetan race and identity. (Similarly, one can also argue that Tibetans elsewhere might also be measuring themselves against Western society). What is important is measuring themselves against the “depth out of which he [they] have risen” and being aware of their own rich heritage and culture.

Self-reliance could also apply to the broader Tibetan movement. While support from the international community is critical for the movement and to the Tibetan people, they should not be hostage to that generosity and the $ that comes tagged along. Tibetans should be able to take a strong stance against undue influence and path, especially when that pressure goes against the general will of the people and the greater cause of Tibet. Tibetans must set their own clear and firm path forward based on a strong belief in their cause and the truth which they carry in their souls. If that firmness is present, then even the darkest days will not shake that confidence and hope of the Tibetan people.

5. Truth

HH the Dalai Lama never fails to mention that the “truth is on our side” and something like “bhusu dhok-po ma-chi” — do not feel unease or badly about our situation. As the leader of the Tibetan people, he carries the radical hope based on the truth of what Tibetans collectively stand for and believe in. The truth of what we stand for must not be forgotten or watered down in the face of great challenges ahead. However, before defending the truth, Tibetans as well as the Chinese people must come to the “truth” (or “Liberation” in the Buddhist sense of Nirvana). The realization of the truth must come about by the clear understanding of our current situation as well as the knowledge of the past (HH sometimes alludes to this when taking of the Middle-Way Approach). But getting to the truth can be deceptive and difficult, especially with all the misinformation and falsehood around us these days. As FD mentioned, “you don’t find truth in the middle of the road; you find truth beneath the superficial, mediocre, mainstream dialogue … buried, hidden … and when you connect with that truth, you have to take a stand.” I find this statement powerful in the way that you yourself must come to the truth and this can only take place if one makes the effort to look deeply within one’s situation. Once we come to that truth, then a firmer path can be built and carry us forth. This requires a more critical mind among the people, and the ability to clearly see the situation in front, beyond, and in the past.

Another quote that I find prescient in relation to truth and its impacts is when FD says, “He is the best friend of this country who in their tremendous crisis, dares tell his countrymen the truth, however disagreeable than truth may be; and such friend I will aim to be. Honest patriots are those who manifest an ironic-tragic love of country by learning, narrating, and working through its past of contradiction and evil, and not by evading it.” This ability to speak the truth applies to Tibetan and Chinese. To seek and speak the truth, even uncomfortable ones, is an important element in any struggle.

6. The past and future

  • He learns from the past, improves upon the past, looks back upon the past, and hands down his knowledge of the past to after-coming generations.
  • It is not well to forget the past. Memory was given to man for wise purpose.

Frederick Douglass reminded his audience of the cruelty of slavery and the sacrifices made to end it. While FD was criticized for hanging on to the past and failing to see the progress made so far, he spoke of the past as a guide to build a better path ahead. In the Tibetan case, there is much that can be learned from the past. If the Tibetan people forget the past, they risk losing their own roots. The Tibet nation has struggled, survived, and prevailed over past injustice and external powers. Buddhism survived the onslaught of King Langdarma. The mighty Mongol empire was won over by Tibet’s spiritual superiority and Tibet was able to keep its independence. “Tibet has never bowed to any conqueror or to any tyrants” and Chinese rule will not change that.

Sometimes people get caught in the moment and are overtaken by current events and fads, and don’t bother to learn of past experiences. I think the younger generation of Tibetans have much to learn from the teachings and symbols of the past. It is their responsibility to keep alive that spirit and “build a new life of the foundations of a noble past”.

7. The path of struggle

Dark days lie ahead for the Tibetan people in their struggle with dire challenges from every corner (e.g. the ever-rising global and regional power of China, sinicization and assimilation of the Tibetan people, perceived or real dis-unity among Tibetan society, an uncertain geo-political environment especially in the post-COVID world, and most importantly HH Dalai Lama’s old age which will pose a great threat. While each offers its own challenges and opportunities, as they say: Expect [and prepare for] the worst and hope for the best.

I have included some quotes and my own interpretation:

  • Those who would be free, themselves must strike the first blow. [i.e. We cannot expect Freedom and Justice to be served on a silver or gold plate, nor dream that CPC will fall]
  • 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. [i.e. Without taking some radical step/action/risks, nothing will happen.]
  • If we are wise, we will prepare for the last conflict … in which the enemy of Freedom will capitulate. [Be ready and prepare well for the long haul in which truth and justice will prevail.]
  • Shall our voices be mute, and our tongues paralyzed because our words may pain the ears of our oppressors? No brother freeman, we must not be silent, we have one weapon unimpaired and that is the weapon of speech, and not to use it … is treason to the oppressed. [i.e. Let democratic voices and opinions rule the day and do not suppress truth within/without the Tibetan community]
  • Never to occupy ground which our enemies desired us to occupy [Never be led astray and fooled by the cunningness of the adversaries of justice and liberty.]

The effort to turn the “Red face” [dong mar pa] into a “Yellow man” (i.e. sinicization) is ever strong in Tibet. In the name of equality and progress, the rights of Tibetans are increasingly tramped upon, and they are made to forgot who they are. In such a situation, Tibetans must not give in to the evil way of the Communist Party of China, but instead remind China, in any form possible, that we are what we are and what we were and we will not change under the barrel of the gun or the steel bars of the jail. Tibetans must remind the Chinese state/society as FD reminded his white fellow citizens: “I am myself; you are yourself, we are two distinct persons, equal persons. I am not by nature bound to you or you to me. Nature does not make your existence depend upon on me, or mine to depend upon yours.”

8. Peace

While peace is a dream away for Tibet, there is nothing wrong in imagining what peace is and what it should look like. FD struggled against the white people/state and fellow black leaders against any compromise that did not strive for real equality, justice, and natural rights of the black race as part of a broader fight for humanity. For instance, he was strongly against any plan of voluntary colonization of the black people outside US soil to reduce the race problem. The Tibetan people likewise must not be blindsided by a peace that will still put Tibetans in some form of chains to the Chinese state and does not treat Tibetans as equals, capable to rule themselves. Quotes that you might find interesting:

  • “… not a peace which rested on one man’s standing on the neck of another, but a peace which arises out of equal justice and right to all.” [i.e. Let us not have a fake peace]
  • Not to “wade through blood to liberty” no matter how justified, but preach “forgiveness in his heart” that can “overthrow every oppression on earth” [i.e. Stick to non-violence and our Tibetan Buddhist lessons such as compassion and liberation through truth]
  • Chance could never explain greatness or even professional accomplishment; only a sense of order, trained habit and systematic endeavor could lead to world changing ideas. [Do not rely on chance for a change, like the fall of CPC or a war between China and USA, but stay focused and persistent on the goal]

Final words

I hope the quotes and my random thoughts provide ideas for discussion and debate. I think it is important to learn from past and current struggles and their leaders. The civil rights movement, the anti-colonial struggle, and the ongoing indigenous struggles provide creative ideas and new perspectives for the Tibetan struggle. I am sure groups like SFT and TYC are very knowledgeable of such struggles, and these ideas must be drilled into the minds of the Tibetan people and the struggle.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light … it was the spring of hope.”

Finally, Take Care and Stay Safe. We are all in it together in these terrible times.

About the author

Tenzin Dorje is a third-year political science student at the University of California, Berkeley, in the US.

Copyright © 2020 Tenzin Dorje Published in Tibet Sun Posted in Features » Tags: , , ,