My first July 4th at Sage, I wrote about Lincoln’s remarkable address to a picnic of German immigrants on Independence Day. Lincoln addressed the contradiction between slavery and the language of equality in the Declaration of Independence, and he specifically addressed Stephen Douglas’s argument that the Declaration didn’t apply to slaves.
The rhetorical question he posed to the German immigrants is where would such exclusions stop—would they extend to them as well? And if the document and its call to human equality could be so modified, he said: “If that declaration is not the truth, let us get the statute book in which we find it and tear it out! Who is so bold to do it? Let us stick to it then, let us stand firmly then.”
The connection between emancipated slaves and the immigrant nature of America emerges powerfully in Frederick Douglass’s 1869 Boston speech on the “Composite Nation,” in which he argues that it is imperative to our nature to accept the rising influx of Chinese immigrants, an issue of great controversy at the time.
Douglass acknowledges the various arguments presented against immigration and counters them. Most important are two related claims he makes. First:
“There are such things in the world as human rights. They rest upon no conventional foundation, but are external, universal, and indestructible. Among these, is the right of locomotion; the right of migration; the right which belongs to no particular race, but belongs alike to all and to all alike. It is the right you assert by staying here, and your fathers asserted by coming here. It is this great right that I assert for the Chinese and Japanese, and for all other varieties of men equally with yourselves, now and forever.”
More importantly, he ties that principle to the question of what differentiates America as a nation. Herein lies his message appropriate for this Independence Day:
“Our geographical position, our relation to the outside world, our fundamental principles of Government, world-embracing in their scope and character, our vast resources, requiring all manner of labor to develop them, and our already existing composite population, all conspire to one grand end, and that is to make us the perfect national illustration of the unit and dignity of the human family, that the world has ever seen.
“In whatever else other nations may have been great and grand, our greatness and grandeur will be found in the faithful application of the principle of perfect civil equality to the people of all races and of all creeds, and to men of no creeds. We are not only bound to this position by our organic structure and by our revolutionary antecedents, but by the genius of our people.”
Douglass lived the first forty-nine years of his life in slavery, then, after escaping, became one of the most influential abolitionists, a champion of women’s suffrage at the Seneca Falls convention, a best-selling writer and famous orator, and counselor to three presidents. In that context, his imagination of America’s greatness as flowing precisely from its egalitarian possibilities is all the more remarkable: “I hold that a liberal and brotherly welcome to all who are likely to come to the United States, is the only wise policy which this nation can adopt.”
Words to remember on July 4, 2019 as debates about race and immigration still occupy center stage in our American experiment.
With these weighty thoughts in mind, I had the pleasure of seeing the new multi-racial Broadway reimagining of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!. This might seem an incongruous juxtaposition, but it is not such a stretch. Douglass and the new Oklahoma! both invite us to consider the nation’s history through the lens of today, and they remind us how central social change is to American selfhood.
Oklahoma! premiered during World War II (shortly after Pearl Harbor), but it was set during the run-up to Oklahoma statehood in 1906. The immensely popular musical was seen both as the first “serious” musical (no chorus line) and as an invocation of a simpler time. The play begat a famous movie in the 1950s that further tied the musical to popular images of wholesomeness.
Daniel Fish’s production keeps virtually every word of the original and every song. The orchestration is greatly altered, as a seven-piece band on stage accompanies spare renditions of the songs in a country twang. And the emphasis of the dialogue and action is somehow rendered more sinister, in a way that challenges our former understanding of the play.
Yet, the disturbing elements of the story are all present in the original: the “girl who can’t say no,” the box social in which lunches representing the single women who made them are auctioned to their potential beaus, the double-entendres about who has the biggest hamper and the sweetest pie. Above all, there is Jud, who, in the original, is a farmhand who lives in the smokehouse with pornographic pictures tacked up and hangs menacingly outside the heroine’s bedroom window. The romantic lead tries to talk him into suicide, and his accidental death is required to allow the three weddings of the conclusion to go forward to the happy ending.
That marriage comedies are salted with difficult truths about the relations between the sexes is nothing new. Shakespeare’s comedies express the concern that love creates affections arbitrarily or that various characters must be tamed into domesticity. Jane Austen’s novels may not feature an actual auction, but the financial worth of every character is carefully counted in reaching an ending that is also a settlement.
Oklahoma! like many musicals is conversant in the comedy and the untamability of sexual desire. And yet, as the title emphasizes, the play is about a place, a place in the heart of America. Its 1906 setting seemed far away from the war-weary world in which national boundaries were collapsing and refugees fleeing around the globe, and yet it satisfied audiences in its evocation of timeless tales tied to the American nation and its founding in the violent conquest of the West.
1906 and 1943 seem just as far from us now, the do’s and don’ts of “People Will Say We’re in Love” echoing strangely in the “Me, Too” era. But we must not make the mistake of imagining the original audiences to be naïve; they were not. Happy endings are not easily achieved: in the sacrifices that build a society lie the groundwork for harmony and resolution.
We need not forget that where we came from is fraught with injustice and conflict to celebrate that we come together with the possibility for a new day and a “beautiful morning.” As Frederick Douglass puts it: “The sentiments we exhibit, whether love or hate, confidence or fear, respect or contempt, will always imply a like humanity.”
At Sage, we have been considering our history as we prepare for our future. We are thinking more deliberately about something we must always be alert to: how do we adapt our original mission to changing times. Looking back on our founding over a century ago, in the era in which Oklahoma! is set, we also explore how our many dramatic changes evidence a common humanity. That persistence and adaptability, driven by a spirit of inclusion, offer the Sage family something to celebrate on Independence Day.
**Thanks to historian Jill Lepore for the reference to Frederick Douglass’s remarkable speech.