Bill Lawson – ‘Douglass, Memories, and Disappointment’

This is one of two mandatory research blogs which I have to do as part of my MA here at UCC. Of course the fact they’re making me do it ensures that I don’t want to do it. This life of privilege I lead can be so unfair sometimes. Trying to muster the enthusiasm required to write something I don’t particularly want to, makes me realize what a terrible a news journalist I’d be. Or script editor. Or technical writer. Or any type of productive writer that doesn’t involve some level of navel gazing. I’m being harsh on myself course. Self deprecation, Social Anxiety etc. Being serious for a second, to any prospective employers reading this I’m just as capable of shilling as the next guy. Just give me a shot coach!

The subject of this mandatory blog (It can be fun to be passive aggressive sometimes) is a talk which Professor Bill Lawson gave at the School of English, UCC, on the 7th of October last, titled ‘Douglass, Memories and Disappointment’.

In trying to write about this talk I’m immediately brought back to the very first piece of writing I carried out as an infant in National School. Mrs. Cunnigham’s Junior Infants class, Autumn 1992. I’m sure there’s some line or other from Gatsby that would work well here, I’m going to beat on ceaselessly with my anecdote however. The exercise involved Mrs. Cunningham (stern, but fair) asking the class of just turned five year-olds to tell her what we did over the preceding weekend. At which point, following our adorable innocent replies; ‘went shopping with mammy’ (most likely me), ‘fed calves with granddad’ (there was a lot of farmers in the class), ‘played with my teddy bear before taking a nap’ (I’m being florid), Mrs. Cunnigham would summarize our remembrances into a unified narrative on the blackboard. Which we then wrote down in our copy books, a collective remembrance of a weekend which never actually wholly took place. This current research blog on Prof. Lawson’s talk, is basically the same. Or completely different, whatever you’re having yourself. It happened over a month ago, I didn’t take notes. Is what Professor Lawson meant actually what he said? Is the exact same meaning of what he said to be found in this paper I found which deals with exactly the same subject matter? Or does the particular audience to which he gave the talk impact on the inflection or nuance of his meaning on that particular day? Is the meaning in the text or the intention of the speaker/writer? I’ve asked more questions than I intend to answer here. But that’s just the kind of wrenboy (rǽn bɔ̀y) I am.

To cut a long ramble short… What I remember of Bill Lawson’s talk on ‘Douglass, Memories and Disappointment’. (If Mrs. Cunnigham could only see me now… she could do quite easily by the way, we’re from the same place (you get what I’m trying to say).)


The main thrust of Prof. Lawson’s talk focused on the concept of ‘social disappointment’. ‘Social disappointment’ for me, would be a good description of my daily interactions with other human beings, specifically, interactions involving the women of Cork in various nightclubs I’ve been known to frequent (thankfully all in the past now (I love you, Elaine)).

The term for Lawson, means something quite different; ‘the experience of disappointment that comes from the failure of the government to satisfy the expectations of the majority of Blacks.’ My emphasis on the word ‘expectation’ here parallels Prof. Lawson’s. Disappointment doesn’t come from ‘hope’, it comes from ‘expectation’. I can’t speak to the veracity of this statement in regards my own romantic endeavors, me always being more of a hope than expectation guy, however it does ring true in the context of American race relations. Prof. Lawson went on to outline the social disappointment experienced by Frederick Douglass following the emancipation of the slaves, and more generally, the social disappointment which “Black Americans” have experienced throughout the centuries following emancipation; segregation, institutionalized racism, and issues relating to the justice system and law enforcement, making specific contemporary reference to the shootings in Ferguson. There is an implicit criticism of the strand of black political engagement which resorts to ‘Hope’ (see image above). As the paper on which Prof. Lawson based the talk was first published in the mid-nineties ((Existence in Black, 1996), it could be read as prophetic. For me, it speaks to the generalizing dual reading of “Black American” political and social engagement;  that of a strident rights based approach exemplified by Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jesse Jackson, and the more dialogic conciliatory  approach, for our current purposes, exemplified by President Obama. I’m conscious here that I’m making broad generalizations myself, using the ‘collective identities’ which Frantz Fanon criticizes for instance, and have characterized President Obama as one with the Uncle Tom’s of black history. What can I say… my simplification parallels that of Prof. Lawson’s initial ‘Hope’ and ‘Expectation’ binary.

The hard-hearted individual never sees people as people, but rather as mere objects or impersonal cogs in an ever-turning wheel. In the vast wheel of industry, he sees men as hands.

-Martin Luther King Jnr.

This quote for me hints at the Kantian genesis of King’s philosophy; men as ends in and of themselves, not merely as means to an end, be it economic, or societal. Who would disagree with such propositions? But, then there have been quite a few critics of Kant down through the years…

As I’ve said, the term ‘social disappointment’ seems perfectly fine to me as a term for the generalization which Prof. Lawson makes, and simultaneously shies away from. What remains with me from Prof. Lawson’s talk is his final words. He picked out Dr. Lee Jenkins of UCC, who was in attendance, citing her as an example of someone who’s ‘read all the literature, read all the criticism, read everything on the subject’, as someone who, along with himself, knows better than anyone who might attempt to question or criticize his thesis. I’m paraphrasing, as as I’ve mentioned above I’m drawing from my recollection. I recall quite vividly however being taken aback by this particular type of argument, and can only wonder what Dr. Jenkins felt at being put in such a position.

Anyway, there’s a couple hundred words, my UCC overlords. I guess that wasn’t so bad…