Black History Month: Frederick Douglass

History holds my fascination to the extent that  sometimes I wish I could go back in a time machine just to observe directly the story and to live it.  History explains how we arrived where we’re at today and as I think about it, the things I like to write about here are really echoes of history  as one can’t separate economics, contemporary politics and most other things from their historical antecedents.  Time is one unbroken thread and and we ignore history at our peril.

I first discovered Frederick Douglass from Lerone Bennett’s periodic history articles in Ebony magazine and his book Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America, 1619-1962.  You can read more about Frederick Douglass here, but if you really want to know more about him, you really need to read his autobiography which is a fine piece of literature and a history book wrapped up in one.  He walks the reader through his birth and escape from slavery, his association with John Brown of Harper’s Ferry fame, the various events leading up to the civil war,  his interactions with Lincoln, the abolitionist movement, his appointment as minister to Haiti and a host of other historical events.  For me his autobiography is as significant as the autobiography of Malcolm X.  Douglass was nothing short of a genius and it’s hard to imagine a intellectual giant like this being someone’s slave.  In many ways, his autobiography brings the horrors slavery alive and reminds me that generally the issues that African-Americans face are the same in a thematic sense, although we’re no longer bound by chains.

I’ve a great admiration for anyone who has a firm command of the written and spoken word as I believe words, if crafted wisely, will stand the test of time and influence those beyond those persons living at the time when they were written.  For me,  Douglass stands out a wordsmith par excellence and in the annals of American oratorical address, he has few equals.  We only have descriptions from those who witnessed the eloquence of his presentation, but we do have his words which have a power unto themselves.  One of my favorite quotes from Douglass is on my sidebar.  It was actually this quote which reaffirmed my decision to start my own business 25 years ago after I decided that the corporate environs weren’t to my liking.  Here are a few others that I’ve drawn inspiration or knowledge from.  As I read them, it gives an insight into the man himself.  I don’t have many heroes and people I’d like to emulate, but he’s definitely one.  This man was not fit to be anyone’s slave and I just can’t imagine that was actually what he once was.  His words still have power as they call across the centuries:

What the Black Man Wants

In regard to the colored people, there is always more that is benevolent, I perceive, than just, manifested towards us. What I ask for the negro is not benevolence, not pity, not sympathy, but simply justice. The American people have always been anxious to know what they shall do with us… I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us! If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, if they are worm-eaten at the core, if they are early ripe and disposed to fall, let them fall! … And if the negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone! … your interference is doing him positive injury.

The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro (July 5, 1852)

This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony……What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an  unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour

 On American Christianity

Between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest, possible difference–so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels

On the Color Line

Few evils are less accessible to the force of reason, or more tenacious of life and power, than a long-standing prejudice. It is a moral disorder, which creates the conditions necessary to its own existence, and fortifies itself by refusing all contradiction. It paints a hateful picture according to its own diseased imagination, and distorts the features of the fancied original to suit the portrait. As those who believe in the visibility of ghosts can easily see them, so it is always easy to see repulsive qualities in those we despise and hate.

On Oppression and Fighting for Freedom:

“Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims, have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.”

“This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. In the light of these ideas, Negroes will be hunted at the North, and held and flogged at the South so long as they submit to those devilish outrages, and make no resistance, either moral or physical. Men may not get all they pay for in this world; but they must certainly pay for all they get. If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others.”

On Faith

“I may be deemed superstitious, and even egotistical, in regarding this event as a special interposition of divine Providence in my favor. But I should be false to the earliest sentiments of my soul, if I suppressed the opinion. I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and incur my own abhorrence. From my earliest recollection, I date the entertainment of a deep conviction that slavery would not always be able to hold me within its foul embrace; and in the darkest hours of my career in slavery, this living word of faith and spirit of hope departed not from me, but remained like ministering angels to cheer me through the gloom. This good spirit was from God, and to him I offer thanksgiving and praise.”

3 Responses to “Black History Month: Frederick Douglass”
  1. What I ask for the negro is not benevolence, not pity, not sympathy, but simply justice.

    This would have been the first phrase from Douglass that I would have chosen as well.

    So many people attempt to borrow the cloak of Douglass for their own modern usage. This passage shows a man who has RACIAL DIGNITY more than anything else.

    I also note that Douglass chose to tell the Harper’s Ferry crew “thanks but no thanks, I won’t be among you though you have my full moral support”.

    This shows me that the man was discerning. Imagine if this voice was silenced by the hanging that these participants suffered as a result.

    He is one of my all-time historical greats.

  2. Greg L says:

    Frederick Douglass was simply genius unbridled in my opinion, CF. I admire him mostly for his indomitable spirit. He was not to be denied. How difficult must it have been for him to teach himself how to read by tricking others to teach him?

    Yes, we would have lost a lot had he been hung with Brown and the other conspirators. Even though he was not directly involved, he wound up fleeing the country for fear of his life due to all the hysteria in the aftermath of the raid.

    I love reading him as he has an old english sort of style with which he writes and the ways his words come together really paint his thoughts. I would have really liked to have heard him speak as by all accounts he was a master orator as well.

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