Frederick Douglass was not on my original slate of Inspirers. I’d planned on finding some feel-good people to highlight over the course of the year to keep me writing. Simple.
So I was somewhat surprised, over the past two weeks, to have a subject tossed into my awareness. But here came Mr. Douglass, a man I must have learned about in school, but whose story had floated to the back of my brain somewhere with the periodic table and geometry. I knew he was an escaped slave, but it pretty much ended there. Thankfully, his journey included an autobiography.
“I often found myself regretting my own existence, and wishing myself dead; and but for the hope of being free, I have no doubt but that I should have killed myself, or done something for which I should have been killed.”
– “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”
The memoir opens with recollections of a childhood spent as witness to beatings by slave masters – even the one who was likely Douglass’ own father – who reveled in their power and cruelty. His early life was spent in relatively “easy” conditions in St. Michael’s, Maryland. When he was returned to a cruel master, he was not spared again:
“I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me, and behold a man transformed into a brute!”
Somehow, this transition to an ever-increasingly brutal existence did not kill him. In fact, it served as a challenge somehow, to the spirit of a young man who had defied odds to learn to read, to understand there was something more, and to want it for himself.
After a series of punishing encounters with the slavemaster Covey, Douglass somewhere found the strength to resist his torturer when the man came at him while he was at work. Douglass grabbed Covey by the throat and engaged in a fight that would change his life:
“This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free.”
In 1834, Douglass went to work for a Mr. Freeland and came to serve as a teacher to the slaves and workers under him. He took great pride in the role and marveled at their courage:
“Every moment they spent in that school, they were liable to be taken up, and given thirty-nine lashes. They came because they wished to learn. Their minds had been starved by their cruel masters. They had been shut up in mental darkness. I taught them, because it was the delight of my soul to be doing something that looked like bettering the condition of my race.”
An escape attempt in 1835 led to capture: after a stay in jail, Douglass was collected by his previous master and hired out to a shipbuilder, where he was at the mercy of 75 men. A fight led to yet another place of work, where he made a pittance. His life continued on, and his determination to be free grew stronger. He began to make plans, and:
“on the third day of September, 1838, I left my chains and succeeded in reaching New York without the slightest interruption of any kind.”
Douglass explained that the lack of detail about his escape was intentional, to spare those who had helped him. Though his new surroundings were frightening, he found aid and a place to stay, and soon married Anna, a free woman he’d met in Baltimore. The pair left New York for New Bedford, Massachusetts, where Douglass took work and became active in the cause of anti-slavery reform.
In 1841 he was asked to speak at a convention in Nantucket; though nervous, he took on the challenge and was a huge success. Thereafter Douglass became a beacon for equality, for blacks, for women, and later for voting rights, emancipation. and desegregated schools. He served as editor of a liberal paper and became a renowned orator. By the time he died in 1895, Frederick Douglass had served as president of the Reconstruction-era Freedman’s Savings Bank, and a presidential elector. At the 1888 Republican National Convention, Douglass became the first African American to receive a vote for President of the United States in a major party’s roll call vote.
It is difficult to fathom this journey, from bondage to revered symbol of both man’s worst inhumanities and of his ability to survive and overcome them. I am struck by Douglass’ commitment to not only his own personal freedom, but his commitment to helping others in their fights as well.
How many of us hesitate before resisting, ponder the option to stay still, stay comfortable? How often do we rise up, take a stand for our own worth and, once our personal battle is won, take new fights onward?
Today’s world, full of causes and injustices, can overwhelm even the most passionate. It can be tempting to leave things to the strong, the young, the energetic. But while we may not all have the skills or sheer bravery of men like Frederick Douglass, we must declare our stances nonetheless. We must draw lines across which we will not step and be willing to defend the principles for which we will sacrifice.
Whether we write, speak, march, or serve, we must be willing to act as the resistance to that which is unacceptable. By doing so, we help to ensure that the spirits of Douglass and his fellow fighters never truly disappear.