If You Could See Me Now: On the Absence of Frederick Douglass in the '08 Election by Steve Amoia and Andrew T. Durham
One historical name has not entered the current political debate, and it is surprising. One of the greatest champions of American civil rights and women’s suffrage had a mountain of published material; however, none of the candidates on either side of the valley have evoked his name or tremendous intellect with any significant frequency. There can be no unity and there can be no change with vacuous slogans or Machiavellian machinations. But learning from those who came before us – before the soul was mercilessly sucked out of our Founding Fathers’ vision, like so much liposuction – might just actually begin the long march to unite a populace who have become the unwitting pawns in the games of media who want nothing less than cultural warfare to keep folks interesting, needy, in line and, ironically, in conflict distracting them from what is really going on. So let’s go to the core of the potential that is being ignored in the political discourse of today.
Who Was Frederick Douglass?
Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born into slavery during February, 1818, on a plantation on the banks of the Tuckahoe River in Talbot County, Maryland. This was an area located on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay. He never was told the precise date of his birth. As an adult, he decided to select the 14th, Valentine’s Day, to celebrate his birthday.
“By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant. I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday.”
“My father was a white man. He was admitted to be such by all I ever heard speak of my parentage. The opinion was also whispered that my master was my father; but of the correctness of this opinion, I know nothing; the means of knowing was withheld from me. My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant–before I knew her as my mother. It is a common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age.”
Source: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Chapter I.
Self-Taught without the Benefit of Prestigious Higher Education
Unlike the current roster of Presidential contenders who attended Columbia, Harvard, the U.S. Naval Academy, Wellesley, and Yale, respectively, Mr. Douglass never had a day of formal education. Yet his written command of English, along with his powerful eloquence, would make most of us pale in comparison.
After he escaped slavery, he wrote about his unique life. “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave,” is a jewel of American literature. It describes the arduous and unlikely journey as Frederick Bailey became Frederick Douglass. As a child in Baltimore, he taught himself how to read and write. Initially, the wife of his master, Mrs. Sophia Auld, taught him passages from the Holy Bible. But this was deemed dangerous, and his lessons were cut short by his Master.
“My mistress seemed almost as proud of my progress as if I had been her own child, and supposing that her husband would be as well pleased, she made no secret of what she was doing for me. Indeed, she exultingly told him of the aptness of her pupil and of her intention to persevere, as she felt it her duty to do, in teaching me, at least, to read the Bible. And here arose the first dark cloud over my Baltimore prospects, the precursor of chilling blasts and drenching storms. Master Hugh was astounded beyond measure and, probably for the first time, proceeded to unfold to his wife the true philosophy of the slave system, and the peculiar rules necessary in the nature of the case to be observed in the management of human chattels.”
Source: The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: Chapter X.
Filled with the determination to learn to read at any cost, I hit upon many expedients to accomplish that much desired end. The plan which I mainly adopted, and the one which was the most successful, was that of using as teachers my young white playmates, with whom I met on the streets. I used almost constantly to carry a copy of Webster’s spelling-book in my pocket, and when sent of errands, or when play-time was allowed me, I would step aside with my young friends and take a lesson in spelling.”
Source: The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: Chapter XI.
Mr. Douglass on a Black or Biracial President
“What I Would Do if I Were President?”
It is intriguing that his brief yet powerful essay has not been widely publicized or discussed.
“It seems a little absurd for me in my position to be asked, or to answer the question as to what I would do or would not do if I were President of the United States, since no such contingency has even one chance in sixty-million to be realized. But, if that chance should happen, it would probably be my experience and my misfortune to make as many blunders and give just cause for as much criticism as any one, who has ever occupied the Presidential chair. One thing however I would do or try to do. I would employ every means supplied to the President by the Constitution of the United States, to secure to every citizen of the United States, without regard to race, color, sex or religion, equal protection of the laws. No citizen, however poor or despised, should be able to say at te close of my administration that he had suffered any injustice or had been in any way oppressed or injured by any act of mine while acting as President of the United States.”
“War, slavery, injustice and oppression, and the idea that might makes right have been uppermost in all such governments, and the weak, for whose protection governments are ostensibly created, have had practically no rights which the strong have felt bound to respect. The slayers of thousands have been exalted into heroes, and the worship of mere physical force has been considered glorious. Nations have been and still are but armed camps, expending their wealth and strength and ingenuity in forging weapons of destruction against each other; and while it may not be contended that the introduction of the feminine element in government would entirely cure this tendency to exalt woman’s influence over right, many reasons can be given to show that woman’s influence would greatly tend to check and modify this barbarous and destructive tendency. At any rate, seeing that the male governments of the world have failed, it can do no harm to try the experiment of a government by man and woman united.”
Source: The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Chapter XVIII, “Honor To Whom Honor.”
Mr. Douglass on Religious Slave masters
Frederick Douglass had interesting views about the role of religion. Especially as it was manifested in the seemingly contradictory behavior of his Christian slave holders. He also compared the treatment he received from those who did not adhere to any particular religious faith.
“I have said my master found religious sanction for his cruelty. As an example, I will state one of many facts going to prove the charge. I have seen him tie up a lame young woman, and whip her with a heavy cowskin upon her naked shoulders, causing the warm red blood to drip; and, in justification of the bloody deed, he would quote this passage of Scripture–‘He that knoweth his master’s will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes.”
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave Chapter IX.
“Another advantage I gained in my new master was, he made no pretensions to, or profession of, religion; and this, in my opinion, was truly a great advantage. I assert most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the south is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes,–a justifier of the most appalling barbarity,–a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds,–and a dark shelter under, which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection.
Were I to be again reduced to the chains of slavery, next to that enslavement, I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me. For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others.”
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Chapter X.
Mr. Douglass on Hypocritical Religious Leaders
Frederick Douglass ran into fierce opposition when he tried to teach other slaves how to read. He wanted to use their one day off, Sunday, to spread literacy and the Gospel. But as you will see, he was met with the hypocritical stance common of most Christian slaveholders and other religious leaders.
“As summer came on and the long Sabbath days stretched themselves over our idleness, I became uneasy and wanted a Sabbath-school in which to exercise my gifts and to impart to my brother-slaves the little knowledge I possessed.
Our pious masters at St. Michaels must not know that a few of their dusky brothers were learning to read the Word of God, lest they should come down upon us with the lash and chain. We might have met to drink whisky, to wrestle, fight, and to do other unseemly things, with no fear of interruption from the saints or the sinners of St. Michaels. But to meet for the purpose of improving the mind and heart, by learning to read the sacred scriptures, was a nuisance to be instantly stopped.
The slaveholders there, like slaveholders elsewhere, preferred to see the slaves engaged in degrading sports, rather than acting like moral and accountable beings. Had any one, at that time, asked a religious white man in St. Michaels, the names of three men in that town whose lives were most after the pattern of our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, the reply would have been: Garrison West, class-leader, Wright Fairbanks and Thomas Auld, both also class-leaders; and yet these men, armed with mob-like missiles, ferociously rushed in upon my Sabbath-school and forbade our meeting again on pain of having our backs subjected to the bloody lash. This same Garrison West was my class-leader, and I had thought him a Christian until he took part in breaking up my school. He led me no more after that.”
Source: Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Chapter XVIII.
Mr. Douglass’ Meeting with his Former Master
Before the death of his former master, Captain Hugh Auld, Frederick Douglass, who was then a U.S. Marshall, had the following exchange:
“We addressed each other simultaneously, he calling me ‘Marshal Douglass,’ and I, as I had always called him, ‘Captain Auld.’ Hearing myself called by him ‘Marshal Douglass,’ I instantly broke up the formal nature of the meeting by saying, ‘not Marshal, but Frederick to you as formerly.’ We shook hands cordially, and in the act of doing so, he, having been long stricken with palsy, shed tears as men thus afflicted will do when excited by any deep emotion...
Though broken by age and palsy, the mind of Capt. Auld was remarkably clear and strong. After he had become composed I asked him what he thought of my conduct in running away and going to the north. He hesitated a moment as if to properly formulate his reply, and said: ‘Frederick, I always knew you were too smart to be a slave, and had I been in your place, I should have done as you did.’ I said, ‘Capt. Auld, I am glad to hear you say this. I did not run away from you, but from slavery; it was not that I loved Caesar less, but Rome more.’”
Source: Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: Chapter XVI.
Who would you rather quote? Educated politicians? Their sound-bite promoters and speech writers? Former spiritual advisors who were not “disowned?” The Mainstream Media who paints events with their own thick strokes, forever dumping kindling on the fires of human conflict for their own, what, “amusement”?
Or Frederick Douglass?
Who owns whom in the battle for our hearts and minds? The present or the past? Illusions or veracity? Good intentions or an American life story that should be celebrated and promoted from sea to shining sea? Politicians quote the “safe” sources, never the true catalysts. Face it: we live in an era where no one has put forth anything worth quoting for generations to come. And those who might qualify have died or been murdered. That speaks volumes.
“The soul that is within me no man can degrade.” ---Frederick Douglass
Steve Amoia has published articles, book reviews, and interviews about alternative health, art history, career-related themes, historical figures, Italian and international soccer, martial arts, psychology, and sports medicine topics. He was the historical editor for the Frederick Douglass Blog. His writing portfolio and contact information can be found at www.sanstefano.com
Andrew T.Durham is a graduate of State University at Albany, with a degree in Psychology/Philosophy. In the late 80's to mid 90's he was instrumental in creating ground-breaking outreach/prevention programs, as well as being a highly successful public speaker. A former acupuncturist and clinician (primarily to inner city adolescents), he has also been a consultant to the Massachusetts State Department of Public Health and several non-profit organizations. He is an accomplished musician - proficient in 7 instruments - ,actor and author of 10 plays, 5 of which have been produced. He is currently a consultant for small non-profit agencies and lives in Rochester, NY