Frederick Douglass: Personal Power and Responsibility

Frederick Douglass: Personal Power and Responsibility

From every historical era there emerge people so great that they transcend the narrative expectations of everyone around them. Nowhere is this evidenced more fully than in the person of Frederick Douglass, a freed slave who lived in America’s antebellum South.

The narrative of Douglass’s life is required reading for anyone wishing to understand slavery from the context of someone who’s been through it. To call Douglass’s work nothing but caution about the horrors of slavery, however, is to downplay the philosophical and cultural influence that flowered in the wake of his brilliance.

Many of his insights are as valuable today as they were when written, and not only for the reasons people think.

The US state of California is one of the richest places on planet Earth and has been a blue state for decades. In California, 75% of African-American boys don’t meet functional literacy standards. In other words, their reading levels by the time they graduate are insufficient for participation in many domains of modern life.

This is, by any account, a travesty. It’s clear that policy is failing the African-American community in California. Most other states report similar rates of functional illiteracy.

But what’s that got to do with Frederick Douglass?

Douglass: From Slave to Philosopher

Frederick Douglass was born of a white father and a black mother. In his narrative, he wonders whether his master is actually his biological dad but doesn’t inquire beyond the passing thought. It doesn’t matter to him, a child stuck in bondage, either way.

Douglass, however, realizes early on that he’s one of many enslaved mulattos. At the time, American justification for slavery came from a liberally interpreted bible verse: that the descendants of Ham, who disobeyed God, were to be cursed with blackness of skin unto eternity.

The boy’s insatiable drive to rationalize his surroundings led him to the conclusion that, if even the children of white parents were to be enslaved, then this justification couldn’t hold water.

This pattern of questioning the establishment of oppression would continue in Douglass. His was a reason superior to that of his peers and especially his masters; his revelation came at the behest of a discerning slave owner whom he overheard talking to his wife one day.

“If you teach the n_____ how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave”.

Douglass knew then that his prerogative would be learning to read at any cost. This squared well with an idea he’d held to from as far back as memory would take him: “…A deep conviction that slavery would not always be able to hold me within its foul embrace”.

Douglass presents as an endearing mixture of a pragmatist and idealist. He understood the reality of his conditions, the depths of human depravity, the hopelessness that accompanies congenital bondage. And yet, even while cursed with such discernment (Douglass mentions in the narrative that he envied his illiterate brethren after finally learning to read), he managed to cultivate the hope that one day he’d be free.

This yearning, instilled so deeply within his spirit, empowered all his actions toward his eventual freedom.

Personal Power

We’re all, in many respects, the products of our circumstances. Upon being resold, Douglass notes the look of kindliness in the woman he was to serve.

By the accounts of other slaves and his own observance, Douglass concluded that she was entirely different from any whites he’d met. For a while, she treated him well allowed him to look her in the face, and humanized Douglass in a way he’d never experienced.

And yet, “…This kind heart had but a short time to remain such. The fatal poison of irresponsible power was already in her hands, and soon commenced its infernal work. That cheerful eye, under the influence of slavery, soon became red with rage…”

Noting the change in her character, Douglass cuts to the heart of human degeneracy by noting “Slavery was as injurious to her as it was to me”.

Douglass understood that systemic allowances of “unrestrained authority” led to the corrupting influence of slavery.

Yet Douglass managed, against all odds, to escape the trappings of what many had been made to believe as ‘their lot’ in life. More than a writer of great esteem, Douglass went on to be a prominent abolitionist, politician, and renowned orator.

There are moments that will drive anyone to the brink; Douglass held the brink within himself for the whole of his life. When his master (who he was on loan to thanks to the man’s reputation of being a ‘n_______ breaker’) attempted to whip Douglass, the latter channeled his emotions through his fists and beat down three white men in a fight. From that day on they never laid a hand on him again.

Throughout the narrative, it is Frederick Douglass’s stalwart determination to be the master of his own fate that rings clearest as his primary motivation in life (besides exposing the evils of slavery). It could be argued that all such beings in a state of wretched bondage would feel the same. And, yet, Douglass attests to the fact that his drive made him unique, a leader among men.

When Douglass finally escaped (through means he couldn’t admit, as they could have exposed other slaves doing the same) he had taught dozens of other slaves to read and write. He’d worked his fingers to the bone to bring money home to his master, if only to earn a pittance that would get him to a Northerly latitude. After making it, he notes how he willing he was to work any job for any amount of hours and does so.

Douglass had done the most valuable things a person could do, then or now: developed his human capital. He cultivated self-reliance early in life, and it continues to pay dividends to humanity today.

Ramifications for Today’s World

The perspicacity that runs through Douglass’s prose is apparant. As with all literature, then, the question becomes one of how we apply it to the dilemmas of today.

It’s clear in today’s media landscape that similar techniques to what slaveowners used are being employed by political organizations today.

Think that’s harsh? Douglass notes that “The frequency of this [slaves speaking frankly about their treatment by their masters] has had the effect to establish among the slaves the maxim, that a still tongue makes a wise head”. There’s something about an inability to weather criticism that bespeaks a fragility of argument.

In other words, slavery was conducted on shaky moral foundations. If it could be justified irrefutably, or if a criticism made by a slave about a master regarding mistreatment was apt, then there’s no reason someone ought to have feared speaking out against it. This holds for most authoritarian models where power obtains through force or fear.

More striking, though, is the tendency in contemporary American society to quell conservative or ‘counter-cultural’ arguments before they’re even presented. Even asking many young, liberal practitioners if they’d like to have a conversation about current issues results in being disregarded, or them ‘having nothing to say to someone like you‘ (this happened to a member of Liberty Revolt Media just the other day when he attempted to converse with protesters).

The only conclusion that must hold broadly in such instances is that those who don’t want to argue for their convictions have less faith in those beliefs than they think. Fear of opposing viewpoints is fear of processing legitimate challenges to your beliefs. Most people tend to bind their belief systems to their sense of self, and if these things are attacked or beaten then they feel the insult personally. Opting-out of the conversation is ideal for fragile egos.

Douglass goes further. He lambasts the tendency among slaves to compare the respective merits of their masters: “The competitors for this office sought as diligently to please their overseers, as the office-seekers in the political parties seek to please and deceive the people. The same traits of character might be seen in Colonel Lloyd’s slaves, as are seen in the slaves of the political parties”

The tendency to pick a side and turn even the modalities of oppression into a team sport runs deep in the human psyche. This speaks multitudes to American political affiliations today – when lacking in ideas of your own, it’s easier to attach your ego to one or another political party and fight for their interests with all the gumption of your individual will.

Retaining his acuity of mind through the last man that was to own him, Douglass notes that “…Indeed, he advised me to complete thoughtlessness of the future, and taught me to depend solely on him for my happiness”. This tendency is one of humanity’s most pernicious levers of control. This man wanted Douglass to forego all sense of personal responsibility for his well being in exchange for obedience.

If that doesn’t sound like much of what liberal policy portends, chances are you don’t know much about it. The democratic party’s platform invariably touts the impossibility of societal justice and well-being without government intervention. Its emphasis on a nanny-state presupposes the idea that your life would be better and happier if only you’d cede responsibility for it to the government.

Republicans are hardly better; though more hands-off, they run with the idea that society is plagued and only they can offer the cure. Personal empowerment is hardly a sustainable political platform.

The wisdom in Douglass’s narrative does more than cut to the heart of political inefficiency. He understood the power that education and literacy furnish the individual with, and chose to forsake the binge-drinking encouraged by masters on slave holidays so he could teach his fellow slaves to read.

Have the standards for mental fortitude changed in today’s era? Hardly. More than ever we’re driven to spend what time we have consuming. Most of us can hardly function in the morning without a cup of coffee, to say nothing of escaping from slavery. Physical barriers to self-actualization have corroded, but psychological ones have not.

What Douglass does is make the individual square up to his circumstances; he’d be appalled by a functional illiteracy rate of 75% in any black community. Access to education pertains, and yet nanny-state policies do nothing to empower minority communities in a sustainable fashion (it is democrats, by the way, who oppose school choice in faltering communities).

The democratic narrative of victimhood and State responsibility has very little to do with Frederick Douglass’s narrative of triumph in the face of long odds.

If there’s one thing we can take from Douglass, it’s that any person who understands the value of education will strive for it as a means of freedom and personal power. We cannot trust political parties to tout such as an effective means of creating human capital in communities.

Douglass, throughout the rest of his life, drew from his experience to empower black communities by permeating black individuals with an idea of their personal power. He saw how, when given the chance, institutions, policy, and government were bound to fail them as they’d failed him. The only way forward, according to Douglass, was any way that put the individual members of that community at the helm.

This wisdom is scarecly less relevant today than it’s always been. Of course, if the democrats actually did something to empower minority communities with human capital and foster sustainability than they would have already outlived their usefulness (not that they’re very useful anyway when it comes to community empowerment).

The levers of government, tripped only at the garnering of votes and rhetoric to promote this activity, are thus revealed by Douglass as the smoke-show they’ve always been. It’s time to privilege education, self-reliance, personal power, and human capital. Only then will communities have the tools to forge their own way forward against the odds of those who pander for their votes instead of their genuine successes.

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