Frederick Douglass lived an extraordinary life. He was, along with Abraham Lincoln, one of the “two preeminent self-made men in American history”, according to Harvard University scholar John Stauffer. Douglass escaped from slavery in 1838, electrified the Northern abolitionist movement, helped Lincoln win the Civil War and led his people during our nation’s most turbulent years. While almost every American knows of Lincoln’s accomplishments, though, Douglass is today (for most white people at least) an obscure historical figure. During this Black History Month, what can a white Southerner like me learn from Douglass’ life?
Lesson 1: Slavery Was So Much Worse Than We Realize
White Southerners don’t like to talk about slavery. When the topic comes up – and especially when a black person brings it up – many white folks hastily respond with “But that was hundreds of years ago.” When we listen to Douglass’ words, though, it’s hard to escape the fact that slavery fundamentally shaped both black and white Americans’ experiences. Looking at slavery through his first-hand account makes it more difficult for us as white folks to wave away the historical depredations of the slave system as irrelevant to a present-day discussion of racial inequality.
Douglass published his autobiography in 1845 to expose the atrocities of the slave system. His first-hand written account – along with his brilliant oratory – bolstered the abolitionist cause in the North. At a time when Southern slaveholders were vigorously defending the “peculiar institution” in the court of public opinion, Douglass’ detailed portrayal of the lives of slaves shocked Northern readers.
Slavery, in Douglass’ withering account, was kept alive through sheer terror, with whipping and the threat of whipping being the overseer’s chief tactic. Since slaves were considered mere property, marriages between them were not recognized. Therefore, families were routinely torn apart: man, woman and child were separated as masters sold or hired out individual family members. “Slavery has no use for either fathers or families,” Douglass wrote, “and its laws do not recognize their existence in the social arrangements of the plantation.”
What’s more, masters could father a child with a female slave, and the child was considered the master’s slave, not his son or daughter. (Douglass himself guessed that his master was also his father.) “This arrangement,” he wrote, “admits of the greatest license to brutal slaveholders, and their profligate sons, brothers, relations and friends, and gives to the pleasure of sin, the additional attraction of profit.”
Douglass described other cruelties of the slave system that undermined the personhood of the slave. Masters actively discouraged reading (“Ignorance is a high virtue in a human chattel”, Douglass wrote), and Douglass’ master disbanded the Sunday school that he organized for his fellow slaves because they were learning to read the Bible.
Southern society claimed that the slave system was in the best interest of both white and black people – the latter being intellectually inferior, unable to manage their own affairs and therefore born for service to white slaveholders. (The latter were cast, in this twisted narrative, as benevolent caretakers). Douglass represented a triple threat to this narrative: First, the sheer brilliance of the rhetoric of this man who was born and raised in slavery and had no formal education decimated the argument that blacks were intellectually inferior. Second, the slaveholders were unmasked in his account as nothing more than brutes and idlers, growing fat on the unpaid labor of others. Third, during the Civil War, he successfully campaigned for blacks to take up arms for the Union, leading to the formation of units such as the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry that was immortalized in the 1989 film Glory.
Lesson 2: Let Black People Lead
In 1841, three years after his escape from slavery to New England, Douglass was encouraged by the great abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison to speak to the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society’s annual convention in Nantucket. Of the speech, one correspondent wrote, “Flinty hearts were pierced, and cold ones melted by his eloquence.” Through his soaring oratory and his vivid descriptions of his life in slavery, Douglass won hearts and minds to the abolitionist cause and a place for himself in the leadership of the abolitionist movement. But many of the white abolitionists, though they despised slavery, were unready to share leadership with a black man. They told him he was too eloquent – that no one believe he was a slave unless he “have a little of the plantation manner of speech”. “Tis best,” his friends said, “not to seem too learned.”
Seven years later, Douglass would formally challenge his friend Garrison and other key Boston abolitionists by advocating a different set of policies. Garrison believed in the break-up of the Union, allowing the errant South to go its own way, while Douglass believed that slaves in the South should not be abandoned. In 1848, Douglass began his own abolitionist newspaper in Rochester, New York, through which he espoused his views. According to Stauffer, the Boston abolitionists “Considered it ‘absurd’ for an ex-slave, ‘brought up in the very depths of ignorance,’ to pretend that he could be a successful editor. A fugitive orator who bared his back to a shocked audience was one thing; an editor who enlightened educated readers on the principles of liberty, justice and humanity was something else entirely!” (For the record, Douglass was right, and Garrison and the rest came around to his point of view.)
In retrospect, it seems absurd that the abolitionist movement would spurn black leadership. But do white Southerners unconsciously repeat Garrison’s mistake? I believe we do so, whenever we talk about neighborhood revitalization in predominately African-American communities without allowing black voices to guide the conversation. And we do so whenever a white church goes into an African-American neighborhood to start a new ministry without first partnering with local black churches and community leaders and letting them shape the ministry.
Of course, there are some fantastic models here in Chattanooga of collaborative leadership. Mayor Andy Berke’s appointment of Lurone Jennings as the head of the city’s Youth and Family Development department was brilliant, both because he is the most qualified person for the job and because he is more familiar with the social problems that plague urban families and young people than any outsider (or anyone from the suburbs of Chattanooga, for that matter) ever could be. Lookout Mountain Presbyterian Church’s model of engagement is exemplary. Rather than coming up with their own version of urban ministry, the church has developed a strong partnership with a thriving black church in St. Elmo – Church of the First Born – and folks from Lookout Presbyterian show up at ministry events not to lead, but to serve.
Lesson 3: Be Willing to Listen to Criticism – Even Angry Criticism
Frederick Douglass’ words were not – and are not – always easy for even sympathetic white people to hear. Of course he enraged Southern slaveholding society with remarks such as this one: “Slaveholders… are only a band of successful robbers, who left their homes and went into Africa for the purpose of stealing and reducing my people to slavery.” But he also at times spoke hard truths to would-be allies.
It may come as a surprise that Douglass, who was in later life one of President Lincoln’s great admirers, was in 1861 and 1862 one of his harshest critics. We must remember that the Lincoln who took office in 1861 was a different man than the Great Emancipator of just two years later. During the 1860 presidential campaign, Lincoln had opposed the extension of slavery into new states and territories but not the abolition of slavery in the South. In his first inaugural address, he vowed to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, in an attempt to placate Southern states. He went on in that speech to declare, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” Douglass, in response, remarked that Lincoln was “a genuine proslavery president”.
Even after war broke out, Lincoln made it clear that he would allow the Southern states to end their rebellion and return to the Union without giving up the slave system. Douglass responded by carrying out in his newspaper a two-year campaign of opposition to Lincoln’s conciliatory policies.
As the war progressed, Lincoln’s views changed. His war aims broadened, from simply preserving the Union to ending slavery in America, and Frederick Douglass played a role in that transformation. Douglass had forcefully argued not only for the moral rectitude but also for the military expediency of making the war into an abolition war and arming black men. And Lincoln radically changed his policies, first issuing the Emancipation Proclamation and later championing the Thirteenth Amendment that forever abolished slavery in America.
Ultimately, Douglass praised Lincoln for dealing the death blow to slavery, giving honor to the man he had so sharply criticized. Stauffer writes, “At a time when most whites would not let a black man cross their threshold, Lincoln met Douglass three times at the White House. Their friendship was chiefly utilitarian: Lincoln needed Douglass to help him destroy the Confederacy; Douglass knew that Lincoln could help him end slavery. But they also genuinely liked and admired each other.”
Lincoln was a big enough person to hear Douglass’ criticism, even public criticism, and respond to it thoughtfully – even to change his mind. Are we? When people get upset about inequality and criticize present-day social structures, do we listen or do we write them off? Christena Cleveland, a Christian social psychologist, writes: “[P]rivileged folks typically prefer to only listen to oppressed people when the oppressed people are speaking in a polite, kind and non-accusatory manner…. When oppressed people raise their voices, angrily point out injustices or speak out in a way that makes privileged people uncomfortable, privileged folks often opt to shut down the conversation.”
On December 19, the Times Free Press hosted a forum in Alton Park on the topic of “Race, Reconciliation and Truth-Telling”. The main focus of the event was the city’s new violence reduction initiative. Many people in the audience were angry about past police actions, including the fact that the former chief of police had rounded up 32 black men and called them “the worst of the worst” criminals in the Chattanooga area. I disagree with many of the views expressed that night, and I believe that the mayor’s crime reduction initiative represents a real chance for police and neighborhoods to partner together.
But I also listened to their anger. After all, millions of young African-American men are sent to prison and then are relegated to a second-class citizen status in our country. (And by the way, is it really possible that our city’s 32 worst offenders are all black men?) It is enough to make someone angry. As Cleveland says: “Privileged people who are truly committed to standing in solidarity with oppressed folks must also commit to knowing, bearing and even being targeted by their anger. Only then can the factors that have contributed to the anger be truly addressed.”
This Black History Month, let’s celebrate Frederick Douglass, my favorite American of the nineteenth century. And let’s listen to his words and his life, so that we can build a stronger society together.