Who was Frederick Douglass? More importantly, why does Frederick Douglass matter to today’s America? These questions are not merely rhetorical, as the recent controversy surrounding President Trump’s 2017 Black History Month statement illustrate.
“Frederick Douglass,” Trump said, “is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice.” The mainstream media have caste Trump’s curious mixture of both past and present tenses—“who’s done” (past) versus “is being recognized” (present)—as an incongruous construction at best, and at worst a clueless invocation of one of America’s most beloved and revered historical figures. But there is certainly an alternative view to be had.
The alternative view is that whatever the president’s intended form of language or actual prior knowledge of Frederick Douglass, Douglass is certainly an example of excellence. Furthermore, especially during Black History Month, Douglass is receiving heightened recognition. Frederick Douglass was, of course, born into slavery, and was possibly fathered by a member of his enslaver’s own family. Although he was illiterate as a child, his enslavers wife saw a deep yearning to learn in Douglass and began to teach him to read. Once her husband found out, he immediately put a stop to the lessons and forbade his wife from continuing to teach Douglass. The system of slavery required as a fundamental principle that slaves be kept in ignorance, lest they begin to challenge the injustice that was being pressed on them.
Douglass, who even as a child realized that the secret to his ultimate freedom was knowledge, found clever ways around the reading ban. The most successful ruse involved recruiting the young white boys he befriended around the neighborhood. Many of them were hungry, whereas Douglass had free access to a pantry full of bread supplied by his enslavers. Douglass would always take a book out with him when he was sent on errands, and when he encountered a young friend, he would ask for help reading the words. Although some may have been initially reluctant to help him, they usually became quite eager to help once they realized Douglass had bread to share.
Douglass, like any great entrepreneur, saw a means of exchanging a thing of value to others (bread) to receive something that was much more valuable to himself (knowledge). Douglass’ entrepreneurial approach to learning ultimately helped him gain his freedom (when he ran away from the plantation he knew how to make his way to Baltimore because he had voraciously read and completely memorized maps and road signs). This simple yet powerful lesson is instructive of the personal power we all have to rise up from whatever personal or social circumstances that may be preventing us from achieving our dreams.
Douglass deeply despised the system of slavery that was the law of the land in America. He met with President Lincoln on at least three occasions to discuss the matter, which he saw as one of our nation’s great moral challenges. He not only felt slavery was bad for African-Americans (the prevailing narrative was that slaves were generally better off under conditions of slavery than many free citizens), but bad for America’s soul. Slavery caused otherwise humane, kind and devoted Christians to become covetous, deceitful and cruel. Slavery, Douglass argued, was a serious impediment to America’s ability to realize its manifest destiny.