Frederick Douglass, an Alternative Truth
Who was Frederick Douglass? More importantly, why does Frederick Douglass matter to today’s America? The above questions are not merely rhetorical, as the recent controversy surrounding President Trump’s Black History Month statement illustrate.
7 Feb 2017
“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) vs. “is being recognized” (present) — as an incongruous construction at best, and at worst as 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 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 enslaver’s wife saw a deep yearning to learn in Douglass and begun to teach him to read. Once her husband found out about this, 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, while 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.
The alternative narrative is that Frederick Douglass, while a black hero, was also so much more. He was a notable early leader of the Republican Party. He championed the woman’s right to vote at a time when it was not politically popular. He also served as Washington D.C.’s first Post Master General — entrusted by the President to manage the most sensitive correspondence during the height of the Civil War.
Douglass was also one the best and most sought after orators of his day. He traveled around the country extensively talking about the ills of slavery and oppression. His stance as a pro-abolition speaker and activist at the time took courage and conviction. As Douglass was fond of saying, “The man who is right is a majority. We, who have God and conscience on our side, have a majority against the universe.”
The alternative view is that it is great that he is being recognized more and more.
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