This week, I want to discuss Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and the immense impact it has had on my life.
My Humble Introduction
I read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass when I was in high school. While in school, I had to read countless nonsensical books for a variety of classes. These books imparted no wisdom and offered little in the way of inspiration. However, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass was an inspiring autobiography that showed me a man’s climb out of the hell of slavery into the fruitful land of freedom.
You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.
Through Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, I learned about gratitude for one’s life, perseverance through corruption, zeal for learning, fortitude in the face of oppressive power, and the strength of individualism.
Today I will discuss these lessons, Frederick Douglass’s work, and how they’ve made me a better man.
Life Is Better
If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will… Men may not get all they pay for in this world, but they must certainly pay for all they get.
Life is not perfect. Every individual faces an assortment of small and large issues. However, life is better today than it was hundreds of years ago.
Frederick Douglass was a slave before he became a free man. He escaped and later fought an abhorrent institution supported by brutality and legal “rights.” Slave owners whipped Douglass, poor whites attacked him, and other slaves conspired against him. He had no legal or social recourse to deal with such abuses. Even in the “free” North, he was still considered property until an ally purchased his freedom.
The scope of his battle does not diminish the importance of my own. However, I have not and will never face the injustices he suffered through. It does helps to have the bird’s eye view. If Frederick Douglass can overcome slaveholders then surely I can overcome bullies and manipulators.
Corruption of Ideals
I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of the land… I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels… We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members… The dealer gives his blood-stained gold to support the pulpit, and the pulpit, in return, covers his infernal business with the garb of Christianity. Here we have religion and robbery the allies of each other—devils dressed in angels’ robes, and hell presenting the semblance of paradise.
I have stated before that I am a cautious supporter of Christianity. There were many Christians of the past who utilized their view of the Bible to justify the enslavement of others. Slaveholders corrupted the ideals of generosity and mercy into the vices of greed and slavery.
Frederick Douglass was a Christian himself and worked along with many Christians such as William Lloyd Garrison to end slavery. They utilize the ideal of God to pursue virtue and to overcome the evil that was before them.
There can be no ideal that advocates vice. The ideal is the highest potential of virtuous people and should represent our highest selves. When we take that ideal and corrupt it, we pursue the most evil we are capable of.
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.
The slaveholders had their version of God that justified their collective brutality. They worshipped vice and sought legitimate ways to show their cruelty. Religion (as well as the law) offered effective avenues by which to express their abuse. Few slaveholders admitted that slavery was evil. Thus they sought moral institutions, such as religion, to dress up their evil in acceptable terms.
Whether religious or not, when we pursue an ideal, it has to be virtuous. We cannot pursue vice without the corruption of ourselves and others.
Knowledge as the Path to Freedom
I have observed this in my experience of slavery, – that whenever my condition was improved, instead of its increasing my contentment, it only increased my desire to be free, and set me to thinking of plans to gain my freedom. I have found that, to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason. He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceased to be a man.
Frederick Douglass learned how to read through his own efforts. Knowledge gave him insight into the evils of slavery and through his reading, he could clearly see his shackles. Education was a tool that he needed to become a man and overcome the lies and abuses around him.
With education, Frederick Douglass could not beat the system, but he could think clearly. The first step of overcoming abuse or vice is to admit to what they are. To overcome slavery, a slave has to accept slavery is evil.
Information and Personal Power
On the one hand, knowledge gives us power over our lives. The more we know, the more opportunities we have. Therefore, learning enables us to pursue our dreams, find better employment, or fix minor issues such as car troubles.
Knowledge and the Power Hungry
The power hungry are always advocates of ignorance. For example, if you work at a terrible job with an abusive manager, he doesn’t want you to learn new skills and seek better employment options.
Through Frederick Douglass’s account of his life, I’ve seen how important learning is. You should always seek to learn as much as possible so that abusers and manipulators have little to no power over you.
How Power Enslaves
Frederick Douglass was a victim of the slave trade. Within slavery, the slave is under the oppression of the master and the master is allowed to do with the slave whatever the master chooses. Complete dominion over the lives of others is the goal of the power-hungry.
However, Frederick Douglass expertly highlights the slave owner’s enslavement to his slave. The master is dependent on the slave for food, resources, monetary success, and stability. The master does not trade value for value with his slave – he simply takes the salve’s productive labor by force.
The slave master is a parasite who feeds on the abilities and work of the slave. The slave master is dependent on the ignorance and subjugation of his slave; if the slave were to rebel or escape, the master would be unable to sustain his own life.
The master needs the slave to work so that the master has food. The master needs the slave to comply so that the master feels strong. The master needs the slave to remain ignorant so that the master can subjugate his victim.
When we seek power over others, we are dependent on their approval, compliance, and attention. However, when we deal with others as equals and trade value for value, then we produce a more stable situation.
When people such as William Lloyd Garrison dealt with Frederick Douglass as equals, then William Lloyd Garrison benefited not from the devaluing of Douglass but the elevation of Douglass. William Lloyd Garrison wanted Frederick Douglass to be intelligent, capable, and independent – the very opposite of a slave. The self-improvement gave William Lloyd Garrison an ally and friend in the fight to end slavery.
Power over others places us at their mercy as we look for new and creative ways to hold their attention or to bring them down. However, when we look for partners and see people as equals, then we are invested in their elevation and self-improvement.
The Importance of Individualism
But I should be false in the earliest sentiments of my soul, if I suppressed the opinion. I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and incur my own abhorrence.
Slavery is formed by denying individual rights and sovereignty. The core of slavery is collectivism and a disregard for the individual.
The last lesson I learned from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is the importance of individualism and the view of people as ends unto themselves. When we step outside of the collectivist’s mindsets that make it easy to dehumanize people, then we are capable of looking beyond groups.
We all have struggles and doubts. Life is full of constant challenges, and our goal should be gathering the strength and resources necessary to fight back against the worst that life has to offer.
I found Frederick Douglass’s work while I was wallowing in the public school system and it helped me renew my sense of purpose. No matter how confident or capable we may feel or be, we all need inspiration. The life and times of great men and women can provide us with the motivation we need to keep going.
You are not the first one to fight for your individuality. Study the lives of great men and women so that you can remain inspired to become the individual you were meant to be.
- Have you ever read Frederick Douglass? Do you know much about him?
- What’s a book that you’ve read that has had a huge impact on your life? Why has it impacted you?
- If you don’t have a book that has impacted you, then what movie, show, or game have you consumed that has had an impact on you? How did it impact you?
- Who is someone who has inspired you? What about them inspired you?
Please remember that it’s important to do the actionables. You’re not on this earth to simply read but to do. To become an individual, you must act more than you consume.
*Image credit to Unsplash. Quotes from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.