Blog #7: Frederick Douglass’s Persistence and Strength 

I am afraid to die.  If Nietzsche was right, if “that which does not kill us makes us stronger,” then my sheltered life has made me weak.  I remember as a child mulling over my own unworthiness when hearing Martin Luther King Jr, declare, “If you haven't found something worth dying for, you're not fit to live.” Was I willing to die for something?
Frederick Douglass had little choice, for the profound cause of self-preservation was forced on him. Like many other enslaved souls, his strength grew out of adversity. Douglass writes, “The hardships and dangers involved in the struggle give strength and toughness to the character, and enable it to stand firm in storm as well as in sunshine.”  So much of his life was lived in the storm of racism, so how did he grow strong?

A lesson Douglass learned as a child was key: “Men are whipped oftenest who are whipped easiest.” He would not make it easy, even for the cruel “slave breaker” named Covey. Douglass admits that at one point, “Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me – in body, soul, and spirit.” He became “a man transformed into a brute!” Was he going to endure for life the humiliation of “Old Barney,” an elderly horse keeper he saw regularly whipped for trivial reasons?  Perhaps in Barney he saw his future self, and could not accept that fate.

One day, he would not back down before Covey, despite deadly threat. Douglass threw him to the ground.  He explained, “I had reached the point at which I was not afraid to die.  This spirit made me a freeman in fact, though I still remained a slave in form.”  Why do I hesitate to stand up today? Is part of my privilege wrapped up in being afraid to die?
To honor Douglas, my fear must not keep me from the work before us.  Douglass resisted with force because, “[a] man without force is without the essential dignity of humanity.” True today! That’s why, to avoid further violence that racism causes, public power must be given to all – political power, economical power, and social power. The dignity demanded by Douglass, and by people of color who today sacrifice themselves in racial justice activism, requires those of us who grew up expecting dignity to get working for the dignity of others.

  • Lesson #16: Contribute to “something worth dying for.”

  • Lesson #17: Staying out of the furnace of systemic racism = white privilege.

  • Lesson #18: Forceful self-defense is often the only escape from oppression.

  • Lesson #19: Often those whipped easiest are those who are whipped most.

  • Lesson #20: If you’ve lived a life with the comforting expectation of being treated with dignity, commit fully to the dignity of others.

Hugh Taft-Morales