I Meet Frederick Douglass
by Glen Draeger
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There are two races in our country against which America committed its greatest injustices: Black Americans and Native Americans. In the case of Native Americans their land was taken from them, treaties were broken and in the worst cases men, women and children were ruthlessly killed. Black Americans suffered slavery, murder and racism. The latter still occurs today. Slavery took away the freedom of men, women and children in a nation that was supposedly founded upon the principles of liberty and the equality of all people.
Booker T. Washington once wrote, "The life of Frederick Douglass is the history of American slavery epitomized in a single human experience. He saw it all, lived it all, and overcame it all." You will learn about Douglass's life from your reading but I also wanted you to know a little bit about what Frederick Douglass believed and what his arguments against slavery and other issues were.
The poet Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote in his poem entitled, Frederick Douglass:
And he was no soft-tongued apologist;
He spoke straightforward, fearlessly uncowed;
The sunlight of his truth dispelled the mist,
And set in bold relief each dark-hued cloud;
To sin and crime he gave their proper hue,
And hurled at evil what was evil's due.
So, here are . . . . . . . .
Hi. Right after I finished typing the above poem and beginning the next sentence I heard a commotion in my front yard. It was about 8 o'clock and it sounded like someone was breaking into my car. I yelled for Fezzik and we dashed out the front door. One of the windows on my car had been broken and I saw someone running through my neighbor's yard. Fezzik sprinted well ahead of me barking furiously. I followed as fast I could jumping over plants, rocks and other dark objects. I tried to jump over a log, but tripped and found myself in the World of Literature inside the gigantic tree at the feet of Iris.
"Welcome," she said pleasantly. "Let's get going. We have a long journey ahead of us."
"Where are we going?" I asked.
"To see Frederick Douglass. You will want to talk to him." She helped pull me up from the ground, handed me a large sack containing food and a leather pouch filled with water. "Let's go."
The journey was the most difficult I have taken in the World of Literature. We hiked through a treacherous mountain range often losing the trail and feeling quite lost ourselves. By the second day we were above the treeline and so tired that we rarely talked.
We hid in caves at night to avoid wolf packs and sometimes bears, but on the fourth night a wolf pack discovered the cave we were in. This was no ordinary wolf pack. Wolves in our world rarely, if ever, attack humans. These wolves reminded me of the ones I read about in The Lion, the Witch and Wardrobe. They seemed almost human in their intelligence. The single opening in the front of the cave allowed us to keep them out with sticks that we jabbed at their faces and ferocious, snapping mouths. When it appeared that we could hold them off no longer, Iris suddenly threw down her tree branch and stood in the opening of the cave with her arms raised above her head. The wary wolves backed off, regrouped and advanced toward her while I stood behind her holding my splintered stick. I didn't need it. I don't know if the light came from her eyes, her mouth or her entire head, but it shot out toward the wolves like a thick, constant, but straight bolt of lightening. The whole area lit up as if giant lights were above our heads and the sound of it and the wind it produced was like that of jet engine. It so frightened the wolves that we never saw them again, though we often heard them howling in the night.
For six days the cold permeated my body and it was impossible to stay warm. At times I wanted to give up and I could hardly believe that Iris, who is much older than I, was able to continue such an arduous journey over rocks, streams, snow and steep, slippery trails—-but the wolves had taught me that there was more to Iris than I realized. During all this time our destination was never in sight and though Iris told me it was beyond the tallest mountain in front of us I began to think that we would never get there.
On the sixth day we struggled over the tallest mountain through a long, narrow, snowy trail that Iris called Abolition Pass. My feet were numb and my fingers so cold that I feared I had frost bite. Each step was a struggle and I kept my head down concentrating on each one. We reached the summit of the pass late in the afternoon. From there, finally, far off in the distance, we saw our destination—-or at least the place where our destination was, the city where we would meet Frederick Douglass. I thought the journey there would be easier, but it required all the strength and concentration I had left. We had to cross two raging rivers and once I thought we would both drown. Beyond these a narrow, deep ravine blocked our way. I felled a large tree across it with an ax that Iris brought and we used the pine tree's trunk as a bridge to the other side. I have never been so frightened. I crawled on my hands and knees and collapsed several times to my stomach to keep from falling hundreds of feet to my death. Several times I wished I had never come to the World of Literature. This seemed to be an impossible trek.
However, in another five days we reached the city. I had lost about 25 pounds, my clothes were ragged, I hadn't shaved and I did not care about talking to Mr. Douglass, I only cared about getting some food, a hot shower and some sleep.
"Where are we?" I asked Iris.
"This is Rochester, New York sometime in 1880."
"I need some food," I said.
"First, let me show you something. We walked down a crowded street and into an auditorium. At the podium stood a black man and he was speaking. "Speaking" is not the right word. He thundered his message to his audience. I have never heard such conviction in a voice. We listened for a few minutes then Iris took me outside. "We'll talk to him in a few days after you get your strength back, but I wanted you to see him in his capacity as an orator, one of the greatest America has produced. I also want to tell you something one of your American writers once wrote about Mr. Douglass.
'He stood there like an African prince, conscious of his dignity and power, grand in his proportions, majestic in his wrath, as with keen wit, satire, and indignation he portrayed the bitterness of slavery.'
"Let's go get some rooms," Iris said.
After a few days to recuperate we met Mr. Douglass and what follows is our conversation:
Mr. Draeger: Thank you for allowing me to interview you. I know you must be a busy man.
Mr. Douglass: My pleasure.
Mr. Draeger: Before slavery was abolished how did you feel when America celebrated the 4th of July?
Mr. Douglass: I was not included within the pale of that glorious anniversary. Your high independence only revealed the immeasurable distance between us. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. The Fourth of July is yours, not mine. What, to the American slave, was your Fourth of July? I answer; a day that revealed to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he was the constant victim.
Mr. Draeger: Did you receive much help from the churches during that time.
Mr. Douglass: The church of this country was not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually took sides with the oppressors. They taught that man may, properly, be a slave; that the relation of master and slave is ordained of God; that to send back an escaped bondman to his master is clearly the duty of all the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ; and this horrible blasphemy is palmed off upon the world for Christianity.
Mr. Draeger: All churches were like that?
Mr. Douglass: In speaking of the American church, let it be distinctly understood that I mean the great mass of the religious organizations of our land. There are exceptions and I thank God that there are.
Mr. Draeger: So, now that slavery has been abolished is life much better for your race?
Mr. Douglass: It is our lot to live among a people whose laws, traditions, and prejudices have been against us for centuries and from these they are not yet free. To assume that they are free from these evils simply because they have changed their laws is to assume what is utterly unreasonable and contrary to the facts.
Mr. Draeger: What are the facts, Mr. Douglass?
Mr. Douglass: Though the colored man is no longer subject to be bought and sold, he is still surrounded by an adverse sentiment which fetters all his movements. The color line meets him everywhere, and in a measure shuts him out from all respectable and profitable trades and callings.
Mr. Draeger: Has anything really changed?
Mr. Douglass: Even now, after twenty years of so-called emancipation, we are subject to lawless raids of midnight riders, who, with blackened faces, invade our homes. Thus in all the relations of life and death we are met by the color line. It hunts us at midnight, it denies us accommodation in hotels and justice in the courts, excludes our children from schools, refuses our sons the chance to learn trades, and compels us to pursue only such labor as will bring the least reward.
Mr. Draeger: What do you think America should do?
Mr. Douglass: I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing has already played mischief with us. Do nothing with us! If the Negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone! If you will only untie his hands, and give him a chance, I think he will live.
Mr. Draeger: This is all very depressing. It must be especially depressing for you. Do you think things will change?
Mr. Douglass: While we recognize the color line as a hurtful force, we do not despair. We are a hopeful people. We believe that prejudice, with all its malign accompaniments, may yet be removed by peaceful means; that, assisted by time and events and the growing enlightenment of both races, the color line will ultimately become harmless. When this shall come it will then only be used, as it should be, to distinguish one variety of the human family from another. It will cease to have any civil, political, or moral significance.
Mr. Draeger: The abolition of slavery was one of you major causes as is the continued struggle for liberty now. I also know you had some strong opinions about the war with Mexico.
Mr. Douglass: America succeeded in robbing Mexico of her territory, and rejoiced over their success under the hypocritical pretense of a regard for peace. That an end was put to the wholesale murder in Mexico was truly just cause for rejoicing; but we were not the people to rejoice; we ought to have hung our heads in shame, and, in the spirit of profound humility, craved pardon for our crimes at the hands of a God whose mercy endureth forever.
Mr. Draeger: I have also heard that you have fought hard for the rights of women.
Mr. Douglass: Many who have at last made the discovery that the Negroes have some rights as well as other members of the human family, have yet to be convinced that women are entitled to any. Eight years ago a number of persons of this description actually abandoned the anti-slavery cause, lest by giving their influence in that direction they might possibly be giving countenance to the dangerous heresy that woman, in respect to rights, stands on an equal footing with man. In the judgment of such person the American slave system, with all its concomitant horrors, is less to be deplored than this wicked idea. It is perhaps needless to say, that I cherish little sympathy for such sentiments or respect for such prejudices. In respect to political rights, we hold women to be justly entitled to all we claim for man. We go farther, and express our conviction that all political rights which it is expedient for man to exercise, it is equally so for woman. All that distinguishes man as an intelligent and accountable being is equally true of woman; and if that government only is just which governs by the free consent of the governed, there can be no reason in the world for denying to woman the exercise of the elective franchise, or a hand in making and administering the laws of the land.
Mr. Draeger: I know you may find this hard to believe, but I live about 120 years in the future. And though things are not yet perfect in America because of you and Martin Luther King, Jr. and countless other men and women both black and white it is much, much better.
Mr. Douglass: There is hope for people when their laws are righteous, whether for the moment they conform to their requirements or not. Who would be free themselves must strike the blow.
Mr. Draeger: You certainly did that, Mr. Douglass.
Mr. Douglass: You know that liberty given is never so precious as liberty sought for and fought for. The man outraged is the man to make the outcry.
Mr. Draeger: I know that now. Thank you, Mr. Douglass.
Mr. Douglass: You're welcome.
With those words we parted. Iris and I stayed in our hotel rooms for another few days. I was still very weak so I spent the time resting and thinking about Mr. Douglass, what he said to me and the story he tells us in the book we are reading.
I had hoped that I would exit the World of Literature after my interview with Mr. Douglass, but that was not to be. I didn't know if I could make the return trip. I told Iris this, but she said there was no other way. After 12 days that seemed just as difficult as our earlier venture we stood at the entrance to the giant tree and here, again, I expected to be whisked back home, but it did not happen. Iris allowed me to stay in one of her guest rooms situated in a large hollow branch about halfway up the tree or close to 1,000 feet above the ground. I needed the rest so it was probably a good thing. Then one night, it might have been a month later, I went to sleep and woke up the next morning in my own bed when my alarm went off. It was good to be home.
Note: All the words of Frederick Douglass come from his writings and are exact quotes except for minor changes of tense so as not to disrupt the flow of the imaginary conversation.
The following works were used:
"PEACE! PEACE! PEACE!" by Frederick Douglass, North Star, March 17, 1848 from The Annals of America, Volume 7, 1841-1849: Manifest Destiny, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, Il., 1976.
"The Rights of Women" by Frederick Douglass, The North Star, July 28,1848 from the website Suite 101.com and this webpage: http://www.suite101.com/page.cfm/564
A speech given by Frederick Douglass on September 24, 1883 from The Annals of America, Volume 10, 1866-1883: Reconstruction and Idustrialization, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, Il., 1976.
"What the Black Man Wants" by Frederick Douglass from Early Negro American Writers, Edited by Benjamin Brawley, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1970.
"What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" by Frederick Douglass, from The American Intellectual Tradition, Volume I: 1620-1865, edited by David A. Hollinger and Charles Capper, Oxford University Press, New York, 1989.
The quotes and poem about Frederick Douglass come from The Dictionary of Biographical Quotation, edited by Richard Kenin and Justin Wintle, Dorset Press, New York, 1978.
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