Frederick Douglass (XHTML)
A 1909 essay by African American educator Kelly Miller. Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.
Kelly Miller, “Frederick Douglass,” from Race Adjustment, 2nd ed.(New York: Neale Publishing Company, 1909), 213-222.
The highest function of a great name is to serve as an example and as a perpetual source of inspiration to the young who are to come after him. By the subtle law known as "consciousness of kind" a commanding personality incites the sharpest stimulus and exerts the deepest intensity of influence among the group from which he springs. We gather inspiration most readily from those of our class who have been touched with the feeling of our infirmities and have been subject to like conditions as ourselves. Every class, every race, every country, and indeed every well-defined group of social interests has its own glorified names whose fame and following are limited to the prescribed sphere of influence. Indeed, human relations are so diverse and human interests and feelings so antagonistic that the names which command even a fanatical following among one class may be despised and rejected by another. He who serves his exclusive class may be great in the positive degree; the man who serves a whole race or country may be considered great in the comparative degree; but it is only the man who breaks the barrier of class and creed and country and serves the human race that is worthy to be accounted great in the superlative degree. We are so far the creatures of local and institutional environment, and so disposed to borrow our modes of thought and feeling from our social medium, that even an appeal to the universal heart must be adapted to the spirit and genius of the time and people to whom it is first made. Even
the Savior of the world offered the plan of salvation first to the Jews in the traditional guise of the Hebrew cult.
It is essential that any isolated, proscribed class should honor its illustrious names. They serve not only as a measure of their possibilities, but they possess greater inspirational power by virtue of their close sympathetic and kindly touch. Small wonder that such people are wont to glorify their distinguished men out of proportion to their true historical setting on the scale of human greatness.
Frederick Douglass is the one commanding historic character of the colored race in America. He is the model of emulation of those who are struggling up through the trials and difficulties which he himself suffered and subdued. He is illustrative and exemplary of what they might become -- the first fruit of promise of a dormant race. To the aspiring colored youth of this land Mr. Douglass is, at once, the inspiration of their hopes and the justification of their claims.
I do not on this occasion intend to dwell upon the well-known facts and circumstances in the life and career of Mr. Douglass, but deem it more profitable to point out some of the lessons to be derived from that life.
In the first place, Mr. Douglass began life at the lowest possible level. It is only when we understand the personal circumstances of his early environment that we can appreciate the pathos and power with which he was wont to insist upon the true measure of the progress of the American Negro, not by the height already attained, but by the depth from which he came. It has been truly said that it required a greater upward move to bring Mr. Douglass to the status in which the ordinary white child is born than
is necessary on the part of the latter to reach the presidency of the United States. The early life of this gifted child of nature was spent amid squalor, deprivation and cruel usage. Like Melchizedek of old, it can be said of him that he sprung into existence without father or mother, or beginning of days. His little body was unprotected from the bitter, biting cold, and his vitals griped with the gnawing pangs of hunger. We are told that he vied with the dogs for the crumbs that fell from his master's table. He tasted the sting of a cruel slavery, and drank the cup to its very dregs. And yet he arose from this lowly and degraded estate and gained for himself a place among the illustrious names of his country.
We hear much in this day and time about the relative force of environment and heredity as factors in the formation of character. But, as the career of Mr. Douglass illustrates, there is a subtle power of personality which, though the product of neither, is more potential than both. God has given to each of us an irrepressible inner something, which, for want of better designation, the old philosophy used to call the freedom of the will, which counts for most in the making of manhood.
In the second place, I would call attention to the tremendous significance of a seemingly trifling incident in his life. When he was about thirteen years of age he came into possession of a copy of the "Columbian Orator," abounding in dramatic outbursts and stirring episodes of liberty. It was the ripened fruit of the choicest spirits, upon which the choicest spirits feed. This book fired his whole soul and kindled an unquenchable love for liberty. It is held by some that at the age of puberty the mind is in a state of unstable equilibrium, and, like a pyramid on its apex, may be thrown in any direction by
the slightest impression of force. The instantaneity of religious conversions, which the Methodists used to acclaim with such triumphant outbursts of hallelujah, may rest upon some such psychological foundation. When the child nature stands at the parting of the ways, between youth and adolescence, it yields to some quickening touch, as the fuse to the spark, or as the sensitized plate to the impressions of sunlight. There are "psychological moments" when the revealed idea rises sublimely above the revealing agent. According to the theory of harmonies, if two instruments are tuned in resonant accord the vibrations of the one will wake up the slumbering chords of the other. Young Douglass' soul was in sympathetic resonance with the great truth of human brotherhood and equality, and needed only the psychological suggestion which the "Columbian Orator" supplied. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, it burned deep into his soul and made an ineffaceable impression upon his consciousness of the gospel of brotherhood and equality of man. It was the same truth which could only be impressed upon the Apostle Peter in the rhapsodies of a heavenly vision. The age of revelation is not past, and will not pass so long as there remains one soul that yearns for spiritual illumination. There comes at times into our lives some sudden echo of the heavenly harmony from the unseen world, and happy is that soul which beats in vibrant harmony with that supernal sound. When the gospel of liberty first dawned upon the adolescent Douglass, as he pursued the pages of the "Columbian Orator," there is no rendition of either the old or the new school of psychology that can analyze the riot of thought and sentiment that swept through his turbulent soul. This was indeed his new birth, his baptism with fire from on high. From that
moment he was a possessed man. The love of liberty bound him with its subtle cords and did not release him until the hour of his death on Anacostia's mist-clad height.
Our educational philosophers are ransacking their brains to prescribe wise curricula of study for colored youth. There is not so much need of that which gives information to the mind or cunning to the fingers as that which touches the soul and quickens the spirit. There must be first aroused dormant consciousness of manhood with its inalienable rights, privileges, and dignity. The letter killeth, the spirit maketh alive. The "Columbia Orator" contributed more towards arousing the manhood of Mr. Douglass than all the traditional knowledge of all the schools. Of what avail is the mastery of all branches of technical and refined knowledge unless it touches the hidden springs of manhood? The value of any curriculum of study for a suppressed class that is not pregnant with moral energy, and that does not make insistent and incessant appeal to the half-conscious manhood within is seriously questionable. The revelation to a young man of the dignity, I had almost said the divinity, of his own selfhood is worth more to him in the development of character and power than all the knowledge in all the deluxe volumes in the gilded Carnegie libraries.
In the third place, Negro youth should study Mr. Douglass as a model of manly courage. In order to acquire a clear conception of principles let us discriminate sharply in the use of terms. Courage is that quality which enables one to encounter danger and difficulties with firmness and resolution of spirit. It is the swell of soul which meets outward pressure with inner resistance. Fortitude, on the other hand, is the capacity to endure, the ability to suffer and
be strong. It is courage in the passive voice. True courage sets up an ideal and posits a purpose; it calculates the cost and is economic of means, though never faltering in determination to reach that end. Bravery is mere physical daring in the presence of danger, and responds to temporary physical and mental excitation. He who is eager to fight every evil which God allows to exist in society does not display rational courage. Even our Savior selected the evils against which He waged war. The caged eagle which beats his wings into insensibility against the iron bars of his prison-house is accounted a foolish bird. On the other hand, "the linnet void of noble raze" has gained the everlasting seal of poetic disapproval. It is not genuine courage to go through the world like the knight in the tale with sword in hand and challenge on lips to offer mortal combat to every windmill of opposition.
Mr. Douglass was courageous in the broadest and best significance of the term. He set before him as the goal of his ambition his own personal freedom and that of his race, and he permitted neither principalities nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor things present nor things to come, to swerve him from the pursuit of that purpose.
When we speak of moral courage we indulge in tautology of terms; for all courage is essentially moral. It does not require courage to go with your friends or against your enemies; it is a physical impulse to do so. But true moral courage is shown when we say no to our friends.
Mr. Douglass reached the climax of moral courage when he parted with William Lloyd Garrison, his friend and benefactor, because of honest difference of judgment, and when for the same motive he refused to follow John Brown to the scaffold at Har-
per's Ferry. It required an iron resolution and sublime courage for Douglass to deny the tender, pathetic, paternal appeal of the man who was about to offer up himself as a sacrifice for an alien race. John Brown on the scaffold dying for an alien and defenseless race is the most sublime spectacle that this planet has seen since Christ hung on the cross. That scaffold shall be more hallowed during the ages to come than any throne upon which king ever sat. Who but Douglass would decline a seat on his right hand?
In the fourth place, Mr. Douglass stands out as a model of self-respect. Although he was subject to all of the degradation and humiliation of his race, yet he preserved the integrity of his own soul. It is natural for a class that is despised, rejected and despitefully used to accept the estimate of their contemners, and to conclude that they are good for nothing but to be cast out and trodden under foot. In a civilization whose every feature serves to impress a whole people with a sense of their inferiority, small wonder if the more timid and resigned spirits are crushed beneath the cruel weight. It requires the philosophic calm and poise to stand upright and unperturbed amid such irrational things.
It is imperative that the youth of the colored race have impressed upon them the lesson that it is not the treatment that a man receives that degrades him, but that which he accepts. It does not degrade the soul when the body is swallowed up by the earthquake or overwhelmed by the flood. We are not humiliated by the rebuffs of nature. No more should we feel humiliated and degraded by violence and outrage perpetrated by a powerful and arrogant social scheme. As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he. The inner freedom of soul is not subject
to assault and battery. Mr. Douglass understood this principle well. He was never in truth and indeed a slave; for his soul never accepted the gyves that shackled his body.
It is related that Mr. Douglass was once ordered out of a first-class coach into a "Jim Crow" car by a rude and ill-mannered conductor. His white companion followed him to the proscribed department, and asked him how he felt to be humiliated by such a coarse fellow. Mr. Douglass let himself out to the full length of his robust manhood and replied, "I feel as if I had been kicked by an ass." If one will preserve his inner integrity, the ill-usage and despiteful treatment others may heap upon him can never penetrate to the holy of holies, which remains sacred and inviolable to an external assault.
The fifth lesson which should be emphasized in connection with the life of Mr. Douglass is that he possessed a ruling passion outside the narrow circle of self-interest and personal well being. The love of liberty reigned supreme in his soul. All great natures are characterized by a passionate enthusiasm for some altruistic principle. Its highest manifestation is found in the zeal for the salvation of men on the spiritual side. All great religious teachers belong to this class. Patriots and philanthropists are ardently devoted to the present well-being of man. The poet, the painter, and the sculptor indulge in a fine frenzy over contemplative beauty or its formal expression. The philosopher and the scientist go into ecstasy over the abstract pursuit of truth. Minds of smaller caliber get pure delight from empty pleasure, sportsmanship or the collection of curios and bric-à-brac. Even the average man is at his highest level when his whole soul goes out in love for another. The man who lives without altruistic
There have been few members of the human race that have been characterized by so intense and passionate a love for liberty as Frederick Douglass. His love for liberty was not limited by racial, political or geographical boundaries, but included the whole round world. He believed that liberty, like religion, applied to all men "without one plea." He championed liberty for black men, liberty for white men, liberty for Americans, liberty for Europeans, liberty for Asiatics, liberty for the wise, liberty for the simple; liberty for the weak, liberty for the strong; liberty for men, liberty for women; liberty for all the sons and daughters of men. I do not know whether he permitted his thoughts to wander in planetary space or speculated as to the inhabitability of other worlds than ours; but if he did, I am sure that his great soul took them all in his comprehensive scheme of liberty. In this day and time, when the spirit of commercialism and selfish greed command the best energies of the age, the influence of such a life to those who are downtrodden and overborne is doubly significant. Greed for gain has never righted any wrong in the history of the human race. The love of money is the root, and not the remedy of evil.
In the sixth and last place, I would call attention of the young to the danger of forgetting the work and worth of Frederick Douglass and the ministration of his life. We live in a practical age when the things that are seen overshadow the things that are invisible.
What did Douglass do? asks the crass materialists. He built no institutions and laid no material foundations. True, he left us no showy tabernacles of clay.
He did not aspire to be the master mechanic of the colored race. The greatest things of this world are not made with hands, but reside in truth and righteousness and love. Douglass was the moral leader and spiritual prophet of his race. Unless all signs of the times are misleading, the time approaches, and is even now at hand, which demands a moral renaissance. Then, O for a Douglass, to arouse the conscience of the white race, to awaken the almost incomprehensible lethargy of his own people, and to call down the righteous wrath of Heaven upon injustice and wrong.