This feels necessary.
Written by Vinny Guarino
Being that yesterday marked the beginning of Black History Month, President Donald Trump decided to dedicate some time in a speech to a few historical black figures such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and Frederick Douglass.
Of course, he didn’t say anything meaningful about any of them or their work.
In Trump’s words, “Frederick Douglass is an example of someone who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice.”
When White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was asked to explain what Trump meant by this, he did not say anything meaningful about Douglass either.
I’m going to skip the anger and disbelief. Instead, let’s talk about the life of Frederick Douglass.
Douglass was born in February of 1818 on Maryland’s eastern shore. His mother was a slave and his father was a random white man who was never identified. Douglass witnessed the brutality of slavery from a very young age.
Around the age of eight, Douglass was sent to live with Hugh and Sophia Auld in Baltimore. It is here where Douglass learned the alphabet from Sophia — a tender woman who treated him like a regular human being instead of a worthless slave.
Eventually Sophia stopped tutoring Douglass because her husband convinced her that learning to read would increase a slave’s desire for freedom. Without her help, Douglass continued learning to read and write on his own, in secret.
Douglass later wrote that, “Going to live at Baltimore laid the foundation, and opened the gateway, to all my subsequent prosperity.”
After seven years with the Auld family, Douglass was sent to work for a slavebreaker named Edward Covey. He was treated harshly — beaten daily and fed scarcely. He wrote that he was “broken in body, soul and spirit” during this time in his life.
In 1836, Douglass escaped slavery by fleeing to New York City and eventually settling in Massachusetts. His brilliant oratory and writing skills turned him into a national figure. Many Northerners were stunned to watch Douglass speak — incredulous that he had once been a slave.
As one writer states, Douglass served as the perfect counterexample for people who believed that black slaves did not possess the mental capability to live independently of their slaveholders.
Douglass used his platform to inspire folks on issues such as abolitionism, women’s suffrage, Native American rights, and more.
During the Reconstruction era, Douglass was President of the Freedman’s Saving’s Bank — a corporation chartered by the U.S. government in order to steer the economic development of the newly-freed African-American populous.
He was the first African-American to be nominated for Vice President and he even advised President Abraham Lincoln on several occasions.
Douglass published three autobiographies during his lifetime, revising and expanding upon the original best-seller Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. About 11,000 copies were sold within the first three years of its printing. French and Dutch translations also circulated in Europe. The next two were titled My Bondage and My Freedom and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.
People like Frederick Douglass should not be erased from history. He’s not just some black guy that did an “amazing job.” That’s something a 5th grader would say if he had to give a presentation about Douglass but forgot to do any research.
Douglass wouldn’t want Donald Trump’s praise anyway.
If Frederick Douglass were alive today, he would be criticizing and agitating the Trump administration. He would be fighting for equal rights across the board. He would be slamming the alt-right for trying to normalize KKK values. He would be speaking out against the unconstitutional Muslim refugee ban. He would be standing with the Natives against the Dakota Access Pipeline. He would have walked at the Women’s March.
Unfortunately, whether White House officials know it or not, Frederick Douglass is dead. He lived an extraordinary life. But the responsibility to fight oppression is now ours.
I’ll end with a quote from Douglass’s 1852 speech, “The Meaning of the July 4th to a Negro” where he criticizes the fact that white people celebrate their freedom on Independence Day while simultaneously oppressing black slaves. In the face of subjugation, he encouraged action and agitation.
“For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.”