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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Why Frederick Douglass?

It’s often been said that Martin Luther King, Jr., was the conscience of America. But if I may be so bold, King, as good as he was, stood on the shoulders of a giant.

Frederick Douglass, born a slave as Frederick Bailey in eastern Maryland, escaped from slavery and became the greatest abolitionist and civil rights advocate of the 19th century. His Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is still hailed as the most important American slave memoir. Douglass is part of the “big three” of the Civil War era, with Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln.

Like Grant, Douglass is a hero of mine because of his dogged determination. Once he first got a taste of knowledge, he never let it go. A kindly wife of a slave owner started teaching him to read the Bible. The husband was outraged, but Douglass on the sly continued to learn to read both on his own and with the help of other boys. The awakening of his mind was the path to his freedom. He studied oratory, and his speeches are among the finest ones ever given in this land. His prose was good, so much so that whites thought that William Lloyd Garrison or someone else had written his Narrative.

Douglass is a hero because he stands for clarity of understanding, the very antithesis of white guilt over what was done—horribly so—to blacks. He told whites to basically leave blacks alone and let them grow on their own. What a better place this country would have been had Douglass’ words been taken to heart. (See his April 1865 speech
What the Black Man Wants.) Frederick Douglass is one of the biggest reasons why I am so concerned about race in America, and why I believe that guilty whites should stop acting so blasted guilty and start letting black men and women help themselves. And blacks, for that matter, should own up to the fact that they can be just as racist as whites.

Mainly, though, Douglass is my hero because he stands for clarity. He stands as one of the greatest American examples of what can happen when a mind is unlocked. He stands as a different kind of self-made man: the perpetual student. I don't mean to suggest that Douglass languished in the halls of acedemia without ever venturing outside. Rather, Douglass never stopped learning, never stopped improving himself. Ultimately, he recognized that the abolition of slavery was just the beginning of the transformation of blacks in America into citizens. Douglass, sharp as a tack, knew that once slavery was gone, then learning, books, schools, citizenship, etc. needed to follow.

Douglass wrote/said the following, and actor Fred Morsell spotlights these on his web site:
  • “I took advantage of the knowledge of the alphabet Miss Sophia gave me and I went to my neighborhood friends, and with their help I learned how to read.”

  • “Learning the alphabet gave me the key to reading; I took that key and, with a little help from my friends, learned how to read, thus becoming a free man in my mind.”

  • “Through my many speeches about justice, and through my newspaper and other writings, I discovered that the power of the word is the best means to bring about permanent positive changes, both for myself and others.”
I firmly believe it would break Douglass’ heart to behold the state of blacks in America today, especially the Jeremiah Wrights and Jessie Jacksons and etc. who place all blame on whites and rage at whites continually while black illiteracy, crime, incarceration, shootings, joblessness and anger are all sky-high. Douglass would despair at the thought of black children refusing to excel in school because doing so is “acting white.” (“Acting Asian” has gained some currently lately, too.)

Fred Morsell, who I’ve seen in person, does a phenomenal impersonation of Douglass. Morsell took up the challenge of fighting gangs and drugs by impersonating Douglass to spread the great agitator’s message of education, self-reliance and love of self. He’s done well over 500 performances all over the country since 1990. If you ever get the chance to see his act (as I did in 2007), don’t miss it! See the Douglass Today section on Morsell and other performers who assume the role of Douglass.

Here is a snippet of Morsell performing one of Douglass’ greatest speeches, “The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro,” which Douglass originally gave on July 5, 1852. (Yes, the choice of date was significant.)

Douglass’ message today isn’t just for black Americans, but it is more important than ever for black Americans to heed his words. Frederick Douglass, you’re my hero. And so are you, Fred Morsell, as one of those who keeps his memory alive.

And that’s what this site is about.

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