400 Years Blog #7 – Frederick Douglass’s Persistence and Strength

Posted in: Leader's Blog

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.

Further recommended sources:

Featured reading: Myers, Walter Dean. Frederick Douglass: The Lion Who Wrote History.

For young children, try this beautifully illustrated picture book. Often children can handle difficult topics when a heroic main character can roar like a lion.


Blight, David W. Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.

One reviewer in The Guardian wrote that this new work, “offers penetrating insights into the effect slavery had on Douglass’s personality.”


Website for Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in the District of Columbia: https://www.nps.gov/frdo/index.htm

At his bicentennial, Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave who became a colossus, still stands witness in the conscience of the American people.


Frederick Douglass Papers at the Library of Congress



Next blog: Douglass on the Influence and Rights of Women


About this project:


This particular year-long commitment – which I am calling “400 Years” – is aimed mainly at people like me: people who identify as white, accept that racism gives them privileges, and want to confront systemic racism more consistently and constructively. Of course anyone can support the project, but my main hope is to encourage self-identifying whites who want to increase their efforts to confront racism and deconstruct white supremacy. I don’t intend on spending time trying to convince people who resist anti-racism activism. I want to help those who want to practice anti-racism to do it more often and more effectively.

This project will focus mainly on how racism in the United States has hurt Africans and their descendants. While non-whites from Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East are often brutal victims of racism, I have been taught most by victims who happen to be black.

So when white people wanting to be more active in anti-racism ask me, “Where do I start?”, I often say, “Start with the history. People of color have already shared their wisdom in countless writings from slave narratives to peer reviewed articles to award winning historical works.” The weight of 400 years of race-based oppression fuels my commitment. Perhaps it will help you with your own efforts to deconstruct white supremacy.


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