Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Wisdom from the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

In continuing with the Twenty Men exercise, I dusted off my copy of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass recently. It's the first time I've read it in its entirety in eleven years, and the passage of time naturally makes you see things you did not see before as a teenager.

Note: The pages cited are those found in the Dover Thrift edition of the Narrative.

The first passage I found particularly enlightening was in his description of how he, by blind luck, managed to avoid the true dregs of slavery (if only for a time):

"I look upon my departure from Colonel Lloyd's plantation as one of the most interesting events of my life. It is possible, and even quite probable, that but for the mere circumstance of being removed from that plantation to Baltimore, I should have to-day, instead of being here seated by my own table, in the enjoyment of freedom and happiness of home, writing this narrative, been confined in the galling chains of slavery. Going to live at Baltimore laid the foundation, and opened the gateway, to all my subsequent prosperity. I have ever regarded it as the first plain manifestation of that kind providence which has ever since attended me, and marked my life with so many favors. I regarded the selection of myself as being somewhat remarkable. There were a number of children that might have been sent from the plantation to Baltimore. There were those younger, those older, and those of the same age. I was chosen from among them all, and was the first, last, and only choice.

I may be deemed superstitious, and even egotistical, in regarding this event as a special interposition of divine Providence in my favor. But I should be false to the earliest sentiments of my soul, if I suppressed the opinion. I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and incur my own abhorrence. From my earliest recollection, I date the entertainment of a deep conviction that slavery would not always be able to hold me in its foul embrace; and in the darkest hours of my career in slavery, this living word of faith and spirit of hope departed not from me, but remained like ministering angels to cheer me from the gloom. This good spirit was from God, and to him I offer thanksgiving praise." (pg 18-19)

This is quite a powerful passage. Firstly Frederick Douglass is here recollecting how monumentally lucky he was. Ultimately he was not going to waste that opportunity under any circumstances. Secondly, he tells of how, even in the deepest depths of his enslavement (his memories of which are brutally detailed in previous chapters), he would never let his mind for one moment believe that he would remain a slave throughout his life.

This conviction, and the opportunity he was given, was the catalyst for Frederick to defy his predetermined role in society. Frederick Douglass was already beginning to take a route from the 48 Laws of Power: that of recreating himself.

When in Baltimore, his mistress begins to teach him the alphabet, and he gets to the point of being able to read three-letter words, but his master then discovers the practice and forbids it to continue any further. However, this did not discourage Frederick. He'd been given another opportunity, and he wasn't going to waste it:

"Whilst I was saddened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind mistress, I was glad of the invaluable instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained from my master. Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read." (pg 20)

When Frederick continuously comes under suspicion by his mistress for trying to read, he creatively, even deviously, finds another plan to get around this obstacle - anything to achieve his goal:

"From this time I was most narrowly watched. If I was in a separate room any considerable length of time, I was sure to be suspected of having a book, and was at once called to give account to myself. All this, however, was too late. The first step had been taken. Mistress, in teaching me the alphabet, had given me the inch, and no precaution could prevent me from taking the ell.

The plan which I adopted, and the one by which I was most successful, was that of making friends with the little white boys whom I met in the street. As many of these as I could, I converted into teachers. With their kindly aid, obtained at different times and in different places, I finally succeeded in learning to read. When I was sent of errands, I always took my book with me, and by going one part of my errand quickly, I found time to get a lesson before my return. I used also to carry bread with me, enough of which was always in the house, and to which I was always welcome; for I was much better off in this regard than many of the poor white children in our neighborhood. This bread I used to bestow upon the hungry little urchins, who, in turn, would give me that more valuable bread of knowledge." (pg 22-3)

Frederick Douglass gets even more creative when it comes to teaching himself how to write:

"The idea of how I might learn to write was suggested to me by being in Durgin and Bailey's ship-yard, and frequently seeing the ship carpenters, after hewing and getting a piece of timber ready for use, write on the timber the name of that part of the ship for which it was intended. When a piece of timber was intended for the larboard side it would be marked thus - "L." When a piece was intended for the starboard side, it would be marked thus - "S." A piece for the larboard side forward would be marked thus - "L. F." When a piece would be marked for the starboard side forward, it would be marked thus - "S. F." For larboard side aft, it would be marked thus "L. A." For starboard aft it would be marked thus - "S. A." I soon learned the names of these letters, and for what they were intended when placed upon a piece of timber in the ship-yard. I immediately commenced copying them, and in a short time was able to make the four letters named. After that, when I met with any boy who I knew could write, I would tell him I could write as well as he. The next word would be "I don't believe you, let me see you try it." I would then make the letters which I had been so fortunate to learn, and ask him to beat that. In this way I got a good many lessons in writing, which it is quite possible I should never have gotten in any other way. During this time, my copy-book was the board fence, brick wall, and pavement; my pen and ink was a lump of chalk. With these, I learned mainly how to write. I then commenced and continued copying the italics in Webster's Spelling Book, until I could make them all without looking on the book. By this time, my little Master Thomas had gone to school, and learned how to write, and had written over a number of copy-books. These had been brought home, and shown to some of our near neighbors, and then laid aside. My mistress used to go to class meeting at the Wilk Street meeting-house every Monday afternoon, and leave me to take care of the house. When left thus, I used to spend the time in writing in the spaces left in Master Thomas' copy-book, copying what he had written. I continued to do this until I could write a hand very similar to that of Master Thomas. Thus, after a long, tedious effort for years, I finally succeeded in learning how to write." (pg 25-6)

Frederick Douglass showed extreme ingenuity here, because, as in Think & Grow Rich, he dedicated himself and all of his thoughts for a specific goal and had a specific purpose, one which built in to his overarching life purpose which he would not give up: being a free man. Despite the setbacks, he still devoted all of his thoughts to these purposes, and was willing to do anything to fulfill them.

Frederick Douglass is now in the employ of a cruel Mr. Covey, and he is sadly and longingly looking upon the ships in the Chesapeake Bay:

"Our house stood within a few rods of the Chesapeake Bay, whose broad bosom was ever white with sails from every quarter of the habitable globe. Those beautiful vessels, robed in purest white, so delightful to the eye of freemen, were to me so many shrouded ghosts, to terrify and torment me with thoughts of my wretched condition. I have often, in the deep stillness of a summer's Sabbath, stood all alone upon the lofty banks of that noble bay, and traced, with saddened heart and tearful eye, the countless number of sails moving off to the mighty ocean. The sight of these always affected me powerfully. My thoughts would compel utterance; and there, with no audience but the Almighty, I would pour out my soul's complaint, in my rude way, with an apostrophe to the moving multitude of ships:— 

"You are loosed from your moorings, and are free; I am fast in my chains, and am a slave! You move merrily before the gentle gale, and I sadly before the bloody whip! You are freedom's swift-winged angels, that fly round the world; I am confined in bands of iron! O that I were free! O, that I were on one of your gallant decks, and under your protecting wing! Alas! betwixt me and you, the turbid waters roll. Go on, go on. O that I could also go! Could I but swim! If I could fly! O, why was I born a man, of whom to make a brute! The glad ship is gone; she hides in the dim distance. I am left in the hottest hell of unending slavery. O God, save me! God, deliver me! Let me be free! Is there any God? Why am I a slave? I will run away. I will not stand it. Get caught, or get clear, I'll try it. I had as well die with ague as the fever. I have only one life to lose. I had as well be killed running as die standing. Only think of it; one hundred miles straight north, and I am free! Try it? Yes! God helping me, I will. It cannot be that I shall live and die a slave. I will take to the water. This very bay shall yet bear me into freedom. The steamboats steered in a north-east course from North Point. I will do the same; and when I get to the head of the bay, I will turn my canoe adrift, and walk straight through Delaware into Pennsylvania. When I get there, I shall not be required to have a pass; I can travel without being disturbed. Let but the first opportunity offer, and, come what will, I am off. Meanwhile, I will try to bear up under the yoke. I am not the only slave in the world. Why should I fret? I can bear as much as any of them. Besides, I am but a boy, and all boys are bound to some one. It may be that my misery in slavery will only increase my happiness when I get free. There is a better day coming." (pg 38-9)

Those last sentences are quite telling, as his employment with Mr. Covey was the nadir of Frederick Douglass' life, but "as bad weather comes, good must also." Frederick knew that whatever he would value later on, he would value more because of the hardship he faced. This thought certainly allowed him to avoid the depression that could be described earlier on in that passage. If a man is to give in to such thoughts, the rest of his life will surely follow them.

Later, Frederick is exhausted and cannot work. Still, he ran seven miles to seek his master's protection (the man who had sent him to Mr. Covey). When he returned, Covey had set out to whip him, but Frederick did the unthinkable and began to fight back.

"This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free. The gratification afforded by the triumph was a full compensation for whatever else might follow, even death itself. He only can understand the deep satisfaction which I experienced, who has himself repelled by force the bloody arm of slavery. I felt as I never felt before. It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom. My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact. I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me." (pg 43)

A man pushed to the brink will be forced to discover the true depths of his soul. Frederick was willing to fight for himself - a very big thing in those times for a man in his position. Law 28: Enter Action with Boldness. And it was a bold thing indeed for a slave to strike back at a master. It is no wonder that such experience - of striking a master (and essentially getting away with it), would fill him with confidence, and spur him still forward, ever upward, to his goal.

In the employment of a Mr. Freeland, Frederick Douglass begins to put his first serious plan at escape into motion. He resolved that 1835 would not go by without him making a major attempt at winning his liberty. He is joined by a group of other slaves:

"As the time drew near for our departure, our anxiety became more and more intense. It was truly a matter of life and death with us. The strength of our determination was about to be fully tested. At this time, I was very active in explaining every difficulty, removing every doubt, dispelling every fear, and inspiring all with the firmness indispensable to success in our undertaking; assuring them that half was gained the instant we made the move; we had talked long enough; we were now ready to move; if not now, we never should be; and if we did not intend to move now, we had as well fold our arms, sit down, and acknowledge ourselves fit only to be slaves." (pg 51-2)

Listen to these words. They are applicable for a whole assortment of life situations. Half is truly gained the instant you make the move, because fear is the greatest burden in holding a man back. I must tell myself this more often.

Frederick Douglass is at this point determined on a hard course that will prepare him for his ultimate goal of freedom:

"About two months after this, I applied to Master Hugh for the privilege of hiring my time. He was not acquainted with the fact that I had applied to Master Thomas, and had been refused. He too, at first, seemed disposed to refuse; but, after some reflection, he granted me the privilege, and proposed the following terms: I was to be allowed all my time, make all contracts with those for whom I worked, and find my own employment; and, in return for this liberty, I was to pay him three dollars at the end of each week; find myself in calking tools, and in board and clothing. My board was two dollars and a half per week. This, with the wear and tear of clothing and calking tools, made my regular expenses about six dollars per week. This amount I was compelled to make up, or relinquish the privilege of hiring my time. Rain or shine, work or no work, at the end of each week the money must be forthcoming, or I must give up my privilege. This arrangement, it will be perceived, was decidedly in my master's favor. It relieved him of all need of looking after me. His money was sure. He received all the benefits of slaveholding without its evils; while I endured all the evils of a slave, and suffered all the care and anxiety of a freeman. I found it a hard bargain. But, hard as it was, I thought it better than the old mode of getting along. It was a step towards freedom to be allowed to bear the responsibilities of a freeman, and I was determined to hold on upon it." (pg 61)

This was a sort of mental and physical exercise that certainly prepared him for his destiny. It was a hard choice, but he made it and got it done. He did not shrink from responsibility, but gladly took it, and became a better man because of it.

Chapter 11, the final chapter of the Narrative, also has a number of other potent scenes. Frederick plays the part of deceiver beautifully (Law 3: Conceal Your Intentions). He describes how he softened up his master to make him think that he was not going to run away, when that was his plan. He also resolved on a specific date to run, which is again, a manifestation of some of the philosophy described in Think & Grow Rich.

Frederick also demonstrated some other tact in this chapter. By refusing to state how he actually escaped, he did not expose his tactics or anyone who might have helped him, thus making it easier for other slaves to escape and harder for slaveholders to detect them. (Law 4: Always Say Less than Necessary)

In Frederick Douglass' career as a slave and his ultimate escape from it, we see how his determination allowed him to overcome all hardships, and that he was willing to pay any price to be free. He clearly had his desire set, his goals in mind, and a plan to get them, and he did. Out of all of the Twenty Men I've chosen, Frederick Douglass' life was perhaps the hardest. The fact that he overcame such hardships, and became a successful man, when every aspect of society tried to forbid his doing so, should truly inspire and galvanize those of us in much better circumstances to make the most of ourselves. It is a lesson well-worth incorporating.

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