Thursday, August 11, 2011

Quote of the Day (Frederick Douglass, on His Terrifying Start in Public Life)

“Mr. William C. Coffin, a prominent abolitionist in those days of trial, had heard me speaking to my colored friends in the little school-house on Second street, where we worshiped. He sought me out in the crowd and invited me to say a few words to the [Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society] convention. Thus sought out, and thus invited, I was induced to express the feelings inspired by the occasion, and the fresh recollection of the scenes through which I had passed as a slave. It was with the utmost difficulty that I could stand erect, or that I could command and articulate two words without hesitation or stammering. I trembled in every limb. I am not sure that my embarrassment was not the most effective part of my speech, if speech it could be called. At any rate, this is about the only part of my performance that I now distinctly remember. The audience sympathised with me at once, and from having been remarkably quiet, became much excited.”-- Frederick Douglass, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881)

The above quote was becoming a bit long, so I couldn’t include the coda to what Frederick Douglass wrote here: After his spontaneous address in Nantucket on this date in 1841, he was asked to become a lecturer for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society for the next three years. So began the public career of arguably the most significant African-American before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

While this is a virtually word-for-word copy of Douglass’ account of this event from his earlier memoir, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), it considerably expands his first telling of this in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself (1845). At the two later points in his life, when neither his intelligence nor his leadership of the African-American community was in question, he could afford to be frank about his anxiety at his first public appearance.

This expanded version, however, probably also arose from Douglass' intervening years of speaking. Everywhere he went, he was undoubtedly asked how he came to occupy his unique position in American life. Moreover, all the while he had been lecturing, Douglass had learned how to tell a story. And really, what could be more uplifting than overcoming not just one obstacle, but also a second—not merely an entire society’s vicious treatment of slaves, but also the considerable remnant of fear and worthlessness this left him?

In later years, Douglass would not always see eye to eye with William Lloyd Garrison, the editor of the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, but here he generously acknowledged the electric effect that the elder man had on his audience that day. Douglass was too modest to convey, except by suggesting that listeners reacted more to his embarrassment than to his ideas, the full effect that he himself made as a tall, striking 23-year-old escaped slave. But one contemporary correspondent at the event did in observing: “Flinty hearts were pierced, and cold ones melted by his eloquence."

This by no means would mark the end of fear in Douglass’ life. He surely must have felt it again, in 1852, when he delivered an incendiary speech about African-Americans’ ambivalence about Independence Day; in 1859, when it appeared that he might be prosecuted by the federal government for helping to finance John Brown’s failed insurrection at Harpers Ferry; in the Civil War, when he watched sons Charles and Lewis go off to fight in the famous 54th Massachusetts Regiment (the one made famous in the film Glory); or toward the end of his life, when, after watching with growing dismay the retreat of the federal government from protecting freedmen, he took to denouncing lynching with the same kind of oratorical fire he possessed in his twenties.

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