Wednesday, October 2, 2013
Frederick Douglass--in my view, still the greatest black American leader--is the subject of my faculty presentation tomorrow. Born a slave, sundered while a toddler from his mother, pummeled by fist and boot, whipped, starved, choked, and, on a few occasions, nearly killed, Douglass would become a famous abolitionist, publisher, political activist, adviser to President Lincoln, and ambassador to Haiti. Oh, he also became a creative and compelling interpreter of the U.S. Constitution, resourcefully contesting the claims of Chief Justice Taney in Dred Scott.
How did this incredible (even magical) transformation come about? I have to confess that it’s a question whose answer is difficult to nail down, and depending on how deeply you want to read into it, it can assume an existential form that will never quite admit of any strong explanations.
But we do have the evidence from autobiography. According to Douglass, he, as a sixteen-year-old lad, found his confidence, his hope, his spirit--in short, what he called his "manhood"--by physically defeating a white "slave breaker" named Covey in a now epic two hour brawl. Here's a succinct account of that brawl, in cartoon form.
The cartoon depicts Douglass as a full grown man; he wasn't, though. He was 16, and Covey, 28. Not a big gap in absolute numbers, but significant in terms of the quantum of manliness. As a teenager coming of age, he learned through the fight that he could change his existence, his very reality. And the lesson, Douglass says, stayed with him his whole life.
Of course, all narratives of heroic manliness, if they are to be dignified, must assume mythic properties. (standard examples come to mind: David and Goliath, George Washington's wartime valor, General MacArthur) This is why men are enthralled with, and simultaneously suspicious of, each other’s stories about their own past deeds of manliness. Douglass is still my hero, and yet I wonder (I guess I should be careful to employ that innocent verb, as it got me into some hot water, last time) to what extent Douglass’s brawl was an act of self-fashioning that was meant to spur other black men to take heart and fight racism, and to what extent it was real, and to what extent it really matters. . . .