Frederick Douglass

Yesterday’s Google Doodle was of Frederick Douglass. Douglass is a personal hero of mine, so this inspired me to talk about him a bit.

I first heard of Douglass during a political discussion. A politician stated that he was inspired by people such as Lincoln and Douglass (and another name I do not remember). Given the context, I figured he wasn’t talking about Stephen, but it was only later that I found out about Frederick. I’d not heard of him in school somehow, so this was all new to me. I heard he had written a book called “A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave”. I judged that by its cover and immediately got a copy of it. Douglass reposed much more than 75 years ago so there’s no need to pay a penny for an electronic copy of his writings under American law.

Frederick Douglas is a magnificent writer. He was also blunt and detailed in his descriptions of the abuse he suffered as well as his abusers. He spared them nothing, even giving their full names in print. Normally, I’m against this sort of public shaming, but it’s hard to argue with a freed slave on this matter. What he was also clear about was the change in himself when he got an education.

As a youth Douglass was briefly instructed in reading by his owner’s wife, but her husband quickly stopped her. He raged that if the boy learned to read, he would then demand his freedom. Douglass didn’t know much about freedom, but he knew he wanted to read, so he taught himself. Then something amazing happened. He realized his humanity. Now that he was human, he could read anything he could get his hands on, and he certainly did.

By now, nothing could enslave him. He was technically a slave under the law, but he was a free man, in my estimation. If you read his book, you’ll see what I mean by this. I learned something very important in this reading. One cannot be, at the same time, a slave and a human. You can enslave a thing, but not a man. People called slaves “boy” because they couldn’t really be men if they were slaves.

Now, I drew this to its full conclusion. Actual slavery does exist today, but it’s relatively rare. (Obviously not rare enough, though, since it still exists) Most slavery today is of a different nature, such as slavery to drugs. Slavery to drugs is widespread. I was a slave to nicotine. Now I want to make it very clear that I do not view myself as having suffered like the African American slaves like Frederick Douglass, or the sexual slaves around the world today. But my life isn’t about comparing it to others. For me, the slavery to nicotine was real. The most obvious proof that it was slavery is that I have no interest whatsoever in dealing with the elements in winter. I live in Michigan and spend winter inside. Yet when I was a smoker, I went outside every hour or so just to hurt myself. Now that is slavery.

When I read Frederick Douglass and saw that I was sacrificing my humanity for a stupid cigarette, I found the strength to be free again. It’s not as though I put the cigarette down that day and never picked it up again. I struggled for a year or two after that book. But I made it. I knew I had to make it. I stopped fearing that I would die a smoker. I spoke with a former smoker recently, and he said that if he were terminally ill, he might pick up smoking again because it was enjoyable. He only quit for his health and the health of his family. I thought “God forbid!” I will never touch a cigarette again. Frankly, I’m in poor health and always have been. All smoking ever did was give me a constant cough, but compared to the other things, that was relatively minor. I quit so that I could once again be a true man.

As I pondered Frederick Douglass today and spoke about him with a friend, I realized that I could apply his freedom story to my own. I consider Douglass to have been free when he learned to read. In reality, it took him another ten years to escape his captors. Perhaps I was free when I read his book. I still used the cigarette and did what it told me, but it was only a matter of time before I would put it down forever.

Frederick Douglass, by finding a path to freedom, showed me the way out of my own struggles as well. I’ve targeted other areas of my life where I find slavery and want my freedom. I’ve been enslaved to Mt. Dew for a long time. I’m currently tapering off of that and I’ll quit within a week. We’ll see how that goes. Either way, I’ll quit it eventually. I will not be bound.

So thank you, Mr. Douglass. I know my own trials are as nothing compared to actual physical enslavement, but the lessons you shared from that experience have changed my world forever.

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