A Few Accomplishments Frederick Douglass Did An "Amazing Job" At

Donald Trump met with several African-American leaders for breakfast in Washington on February 1st, 2017 to kick off Black History Month. There doesn’t seem to be anything awkward about that statement. What was awkward though were some of the things that Trump said during the meeting. Maybe even a little more than awkward.

Trump described Frederick Douglass, a prominent abolitionist, author, and orator of the the 19th century, as “somebody who has done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more.” There are two problems with this. One, if you have any clue what Douglass accomplished during his lifetime, you would not describe him as someone who has “done an amazing job.” Two, using the present tense, like Trump did, suggests that Trump might not even know Douglass died in 1895.

Source: theatlantic.com

Of course I’m not the only one who noticed the issues with Trump’s comments. You can always count on the Twitterverse to be tweeting exactly what we are all thinking. These two Twitter users were among many who expressed their thoughts on Trump’s Douglass comment.

Source: Twitter.com

Instead of bashing Trump for not honoring Douglass in the way that he deserves to be honored, I thought that I would honor Douglass here myself. For anyone who doesn’t know what Douglass did, I hope this helps you realize what an important member of Black History and American History that Douglass was. If you knew who Douglass was, I hope that you learn something, anything new about Douglass. So here’s to enlightening ourselves this Black History Month!

I first learned of Douglass when I took an American Literature course last year. His Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass was one of the few memiors I read that actually left an imprint on my heart and mind. Douglass published his autobiography three times. Each time he added and revised details and became more careful with his tone. One key difference between the three autobiographies is that in the first and second editions, Douglass did not include the details of his escape. He knew who his audience was; it was privileged white people and slave owners. By eliminating details of his escape, Douglass was able to protect the identities of those who helped him flee and give those who were still enslaved a chance to escape. In addition by the time Douglass’ third autobiography was published, slavery had been abolished, making it reasonable to publish the details of his getaway.

Source: wyehousearchaeology.org

In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, following the conventions of the genre of slave narratives, Douglass provides a first person account of his life as a slave and how he escaped. He describes having to witness horrendous acts as a young child, such as his aunt being whipped by an overseer. Through this example, Douglass highlights that not even a child is safe from the unfairness of slavery. Douglass’ tone is flat and unemotional, which is commendable for someone who has been through unimaginable hardship. It is not only Black people and children who are unsafe from the injustices of slavery however, as Douglass shows that slavery is toxic for everyone. While living in Master Hugh’s residence, Douglass explains how upon initially meeting his mistress, Master Hugh’s wife, she is shocked when Douglass acts as her subordinate. In her mind all people were equal. After she understands what the concept of a “slave” is, with a little help from her husband, she transforms into a cruel woman. Douglass does not blame her for this alteration in her personality because as he explains, the change is inevitable for anyone who comes to possess this “irresponsible power” of being a slave owner. Through this example and many others, Douglass shows that slavery changes and affects both slaves and slave owners for the worst.

Source: About.com

Douglass’ autobiography can be seen as an attempt to show in the most basic sense that Black people are not inferior, and therefore it cannot be justified for them to be slaves. Even in the case of his other works, Douglass shows his ability to use literary language in a self conscious way. By showing off his intellectual capabilities, Douglass wanted to show that a Black man, and by extension the Black race, is capable of reason, reading and writing. He wanted to spark in people the need for change and revision in the United States. His goal was to improve the nation, not tear it down. Douglass knew his readership was highly privileged whites, so he was writing in a way that would have them take him seriously. What makes Douglass so admirable though is that he was able to reach this white educated audience, even though he had taught himself how to read and write.

Douglass was a magnificent writer, which is why his works are taught in schools and universities today. In his autobiographies specifically, Douglass doesn’t simply describe slavery to the reader. He shows what freedom is and what freedom means. He shows that some people are born free and some aren't, but everyone needs to make themselves free. One of his famous quotes outlines this thought completely, “I prayed for twenty years but received no answer, until I prayed with my legs.” Douglass did exactly this throughout his life; he prayed with his legs. He campaigned for feminist causes and the end of racism, and also gave speeches on a multitude of matters. Douglass can be seen standing in the middle of the group of men in the photo below.

Source: math.buffalo.edu

Having the ability to read and write is what helped Douglass become a free man. I’ll leave out the exact details of his escape so you can read his narrative for yourselves, but being an autodidactic was the driving force behind his successful getaway. At the time of publication of his first autobiography, Douglass was on the run. Even though his story was selling tons of copies, and that money was going directly to the Abolitionist Movement, Douglass did not have the right to his own body. His visibility rose, which is why his friends from the Abolitionist Movement helped to move him and his wife to England. His friends had to buy him from his master's family for $711 to be able to move him. Below is a picture of Douglass, his wife who is also seated, and his wife's sister.

Source: The History Reader

Douglass’ autobiographies are narratives that everyone needs to read in order to understand not only why slavery is and was dehumanizing, but also why literacy is so important. Without the ability to read and write, Douglass would not have been able to share his story and communicate himself through words. This is why he was so focused on teaching himself to read and write, because doing so would give him a new form of expression and a new audience. It is through the ability of reading and writing that Douglass was able to argue, among other things, that while the Fourth of July was a day of celebration for white Americans, it was a day of sadness for slaves and former slaves. The reason for this was because slaves and former slaves were yet to be given the equal liberty that was promised in the Declaration of Independence.

An interesting fact about Douglass is that he was the most photographed American of the 19th century. He believed that images, in addition to words, had the power and possibility to alter people’s thoughts and actions. So of course, I’m going to post some of his portraits below.

Source: Great Black Heroes

Source: History.com

Source: Pinterest

After reading all of this, I hope you all can agree with me that Douglass did more than just an “amazing job.” What I have included here is not even half of what Douglass accomplished in his lifetime. What I have written though, does greatly expand on Trump’s words about Douglass, so at least we can say this is a good start. I want to give a shoutout to my amazing Professor, Laura Fisher, for teaching me about Douglass in the first place, and giving me a few ideas about what to include in this article. If you all are interested, I’ve posted links to the works of Douglass to which I have referred below.

Don’t forget to tweet us your thoughts about Frederick Douglass or this piece @HCRyerson!


Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass:


“What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”