Frederick Douglass

By: Adam McGovern
February 14, 2015


FREDERICK DOUGLASS (1818–95) is set in stone, but his words are carved in the consciousness that is always rebuilding America’s conception of its best self. No national monument in temples of our civic myth, but statues scattered around the country he believed could be home for all — Harlem, Rochester, and, in the last few years, the Capitol complex, a temple built by slaves. He said that once he learned to read he was forever free, and his words, a prophecy of what should be and, more dangerously, more rapturously, a revelation of what really is, sculpted his thoughts and cut through his bonds and opened spaces for all to see they could live together in. He was a slave in a city, mostly (where much American inequality now resides), and thus a line unbroken to those who could fancy themselves too removed and modern to be a link in his chains; a man who saw his ties to his sisters and to the original Americans and even his debased masters while enduring his own suffering; a boy who felt his human birthright from the start, stealing away to teach himself reading and even setting up makeshift schooling for other slaves, delivering them the words with which to affirm, not ask. Those words are engraved on our minds more than secluded sculptures, words about complacent majorities who want the storm without the thunder, about power conceding nothing without a struggle, about the facts that we must face to see through to each other. That thunder echoes, from pulpits and his own books and the voices of everyone who’s ever taken up the chorus, and that sound is your own whisper, reminding you what you should be.

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On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Jack Benny, Max Horkheimer, Neta Snook, Fred Van Lente.

READ MORE about members of the Retrogressivist Generation (1815–24).