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Your Black History: A Tribute to Legendary Abolitionist Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

Your Black History: A Tribute to Legendary Abolitionist Frederick Douglass

By Victor Trammell

     The ability to effectively represent oneself before an audience is indeed a gift. Public speaking is a skill used by people in numerous professions such as business, entertainment, and politics.

    As a student attending community college in my early 20s, my participation in student government allowed me to hone the sacred skill of public speaking. It was definitely a privilege to represent my student body before an audience for the purpose of advocacy. During those days, I also took a composition class that essentially changed my life.

    Tom Weiss was the instructor of the intermediate writing class I took while attending my city’s local junior college. Weiss was an excellent writer himself and always used paragraphs from famous writers like Henry David Thoreau as examples for a model assignment. However, on the first day of the class, Weiss did something bold and radical that gave me the chance to see him as not only a teacher, but an inspirational leader.

    Before a class size of around 20 students, Weiss made his bold proclamation. “For this particular class, here is a copy of the textbook routinely used by most instructors,” Weiss said while holding up the book. He then abruptly dropped the book on the ground, making a loud thud. He pulled another book from the inner shelves of his podium.

Raising the new book in the air, Weiss proclaimed, “This is the ripe model for learning that will be the roadmap for this class. A huge part of your grade will be reading this book cover to cover. If you don’t, then I will surely know.” For the first time in my young life, I was about to read the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.

     Frederick Douglass was born on the second or third week of February in 1818. Douglass was born into slavery and his exact birth date was not known. However, throughout his life, Douglass chose to celebrate his birthday on Valentine’s Day. Today, chooses to celebrate his birthday and legacy on February 14th as well.

     Douglass was an eloquent orator. While he was a slave in Baltimore, Maryland, he taught himself to read and write. Later in his life, he used this God-given skill for the purpose of being active in the abolitionist movement to end slavery. He also was a contributor to William Lloyd Garrison’s anti-slavery newspaper called The Liberator. Douglass wrote several autobiographies, including the powerful one I mentioned earlier called the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.

     Douglass paints a dynamic picture of the eternal scar known as the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. An excerpt of the book on page 16 reads:

     “I remember the first time I ever witnessed this horrible exhibition. I was quite a child, but I well remember it. I never shall forget it whilst I remember anything. It was the first of a long series of such outrages, of which I was doomed to be a witness and a participant. It struck me with awful force. It was the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the h**l of slavery, through which I was about to pass. It was a most terrible spectacle. I wish I could commit to paper the feelings with which I beheld it.”

     A turning point in Douglass’ life came around the time he was 16-year-old. At this point in his life, he was working under the inhumane conditions of Edward Covey’s farm. Douglass was sent to Covey’s farm in Talbot County, Maryland after his master in Baltimore had trouble controlling him. Douglass later wrote that Covey was “first rate hand at breaking young Negroes.” One day, Douglass decided to fight back against the daily beatings and torture he received at the hands of Covey. He beat and choked his tormentor during a fight. Douglass wrote the following about the experience:

     “Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, and the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute! You are loosed from your moorings, and are free; I am fast in my chains, and am a slave! You move merrily before the gentle gale, and I sadly before the b****y whip! You are freedom’s swift-winged angels that fly round the world; I am confined in bands of iron! O that I were free!”

     The American story told in Frederick Douglass’ novel is a riveting tale that changed the way I look at the entire history of this nation. Douglass’ autobiography is another story that invokes pride in me about the Black experience in America. Perhaps more teachers will take the radical stand of Mr. Weiss and ensure that the young minds of this nation (Black, white, or any other race) never forget the courageous story of a man who was arguably our nation’s biggest icon of the anti-slavery movement.



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