Bunker Mulligan "Let us endeavor so to live that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry." ~Mark Twain

January 28, 2004

Frederick Douglass

Filed under: Education,Society-Culture — Bunker @ 6:14 pm

At Christmas, I buy all my family each a book, as well as any other gifts I give. I try to find something that person would enjoy, but perhaps not pick up at the store himself. Bogey got one with an engineering theme, Why Things Break, because I thought he would find it interesting even though he?s not an engineer. I enjoy looking for the eclectic match.

This year, Mrs. Mulligan bought me an interesting book for Christmas. It is a collection of letters of historical interest to Americans. Its title is Letters of a Nation (see sidebar). Last night I read various letters from personages great and meek regarding slavery and the Civil War.

On September 22, 1948, Frederick Douglass wrote an open letter to his former owner. It was published in The Liberator, an abolitionist newspaper published by William Lloyd Garrison, who had taken Douglass under his wing.

Mostly, the letter is one you might expect from a former slave to his former master, but only in content, not in tone. Douglass, who couldn?t read or write before running away to freedom, wrote a very clear and educated condemnation of slavery, and the wonders of freedom. Two passages really caught my eye, as they relate to the opportunities available in this country today.

Since I left you, I have had a rich experience. I have occupied stations which I never dreamed of when a slave. Three out of the ten years since I left you, I spent as a common laborer on the wharves of New Bedford, Massachusetts. It was there I earned my first free dollar. It was mine. I could spend it as I pleased. I could buy hams or herring with it, without asking any odds of any body. That was a precious dollar to me.?

But I was going on to relate to you something of my interesting experience. I had not long enjoyed the excellent society to which I have referred, before the light of its excellence exerted a beneficial influence on my mind and heart. Much of my early dislike of white persons was removed, and their manners, habits and customs, so entirely unlike what I had been used to in the kitchen-quarters on the plantations of the South, fairly charmed me, and gave me a strong disrelish for the coarse and degrading customs of my former condition. I therefore made an effort so to improve my mind and deportment, as to be somewhat fitted to the station to which I seemed almost providentially called. The transition from degradation to respectability was indeed great, and to get from one to the other without carrying some marks of one’s former condition, is truly a difficult matter. I would not have you think that I am now entirely clear of all plantation peculiarities, but my friends here, while they entertain the strongest dislike to them, regard me with that charity to which my past life somewhat entitles me, so that my condition in this respect is exceedingly pleasant.

I have added emphasis to what I view as the key lines. It amazes me that Douglass was able to become such a good writer in only ten years while working and rearing a family. Educationally, he started from nothing. But he identifies the very stumbling blocks which are still in the path for poor people of all kinds in this country. It matters not what color their skin if they allow these obstacles to stop them.

The first is that feeling Douglass expressed about earning his first dollar. It wasn?t important how much it was, but that he had earned it for himself, and could spend it how he wanted. Self-sufficiency is scary, but essential to progress. Deciding to make it on your own is liberating in itself.

The second passage refers to a cultural change he had to make. To feel comfortable in his new environment, he had to lose the ?coarse and degrading customs? of his previous life. The same is true today. Society doesn?t look with respect at anyone who wears clothing sloppily, or talks in virtual gibberish. It expresses a lack of self-discipline and slovenly behavior even it that ?look? requires a great deal of effort to maintain. I?m reminded of a line in a Stevie Wonder song: ?Her clothes are old, but never are they dirty.?

Some people view this as a ?sell-out? or ?pretending to be white.? I can?t judge from their perspective. But when I worked as an engineer in a company where engineers wore ties, I wore a tie. I didn?t view that as selling out; I saw it as a requirement of the position. Had I not worn a tie, I?m sure I would have soon been without employment. I?ve also done some hiring and firing. I?ve seen people come in to interview wearing all manner of clothing. If they were trying to put their best foot forward, I would have hated to see what they wore on a regular basis. And I would never have allowed them to represent my company to customers.

Opportunity in this world is just that: a chance. People in the US can achieve if they are willing to learn to speak clearly, learn to dress neatly, and get an education. In Douglass? words, make ?the transition from degradation to respectability….? A runaway slave did it 150 years ago.

1 Comment

  1. Mother-in-Law-Dearest???

    Oh…you must be from the “superior” gene pool region…let’s see now…what swamp was that?

    Comment by POED — March 9, 2004 @ 3:53 pm

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