Speaking to the Soul: Frederick Douglass

At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. Oh! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would today pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be denounced. — Frederick Douglass, “The Hypocrisy of American Slavery,” speech given July 4, 1852. 



February is noted for Groundhog Day, Valentine’s Day, President’s Day, Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent (in most years), and various saints’ days and famous birthdays. February is also noted as Black History Month, designated by each president since 1976. Prior to the 1976 declaration, however, there was Black History Week, established in 1927 by Carter G. Woodson, a historian, and a group of prominent African-Americans. 


In 1915, that same Carter G. Woodson founded the Association for the Study of African American Life and History which, in 1927, proclaimed the first Black History Week to be held on the second week in February as a tribute to the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (12th), the Great Emancipator, and Frederick Douglass (23rd), proclaimed the greatest African American leader of the 19th century.


Born a slave around 1818, his master’s wife taught him the alphabet and Douglass took off from there. In about his twentieth year, Douglass escaped from slavery and went to Massachusetts where he attended a Black church and also abolitionist meetings. He became a producer of abolitionist newspapers, several autobiographies, and an early advocate of school desegregation, a movement that was still in progress when I was in high school and college in the 1960s. 


He became an advocate of women’s rights in 1848. At the first convention for women’s rights, he was in the minority of supporters but rose to speak eloquently, including a statement that he, as a Black man, could not accept the right to vote if women were denied the same right. He continued to speak for equal rights for all throughout his life.


On July 4, 1852, Douglass gave the speech from which the quotation above was taken. These are words of an impassioned man who spoke as a prophetic witness to the sins of a country who proclaimed itself Christian but failed to follow the rules Jesus himself set down as well as God’s words from Ararat to Moses. Douglass had been a church-goer and had, at least one point during his slavery, taught Sunday school at the African-American church. Throughout his life his passion was fostered by his faith and the zeal produced a style of oratory which is still present today. If you listen to the passionate oratory of our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, you will hear echoes of Frederick Douglass and others. It’s a good thing to hear although different than what most of us hear in the pulpit and other places. 


Listen to those around you and those you hear and see via long-distance media. Are they cultivating fear or are they promoting freedom, equality, and justice? Where do you hear truth? Where do you hear exaggeration? Where do you hear truth? Where do you hear inflammatory and derogatory remarks? What do we do with the information we hear? And then, what do we do with the actions we see resulting from that information? 

Douglass went on to have an illustrious career as a newspaper editor, certified lay preacher, an advisor to Abraham Lincoln, marshal and recorder of deeds in Washington DC, a chargé d’affaire to Santo Domingo and minister to Haiti. He backed away from those he felt were too rigid or radical in the abolitionist movement, but he never lost sight of his original goal, namely, to see the African Americans as free and equal people.


We need a few more Frederick Douglasses among us. Actually, we have some, but their voices are sometimes drowned out. They need to be heard, and we need to hear them, but do we have the courage to try to dial down the noise and ramp up the things that beg to be heard. Heaven knows, we could use a few Douglasses to stand up at rallies where the crowd may be hostile and speak the truth that needs to be spoken. 


If we hear someone offering us a message with honesty, transparency, and passion, perhaps it is something to pay attention to. Furthermore, if the message offers us ways to do something to benefit everyone, not just a special group of privileged people, we may have found a prophetic witness for this age. Keep looking and listening. They’re there.


Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter.  She lives in the Diocese of Arizona and is proud to be part of the Church of the Nativity in North Scottsdale


Image: – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, 

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