The tagline of this occasional blog – “The battles we fight, the wars we wage” — closely describes the life of Frederick Douglass, a Black man born in February 1818 in Talbot County, Maryland, a long-established Colonial community where, up until the Civil War, some one-quarter of all residents were of African or Caribbean descent, and were enslaved.
Douglass’s own story is well enough known – he fled from slavery (on his third attempt) a decade before the Civil War, and headed for Philadelphia — a Quaker city where he could be free. His 1845 memoir, A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave — published nearly a decade before the 13th Amendment made slavery illegal in the U.S. — remains an inspiring read.
Douglass is now described as “an African-American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman” – the latter because, among other reasons, he was the first African-American nominated for vice president of the U.S., running in 1872 with Victoria Woodhull, a leader of the women’s suffrage movement. (She was among the first women nominated to run for president of the U.S..)
Aside from Douglass’s many speeches and books, his personal legacy also includes Black History Month, held during February in the United States and elsewhere around the globe. The monthlong celebration of Black culture, accomplishment, and promise grew out of a week set aside to honor Abraham Lincoln and Douglass, both of whom were born in February.
It is not a stretch to argue that the continuing effects of nearly two centuries of slavery still influence the lives of African Americans here in the 21st century. It is equally easy to argue that slavery remains active around the world in 2018, ranging from forced labor on the high seas and in mineral mines to the loathsome practices of human trafficking and much of the sex industry. As well, many marriages in developing nations carry the characteristics of a slave-master relationship: “[S]ituations where one person has taken away another person’s freedom – their freedom to control their body, their freedom to choose to refuse certain work or to stop working – so that they can be exploited.”
PBS reports that many Eastern European women are enticed by the promise of decent wages, with limited obligations to work off transportation and housing costs — only to discover they may not regain their freedom for years and years, if ever.
The Walk-Free Foundation – an anti-slavery advocacy organization – estimates that despite the affluence of the global economy, there are now more than 40 million slaves laboring in the world – most of them in some area of Asia or the Pacific.
That 40 million represents about one-half of a percent of the 7.6 billion people who currently live on Planet Earth – whereas in the United States in 1860, just before the outbreak of the Civil War – when Douglass was urging American industry and commerce to free the 8 million or so African American slaves on American soil – the enslaved population of the U.S. represented nearly 13 percent of the American population at large.
Two centuries have passed since Douglass was born, and more than 150 years since the horrific war that ended the way of life into which he was born near the shores of Maryland – and yet some aspects of that way of life persist. Perhaps it is true that as it seems to have been necessary to conduct a brutal war to end slavery in the United States, it might be necessary to wage a similar war against slavery and those who enslave now, in the 21st century. In fact, Douglass comments on exactly this idea, just a few years before the Civil War exploded onto the scene, but not before the seeds of the war had been planted.
On August 3, 1857, Douglass delivered a speech at Canandaigua, New York, on the twenty-third anniversary of the emancipation of the West Indies — using a passage in his 1845 memoir as a starting point.
“If there is no struggle, there is no progress,” he said. “Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. … The struggle may be a moral one or it may be a physical one, or it may both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle.”
Of course, Canandaigua is an Anglicization of a name given the area by the Seneca people — one of the Six Nations of the Iroquois League. By the time Douglass spoke there in the mid-19th century, the town of Canandaigua was a railroad town, a hub that sent out tracks headed westward in America’s inexorable expansion.
“Power concedes nothing without a demand,” Douglass said then. “The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”