Inequalities favor one party over another, called oppression, affecting the everyday happenings and often the quality of life of those being oppressed. In spite of this, individuals throughout history have continued to overcome their own personal obstacles and flourish, sometimes in part because of it. One such individual is writer, speaker, and activist Frederick Douglass, who took his oppression in stride and rewrote others’ fear and ignorance into his own strength, courage, and power. This study will attempt to conduct a cursory examination on how and why the specific oppressions Douglass faced changed his actions and his character as a person and an activist. Keep in mind that this is in no way meant to be a comprehensive or in-depth study on his subjugation and that there were many more challenges that Douglass endured not mentioned in this analysis. First, Douglass had to overcome the institution of slavery, the remnants of which he would not fully escape for the majority of his adult life. Second, Douglass confronted and struggled through his society’s prevalent and pervasive attitude of racism. Finally, the true cause of his problems as a whole was society’s resistance to change from existing ideas and policies, something that Douglass spent his entire life fighting against. Douglass’s own brand of activism continued to adapt and fight for equality in response to the establishments that oppressed him, and allowed Douglass and so many others to flourish because of it.
The first challenge Douglass faced in his life was a very large one indeed: slavery. Born as the son of a slave and a white man, Douglass was able to escape field labor and instead was sent to Baltimore to act as a house slave. It was there that Douglass overcame the first challenge that being born a slave posed to him: education. It is disputed whether Douglass was self-taught in reading or instructed in secret by the mistress of the house, but nevertheless, Douglass spent his youth reading newspapers, exploring town, and mastering rhetoric, a field of interest even at a young age. Using his limited freedom, Douglass began exploring the world and starting to understand the injustice that slavery imposed on him (Chiasson). Armed with knowledge of the world outside of slavery, Douglass grew increasingly restless and, after a failed attempt to buy his freedom, eventually escaped in 1838 to New York at the approximate age of 18-20. Although Douglass no longer lived in bondage, his status as a fugitive slave would continually haunt him for most of his life until he was able to buy his freedom in 1847 once and for all (Finkenbine). Slavery was something that Douglass saw as a major problem in his life for much of his youth. Douglass knew what it was like to be a slave, “the cruelty that lashed a slave’s body and tried to shackle a slave’s mind in ignorance,” and upon escaping, he realized that slavery was an institution that needed to be abolished, that it was a problem pervasive and large in society (“Frederick Douglass”). After his escape, he actively supported abolitionism, but, as Douglass soon realized, the problems that America faced went far beyond the institution of slavery and merely fighting for the freedom of slaves was not enough.
Upon escaping, Douglass became deeply involved in the abolitionist movement. He started to read antislavery journals and attend abolitionist meetings, and he eventually started to speak out about his experiences in slavery. Unfortunately, as he continued to travel the world and learn more about it, he realized that slavery was only the beginning of the challenge that he would have to face. The society that Douglass lived in was incredibly racist and Douglass realized that racism was the true cause of slavery and oppression against blacks. Touring the country as a abolitionist exposed Douglass to insults, verbal assaults, and mob violence, showing young Douglass the true face of racism and discrimination in the U.S. As Douglass started to grow as an orator, he even faced prejudice from fellow abolitionists who were white, who “feared that his effectiveness on the platform might be lost. They advised him to speak more haltingly and to hew to his earlier simple tale. One white colleague thought it ‘better to have a little of the plantation’ in his speech.” In response, Douglass soon published his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself, which became a sensation in both America and Europe. Unfortunately, Douglass’s new-found fame did not sit well with his status as a fugitive slave, so to escape recapture, Douglass spent 20 months abroad in Europe, lecturing about his book and abolitionism in the United States. During this time, Douglass had raised enough money to become free and start his own newspaper in the U.S. that further expanded Douglass’s fight for equality (Finkenbine). He became more informed of not only the injustices that he faced, but those of others as well. America’s problems of injustice were not limited only to racism--that was still just the tip of the iceberg. The root of his oppression and, perhaps, all oppression was society’s unwillingness to change and accept others.
Douglass’s new journal North Star was not just a platform for abolitionism and racial equality. It also stood for women’s rights, temperance, and suffrage. Many today see this as a sign that Douglass worked for the freedoms of all Americans and was met with much opposition (“Frederick Douglass”). Over the course of many, many years Douglass shifted from being anti-government to the mindset of political abolitionism, or working with the government to pass antislavery reform. He continued to be an active part of the Underground Railroad and other abolitionist movements, but after so many years of his life waiting, Douglass began to lose hope that anything would ever change. Until that is, the Civil War started and signified a new period of change. Even in stressful times of war, Douglass continually put pressure on Lincoln and the American government for racial equality and the abolition of slavery. After the war, he took advantage of the Reconstruction and focused especially on the equal rights of blacks until the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. Not soon after, the Compromise of 1877 put an end to the Reconstruction and Douglass’s hopes of any meaningful reform. Nonetheless, Douglass continued to fight for equality for all and spread his message to the youth of the world until the end of his days--“less than a month before his death, when a young black man solicited his advice to an African American just starting out in the world, Douglass replied without hesitation: ‘Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!’”(Finkenbine)
Throughout his life, Douglass faced oppressions that many of us could barely even dream of that affected the way he viewed the world. In his youth, much of his focus was on slavery, because slavery was an institution that affected his life profoundly. Growing up, he realized that slavery was just a product of racism, an equally terrible and prevalent affliction in the U.S. Finally, after learning about the world and seeing more equality in Europe as opposed to the U.S., Douglass saw that the true problem was that racism was just a piece of the puzzle, and that society’s resistance to change and equality affected each individual. These oppressions that he saw affected the way that he lived and the way that he used his voice and his life. The terrors that he saw and felt everyday inspired him to take action and speak up, so that the people of the future would not have to. Douglass took his oppression, his weakness, and he turned it into power and revolution, and each one of us can do the same thing. Using his voice, Douglass changed the course of American history, and like Pakistani school girl and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai once said, “If the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful.”
Chiasson, Lloyd E. and Philip B. Dematteis. "Frederick Douglass." DISCovering Authors. 2003. Gale. Web. 5 Jan. 2015.
“Frederick Douglass, 1818-1895.” Student Resource Center. 2008. Gale. Web. 5 Jan. 2015.
Finkenbine, Roy E. “Douglass, Frederick.” American National Biography Online. Feb. 2000. Oxford UP. Web. 13 Jan. 2015.