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August 14, 2013

Frederick Douglass: The Presence of the Past

I just got done reading the first version of Frederick Douglass's autobiography and wanted to share what I learned in a blog, but wondered if there were relevant connections to be made with environmental education. I soon remembered, though, that humans are not separate from the environment. Stories of humans striving are as much a part of natural history as is the study of any other organism. So long have we separated ourselves from the natural world, perhaps in denial, but with the accumulating fossil evidence of the hominid lineage, studies in comparative anatomy, and the recent revolution in genetics there is little doubt that we can only understand ourselves if we understand that we humans are just one component of a very diverse, vast universe. This by no means diminishes the enormous strides humans have made in the pursuit of betterment and knowledge. Indeed Frederick Douglass's struggle for freedom has many enduring insights to offer for almost any pursuit and I hope to show how it might help us think more deeply about our relationship to the Earth and to each other.


Frederick Douglass (1818?-1895) was born and raised a slave, but despite the brutality that he witnessed and experience he cultivated a dignified soul and a beautiful mind that expressed remarkable insights into the dynamics of slavery.  I distilled out 4 main points that he emphasized in his narrative:

1. Education is an enemy of enslavement

2. Given the power, we all possess the ability to be cruel

3. The most adamantly religious masters were the most cruel

4. Being ethical doesn't relegate a society to poverty

It became clear to Frederick Douglass as he grew up that education was the key to freedom and, conversely, was the key to keeping people enslaved.  In fact it was the words of a man that he worked for that gave him the insight.  The man said that an education, just being able to read and write, would "make him discontented and unhappy."  These words resonated with Frederick Douglass because this was exactly what education was making him feel--discontented and unhappy about slavery.  He knew that slavery was immoral and that the people in power were hiding behind the guise of religion to absolve their cruelty and exploitation of other human beings.  He held throughout the narrative that learning and education should unsettle people.  Knowing about injustice should make one wonder about what role they are playing in sustaining it and can play in righting it.  One of my favorite quotes that complements this sentiment is from Carl Jung who said that morality has nothing to do with eternal truths, but rather has to do with the knowledge you have and what you decide to do with it.  Meaning that you can't be accountable for what you don't know, but when you do know something you are morally accountable for how you act with that knowledge.  It's hard to imagine that people who were brutal slaveholders weren't aware of their cruelty and Frederick Douglass often talks about how the most religious slaveholders were often the most brutal.  They had a prayer in their minds and a whip in their hands.  A confession in their hearts and a slur in their mouths.  He never says it directly, but I think Douglass implies that this seemingly paradoxical behavior is, maybe, an unconscious confession of guilt and knowledge of wrongdoing.  But this repressed, inner knowledge never seemed to result in the most moral act of all.........changing one's behavior in response to insight.  

Another lesson from Frederick Douglass' narrative is how we all possess the capacity to be cruel.  In the book he talks about men and women alike who commit heinous acts, with utmost malice; he gives examples of every combination of 'race' wronging 'race'-black against white, black against black, white against black, white against white; he really leaves no doubt that there is no one with a monopoly on hatred and base violence.  He states numerous times how power had the ability to turn compassionate, ethical people into monsters.  I think he emphasizes this point because even he was sometimes surprised who morphed into something ugly and how quickly the change in disposition could occur.  I think it made him suspicious of the goodness of the human soul considering that it could be persuaded so easily.

I think the most interesting part of the narrative was Douglass' response upon arriving to the 'Free' North.  All along he was convinced that the South was the seat of wealth because of the institution of slavery and that the North would consist of hard, but moral people barely subsisting as they had no slaves to make them fortunes.  It makes sense because you'd think that by exploiting people you'd make greater profits and many slaveholders claimed that slavery was a necessary evil to keep farming profitable.  Seems logical, right?  Wrong.  Frederick Douglass was amazed when he reached New York by how much wealthier the 'Free' North was.  He noted how the mansions were bigger, the streets were wider, the cities were bigger and more bustling, the farms more prosperous, the people more healthy, hardly any poverty compared to the South, technology and industry were superior, etc.  He felt that people were more sociable, confident, independent-minded and content, as well as enthusiastic to work rather than brow beaten.  And he was particularly struck by several people he knew who were no strangers to hard labor and yet who read newspapers and books in their leisure time--people who both worked hard and educated themselves unlike many slaveholders.  I think another one of Frederick Douglass' great insights is that an ethical society can be richer and more prosperous than a solely profit-driven society who has no qualms with exploitation as a means.  Slaveholders were in the slave business for profit and yet their wealth was a myth.  

When looking at the world we now live in I see the presence of the past and how Douglass could still be making the same criticisms of us though they might pertain to new issues.  He was well aware of, in his own time, how perception of slaves determined how they were treated and valued.  If you are seen as less than human or as property, then why is it a crime to mistreat you?  Similarly, in our time, I think there is the question of how we see our environment at large and it is made more abstract by the fact that much of our environment is made up of non-humans............animals, plants, microorganisms, ecosystems, water and landscapes.  Often we treat the environment as though we are separate from it, superior to it.  We speak of it as property and products.  Even the word pet signifies ownership and mastership, though we also equate it with companionship.  If you do own something then it is your right to do with it as you please, but perhaps our conceptions of the environment are labeled with misnomers.

Our relationship with the environment is complex because there seems to be no way to live and not kill living things.  Every breath we take is screened by our immune system for invaders and they are killed when detected.  Also, we must eat and somewhere along the way we must kill and exploit living things to satisfy this need.  This relationship seems to be unavoidable, but how we think about it can change.  We can learn to value things, alongside their utility, for their inherent complexity, beauty, and function.  And through learning about them, learn something about ourselves as well. 

We must treat the environment carefully, with moderation and humility because we can be wrong in our assumptions.  And our science can be wrong in its findings.  In the 1800s much science went toward proving why white Europeans were superior and more evolved than all the other "races" and many facts were found that proved this point true.  Yet the truth is that all their "science" and "facts" were founded using a very biased perspective that limited what they could see of evidence that might contradict their views.

We now know that race is artificial.  It is a distinction that humans have invented with no real substance or supporting evidence.  What is known by evidence is that all humans have a shared ancestry beginning in Africa.  Thus slaveholder and slave alike came from Africa, only different in time of leaving.  Yet the one punished the other for a trait that they unknowingly held in common.  Knowledge enlightens us to the irony, hypocrisy and downright stupidity of our prejudices and beliefs.  This is why we must treat the environment with greater respect and humility because in a larger context, there are no strangers on Earth.  We're all related by evolutionary descent.  We're all part of the same family.  The family of living things on Earth who share a common origin in that moment when life first arose.

I highly encourage you to read Frederick Douglass' narrative.  It still has many relevant lessons for our lives and times, as well as being a very moving account of a man's search for freedom.

-Seth Commichaux

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