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Frederick Douglass: A Powerful Mind
Brendy Flores
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A while ago I went to see The Cambria, a play about an African-American named Frederick Douglass who achieved liberation, not only physically but mentally. Presented at the Irish Arts Center in Manhattan, the play was set on the Cambria, a ship Douglass sailed on in the 1840s. After escaping slavery, he was being hunted down as lost property. He fled to Ireland and stayed until his freedom was bought, because in another country he couldn’t be returned to the slave owner who was looking for him.

I found out about the play from my editor. My first reaction was just “OK,” not a zealous “OK!” But since I believe a person should learn something every day, I went.

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I knew almost nothing about Frederick Douglass. Reading some publicity materials for the play, I was astonished to learn that he was formally nominated for president at the Republican Party’s convention in 1888. (He didn’t become the party’s candidate that year, but he received one vote as a potential candidate.) I found this amazing because it shows that even then, through maybe the hardest time in African-American history, there were those who accomplished great things.

Douglass also fought for the abolition of slavery. His autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, exposed the terrible things people suffered under slavery. He published several newspapers arguing against slavery, and also supported the rights of women and Native Americans.

Courage and Dignity

As I started to learn about the impact he made, my interest in Douglass grew. The play itself turned out to be a cool learning experience. There were only two actors—a man and a woman—who played all the parts. It was the first play I’d ever seen and I didn’t expect only two actors, but the story was well written and creative, so it was intriguing.

The characters included Douglass himself, as well as the captain of the Cambria and a plantation owner who is a passenger on the ship. When he boards the ship, Douglass takes a first-class room. While on deck, he talks to a little girl who asks him to perform because she thinks that he is a minstrel. (Minstrels were African-American entertainers who performed shows belittling their own race for white audiences.) In the play, once it’s unveiled that Douglass is not a minstrel, but in fact the author of an anti-slavery book, the plantation owner tries to have him arrested. But throughout the play Douglass shows courage and dignity.

Seeing The Cambria and thinking about the life of Douglass, I’ve realized how a powerful mind can make anyone powerful. Slave owners in Douglass’s time knew that education would make slaves more aware of history and what was going on in the world. But slaves who couldn’t read would accept their positions more easily. To avoid rebellion, the plantation owners simply kept enslaved African-Americans illiterate so they would have no voice and no power.

Douglass learned to read and write from copying a slaveholder’s daughter’s homework, at a time when a slave could be severely punished for learning to read. So he was clearly hungry for education. All the knowledge Douglass worked so hard to possess made him aware of the world he wasn’t allowed to see as a slave. It helped liberate him from mental confinement as well as, eventually, the bondage of slavery on the plantation.

image by Edwin Yang

Dreaming Higher

For Douglass to have educated himself is especially impressive. I am driven by ambition: I want to finish high school, go to college, and build a better foundation for future generations of my family. Finding out about all that Douglass accomplished so long ago makes me feel obligated to dream even higher. Even finishing college doesn’t seem like enough when I think about Douglass. I want to organize in my community, for example, and work for social change.

So many people in my community today are functionally illiterate. When our ancestors could be killed for trying to learn to read, this is hard to understand. Today there are many libraries we can use. We have access to schools and colleges, and even local bookstores. Yet many of my people are still enslaved.

By this I mean that most of us still live in confinement. We’re confined in impoverished communities and under-resourced schools. Many of us are literally confined in penitentiaries, which I see as modern-day plantations. (After all, the people who occupy the jails are mainly the same people who were picking cotton and getting hanged during slavery—African-Americans.) But who’s to blame for these kinds of confinement—we ourselves, or the government?

I’m guessing you can point fingers at both. You may be born with nothing but the gift of life, and maybe this is because government officials put money before people and see no profit in helping your community. But what you make out of your situation is up to you. We’re so entangled in poverty that most of us are either afraid of the unknown or oblivious to it. But if Douglass could see beyond the drama and injustice surrounding him to make himself better, then we can do the same.

Far From Enslaved

After the play, I got the chance to talk to the playwright and lead actor, Donal O’Kelly. He mentioned one Douglass quote he likes: “Power concedes nothing without demand. It never has, and it never will.” My interpretation of this was that if you want something, it’s not enough simply to want it; you have to give your all to get it.

If there’s no money in helping the poverty-stricken, don’t expect those in power to get involved in the problems of the poor. We have to broaden our own horizons, and by doing this we’ll help not only ourselves but also future generations. My own background didn’t provide me with the financial, educational, or emotional foundation I need to succeed in life. So, like Frederick Douglass, I have to arm myself with the courage, determination, and will to expand my knowledge and get to where I want to be.

I should have known more about Douglass than I did before I saw this play, so The Cambria was an informative experience. I am thrilled to know about this icon and positive role model who, though he was born a slave, had a train of thought that was far from enslaved.

Test your knowledge of other African-American leaders with our Black History Month Quiz.

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(NYC-2009-05-07)