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Freedom is just a word.
A word, like justice or love, that must be made real through the passage of our own experience before it can become something more—before we can become something more.
That particular “something more,” the transformation of an idea into a living and breathing reality, is a transcendent feature of the human experience. To actually live up to an ideal, which is to say, drag that ideal kicking and screaming into the reality of our experience, is to abide in that “something more” and manifest our latent human potential.
To embody an idea is to make it real, to make yourself real, and no human being I’ve ever heard of has undertaken such a brutal task with more flying colors than Frederick Douglass. Having been stripped of all precious things upon birth and forced to live as human chattel, the only direction for him to move was upward. Zero to one hundred, real quick. The life of Frederick Douglass is a parable of the flight from human bondage, and his journey is a testament to the burden of freedom.
The slave is, from the beginning, deprived of their family background and personal history to calcify their status as an inferior. A person cannot live without a sense of their history, because without a connection with our past, we lose our grasp on the future—or what it would even mean to have a future. Our past must be put to use, to carve a better future out of stone.
This robbery was an intrinsic part of the slave system in the American south. It was necessary to convince the slave of their inhumanity, to have them believe they were incapable of living in freedom to ensure the operations of the slave system.
In his memoir, Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “Enslavement was not merely the antiseptic borrowing of labor—it is not so easy to get a human being to commit their body against its own elemental interest. And so enslavement must be casual wrath and random mangling, the gashing of heads and brains blown out over the river as the body seeks to escape. It must be rape so regular as to be industrial.”
From an early age, Douglass was tortured by the idea that he did not know his own age or birth date. It was his sensitivity to these subtle deprivations that gave him the incentive to escape. The vision of his path to freedom came from an even more insidious loss: that of knowledge. There can be no freedom without knowledge, and the slaveholders knew this all too well.
It was illegal to teach a slave to read, and his mistress made the mistake of teaching young Douglass the alphabet before being forced to discontinue his lessons. It was upon hearing his master disclose the professed “evil of teaching” a slave to read that called upon his desire for freedom: “These words sank deep into my heart,” he writes in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, “stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new strain of thought…From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.”
But freedom is not all peaches and cream. It is a tremendous burden, because freedom means responsibility. If we are free, then we must be responsible. It is a terror, in fact, for what could be more terrifying than total responsibility? And freedom involves knowledge, which deprives us of our innocence. If innocence is ignorance, as Kierkegaard said, then knowledge comes with the feeling of guilt—guilt because we have an idea of how things should be, how we should be, and are then faced with the our own inadequacies, and the inadequacies of reality itself.
Douglass was faced with this excruciating and tormenting guilt, which was really the development of a conscience, that comes through the gravity of acquiring knowledge: “As I writhed under it, I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out.
“In moments of agony, I envied my fellow slaves for their stupidity. I have often wished myself a beast. I preferred the condition of the meanest reptile to my own. Anything, no matter what, to get rid of thinking! It was pressed upon me by every object within sight or hearing, animate or inanimate. The silver trump of freedom had roused my soul to eternal wakefulness. Freedom now appeared, to disappear no more, forever.” From, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.
Ultimately, it was this burning desire, the weight of knowledge, that allowed him to achieve flight from slavery.
There is a reason that the South didn’t win the Civil War. It was not a socioeconomic blunder, nor merely the fact that the South refused to recruit slaves for battle. It was because slavery did not work. The loss of “self” necessary to perpetuate slavery, and turn human beings into animals in your own mind, is a moral disadvantage. Although the North was by no means perfect where black bodies were concerned, the economic system of the union did not rely on slave labor—and the whole business of prostrating black bodies was an unnecessary waste of energy.
Why is this so? Because human beings need freedom. It is a universal, an absolute. We need to exercise our natural desire to express ourselves against the tides of the world around us. Otherwise, we drown in the vacuum of meaning created by our inaction.
We need freedom, but freedom must be accompanied by a set of values and disciplines in order to thrive. Freedom is a burden, because we can no longer dwell in blind innocence. Responsibility is the lifeblood of freedom, the means to actualizing our latent potential.
When I find myself stumbling in freedom, I like to think of Frederick Douglass and his likeness—who took hold of freedom like a drowning man would take hold of a breath of fresh air.
Freedom must be earned, through the beautiful struggle of taking responsibility for our life in all of its broken pieces, and the heavier the burden, the more meaningful our journey will feel.
Frederick Douglass exemplifies what it means to wrestle with freedom, and to achieve that “something more” through the constant claiming and reclaiming of that preciousness. If we stand still, it dies. If we become stagnant, we lose our freedom. It is not a passive quality to be acquired once and forever, it is an active participation, something that must be fought for without reprieve.
So it goes with every ideal that is worth dragging, kicking, and screaming into the fortress of reality.
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