Two of my favorite quotes are from Frederick Douglass, an American hero and one of more compelling voices in the 19th century on slavery and human rights.
"If there is no struggle, there is no progress.''
"Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will."
Profound in its simplicity; prescient in its accuracy. The undeniable wisdom in both statements comes from a man who grew up a slave in Maryland. He endured the inhumanity of servitude, secretly taught himself to read and write — and through the enlightenment of education escaped and became a free man. Douglass later in life was a trusted adviser to a president named Lincoln.
As part of Black History Month, the Hartford Public Library asked me to a lead a book discussion a few weeks ago on Douglass' tome "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass." I was initially reluctant to participate because it was a fairly tight deadline and even though I long admired Douglass, I had never read his book.
That was enough incentive to say yes. The book was at times impossible to put down and other times you were compelled to put it down because the graphic descriptions of the savage whippings exacted on slaves.
"Now you d-----d b----h, [sic] I'll learn you how to disobey my orders!" Douglass quoted a slaveholder who was preparing to whip one of his female slaves. "And after rolling up his sleeves, he commenced to lay on the heavy cow skin, and soon the warm, red blood (amid heart-rending shrieks from her, and horrid oaths from him) came dripping to the floor. I was so terrified and horror-stricken at the sight, that I hid myself in a closet."
The whip has long been the symbol of intimidation and authority that kept slaves in line. But, Douglass discovered, it was the book — and pencil — that were the ultimate tool of power for the slave master. By prohibiting slaves from learning to read and write, the slaveholder kept his servant ignorant, docile and compliant.
Douglass, however, wanted no part of this kind of blind obedience. His appetite for learning how to read and write was so insatiable he was willing to risk his life to do so.
Douglass saw firsthand the undeniable power of ignorance, the wealth it created for those in power and the generation of despair it imposed on others.
"I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty — to wit, the white man's power to enslave the black man," Douglass wrote. "It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom."
Friday is the 16th anniversary of Read Across America Day. School systems such as Hartford's set aside time to celebrate reading. Successful people from the community visit elementary schools and read to students of all ethnic backgrounds. To some degree, we've come a long way from the days of the 1800s, when teaching a black child to read was illegal. In other ways, not much has changed. Ignorance is still the tool used to keep the disenfranchised oppressed. These days, however, the ignorance is more self-inflicted.
An educator I know once asked a group or urban students what the difference was between someone who was not able to read and someone who could read, yet chooses not to. The outcome is still the same — an unenlightened and undereducated soul.
Douglass articulated that real freedom started with an educated and fertile mind and the ability to think critically. His book should be on the must-read list of every history or English teacher.
As we celebrate Read Across America, the message for our young people is this: Education is still the great equalizer. It can transform poverty and change the trajectory of lives.
Douglass' life journey, by the way, provided him every excuse to hate and have disdain for whites. But his education also gave him the ability to discern. He recognized that not all whites were cruel and brutal in their treatment of blacks. There were whites he collaborated with in the struggle for human rights, which ultimately resulted in demands for change — and progress.
Stan Simpson is host of "The Stan Simpson Show'' (www.ctnow.com/stan and Saturdays, 6:30 a.m., on FOX CT).Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun