Remedial Book Notes: Volume 1.2 – “I had better things to do than be angry.”
For anyone interested, this is the second installment of a little self-educational, comparative study of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and Clarence Thomas in their own words perhaps inappropriately posted under the Book Notes banner. Please refer back to my Preface diary for a little more background (1). While obviously amateurish in nature, we’ll see where this one time experiment takes me/us and hopefully the effort will spark someone with talent to take up andyd’s torch.
I have now dug in a little deeper…184 pages of Douglass, 41 pages of Washington, and 89 pages of Thomas…and, as I noted at the end of the last installment, all three are very good books. I must add up front to my previous praise of Douglass: The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass is simply outstanding in style and, more importantly, in content. The first section (136 pages…“Author’s Birth” through “Escape from Slavery”) should be required reading for every high school senior in America.
Mr. Douglass keeps striking timeless…and timely…chords with me:
“Liberty, as the inestimable birthright of every man, converted every object into an asserter of this right” (2)
I would add that the threat to liberty tends to reawaken the asserter…sometimes, thankfully, on a massive scale.
I suspect a good argument could be made as to the bias of my highlighting pen but as I skim back through the underlined passages it strikes me how consistently Mr. Douglass referenced liberty and not freedom as the opposite of slavery. A few examples:
“…the turning point in my ‘life as a slave’. It rekindled in my breast the smouldering embers of liberty.” (3)
“To enslave men successfully and safely it is necessary to keep their minds occupied with thoughts and aspirations short of the liberty of which they are deprived. A certain degree of attainable good must be kept before them. (4)
“…but where slavery was powerful, and liberty weak, the latter was driven to concealment or destruction.” (5)
I do not doubt his terminology is deliberate…and correct…and an important usage of precise language that we should drive into today’s debates as much as possible.
Also, the bits about “keep their minds occupied” on trivial things and, if I may take some editorial liberty, “[meaningless] degree of attainable good” cannot help but remind me of budget battles and “victories” over the last six months. (In case this must be said, I do not in any way suggest any equivalence between the pre-Civil War practice of slavery and today’s struggle with Modern Liberalism and our ruling class. I just find it interesting that the anti-liberty forces of all ages use a common playbook.)
Wisdom and practicality are what keep jumping out of the much shorter book by Mr. Washington. A few examples:
“I have great faith in the power and influence of facts. It is seldom that anything is permanently gained by the holding back of a fact. (6)
“I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed. (7)
“The older I grow, the more I am convinced that there is no education which one can get from books and costly apparatus that is equal to that which can be gotten from contact with great men and women. Instead of studying books so constantly, how I wish that our schools and colleges might learn to study men and things!” (8)
One wouldn’t have to look too hard through recent headlines to recognize the spectacular failures of some of the highest reaching pure academics and “inherited-the-family-Senate-seat” politicians…none of which, I imagine, would have impressed Mr. Washington in the slightest.
While I’m at it, I cannot resist a couple of jabs at modern culture from a century ago:
“…mere book education was not all that the young people…needed. … I taught the pupils to comb their hair, and to keep their hands and faces clean, as well at their clothing. I gave special attention to teaching them the proper use of the tooth-brush and the bath. In all my teaching, I have watched carefully the influence of the tooth-brush, and I am convinced that there are few single agencies of civilization that are more far-reaching.” (9)
“I have had no patience with any school for my race in the South which did not teach its students the dignity of labour.” (10)
Today, the belt may be Mr. Washington’s tooth-brush and the entire Progressive movement the metastasization of the school he referenced.
On a more serious note, Mr. Douglass provided a more thorough treatment of the diabolically destructive effects of slavery on familial relationships early in his book that deserves dedicated attention later but here Mr. Washington touches on the later fall-out for “hundreds of thousands of black people in every part of our country”:
“The very fact that the white boy is conscious that, if he fails in life, he will disgrace the whole family record, extending back through many generations, is of tremendous value in helping him to resist temptations. The fact that the individual has behind and surrounding him proud family history and connection serves as a stimulus to help him to overcome obstacles when striving for success” (11)
As many have pointed out over the past several decades, our Modern Liberal tendencies aren’t really helping on this front.
Finally, at the end of the last edition we left Mr. Thomas as “an angry black man” but it only took about sixteen pages before the character of the man forced the recognition quoted in the title above (12). Well, that and the astute observations of the world around him:
“The more I read, the less inclined I was to conform to the cultural standards that blacks imposed on themselves and on one another. Merely because I was black, it seemed, I was…expected to be a radical, not a conservative. I no longer cared to play that game” (13)
“The black people I knew came from different places and backgrounds—social, economic, even ethnic—yet the color of our skin was somehow supposed to make us identical in spite of our differences. I didn’t buy it.” (14)
Oh, and let’s not forget this masterpiece:
“Preferential policies intended to help blacks adjust to life after segregation were very much on my mind in those days, and now I began to think them through in a more systematic way. Talented blacks stuck on the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder clearly deserved such help, but the ones who most often took advantage of it were considerably higher up on the ladder. Most of the middle-class blacks with whom I discussed these policies argued that all blacks were equally disadvantaged by virtue of their race alone. I thought this was nonsense. Not only were some blacks more economically successful than others, but many light-skinned blacks believed themselves to be superior to their darker brethren, an attitude that struck me as not much different from white racism. Even now blacks don’t like to talk about that kind of prejudice, but it had been a very real part of my life in Savannah, which was for all intents and purposes segregated not merely by race but also by class and color. I thought that preferential policies should be reserved for the poorer blacks whose plight was used to justify them, not the comfortable middle-class blacks who were better prepared to take advantage of them—and I also thought the same policies should be applied to similarly disadvantaged whites.”
“On the other hand, I didn’t think it was a good idea to make poor blacks, or anyone else, more dependent on government. That would amount to a new kind of enslavement, one which ultimately relied on the generosity—and the ever-changing self-interest—of politicians and activists. It seemed to me that the dependency if fostered might ultimately prove as diabolical as segregation, permanently condemning poor people to the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder by cannibalizing the values without which they had no long-term hope of improving their lot.” (15)
“No…hope”. It is this perception of permanence of lost values, lost family, lost dignity, and lost liberty that all three men recognized as ultimately so destructive. Mr. Douglass returns again and again to this theme:
“It was not my enslavement at the present time which most affected me—the being a slave for life was the saddest thought.” (16)
Proud Redstate Member since April 2006…?
(2) The Life and times of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass. Page 55.
(3) The Life and times of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass. Page 97.
(4) The Life and times of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass. Page 100.
(5) The Life and times of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass. Page 110.
(6) Up From Slavery: An Autobiography by Booker T. Washington. Page 12.
(7) Up From Slavery: An Autobiography by Booker T. Washington. Page 15.
(8) Up From Slavery: An Autobiography by Booker T. Washington. Page 21.
(9) Up From Slavery: An Autobiography by Booker T. Washington. Page 28.
(10) Up From Slavery: An Autobiography by Booker T. Washington. Page 27.
(11) Up From Slavery: An Autobiography by Booker T. Washington. Page 14.
(12) My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir by Clarence Thomas. Page 64.
(13) My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir by Clarence Thomas. Pages 61-62.
(14) My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir by Clarence Thomas. Page 62.
(15) My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir by Clarence Thomas. Pages 56-57
(16) The Life and times of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass. Page 59.