For anyone interested, this is the first 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 just waded into each book…28 pages of Douglass, 8 pages of Washington, and 48 pages of Thomas…but wanted to put together a few passages from this early going (with minimal commentary from me) that have struck me as remarkable for one reason or another. To be sure, there is much more in these pages that I hope to…that I need to…return to in detail but I think I’ll wait until I’m a little deeper into each character and story before I try to dig into them. I hope these introductory quotes help set a proper tone for what is to come…
First, this from Mr. Douglass’s recollection of his childhood and his master who could “commit outrages deep, dark, and nameless” but very well may have been a “humane” member of “civilized society” if he had been raised in a free state, he continues:
A man’s character always takes its hue, more or less, from the form and color of things about him. The slaveholder, as well as the slave, was the victim of the slave system. Under the whole heavens there could be no relation more unfavorable to the development of honorable character than that sustained by the slaveholder to the slave. (2)
At first I read that as what seemed to be a rather dispassionate assessment of an institution that had so wronged this individual. There even seemed to be at least some level of extraordinarily kind understanding of its long ranging effects on both sides. Then…after a slower more deliberate review…it now comes across as a perfect two sentence set-up with a precision backhand at the end. Priceless.
Then I came upon this eerily similar assertion as Mr. Washington was discussing his white father from one of the nearby plantations:
Whoever he was, I never heard of his taking the least interest in me or in providing in any way for my rearing. But I do not find especial fault with him. He was simply another unfortunate victim of the institution which the Nation unhappily had engrafted upon it at the time. (3)
Both seem to rely on overly broad…dare I say uncomfortably broad…usage of the term victim. This seems an odd line of thought from two former slaves even as they look back after decades of growing, learning, and freedom. Many, many questions…?
Then comes Mr. Thomas. This is a much different book (so far) from a much different time. His is much more “pure biography” with a little less “informative history” but the changing times do come through for a black man in his early twenties during the late 1960s:
Every southern black had known such moments, and felt the rage that threatened to burn through the masks of meekness and submission behind which we hid our true feelings. It was like a beast that lay in wait to devour us. Some fought it with drink, others with prayer. You can hear the struggle in the soulful wails of gospel singers and the passionate moans of blues singers.
No matter how hard I worked or how smart I was, any white person could still say to me, “Keep on trying , Clarence, one day you will be as good as us,” knowing that he, not I, would be the judge of that.
What was the point of working within the system? Segregation, lynchings, black codes, slavery: the endless litany of injustices raced through my head. Surely the time for politeness and nonviolent protest was over. Look what it had done for Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy – not to mention Daddy, Aunt Tina , and the millions of other compliant, self-deluded blacks who played by the rules. Might it be that those rules were nothing more than a sinister invention devised by the white man to fool blacks into cooperating with the oppressive machinery of American life?
I was an angry black man. (4)
I sense a change in expectations with respect to the freedom offered in America.
All three have been good reading so far. In particular, I am really enjoying both the education from and writing style of Mr. Douglass.
Proud Redstate Member since April 2006…?
(2) The Life and times of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass. Chapter 5: A Slaveholder’s Character, page 25
(3) Up From Slavery: An Autobiography by Booker T. Washington. Chapter 1: A Slave Among Slaves, page 1.
(4) My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir by Clarence Thomas. Chapter 2: As Good As Us, pages 47-48.