Frederick Douglass is one of the greatest Americans who ever lived. Born into slavery, he faced his enslavers and dared them to keep whipping him. He taught himself to read and then he escaped to freedom. His memoir was a massive bestseller and his political influence was such that he became the most photographed man in America, even more than Lincoln.
Today is the 123rd anniversary of his death and so two stories are worth sharing, each illustrating the self-taught Stoicism and strength this incredible man cultivated.
- Once as a runaway slave working in New Bedford, Douglass found that the entire crew refused to work with him. How did he respond? He shrugged it off. “Well, well,” he recalls thinking, “this is a hardship but yet not a very serious one for me.” After all, he had plenty of good things going for him in that moment—namely that he was free—and so his response chose to focus on the good and not on the frustrating situation.
- Douglass was traveling later in his life and was forced to ride in a baggage car because he was black. “I am sorry, Mr. Douglass, that you have been degraded in this manner,” a white passenger who opposed segregation said to him. Douglass stared the man in the eye with a fury and power that seemed to come from deep inside, “They cannot degrade Frederick Douglass. The soul that is within me no man can degrade. I am not the one that is being degraded on account of this treatment but those who are inflicting it upon me.”
Though certain people who should know better seem to be just discovering Frederick Douglass, we should all take a second to reflect on this inspiring man today. These are just two examples of Douglass’s inner-discipline and what the Stoics would call an “Inner Citadel.” This was a man with a soul so strong and bright it still shines to us 123 years after his death, just as it shined brightly and as beacon to citizens of all races in his own time. And today when we face hardships or slights, we should remember that we have the power to respond as Douglass did—to say, “No matter, this is not very serious to me” and “The people who try to hurt me only hurt themselves.”
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