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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Being Surrounded

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 “Surround yourself with people who have instilled hope in you.”

This was a piece of advice I received early in my professional career.

Whether at home or in my study, I was encouraged to place pictures of those I can turn to when I’m in need of inspiration and courage.

On the wall in my study hang photographs of three people who remind me that this vast work in which I participate began long before I arrived, and will continue well after I’m gone. Each hangs in its own frame, as a reminder that their stories are their own. Even so, collectively, these stories intersect the hopeful vision of what humanity can become.

In one of these frames hangs the portrait of former slave and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass. There is perhaps no greater story of overcoming oppression, injustice, and imprisonment.
As a slave Douglass was equated with ‘things,’ like cows, pigs, or oxen. These ‘things’ were property, and so was Douglass. Slaves resisted this categorization by appealing to their masters when overseers were unnecessarily violent or abusive. If their masters responded with compassion in one situation, the assumption was that similar treatment for other slaves would follow. This compassion acknowledged and therefore humanized slaves; this was something that the system of slavery could not afford in order to remain effective.

Douglass’s formative moment of self-discovery was his personal resistance to an overseer, which Douglass describes as his last flogging. This scuffle ended with Douglass drawing blood from his overseer, rather than the other way around. Following this act of resistance, Douglass was never flogged again.

Even more importantly, this incident was the turning point in Douglass’ ‘life as a slave.’
 

“It rekindled in my breast these moldering embers of liberty; it brought up my Baltimore dreams, and revived a sense of my own manhood. I was a changed being after that fight. I was nothing before; I WAS A MAN NOW.” [1]

 

Through this experience, Douglass experienced a selfhood resurrection ‘from the dark and pestiferous tomb of slavery, to the heave of comparative freedom.’ While still physically a slave, Douglass recovered his personhood, and began to experience his true identity as a ‘somebody.’

All of us are somebody’s. Like Douglass, all of us have a story to tell. While our struggles may not be as extreme or dramatic as Douglass’s, we glean from his narrative that we all posses the strength to somehow rise above those things, which keep our true selves at bay.

Perhaps some of us have already been liberated.

Others among us stand on shaking legs, as we search for the courage to be somebody.

Frederick Douglass hangs on my wall not just because of his role in shaping American history, but also his journey engaging the necessary work of being emancipated from the age-old lie that he could be only a slave and nothing else.
Douglass hangs on my wall as a reminder that I can

that you can

that we can

together,

be liberated into the freedom of our true identity.

Douglass hangs as a reminder of the profound belief in human equality and the hope that everyone may discover his/her true self.

So I ask, friends: who reminds of you of this in your space?


[Adam Quinn, Pastor First Presbyterian Church of Lincoln]

[1] Douglass, Frederick. “Autobiographies: Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave; My bondage and my freedom; Life and times of Frederick Douglass.” Ed. Gates Jr., Henry Louis (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1994), 286.

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