Frederick Douglass-A Speech in 1857

Frederick Douglass, c. 1850

If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.

I have been waiting for the month of February to put this quote on my website. I don’t know if that was a good decision or not, as I think that a quote by a great orator shouldn’t wait for the one month set aside to honor African-Americans. But since I started this website in November, with the elections and holidays, I had other quotes that worked well for those times, so I thought I would wait until February for a famous quote by Frederick Douglass. I have known this quote for a number of years, and I love it for the way it conjures so many images and thoughts. Even though I knew it was from Mr. Douglass, I had not looked at the full speech until I decided a couple of months ago to highlight it on my website. Once I decided on it, I wanted to make sure I knew where the quote came from, so I looked it up. If you like the small part of Mr. Douglass’s speech in this quote, I highly recommend you read the whole speech, which can be found on this website – BlackPast.org. The speech was given to a group of abolitionists in the state of New York in 1857, just before the start of the Civil War. I have to say, while the small section of the speech that became so famous is still my favorite part, the rest of the speech shows how talented Mr. Douglass was at framing his words in ways that have the most impact. I will put a few other parts of the speech at the end of this post just to hopefully get you interested enough to read the full speech. I will also say that Mr. Douglass had a fascinating life, and if you can, read up on some of his history. He himself wrote several autobiographies throughout his life, and strongly supported women’s rights in addition to Black Americans. His history can be found at this website for his historic home in Washington, DC, which is run by the National Park Service.

The sections of Mr. Douglass’s speech quoted below are posted on BlackPast.org.

This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both.

Men may not get all they pay for in this world, but they must certainly pay for all they get. If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal.

Poetry-Fire and Ice

I haven’t posted for a bit, partly because, like many, I have been anxiously watching events in Georgia and Washington, D.C. I am not going to comment about politics on this blog, because that really isn’t why I began this effort. I am not really interested in blogging about current political events (I was never interested in becoming a journalist). The quotes that I post are usually as close as I will come to commenting, and they are really more of an historian’s view on the events. I do try to pick quotes that I think point out the continuity with the past that are reflected in the present. This month’s first quote is one from Plautus, a playwright from the Roman Republic. While I think we can always learn from history, Plautus’s comment of ‘Done is done, it cannot be made undone’ is also very on point for this week. For the second quote, I picked a phrase from Virgil’s Aeneid, ‘The gates of Hell are open night and day; Smooth the descent, and easy is the way; But, to return, and view the cheerful skies; In this, the task and mighty labor lies.’ I think both are ways to look at the events of today with different eyes. One thing I like about both history and poetry is that we can look at events through a different window than a news feed, and that different viewpoint can help us to gain perspective on events. For me, good poetry condenses complex ideas into a form that gives both pinpoint focus and a wider angle view at the same time. As with any art, each person will view a poem from their own experience, so if anyone likes some of the poetry I put on this blog, I hope it inspires them to look at other poems and authors. I think poetry can be comforting to read when times are full of conflict, even if the poem itself is full of conflict. The knowledge that people went through events like this in the past, and we are all still here to read about it can be a source of reassurance.

Now that I have said that, I will give you a poem about the world ending! (Sorry! We’ll just interpret that as a conceptual ‘world’ instead of a physical world; though I will admit that is not as comforting as it could be!) Robert Frost is pretty well known, and if you read poetry at all, you have probably read ‘Fire and Ice.’ Like a lot of the poems I like best, this one is short, but I think puts a lot of meaning into just a few words. ‘Fire and Ice’ talks about love and hate as the motivations for destruction. Robert Frost separates them out as two distinct causes, but I think we might look at recent events and decide that there is no reason to limit our choice to just one. This poem also reminds me of the saying about water, that the right amount will quench your thirst, but too much will drown you. As an historian, I like that we can learn from history, but I also know that we only learn if we take the time to study. As a future librarian, I urge everyone to study the mistakes of the past, and also to learn from poetry, music, and art about other viewpoints.

Fire and Ice

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice

Robert Frost
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