'To Understand, a Man Must Stand Under'

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Frederick Douglass was a soldier, years before his country went to war. He learned to read on his own, against the wishes of his masters. In Baltimore he took Bible classes from an older black man, under threat of being whipped. 

When he returned to the Eastern Shore he organized more classes, with himself as the teacher, until those classes were broken up by thugs. Judged -- at the young age of 16 -- as a slave who did not know his place, he was sent to live at "Mount Misery" under the tutelage of the "Negro-Breaker"  Edward Covey. Douglass was repeatedly whipped, until he whipped Covey himself, and thus broke the breaker. Donald Rumsfeld now lives on the old farm of the "Negro-Breaker."

Returned to his home, and hired out again, Douglass, with a group of slaves, hatched a plot to escape. Here he reflects on their thinking:

To look at the map and observe the proximity of Eastern shore, Maryland, to Delaware and Pennsylvania, it may seem to the reader quite absurd to regard the proposed escape as a formidable undertaking. But to understand, some one has said, a man must stand under... 

The case sometimes, to our excited visions, stood thus: At every gate through which we had to pass we saw a watchman; at every ferry a guard; on every bridge a sentinel, and in every wood a patrol or slave-hunter. We were hemmed in on every side. The good to be sought and the evil to be shunned were flung in the balance and weighed against each other. On the one hand stood slavery, a stern reality glaring frightfully upon us, with the blood of millions in its polluted skirts, terrible to behold, greedily devouring our hard earnings and feeding upon our flesh. This was the evil from which to escape. 

On the other hand, far away, back in the hazy distance where all forms seemed but shadows under the flickering light of the north star, behind some craggy hill or snow-capped mountain, stood a doubtful freedom, half frozen, and beckoning us to her icy domain. This was the good to be sought. The inequality was as great as that between certainty and uncertainty. This in itself was enough to stagger us; but when we came to survey the untrodden road and conjecture the many possible difficulties, we were appalled, and at times, as I have said, were upon the point of giving over the struggle altogether. 
The reader can have little idea of the phantoms which would flit, in such circumstances, before the uneducated mind of the slave. Upon either side we saw grim death, assuming a variety of horrid shapes. Now it was starvation, causing us, in a strange and friendless land, to eat our own flesh. Now we were contending with the waves and were drowned. Now we were hunted by dogs and overtaken, and torn to pieces by their merciless fangs. We were stung by scorpions, chased by wild beasts, bitten by snakes, and, worst of all, after having succeeded in swimming rivers, encountering wild beasts, sleeping in the woods, and suffering hunger, cold, heat and nakedness, were overtaken by hired kidnappers, who, in the name of law and for the thrice-cursed reward, would, perchance, fire upon us, kill some, wound others and capture all. 

This dark picture, drawn by ignorance and fear, at times greatly shook our determination, and not unfrequently caused us to 

Rather bear the ills we had, 
Than flee to others which we knew not of.

I am not disposed to magnify this circumstance in my experience, and yet I think that, to the reader, I shall seem to be so disposed. But no man can tell the intense agony which was felt by the slave when wavering on the point of making his escape. All that he has is at stake, and even that which he has not is at stake also. The life which he has may be lost and the liberty which he seeks may not be gained. 

Patrick Henry, to a listening senate which was thrilled by his magic eloquence and ready to stand by him in his boldest flights, could say, "Give me liberty or give me death;" and this saying was a sublime one, even for a freeman; but incomparably more sublime is the same sentiment when practically asserted by men accustomed to the lash and chain, men whose sensibilities must have become more or less deadened by their bondage. 

With us it was a doubtful liberty, at best, that we sought, and a certain lingering death in the rice-swamps and sugar-fields if we failed. Life is not lightly regarded by men of sane minds. It is precious both to the pauper and to the prince, to the slave and to his master; and yet I believe there was not one among us who would not rather have been shot down than pass away life in hopeless bondage.

There's so much to say here, but I just want to take a moment and geek out on the writing --On the other hand, far away, back in the hazy distance where all forms seemed but shadows under the flickering light of the north star, behind some craggy hill or snow-capped mountain, stood a doubtful freedom, half frozen, and beckoning us to her icy domain.

How often have you felt like that in your life? "a doubtful freedom, half frozen, beckoning us to her icy domain." It's good that Douglass circles back to Patrick Henry, because it reinforces the point of his life. African-American history and mythology, is American history and mythology. If you don't grapple with Douglass craving even an "uncertain freedom," then you can't really understand why black people support Obama. You can't really get the dumb optimism that penetrates the American core across race, and yet is so often puzzled at when it bubbles up in the black community.

African-Americans were made here. This is our home. With apologies to Andrew, this is, in so many ways, a black country. Even if it is at pains to acknowledge the point.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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