Never underestimate the redemptive impact of a small act of creative empowerment. No one person can take credit for the formation of the world-changer that is Frederick Douglass, but he (like us) was a result of both his antifragility and the benevolence of others with power. Allow me to showcase a few vignettes.
In childhood, and against all norms, his master’s wife, Lucretia Auld, first taught the young learner the alphabet. When her husband, Thomas, learned of this “atrocity,” she quickly regretted her actions and ceased the lessons, but nevertheless,
her small act of empowerment helped catapult this wordsmith into a lifelong journey as a learner. Douglass will assert that from that starting point he taught himself to learn to read and write, tricking white children into fragments of lessons along the way.
As Douglass was gathering words in his arsenal, he was steeped in passages from Webster’s dictionary, The Columbian Orator, the Bible, and a Methodist hymnbook (Blight, Prophet of Freedom, 55). Climbing into the loft with a flour barrel as a desk and the use of the small chair, he began his religious devotion to the power of words. While he purchased The Columbian Orator with fifty cents he had earned around the shipyard, those odd jobs were paid directly to Douglass against the norm of slavery at that time. A small act, indeed.
As he was developing his gifts, Douglass found welcoming arms in the small black congregation of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, pastored by Thomas James, who was also a former slave. James saw the potential of this young man and licensed Douglass to preach. Later in life, Douglass looked at AMEZ church as a place that “offered his first chance to ‘exercise my gifts’ and launched him in his ‘new vocation. (93). Show me a church that would allow an unpolished 21-year-old that same chance today!
Upon escaping from slavery, Douglass encountered William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper, the Liberator. The young fugitive was too poor to pay for a subscription, but the agent Douglass had recently met, sent him the weekly newspaper nonetheless. Perhaps nothing stoked the fires of abolitionism and rhetoric more than this printing. In Blight’s biography, this agent of the Liberator remains nameless.
In this post, I allow these examples to speak for themselves with little extra commentary. Let it suffice to say that it is incumbent on those with relative power to steward that power by finding creative ways to commission and empower others to make something of the world. And in so doing, maybe, just maybe, another world-changer will be formed.
Photo Credit: Sutori
David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018).