Frederick Douglass and the Transformational Power of Courage in a Fearsome World

In organizing and movement-building circles, we often talk honorifically about our “fearless” leaders: people who are unflinching, who are not afraid of any fight and who never back down. However, over nearly two decades of experience as a community and labor organizer, I have found that it is quite rare to find a person who genuinely meets this standard. What’s more, such people may be seen by others around them as foolhardy, unrealistic, or even untrustworthy—people exhibiting what Socrates once called “foolish boldness” (Plato’s Laches).

People are afraid to confront their boss; they’re afraid their coworkers won’t stand up with them or that they might stab them in the back. They’re afraid they will get fired—falling further behind on their bills, losing health care for their kids, compounding their current suffering.

A certain amount of fear can be healthy, causing enough pause to ensure that one makes an informed decision: is taking this risk worth it? Layered on top of such fears, we often find futility: the idea that even if we try, we are bound to lose, because in fact there is no way that it can get better. Like other fears, futility has the effect of preventing human action. Overwhelmed by futility, human beings sink into despair. What is the point of even trying? Why go on?

Fear and futility are so common and widespread that a well-structured organizing conversation will address them directly and inoculate against them. But our answer to someone who is afraid cannot be “Don’t worry about it,” just as we cannot absolutely guarantee victory in order to overcome futility. Workers know that such talk amounts to bullshit.  One recent study found that employers violate federal law in 41.5% of union elections, illegally firing workers in 20% of such campaigns, and making threats, conducting surveillance, and harassing workers in nearly 33% of such cases—all while spending hundreds of millions of dollars on anti-union consultants to stymie organizing.

For this reason, organizers need to develop our thinking around the role of courage in human action. As a mentor of mine once defined it, courage is a quality that enables us to do something even when we are afraid to. That is to say: real courage does not mean being unafraid. Instead, courage is the willingness to act in full knowledge our fears. The opposite of courage is cowardice: knowing what we need to do but allowing our fears to prevent us from doing it. With roots in the Latin word cor, we can understand courage as an act related to and requiring heart.

I aim here to deepen our understanding of courage by drawing from the life and thought of Frederick Douglass. In his writings and speeches, Douglass offers a host of reflections on the tensions between courage and cowardice, in the role of courage played in his own transformation, and in the transformation of his relationship with those who enslaved him. The most famous of these is introduced in his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845)—namely, Douglass’s battle with the brutal enslaver Edward Covey.

Through a close reading of several passages of the Narrative, I hope to open a discussion of courage as it relates to the ongoing project of human liberation and the work of building a better world.

Dehumanization and Despair

Confronting the massive strength of racial capitalism and its various forms of economic, legal, political, ideological, and cultural power is a daunting task. Even doing so on a small scale, in one workplace or community, can often appear to be an insurmountable challenge. Organizers will likely be familiar with interactions with people who are “broken” in one way or another—and at times, we may even see such a person in the mirror. We are certain that society needs to be transformed, but we don’t know if we are up to the task. The limited horizons and paralysis of human action that result from such despair are among the aims of neoliberal ideologies that proclaim the end of history, with no alternatives. Such, too, was the aim of enslavers like Edward Covey, whose role was to break human beings.

The details of Covey’s methods of violent domination form the baseline for a clearer understanding of the significance of Frederick Douglass’s decision to stand up to him. Douglass writes that Covey “had acquired a very high reputation for breaking young slaves,” which “enabled him to get his farm tilled with much less expense to himself than he could have had it done without such a reputation.” In other words, the value of Covey’s ability to break human beings was so high to the regime of chattel slavery that he regularly was given enslaved people by other “slaveholders …[for] one year, for the sake of the training to which they were subjected, without any other compensation” (50, emphasis added).

Still a teenager when he arrives on Covey’s plantation on January 1, 1833, Douglass experiences Covey’s brutality within the first week when “Mr. Covey gave me a very severe whipping, cutting my back, causing the blood to run, and raising ridges on my flesh as large as my little finger” (51).  The whipping comes after Douglass, inexperienced in driving oxen, was ordered to collect firewood using a team of “unbroken oxen” that get loose twice in the course of his labors, the ox-cart both times nearly crushing him to death (Ibid).

Rather than showing sympathy or providing instruction on how to train and guide a team of oxen, Covey berates Douglass for the delays caused by the accident—and then beats him. Notice that Covey does not whip the unbroken oxen, an implicit acknowledgement that something must be beaten out of Douglass—his humanity. In fact, Covey does not just treat Douglass as an animal; he treats him worse than an animal. Physical torture combined with a relentless labor regime are vital to Covey’s psychological methods of control in the process of breaking human beings. Of his whippings, Douglass writes that during the first six months at Covey’s, “scarce a week passed without his whipping me. I was seldom free from a sore back” (52).

Further, the workday demanded of them by Covey pushed them “fully up to the point of endurance” (Ibid), and again beyond what is demanded of the farm animals. Douglass describes his work beginning before sunrise by feeding the horses, in order to be in the fields by daybreak, continuing to labor until after sunset, at times “midnight often caught us in the field binding blades” (52–3). Again, when compared with the care given to the horses, Douglass notes the degradation faced by the enslaved: “Mr. Covey gave us enough to eat, but scarce time to eat it. We were often less than five minutes taking our meals” (Ibid).

Their entire life was consumed, as Douglass writes, with “Work, work, work…scarcely more the order of the day than of the night. The longest days were too short for him, and the shortest nights too long for him” (55). What’s more, it was “never too hot or too cold; it could never rain, blow, hail, or snow, too hard for us to work in the field” (Ibid). In summary, Douglass writes that “If at any one time of my life more than another, I was made to drink the bitterest dregs of slavery, that time was during the first six months of my stay with Mr. Covey” (Ibid).

Douglass describes how his period under the license of Covey affects his state of mind:

I was somewhat unmanageable when I first went there, but a few months of this discipline tamed me. Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!

Ibid.

Covey so dominates him that Douglass feels himself losing his humanity, experiencing his own negation and social death, “broken in body, soul, and spirit.” Though fundamentally Douglass knows that he is human, he is “crushed” to the degree that even in his own mind he is reduced to the status of a “brute” animal, or perhaps even lower. As various elements of his personality disintegrate, Douglass feels himself becoming not himself.

Something else is required in order for Douglass to reclaim his full humanity—his own action.

Reassertion

Douglass describes a day where he is so sick and exhausted that he literally falls to the ground ill, unable to work. Rather than receiving care, medicine, or empathy, Covey beats him for his supposed “idleness.” Upon recovery, Douglass decides to walk five hours to visit the person who had hired him out to Covey, Thomas Auld, to complain about Covey’s harsh treatment. Douglass asks to be transferred to another plantation or to come home to Auld, who in response demands that he return to Covey’s plantation the next day, under the threat of the lash should he refuse.

Such a refusal should not surprise us. Auld had sent Douglass to Covey’s plantation so that he would be broken by the very methods he was now complaining about. To a modern reader, Douglass’s idea may read as naïve, but in terms of Douglass’ own growth and transformation, it was important that he tried to “file a grievance” over his conditions. It was equally important to his development that this attempt to work within the rules of the system failed. As Lewis Gordon points out in a discussion of Frantz Fanon’s thought in What Fanon Said (97), “Although one’s liberty, license, or absence of constraints could be handed over by another, it is the struggle for liberation that actually engenders one’s freedom.”

In union organizing, we often say that “the boss is the best organizer”—acknowledging that more than anything a skilled union organizer can do or say, it is the actions of those that oppress and exploit workers that form the foundation of their decision to act. By rejecting Douglass’s well-reasoned pleas for sympathy and fairness, Auld solidifies Douglass’ conviction for his future path—where he would test accepted boundaries and then begin to explode them. In the wake of this encounter, Douglass would now not merely be satisfied with being treated humanely, but, rather, he would demand to be treated humanly. Although reduced by Covey to the status of a brute animal, he promises us we shall soon see how he again becomes a man.

After his return from his visit to Auld, a few days go by in which Douglass generally avoids Covey. One day as Douglass is working in the barn, Covey sneaks up on him and grabs him as he is descending a ladder—tossing him to the floor in order to tie him up and whip him:

Mr. Covey seemed now to think he had me, and could do what he pleased; but at this moment—from whence came the spirit I don’t know—I resolved to fight; and, suiting my action to the resolution, I seized Covey hard by the throat; and as I did so, I rose. He held on to me, and I to him. My resistance was so entirely unexpected that Covey seemed taken all aback. He trembled like a leaf.

Narrative, 61–2

This is an incredible moment, as Douglass surprises Covey (and in some ways himself, although several earlier portions of the Narrative show his mental preparation to free himself) by suddenly fighting back. The entire legal, political, social, economic structure of slave society is built around keeping Black people in bondage, servitude, and in a condition of non-humanity. That is, Covey has and represents power. Yet here is Covey, a notorious slave-breaker known in that region of Maryland for his brutality, and backed by all of slave society, “trembling like a leaf” in the hands of a self-described “awkward” teenager.

Douglass, as inexperienced as he was in training oxen, surely had no experience in fighting his enslavers—and likely very little experience in any fighting at all. In fact, the only time the word “fight” appears in the text prior to Douglass’ battle with Covey is when he is describing fights between enslaved people over which of their respective enslavers was richer or stronger. He could not know for certain what the outcome of the fight would be—not just whether he would win or lose, but what the actual consequences would be for him because of the choice to fight. The expected one would be his death. And yet he fights.

Polarization and Power

Taken aback, Covey then calls upon another enslaved person named Hughes to help him restrain Douglass. Hughes shares more in common with Douglass than he does with Covey, but Covey’s action reasserts the power that he has behind him; his ability to command Hughes to help in the punishment of Douglass should spell the end of the matter. Such divide and conquer strategies should be familiar to organizers, and the reason they are so common is that they often work. Not this time, however. When Hughes steps in to help Covey, Douglass understands that he has made a choice about which side he is on, and Douglass acts accordingly—kicking Hughes squarely in the ribs.

This kick fairly sickened Hughes, so that he left me in the hands of Mr. Covey. This kick had the effect of not only weakening Hughes, but Covey also. When he saw Hughes bending over with pain, his courage quailed. He asked me if I meant to persist in my resistance. I told him I did, come what might; that he had used me like a brute for six months, and that I was determined to be used so no longer.

Ibid, 62

Although Douglass kicks Hughes, the blow weakens Covey—certainly in the sense of his morale and psyche, although possibly even physically. He is losing his ability to control the situation and learning that Douglass will not be so easily broken after all.

With Hughes out of the picture, Covey then turns to another enslaved person, Bill, for help in defeating Douglass. Bill, like Hughes, plays a small but important part in these events, as in his response we can see Covey’s power diminishing even further. Douglass writes: “Bill said his master hired him out to work, and not to help to whip me; so he left Covey and myself to fight our own battle out” (62). Bill does not come over to Douglass’s side to aide in the fight (nor did Douglass ask him to), but in seeing what happened to Hughes and observing Douglass’s determination, Bill feels confident enough to be able to refuse an order from Covey—an act of insubordination that certainly would put Bill at risk for future punishment himself.

This refusal to cooperate is significant. Throughout the Narrative, multiple acts of refusal are made by white people—refusing requests or appeals, refusing to work with Douglass in a Baltimore ship-building shop, etc. —with no real consequence to them. With the exception of Bill’s refusal (and obviously those of Douglass himself), the only other two refusals made by Black people in the Narrative result in their immediate death (Demby, who is shot in the head by Mr. Gore for refusing to be whipped) or in their immediate harm (Henry, who is beaten by several constables for refusing to be tied up). As subtle as it is, Bill’s refusal demonstrates the shift in the master-slave dynamic that is occurring because of Douglass’s decision to fight.

The fight between Douglass and Covey would go on for nearly two hours until, Douglass writes, Covey would give up and:

let me go, puffing and blowing at a great rate, saying that if I had not resisted, he would not have whipped me half so much. The truth was that he had not whipped me at all. I considered him as getting entirely the worst end of the bargain; for he had drawn no blood from me, but I had from him. The whole six months afterwards that I spent with Mr. Covey, he never laid the weight of his finger upon me in anger. He would occasionally say, he didn’t want to get hold of me again. “No,” thought I, “you need not; for you will come off worse than you did before.”

Ibid., 62–3

Covey’s face-saving “warning”—that if Douglass had not resisted, he would not have been whipped as much—is entirely laughable. As Douglass notes earlier in the Narrative, he had been whipped nearly weekly during the first six months on Covey’s farm. After Douglass asserts himself, Covey never touches him again for the remainder of the year that Douglass is rented to Covey.

In other words, it is not just Douglass who has been transformed by finding his courage, but also Covey. By standing up to Covey, despite the considerable risk of doing so, Douglass forces Covey to renegotiate the terms of their relationship. Before the fight, Covey acted in a way that demonstrated his license to do whatever he wanted to do to Douglass. He would not have been prevented from killing him based on any human empathy or possible criminal liability, for we know that, as Douglass writes, “killing a slave, or any colored person, in Talbot county, Maryland, is not treated as a crime, either by the courts or the community” (21).

Prior to the fight, the only thing that might have protected Douglass from being murdered by Covey were the economic consequences to Covey himself had he killed Douglass, as we learn when Douglass is pleading with Thomas Auld to be transferred off of Covey’s plantation. Auld “ridiculed the idea that there was any danger of Mr. Covey’s killing me, and said that he knew Mr. Covey; that he was a good man, and that he could not think of taking me from him; that, should he do so, he would lose the whole year’s wages” (59–60). The only value placed on Douglass under chattel slavery is as a commodity; were he to be killed, the world would not be losing a person; Covey would be losing his earnings. In other words, Covey killing Douglass would not have been, under that system, murder, but instead a matter of poor financial planning.

Rehumanization, Rebirth, Renewal

In fighting Covey, Douglass chooses to reassert his humanity, and in so doing creates a set of constraints on Covey’s behavior, new restraints that Covey must obey. These rules do not only apply to and restrict Covey, but also to every other white man Douglass meets thereafter, whom,  he writes, “I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me.” Though he remains enslaved for the next four years after the fight with Covey, Douglass writes that in this time he “had several fights, but was never whipped” (63).

Although his opportunity to escape from slavery in Maryland has not yet presented itself, in the fight with Covey Douglass has transformed his condition, his relationship with and conception of his self, and his relationship with others:

This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free. The gratification afforded by the triumph was a full compensation for whatever else might follow, even death itself. He only can understand the deep satisfaction which I experienced, who has himself repelled by force the bloody arm of slavery. I felt as I never felt before. It was a glorious resurrection, from the ‘tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom’ My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact.

Ibid., 63

As part of reasserting his full humanity, Douglass here refers to his “career” as a slave, a device that serves to frame his enslavement as if it were a job, his form in society rather than the entire fact of his existence. Finding courage to fight Covey, in Douglass’s example, results in a rebirth: from “the tomb of slavery to the heaven of freedom.”

This courage must be constantly renewed. Even after Douglass found the courage to fight Covey, he does not become a “fearless” person. He plans an escape in 1835 with several others but they are betrayed on Easter weekend by their own Judas before they can begin. Contemplating his second attempt at escape in 1838, he expresses even greater trepidation about the stakes at hand:

the dread and apprehension of a failure exceeded what I had experienced at my first attempt. The appalling defeat I then sustained returned to torment me. I felt assured that, if I failed in this attempt, my case would be a hopeless one—it would seal my fate as a slave forever. I could not hope to get off with anything less than the severest punishment, and being placed beyond the means of escape. It required no very vivid imagination to depict the most frightful scenes through which I should have to pass, in case I failed. The wretchedness of slavery, and the blessedness of freedom, were perpetually before me. It was life and death with me.

Ibid., 91-92

Douglass knows that he might not make it, and he fears that he might be killed along any step of his journey. But he does not give up—and this courageous choice is exactly the point.

Making a Way Out of No Way

Had Douglass not chosen to stand up to Covey, his whippings and degradation certainly would have continued. Douglass had no way of knowing what the actual outcome of the fight would be, but he fought anyway. Had he chosen not to attempt to escape Maryland—failing the first time but succeeding the second—it’s easy to conclude that his enslavement would have continued until the end of his life, that he would “live and die a slave” (56). By choosing to not succumb to fear or futility, and making a series of courageous choices, all of which involved significant risk of pain or death, Douglass manages to liberate himself.

Finding his way north to New Bedford, Massachusetts, he keeps the name Frederick but chooses a new last name and eventually—after several years as a laborer—a new career as an abolitionist making a powerful contribution to the fight to defeat slavery and leaving a lasting legacy of thought. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and the life and thought of the man who wrote it should serve as a reminder to today’s organizers and movements that although it is easy to despair, our thoughts and our actions do not have to end there, nor should they.

It can be easy to confuse the power and the omnipresence of the forces arrayed against us for their omnipotence. “Your arm’s too short to box with God,” wrote James Weldon Johnson in “The Prodigal Son,” capturing well the dilemma of anyone who would attempt to battle an all-powerful entity. (In God’s Trombones). And yet if capital and white supremacy were truly all-powerful gods, truly out of the reach of our punches, why do they need to do so much work to try to discourage us from fighting back in the first place? The answer, of course, is that they are not in fact all-powerful; they just want us to think they are.

Accepting their inevitable victory—our own inevitable defeat—is a choice that, if we make it, becomes self-determining and self-fulfilling. We can either give in to our fears, which means we accept that things will continue the same way that they always have, or we can find our courage to take action despite our fears, which means that we might be able to change things. To be sure, we cannot guarantee that we will win and that our world will change when we find our courage to act, but we know for sure that it will not change if we do not act.

The anxiety and fear that we may feel in anticipation of a potential actions that carry risk, as we imagine the possible consequences, can often be more difficult to bear psychically than what we experience in undertaking the action itself. But when we find and exercise our courage, as we see in the example of Frederick Douglass, we transform ourselves in important ways: as we pierce through the veil of our fears, we reject the grasp that futility and despair has on our minds, what had previously held us back drops away, and we (in an individual and a collective sense) are transformed. We transform those that oppose us, too, in that they did not expect us to fight back and they must, one way or another, accommodate themselves to a new reality.

In adopting a practice of courage in our lives and in our movements, we can become confident and powerful, and even liberated, in ways that we had not expected. We may be helped along the path by remembering that in addition to courage, there is another word that has been delivered to us from the Latin word cor, which brings to mind a conception of collective action that is more than the sum of its various parts—the choir.

Alone, we may be afraid to sing out. Lifting every voice, we are stronger—and we can inspire one another to find the courage we will need to win.

This essay originally appeared in Black Issues in Philosophy, a blog of the American Philosophical Association, on 2/18/20.