History, Literature, Quote of the Day

“I prefer to be true to myself….”

I’m piggybacking on a Ricochet post from today which has made it to the main feed and is–therefore–on the public Internet.  It’s a great post, and one which has generated considerable discussion. The meat of the post is a quote from the American Abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, as follows:

I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and to incur my own abhorrence. —Frederick Douglass

You may read the comments for yourself.  However, here’s an edited version of one of mine, provoked by a person who seems disingenuously inclined to argue the original poster’s bad faith, and to make things super-difficult by invoking (inappropriately I think) Shakespeare, Polonius, and the Bible:

Even Hamlet refers to Polonius as a “fool,” after he’s dead.  After Polonius is dead.  Hamlet isn’t dead–yet.  (I feel obliged to clear that up, because some Shakespearean characters do seem to continue speaking after a rational person might think they should have expired.)

I defer to actual scholars of Elizabethan drama, but my own opinion is that Shakespeare had Polonius’s number from the get-go, and that he (Polonius, not Shakespeare) is pretty much a satirical portrayal of what Margaret Thatcher once called the “men in grey suits”–the advisers behind the curtain (in Polonius’s case, quite literally–funny that), pulling the levers of power, not always in felicitous directions.   As a result, I’ve never reflexively discounted the things Polonius said as the deranged prattlings of a windbag; merely considered them examples of what such a person–the hypocrite, the manipulator, the self-aggrandizer, and not even a very good one at that–one whose public face must necessarily often be at odds with his private ambitions, might say in order to curry favor, sound lofty, and appear wise.

Thus, his most famous speech in which he strings together quite a few gems.  There’s a great deal of good advice in it:

“Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch’d, unfledged comrade. Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in,
Bear’t that the opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man,
And they in France of the best rank and station
Are of a most select and generous chief in that.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all: to thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

and I think it’s the height of–ummmm–foolishness to chortle and dismiss the text as “particularly amusing” and the rantings of a “fool” just because the words are spoken by Polonius.  I’m pretty sure Shakespeare knows what he’s doing here, and I’d lay odds most of the people in the audience, lettered or not, did too.  (Many of them, perhaps mostly the deplorable groundlings–but surely not the literal-minded or the satirically and ironically challenged–were probably rolling on the floor laughing their posteriors off…)

I have no idea whether Frederick Douglass was giving a shout-out to the Bard, but I doubt it. If he were, then that’s a great tribute to Shakespeare’s own proclivities to borrowing, re-using, and outright plagiarism.  After all, most genius does not spring, full-grown like Athena from the head of Zeus. And it was hard to be truly original with a literary idea in Elizabethan England, let alone nineteenth-century Maryland.

But since Douglass appears to be talking about himself, rather than giving advice to others, I think it’s also quite likely that he was a principled man, reflecting on a difficult stand he’d taken, the criticism he’d received for taking it, and his unflinching resolve because of his belief that it was the right–and the Christian–one to do so.

I don’t expect Douglass was perfect. [Insert obligatory disclaimer here.] So fomenting a discussion along those lines really isn’t relevant, because no-one is going to argue with it.  Anyone who wants to dig into that, to show that it diminishes him, and to post about it, from a position of knowledge, is welcome to do so. This Quote of the Day  is from Douglass’s 1845 biography.  He’d have been–at most–28 at the time.  Barely past the point where the young men and women children of today are moved off their long-suffering parents’ health insurance.

Maybe we can cut the guy a bit of slack.  For his life experiences to that point if nothing else.

By the way, here’s the full quote, from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845):

I look upon my departure from Colonel Lloyd’s plantation as one of the most interesting events of my life. It is possible, and even quite probable, that but for the mere circumstance of being removed from that plantation to Baltimore, I should have to-day, instead of being here seated by my own table, in the enjoyment of freedom and the happiness of home, writing this Narrative, been confined in the galling chains of slavery. Going to live at Baltimore laid the foundation, and opened the gateway, to all my subsequent prosperity. I have ever regarded it as the first plain manifestation of that kind providence which has ever since attended me, and marked my life with so many favors. I regarded the selection of myself as being somewhat remarkable. There were a number of slave children that might have been sent from the plantation to Baltimore. There were those younger, those older, and those of the same age. I was chosen from among them all, and was the first, last, and only choice.

I may be deemed superstitious, and even egotistical, in regarding this event as a special interposition of divine Providence in my favor. But I should be false to the earliest sentiments of my soul, if I suppressed the opinion. I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and incur my own abhorrence. From my earliest recollection, I date the entertainment of a deep conviction that slavery would not always be able to hold me within its foul embrace; and in the darkest hours of my career in slavery, this living word of faith and spirit of hope departed not from me, but remained like ministering angels to cheer me through the gloom. This good spirit was from God, and to him I offer thanksgiving and praise.

And yes, I think it’s an admirable thing for a good, honest, principled, and faithful person to stick to his (or her) guns, even in the face of adversity. I am the daughter of one such, and I try to follow in his footsteps.

PS: I gather that Douglass served in more than one government position, appointed by people like Rutherford B Hayes (R) (wasn’t he the President?), and James Garfield (R) (ditto) in the 1870s and 1880s.  In 1889 he was sent–by President Benjamin Harrison(R)–as the Consul General to the Republic of Haiti.   (Douglas resigned that position in 1891 over a disagreement with the administration.)  His second marriage (after the death of his first wife) to a white woman caused quite a flurry, but apparently the pearl-clutchers–as well as the Douglasses–survived.  He served on the Board of Trustees for Howard University for twenty-five years, until 1895, and participated in a number of other causes and campaigns until his death in 1895. In the 1920s, he was recognized, with the founding of “Negro History Week,”–chosen by the commemoration’s founder, Carter G. Woodson, to occur in February because it was the birthday month of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.

And so–No–I think the claim that one of you has made here that Dogulass was essentially forgotten between 1845 and the 1960s is completely false.

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