By Jason Herring
The Road Less Traveled is a road that has been traveled by countless great men and women of the past. This is the power of books. This is the power of history. Through books we can walk the road less traveled and learn from the mistakes and successes of those from the past. By studying history, we can walk in the way of good men and keep the paths of the righteous. This is power of imagination. And it is sadly a road that is far less traveled.
Some people will enjoy a movie based on historical events and some might endure a documentary (both genres which I love). But you will find yourself in shrinking company when you dedicate yourself to great biographies. Biographies are a road less traveled but nonetheless a road that is wide open and beckoning to every adult and child to embark upon with the promise of knowledge and experience. Like the gleanings left by those who worked the fields of Boaz for Ruth to collect, great books are full of life lessons and truth that just lay waiting for someone to pick them up.
This is the field of our past. Our American past. The harvest truly is great, but the laborers are few. So much gained and gleaned knowledge is lost to the present generation because we will not pick up what past generations have laid down for us.
If your life feels mundane, you can vicariously experience the life of a great statesman or warrior or activist through literature. Break away from the congested freeway of entertainment and punditry and take the road less traveled. Far away from the social media feeds and reels that have further eroded our attention span, there are paths marked through printed pages that offer vistas and adventure that defy the very best fiction.
This past year I read David Blight’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom. The nearly 900-page volume of research was a literary feast. From fugitive slave to the most famous orator in the United States, the story of Frederick Douglass is a story of resilience and perseverance in the face of adversity. Born and raised in slavery, Douglass was heavily influenced by black preachers and trusted Christ around the age of 15. The result of his conversion was that he “abhorred slavery more than ever,” while his “great desire … was to have the world converted.”
When he was 18 years old, Douglass escaped only to be caught and returned to slavery where he was hired out in the shipyards of Baltimore. Two years later, he successfully escaped along with his wife Anna to New Bedford, Massachusetts. In a year’s time the 21-year-old fugitive would become a licensed preacher and begin speaking on the abolitionist circuit. Mentored by fellow abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass would become an icon for the movement.
As talks of secession grew louder, people in the North became more agitated because of the economic loss and disruption. The abolitionists became scapegoats for the nation’s troubles, and Douglass often found himself in hostile territory. Because of his friendship with abolitionist leader John Brown, Douglass was charged with “murder, robbery, and inciting a servile insurrection” by the governor of Virginia. He escaped into Canada from his home in Rochester barely six hours before federal marshals arrived to arrest him. At an anti-slavery meeting outside of Indianapolis, Douglass was attacked by a mob, clubbed unconscious and suffered a broken hand. In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, he was pelted by eggs and stones. In Boston on the first anniversary of John Brown’s execution, a mob broke into a rally at which Douglass was a keynote speaker. Douglass had to fight with his fists to get to the podium, and although he escaped unscathed, several blacks were seriously injured that evening. Throughout his travels, whether on a lecture tour or in official business of the President of the United States, Douglass was Jim Crowed more times than he could count. And yet Douglass used his adversity as fuel for his calling.
“Even as a child, Douglass learned to negotiate with and define himself by his opposition. This was a life lesson Douglass would invoke time and again later in his career, whether the enemy was a master, an overseer, a mob throwing brickbats, a stiflingly competitive fellow abolitionist, proslavery ideology, the Confederacy itself, Abraham Lincoln, or white supremacists who defined him out of the human family. Their opposition became his motive power, their arguments his own tools of counter-argument in the courts of moral justice.” (David Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom)
The life of Frederick Douglass was a road less traveled. From his escape from slavery to his advocacy as an abolitionist to his fight for Reconstruction and equality after the Civil War, Douglass chose the path of resistance.
“If there is no struggle, there is no progress,” the Sage of Cedar Hill, as Douglass came to be known, would write. “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. 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 demand. It never did and it never will.”
Douglass experienced hardship in his personal life as well, losing his daughter Annie at the age of ten and burying his namesake Fred Junior two years before his death. He would outlive his wife Anna along with five of his own grandchildren. But Douglass never lost faith in God. He didn’t allow personal tragedy, political setbacks or religious hypocrisy to cause him to deny Christ. The year 1892 saw a record number of lynchings, with 161 blacks murdered across the South. The dream of Reconstruction was a long-shattered illusion. The era of Jim Crow had begun. And yet, Douglass never lost hope. “Our situation demands faith in ourselves, faith in the power of truth, faith in work and faith in the influence of manly character. Let the truth be told, let the light be turned on ignorance and prejudice, let lawless violence and murder be exposed.”
Before his death Douglass would mentor and inspire the next generation of activists in Booker T. Washington, Ida B. Wells, and W.E.B. Du Bois. And the eventual culmination of the Civil Rights Movement and repeal of Jim Crow in America was the result of seeds first sown by brave abolitionists. The grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Douglass’s generation would march on Washington, D.C., and one hundred years after the ending of the Civil War, they would take the road less traveled over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.
This is our story. This is the power of history.