Frederick Douglass wrote his autobiography three times, but to protect the people who helped him run away from enslavement, he did not explain how he had managed to get away until the last version. Douglass escaped from slavery in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1838. In his twenty years of life, he had had a series of enslavers, some harsher than others, and one who almost killed him. But by 1838, he was a skilled worker in the local shipyards, earning good money for his master and enjoying a measure of freedom, as well as protection. He had good friends in the area and had fallen in love with the woman who would become his wife.
My gratitude to you, dear Prof. HCR, for having taken on so many extra students this past year. You have taught us, enriched us, made us dialogue and think again in ways that allowed us to experience the vim and vigor of youth, pride for our country and for an historical past that many of us had forgotten or were learning for the first time.
For all of the above, I thank you. But tonight, my thanks are even more profound. You validated the risk I took to leave my homeland on 24th December, 1979, and again, to pack everything, step on a plane, and say goodbye to my adopted European home in 1990. The years in-between, those spaces of unknowing and unknowns, have been fraught with joblessness, pennilessness, fear of failure, moving from abode to abode, losses of friends and the security of family -- worrying because I also put the lives of my two sons in jeopardy.
Tonight, I know that those gambles were were not for naught. Thank you!
It's been 9 months since I became aware of you and your writing. Most of those were the dark months of the last administration. Your writing was a beacon in a howling wilderness. So I suppose I didn't think anything could beat that. Till you wrote this.
I think we who survived the last gruesome 15 months—and all the days since Jan. 20th, 2017—are going to be a long time processing what all that's done to us and how we proceed. As I've emerged from Covid isolation that's felt monumental and overwhelming. Then a post like this comes along. It's like the brush of a mother's hand on a cheek. It's going to be ok. Not easy; work to be done. But we'll get there.
Interestingly enough, when I left this page just now, the following was one of the "you might like this" articles on my pocket.com splash page:
“You must change your life,” Rainer Maria Rilke exhorts readers in the final line of his poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” It’s a surprise-twist ending, meant to capture the sudden nature of epiphanies. Having spent the entire poem contemplating the beauty of an ancient Greek statue, Rilke practically reaches through the page to shake readers by the shoulders, urging us to transform ourselves—to use our rapidly-dwindling time on Earth as wisely as Apollo’s sculptor did.
But changing your life is a big deal. It takes a lot of work and emotional energy. And it’s often very difficult to predict if a dramatic turn will actually make us happier and more fulfilled, or if it will be the biggest mistake ever and we’ll shrivel up into little raisins of regret.
So we waffle over whether or not to quit a job, change careers, start a business, or go back to school, weighing endless pros and cons. In behavioral economics, this phenomenon is known as status quo bias. People are generally predisposed to favor sticking with their current circumstances, whatever they may be, instead of taking a risk and bushwhacking their way toward a different life.
That’s an instinct we should fight against, according to the findings of a new study by Steven Levitt, University of Chicago economist and Freakonomics co-author, published in Oxford University’s Review of Economic Studies.
The study asked people who were having a hard time making a decision to participate in a randomized digital coin toss on the website FreakonomicsExperiments.com. People asked questions ranging from “Should I quit my job?” to “Should I break up with my significant other?” and “Should I go back to school?” Heads meant they should take action. Tails, they stuck with the status quo.
Ultimately, 20,000 coins were flipped—and people who got heads and made a big change reported being significantly happier than they were before, both two months and six months later.
“The data from my experiment suggests we would all be better off if we did more quitting,” Levitt said in a press release. “A good rule of thumb in decision making is, whenever you cannot decide what you should do, choose the action that represents a change, rather than continuing the status quo.”
Thank you Heather.
This exceptional Letter should be a mantra for us all.
All of us in this Community are every bit as blessed to have you in our lives as your students. Those of us that make your Tuesday and Thursdays history chats and your daily Letters part of our lives truly appreciate the time you put forth to make it happen. Truth is, you don't have to invite us into your home for these invaluable lessons. The hand you have extended to us to board your train of knowledge will never be forgotten and always appreciated.
For that, I am so glad I stepped on board.
Be safe, be well.
When the day comes that you have to choose between what is just good enough and what is right... find the courage to step on the train.
Exactly what I did 40 years ago this past May 1. Said good-bye to "safety" and "security" in a job that had arrived at the point where when I went in for my flight physical in February that year, the Aviation Medical Examiner told me "I don't know what you do for a living, but if you keep on doing it, you're going to have an ulcer in the next 18 months and a heart attack by your 40th birthday." That was a pretty good wakeup call. The last 40 years haven't been easy, but the worst day of them was better than the best day of the Time Before. I finally stopped making my decisions on what other people would think of what I did and started worrying about whether *I* liked what I was choosing to do. And in the process I came to be successful at the one job I can do well that makes everything feel better when I do it. Write.
This post should be required reading for every government official in America, especially those members of congress who refuse to vote in favor of an independent, bipartisan commission to examine the events of January 6 when rioters stormed the Capitol. The train Fredrick Douglas boarded in 1838 turned out to be a metaphorical train to freedom because it took him on his legendary journey toward a life dedicated to to truth and justice, the very virtues the bind all Americans together in the long train ride toward equality envisioned by the framers of the Constitution. Douglas's courageous act and his exemplary career should serve as a whistle blast from history for all who took the oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, a spiritual clarion call to stand up as true Americans, and support of efforts to reveal the truth about the events of January 6, to do what is right and "step on the train." Power to the People!
There is a wonderful statue of Frederick Douglass at the University of Maryland. It gave me goosebumps when I saw it a couple of years ago.
When I was reading your account of how Douglass got his freedom, it reminded me of the circuitous routes my mother had to escape from Nazi Germany to the U.S.. That train is so symbolic of Douglass’s time, WWII, and now the present. You have left your students (and us) a gift and a nudge... to not just sit on our laurels but to speak out against what is wrong. To be in the mix of what is right and just is the only way to freedom.
We readers are lucky to be your 'students' as well. What a gem.
Good morning everyone--and happy Monday. Thank you, HCR, for this letter: it presents the history of so many of us: descendants of enslaved people, of refugees, of immigrants, as well as people who have more recently "stepped on the train" in order to change their lives and their circumstances.
My ancestors (of recent vintage--grandparents on the paternal side, great-grandparents on the maternal) all had to "step on the train" in order to get to America: they got on the boat (my paternal grandmother disguised as a boy!); hid in the wagon guided by an ally in the midst of a typical Belarusian pogrom; arrived penniless to this country. They lived in the "neo-shtetls" of the Lower East Side and Newark, NJ. They worked hard, gained some measure of financial success, raised their children to eschew religio-political dictatorship, sent their sons off to war: the usual stories. For some "Americans", my Greek and Ashkenaz ancestry was a rationale for discrimination. It is amazing how financial success "whitens" Mediterranean and Eastern European people in the eyes of the WASPs who posted No Jews signs on their shop doors. It is amazing how two generations can change a family from being refugees to elites--but you have to be white to start with, even if not the "right" kind of Christian or Jewish.
One of the best books I have read in the last few years is Erica Armstrong Dunbar's Never Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of their Runaway Slave Ona Judge. This was a woman who "stepped on the train" a hundred years before Frederick Douglass. And it also gives the reader a very different perspective about the Washingtons, one that is important.
As I write this, I am also reminded of the fact that one of the most important voices in journalism today, Nikole Hannah-Jones, has been denied tenure by the Board of Trustees of the University of North Carolina. She was one of the creators of the 1619 Project. She had been offered an endowed chair position in the J school at UNC-Chapel Hill but the Board, confronted with a letter writing campaign of racist alums, decided to deny her tenure. I hope she sues the crap out of UNC, but I am also not surprised. I also hope that some other J School (University of Missouri, how about it?!) offers her a better gig.
And so it continues.
The risk that Frederick Douglass took to freedom was the seed of his greatness. Heather, thank you for the light you have brought today.
Another among us speaks to our meaning at this time and place.
'Sen. Elizabeth Warren on Americans who are hitting one obstacle after another: ‘That is why I persist’ in conversation with KK Ottesen, Washington Post Magazine
'In Elkhart, Indiana, this woman gives me a big hug and then, while she has her arms around me, she whispers that her teenage daughter had been raped by her coach. And that child had to suffer the double trauma, first of the rape, and then trying to get an abortion in a state that has put up every possible barrier'.
'How do you absorb that in that moment — that’s a lot.'
'It is. The selfie lines were so intimate. They were a place where people came to say policy is personal. They didn’t use those words, but that was the heart of it. And the fact that policy is so personal — that decisions made in far-off Washington, D.C., touch lives so deeply — that’s what keeps me in this fight.'
'Were you surprised that that sort of intimacy was shared with you, in front of a big group?
At first, yes. But, over time, I learned that those selfie lines were not about anyone else in the room. When somebody stood up on that stage next to me to have a picture, they have this brief moment that we were just there alone. And they could speak heart-to-heart and tell me what they wanted me to hear.'
'You also travel in rarefied circles and have access to people who have a lot of power, whether in Washington or with wealthy, influential individuals around the country. And when you share those stories with them, as I’m sure you do, do you see minds and hearts changed?'
'Sometimes. And sometimes not. But I want to make a slightly different point out of your question. Because I think there’s something else in here: how we finance campaigns and why that’s important. Much of the time, the conversation is the kind of, Well, if you take money from X, you’ll be influenced by their point of view, unwilling to vote against the things they want. And that’s how it is that rich people and corporate CEOs have outside influence in Washington. And that’s entirely true'.
'But let me offer another layer to it. Each of us faces the 24-hours-in-a-day problem. [Laughs.] That’s all there is. So how you spend that 24 hours matters a lot. And when running for the president of the United States, it matters even more. If I spent a big chunk of my time with the wealthy and well-connected who could write big checks for my campaign, I would see the problems they see. Taxes that they don’t like. Or regulations that they find cumbersome.
I made a decision when I ran for president that I would not sell access to my time. None. So I had a whole lot more time for selfie lines. And time to call $3 donors. And the consequence of that is that I was bombarded every single day with stories of people all across this country who are working their hearts out and just hitting one obstacle after another. They showed up, and they told their stories. And that is why I persist.'
If there is a way to award one: a posthumous Nobel is in order. I have read him and his writing is erudite and sharp. I did not realize his history was that fraught with the potential of being another human, "sold down the river." Given the challenges to even be able to write, much less do it well; we should all be in awe of his writing(s).
Having read what he and MLK SAID, in retrospect, their prose was what presidents can only dream of saying much less creating. I'm constantly in awe of the fight, nee the hope, of these brave humans. Whatever we can do, politically or otherwise, seems inadequate when compared to not only their rhetoric or the time, but just the power that they gave to LANGUAGE: and they were masters of it.
If we want kids to read anything; I'd suggest 8th grade to be filled with their prose, not the simplistic north-south winner-loser trope. Lets let history literally speak for itself. Thank you, Heather, for a very thought-provoking missive. Many blessings.
I have always had the feeling that I was holding the end of a piece of luminescent string leading wherever into the future of my life and from time to time, but not often, new doors appear on the road that are partially open. You open them and step through or not...I have always gone through them. What I found on the way is that there is always an important, and often seemingly inocuous, chain of events that lead you to face each door. In that supporting chain of circumstances there is one or several "little helpers" that transit your life make it possible. My thoughts in Frederick Douglas' escape to freedom go also to the courage of the free, black, northern sailor that lent him his papers, thus putting his own life in danger, to help another fullfil his destiny.
If you hadn’t accomplished one other thing in the hours you poured in to the Letters and all the history talks and politics talks, today’s message would have been worth it all But don’t worry all those hours have brought comfort and truth and context and so much more. They have not been in vain
Each of your letters is remarkable, but there are days like today when it feels like we have received a gift of shining gold light that one can cup in their hands and feel the warmth of its radiating wisdom. Well done and thank you for this edifying advice.
Roughly 100 years later, during the Great Migration, millions of Black men and women made the courageous decision to step on the train, some literally and others figuratively. If you have not yet read the stories of Ida Mae, George, and Robert in Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns, I highly recommend it.
Here is a quote by Frederick Buechner I recently came across. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet. In my life there have been several cusp points when a decision changed the entire direction of my life -- and whether courageous or just naive of the risk I'm glad I took the paths I chose. And, yet, as old as I am now, I have a strong sense of destiny still yet unfulfilled. Makes me think of Churchill and his sense of destiny. I once toured Churchill's underground War Rooms in Whitehall. What impressed me the most were the maps full of pin holes from the push pins used to track the movement of troops through the war. It was history in real time.