Necessary Sacrifices: A Tribute to Frederick Douglass
By Lisa Yarkony
This month marks the birthday of Frederick Douglass who’s still in the public eye. Last year, a play about him premiered in Washington, DC. In his fourth commission for Ford’s Theatre, playwright Richard Hellesen explored two documented encounters between Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln at the height of the Civil War. Necessary Sacrifices, as Mr. Hellesen’s play is called, is the story of two self-made men from humble backgrounds who influenced a nation. Both envisioned a world of equality and freedom, but they didn’t always see eye to eye on how to make that dream come true. The play is told from Douglass’s point of view as he urges Lincoln to use his power to act on America’s founding ideal that “all men are created equal.”
It’s an ideal that Douglass strived for all his life as a leading spokesman for the abolition of slavery, racial equality, and justice. After being born a slave, he escaped his bonds to become a social reformer, statesman, and orator who moved minds and hearts. Along the way, he suffered mockery, insult, and violent personal attack, but he never flagged in his devotion to the abolitionist cause. Known for his dazzling speeches and incisive anti-slavery writing, he stood as a living affront to slaveholders’ arguments that slaves could not function as independent citizens of the United States. They certainly could, and so could women, as he maintained when he spoke to the National Council of Women on the evening of his death.
It has been over a century since Douglass gave his last speech, yet he’s still making the news. Recently freshman at East Chicago High School collaborated with the National Geographic Society and Gilder Lehrman Foundation to host their own Frederick Douglass exhibit. Not too long ago, Hampton University Museum, the country’s oldest African-American museum, welcomed a special exhibit of paintings portraying Frederick Douglass and fellow freedom fighter Harriet Tubman. Douglass has even made his mark in Holland, where the Center of African-American Art and History mounted an exhibit devoted to his achievements.
And his inspiring words reached new ears when Morgan Freeman and Don Cheadle read his works in Chicago as part of “The People Speak, Live!” This exciting benefit performance paired Academy Award-winner Matt Damon with local talent for dramatic readings and songs drawn from the actual words of America’s rebels, dissenters, and prophets, both present and past. “It’s an honest and exciting look at where we’ve come from,” Damon said. “The idea that all of the progress in America toward equality has been struggled for by ordinary people, I hope will become a point of discussion for students of all ages. With The People Speak, you’re getting the historical text verbatim; there’s no spin.” And you don’t need spin, when you have magnificent words like the ones Douglass used as he discussed the sacrifices that are often required for freedom.
“If there is no struggle, there is no progress,” he said in a much-quoted speech. “Power concedes nothing without a demand,” he warned. “The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. In the light of these ideas, Negroes will be hunted at the North and held and flogged at the South so long as they submit to those devilish outrages and make no resistance, either moral or physical. Men may not get all they pay for in this world, but they must certainly pay for all they get. If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others,” among the points made in the fine play that Douglass helped inspire.
“Necessary Sacrifices tells a composite story of two men, fierce in their philosophies and steadfast in their love of humanity,” said director Jennifer L. Nelson. “We know who won the Civil War. We know about its aftermath, the lingering effects of racism and regional differences. But the story we need to tell is how these two visionaries — fathers, husbands, ordinary human beings — sacrificed their personal lives on our behalf, not for personal gain, but for — dare I say it — the greater good.”