Quotes on the internet: Frederick Douglass and Repairing Broken Men

Posted on 23 April 2014 at 9:24 pm in Musings.

This afternoon a student approach me at the Research Help desk. She wanted to cite the following quote by Frederick Douglass:

It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.

Noble sentiment, yes? And the internet is quite certain that he said it. Sites like Brainy Quote, Goodreads and others trumpet this quote. Blog posts refer to it. Nicholas Kristof, writing for the New York Times, attributes this quote to Douglass. It’s on bumper stickers. Even Christian evangelicals have quoted it, to further their own purposes.

But none of them mentioned where Frederick Douglass actually said this. One blog post referenced 1855, but included nothing else.

All of Douglass’s books are in the public domain, so I ventured to Project Gutenberg. Each of his published works can be opened as an HTML document and searched.

It turns out Frederick Douglass frequently uses the word “broken” — it appears 35 times in My Bondage and My Freedom alone. One line in particular, about the violence done to him as an enslaved child, was reminiscent of the famous quote:

Once thoroughly broken down, who is he that can repair the damage?

Here is the entire passage in which that quote — a verifiably real quote — appears. It’s lengthy, but it’s worth understanding the quote in context:

The mistress of the house was a model of affection and tenderness. Her fervent piety and watchful uprightness made it impossible to see her without thinking and feeling—”that woman is a Christian.” There was no sorrow nor suffering for which she had not a tear, and there was no innocent joy for which she did not a smile. She had bread for the hungry, clothes for the naked, and comfort for every mourner that came within her reach. Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these excellent qualities, and her home of its early happiness. Conscience cannot stand much violence. Once thoroughly broken down, who is he that can repair the damage? It may be broken toward the slave, on Sunday, and toward the master on Monday. It cannot endure such shocks. It must stand entire, or it does not stand at all. If my condition waxed bad, that of the family waxed not better. The first step, in the wrong direction, was the violence done to nature and to conscience, in arresting the benevolence that would have enlightened my young mind. In ceasing to instruct me, she must begin to justify herself to herself; and, once consenting to take sides in such a debate, she was riveted to her position. One needs very little knowledge of moral philosophy, to see where my mistress now landed. She finally became even more violent in her opposition to my learning to read, than was her husband himself. She was not satisfied with simply doing as well as her husband had commanded her, but seemed resolved to better his instruction. Nothing appeared to make my poor mistress—after her turning toward the downward path—more angry, than seeing me, seated in some nook or corner, quietly reading a book or a newspaper. I have had her rush at me, with the utmost fury, and snatch from my hand such newspaper or book, with something of the wrath and consternation which a traitor might be supposed to feel on being discovered in a plot by some dangerous spy.

Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom, paragraph 120 | Project Gutenberg

This book was published in 1855, the same year mentioned by the blogger.

Nowhere in his published works does the popular internet quote appear. It is certainly possible it was uttered in a speech, the contents of which were published elsewhere — in a news story of the day, or by a biographer whose work I didn’t find. There’s a series of books from Yale University Press that include his private correspondence and the text of some of his speeches, content not published elsewhere. Perhaps the quote is in there — although I doubt a quote buried in an expensive series of academic texts has become an internet meme.

I think it’s more likely that what Frederick Douglass really said has been whitewashed.

Historical Whitewashing

It’s possible the passage in My Bondage and My Freedom has been paraphrased so often over the years that this popular quote about raising children right has replaced the truth about the violent treatment Douglass received as a child, and how the evils of slavery could break not only the spirits of people who were enslaved but also the souls of the white men and women who felt justified in enslaving others.

Racism and white privilege work in insidious ways. The dark, ugly truth of our white supremacist history can be transformed into positive affirmations, affirmations that then appear unquestioned online, on car bumpers, and in the New York Times.

I can’t prove that the popular quote isn’t real, and I can’t prove that it was the passage in My Bondage and My Freedom that inspired it. But that’s what I suspect.

And what did I tell the student? She wasn’t writing a historical analysis of Frederick Douglass, she was writing a psychology paper. The quote — whether real or false — set up her thesis nicely. I didn’t want to disrupt her process on the day her paper was due. So I advised that she refer to the quote as “widely attributed to” Frederick Douglass, and at least cite the Kristof article rather than Brainy Quote.

But then we also had a good conversation about historical truth (while I helped her clean up her references page — we were multitasking!). This type of work with students — digging into how information is presented, how to present information, understanding context, and closing in on the truth (however that may be defined) — this is what I like about being a librarian.

Many thanks to my fellow librarians who helped me in my quest to verify the quote — @cclibchica, @CarliSpina, @mchris4duke, and @sehovde.

A slightly shorter version of this post was originally published on tumblr.

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