EXCEPT TO RUN FREE, Frederick Douglass never ran away from anything. There were things he reached past as he strode into a full engagement with life. He pressed excellence on his children and did not see that they needed something simpler, deeper; he looked beyond his wife, and scarcely seeing her, left her almost invisible; he lost touch with the men in the Freeland fields and in the shipyards, and so lost as well his closeness to ordinary people. There was anger within him—always. The world would not let him shrug off that burden. But even as he incurred and endured these disadvantages, he was amassing a richness of experience, a fullness of living.
It has been said that he ran away from being black. The opposite is true. Every time he walked up to a lectern to speak, he was seen: by his very presence he not only announced that he was black but also instructed all who looked at him that they were not to see that fact pejoratively. As Whitman did, Douglass sang of himself, and he did so just by standing on the platform. His simple appearance was a proud assertion that neither color nor previous condition of servitude was relevant to his aspirations, either for himself or for others.
His light skin and aristocratic mien have long suggested the same distancing from color of which much of the upper-class black community in America is accused. What has been missed has been Douglass's struggle to bridge that distance with his intellect, with an unswerving commitment to human dignity and equality. More than some of us with a different sense of society would have preferred, he sought to draw his people over to his side of the span instead of crossing back and engaging