The Liberating Word Made Flesh

Frederick Douglass's powerful witness embodied a vision for love and justice that remains a rebuke to the violence of our day.

Nathan Beacom
Nathan Beacom is a writer from Des Moines, Iowa. His writing can be found in Plough Quarterly, Civil Eats, The New Atlantis, and elsewhere.

Douglass, this former slave, this Negro
beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world
where none is lonely, none hunted, alien,
this man, superb in love and logic, this man
shall be remembered . . . with the lives grown out of his life,
the lives fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.

—Robert Hayden

Sometimes, the hinges of history swing as quietly as the turning of a page. The fate of a nation may turn on the clamour of battle, or it may turn on a thousand things more subtle, more hidden. In the story of the demise of American slave power, we all know the names of Gettysburg, Shiloh, and Bull Run, but just as important as these events was a day in 1825 when a little black boy in Baltimore learned his letters.

In learning to read, Frederick Douglass embarked on a path that would lead to his becoming the most powerful advocate of his time for black dignity. He became an icon, the most well-known face of the age, all through the force of his power as a writer and a speaker. His arguments reshaped the conscience of the country.

Language, for Douglass, had an intimate relationship with flesh—that is, with practical, lived reality. His language had the power to make people feel in their own flesh the suffering bodies of slaves; it had the capacity to motivate them to relieve that suffering.

Both the logic of his arguments and their inspiration lay in the Word made flesh. His key notion—that all men and women are children of one Father, and therefore possessed of immeasurable dignity—came from his reading of Scripture. The story of the suffering Christ, put to death unjustly by the reigning social hierarchy, was a subversion of the corrupt power dynamics of human societies, and showed that God identifies with the oppressed, marginalized, and unjustly persecuted.

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