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Frederick Douglass was traveling
with a friend of another color in a part of
the country where public sentiment was bitterly
hostile to the association of colors. They stopped
at a tavern and dined together, at which spectacle
the village, growling and grumbling about the
stove in the bar-room, was immediately disposed to
mischief. The bar-room philosophers were sadly
troubled for the honor of their color.
business has a white man to be traveling and eating
with a — nigger, anyhow? If he doesn’t
know what’s decent, we’ll teach him.” The crowd
was, indeed, very anxious to give the offender a
few summary lessons in decency. They were like
duelists, who have a ludicrous conceit that they
know what honor is. Douglass slipped out quiet-
ly, and returning after a little while, he remarked
to his companion, in a good-humored way, that he
had just seen a very singular sight in the stable;
and the crowd turned to hear what it was. “You’ll
hardly believe it,” said Douglass, addressing his
companion as if there were no one else in the
room, “but I gave my white mare and your bay
horse four quarts of oats each, and there they
are, eating side by side as quietly and contentedly
as if they were of the same color! ‘Tis most
extraordinary!” He did not laugh nor wink, but
made his remark with a simple sincerity that was
There was a moment of silence.
Then came the echo. Human wit had spoken,
and a human heart answered. “What cussed
fools we are!” said one of the crowd, sententiously;
and a loud laugh followed, which scattered
like a burst of sunlight the gathering cloud of
mischievous intention. A little tact had been a
hundredfold more effectual in melting a prejudice
than a series of solemn lectures.
–George William Curtis, A Recollection of Frederick Douglass, Harper’s Magazine, April 1876.
More from Scott Horton:
Six Questions — October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm
Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.
I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:
The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.
Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.
Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:
An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.
A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”