A Sampler of Courage, Part 1On August 21, 2019 by Elyse
Courage, n. Mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.– The Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Courage—and the feats humanity achieves because of it—have been on my mind recently. In the face of fear and oftentimes, commonsense, we slay monsters, we venture into uncharted territory, and we rescue kittens from trees.
Don’t be fooled by the collective “we;” the most courageous thing I’ve done in recent memory is try a new Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor—but only because it was on sale.
Still, this (in)ability raises some questions: Is it innate, or can it be developed? It is a universal trait, or is it dependent on context? Who has it, and who doesn’t? And where does the Wizard of Oz sell his specially formulated courage potion? Asking for a friend.
As usual, I have no answers. However, for both edification and curiosity, I tracked down some folks who knew more about courage than I ever will or ever hope to.
If your life wasn’t your own, what would you risk for a chance at freedom? Most of us will never have to answer this question, but in 1848, it was a very real predicament for millions of enslaved Americans. The Civil War and emancipation were more than a decade away, and for Ellen and William Craft, an enslaved couple in Macon, Georgia, every day was lived under the threat of violence, permanent separation and worse.
After years of developing and discarding ideas, William devised a brazen and daring scheme for the two of them to escape to freedom in Philadelphia, hundreds of miles north. However, to succeed, Ellen, who had light skin, would have to disguise herself as a white man traveling with “his” slave, William; the two of them would have to keep up the ruse and avoid detection for days while in plain sight on trains, buses and steamships. Their surroundings were likely more comfortable than those on the famous Underground Railroad, but something tells me Ellen wasn’t sipping champagne in the whites-only railcar, surrounded by actual slave owners.
In an account of their flight to freedom published in 1860, William poignantly wrote about the night they embarked on their journey:
After this we rose and stood for a few moments in breathless silence,—we were afraid that some one might have been about the cottage listening and watching our movements. So I took my wife by the hand, stepped softly to the door, raised the latch, drew it open, and peeped out. Though there were trees all around the house, yet the foliage scarcely moved; in fact, everything appeared to be as still as death. I then whispered to my wife, “Come, my dear, let us make a desperate leap for liberty!”– Ellen and William Craft, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, 1860
But poor thing, she shrank back, in a state of trepidation. I turned and asked what was the matter; she made no reply, but burst into violent sobs, and threw her head upon my breast. This appeared to touch my very heart, it caused me to enter into her feelings more fully than ever.
We both saw the many mountainous difficulties that rose one after the other before our view, and knew far too well what our sad fate would have been, were we caught and forced back into our slavish den. Therefore on my wife’s fully realizing the solemn fact that we had to take our lives, as it were, in our hands, and contest every inch of the thousand miles of slave territory over which we had to pass, it made her heart almost sink within her. . .
However, the sobbing was soon over, and after a few moments of silent prayer she recovered her self-possession, and said, “Come, William, it is getting late, so now let us venture upon our perilous journey.”
Unlike so many others, the Crafts’ perilous journey ended in safety in Philadelphia. After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 increased their risk of being forcibly returned to Georgia, they moved from Boston to London, where they live for nearly two decades.
William’s words make clear they were just as frightened as any of us would be; yet, their courage enabled them to defy their fear.
Perhaps it’s an entirely different kind of courage that allows someone to fight not for life but for love. It’s a quality the perfectly named Mildred and Richard Loving had in spades.
In 1958, the young couple traveled from their hometown in rural Virginia to Washington, D.C. in order to marry. No, they weren’t looking for an Elvis chapel but rather, a jurisdiction in which they could legally wed: Richard was white and Mildred was of Native American and possibly African American ancestry. Because of race, their relationship was a crime in Virginia.
Mere weeks after their wedding, police officers burst into their home in Virginia in the middle of the night and arrested them. The Lovings avoided prison only because they agreed to leave behind their family, friends and community in Virginia and not return to the state together for twenty-five years.
Their predicament must have seemed impossible (impawsible?) in the face of centuries of institutionalized racism. Nevertheless, despite the obstacles, in 1964, they teamed up with the American Civil Liberties Union to begin the legal proceedings that would eventually overturn Virginia’s anti-miscegenation statutes.
Court papers don’t make for tantalizing reading. Instead, even though the copy editor in me cringes at the atrocious abuse of punctuation, I’ll let poet E. E. Cummings eloquently express what I like to imagine the Lovings felt when they made their fateful decision:
my darling since– E. E. Cummings
i are thoroughly haunted by
what neither is any
echo of dream nor
any flowering of any
echo(but the echo
of the flower of
Dreaming)somewhere behind us
always trying(or sometimes trying under
us)to is it
find somehow(but O gracefully)a
we,entirely whose least
breathing may surprise
– – let’s then
despise what is not courage my
darling(for only Nobody knows
where truth grows why
birds fly and
especially who the moon is.
Literature is replete with tales of doomed lovers passively resigning themselves to tragedy and unhappiness. However, poisoning and/or stabbing yourself don’t count as courage. I’m looking at you, Romeo and Juliet. I think E. E. would agree that the Lovings make for a better story.
The line between courage and stupidity can be a thin one.
For instance, take exploration. What part of setting off across an unmapped ocean in a leaky boat for years at a time sounds like a good idea? Nevertheless, armed with little more than courage and delusions of grandeur, humans from every corner of the globe have been doing just that for millennia. In the process, these trailblazers pushed the boundaries of what we know to be possible.
We didn’t stop with the seas. From early hot air balloons to man-carrying kites, generations of aviation pioneers were apparently absent from school the day their teachers taught the legend of Icarus. Nevertheless, with enough nerve—and some mechanical know-how—humanity eventually took to the skies, in spite of the risks.
This combination of audacity and insouciance is neatly summed up by the first American woman to earn a pilot’s license:
The men flyers have given out the impression that aeroplaning is very perilous work, something that an ordinary mortal should not dream of attempting. But when I saw how easily the man flyers manipulated their machines I said I could fly.– Harriet Quimby, Good Housekeeping, 1912
The journalist-turned-pilot was as good as her word. In 1912, she became the first woman to fly across the English Channel.
Still, a glance at aviation fatalities for 1910 and 1911 makes me question her definition of “perilous.” Tragically, Harriet herself was killed in an accident at an aviation meet in Boston in July of 1912.
Regardless of which side of the courage-stupidity divide you place these pioneering daredevils, their achievements paved the way for our modern world.
Alas, this is a line I’m as guilty of crossing as anyone else:
Fortunately for me, flying in airplanes—and paragliders—has come a long way in the last century. At least for now, I’ll live to continue courageously trying new ice cream flavors.
I hope you’ve enjoyed these snippets of stories and are feeling a little more courageous than you were five hours ago when you started reading this post. . . or grateful that you don’t have to be. There are plenty more feats of derring-do where these came from, so come back next time for some more free samples.
Disclaimer: The modern era is far from the first to grapple with rampant “fake news.” As I am neither a historian nor journalist, I make no claims about the accuracy or lack thereof of the above sources. I assert only that they make for a good story.
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