Posts Tagged ‘slavery’

Frederick Douglass, American Slave

November 1, 2009

Last week I read the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass. It is strange to me that this was not required reading in any of my high school American history courses.  Douglass was born a slave in Maryland, not far from where I live right now.  He was raised partly on a plantation, and partly in Baltimore.   In his late teens Douglass escaped to New York, and in a few years became well known in abolitionist circles for his eloquence in personally describing the conditions under which slaves were kept.  When he published his narrative in 1845, Douglass fled to Britain to avoid being taken back into slavery by his owners named in the book.  Only after British supporters raised enough money to buy his freedom could he travel back to the United States.  Later he became an advisor to Abraham Lincoln and a respected public figure.

In his book, Douglass describes his incredible personal experience of slavery.  For instance, like other slaves he was expected to sleep on the floor of the shack in which he lived with only a blanket.  In the winter, his feet became cracked from frostbite.  In the countryside, like other slaves, he was kept in a state of perpetual hunger.  Like other slaves, he was given one set of crude clothing a year and no shoes as he was a child.  If that clothing wore out, he had to go naked until the next year.  He was regularly beaten, often arbitrarily.  He saw a slave brother killed, shot in the head, with no repercussions for the murderer.  For a slave, the South was a huge prison.  If a white man passed a black man on the road, the common greeting was for the white man to say: ” Well, boy, whom do you belong to?” While it is powerful to hear this conditions described in the third person, it is doubly so to hear them described by Douglass himself.

Douglass makes several unexpected points in the book.  First, he repeatedly emphasizes that the more religious a slave holder was, the worse he treated his slaves.  The religious slave owners noted that slavery exists in the bible, and in one of Douglass’ anecdotes, even quoted the holy book as they were beating their slaves. A second unexpected point was the extent that slave holders went to deny their slaves education.  Douglass, who surreptitiously taught himself to read while in Baltimore, was rarely left alone for fear that he would be leafing through a newspaper or book.  His owners thought that education made slaves unruly.  In his master’s words: “Learning would spoil the best n***** in the world.” Several times Douglass started popular Sunday schools to teach his slave brothers to read, and each time the schools were quickly broken up by his owners.

Two passages were particularly powerful to me.  In one passage, Douglass describes his life as a teenager in Baltimore.  He had learned the trade of caulking, and he was allowed to work at a ship yard.  At the end of each week, Douglass had to report to his master and give him his entire weekly wages–around six dollars.  His master would then give him  a few cents to encourage him.  The second passage was that in which his master died, and Douglass was required to go back to Maryland to be valued.  All the slaves were lined up next to livestock, and a auditor roughly examined the slaves to estimate how much they were worth.  This passage reminded me of reading about Michelle Obama’s great-great-great-grandmother Melvina Shields, who was a slave valued at $475 when her master died.

Douglass’ 1845 narrative is only one hundred pages long.  It is usually bundled with long introductions and prefaces to make the book look thicker.  These should be skipped.  Douglass’ biting narrative doesn’t need any introduction.  One hundred and seventy years after it was first published,  it is the most powerful condemnation of slavery I have ever read.