Saturday, August 30, 2008

Book #19 - Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (By Himself)

My mother grew up on a farm in southeastern Indiana. The farm had been in her family since the early 1800s, and apparently the original land deed (which is still around somewhere) was signed by James Madison. Her ancestors were congregationalists and Quakers, as was much of the population of that area in the 1800s. The Quakers were strident abolitionists, and that part of southern Indiana had numerous stops on the Underground Railroad where slaves hid while coming up from the south. When my mother was a child, her cousin lived in an old farmhouse nearby which contained concealed passageways and staircases where runaway slaves were hidden. My mother also remembers that in the back part of the family farm, way deep in the woods next to a small pond, there was an old fallen down shack where fleeing slaves were also hidden. It's easy today to think of slavery as something of the distant past, maybe more of legend than reality, so I find it fascinating to hear these distant echoes of it in my mother's childhood memories.

And speaking of abolitionists, one of the most famous, and rightly so, was Frederick Douglass. Douglass had been born a slave in Maryland, around 1818. He was a slave until the age of 20, when he managed to escape, and moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts. Soon afterwards he became a speaker for the abolitionist movement. Apparently a brilliant and charismatic speaker, he moved audiences with his stories of his life as a slave. But soon, his fame and his great intelligence and articulateness caused some to wonder if he was telling the truth about having been a slave. His response was to write his autobiography, which was published in 1845 and was an immediate success. And having read the book in one sitting I can understand's totally engrossing!

Douglass was born on a plantation in Maryland. The conditions he describes are pretty terrible...beatings, near starvation...but at age 8 he is shipped off to live with his master's son-in-law and his wife, who lived in Baltimore. The couple, Hugh and Sophia Auld, have never had a slave before, and Douglass is shocked by how kindly he is treated, especially by Sophia. When she realizes Douglass cannot read or write, she begins to teach him. But soon the husband finds out and freaks out, telling her she'll ruin Douglass as a slave and make it so he'll never be content. And soon, her attitude towards young Douglass changes. She becomes strict, a harsh mistress. As Douglass writes:

My mistress was, as I have said, a kind and tenderhearted woman; and in the simplicity of her soul she commenced, when I first went to live with her, to treat me as she supposed one human being ought to treat another. In entering upon the duties of a slaveholder, she did not seem to perceive that I sustained to her the relation of a mere chattel, and that for her to treat me as a human being was not only wrong, but dangerously so. Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me. When I went there, she was a pious, warm, and tender-hearted woman. There was no sorrow or suffering for which she had not a tear. She had bread for the hungry, clothes for the naked, and comfort for every mourner that came within her reach. Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these heavenly qualities. Under its influence, the tender heart became stone, and the lamb-like disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierceness. The first step in her downwards course was to cease to instruct me. She now commenced to practice her husband's precepts. She finally became more violent in her opposition than her husband himself.

That's a fascinating and profound observation, and one that has never occurred to me. Slavery was clearly dehumanizing to those who are slaves, but it was also damaging to the slaveholders as well. It's easy to read about slaveholders beating and mistreating slaves and think that perhaps people were different back then, that it all seems uncomprehendingly cruel and that no one would do that nowadays if put into that situation, but Douglass shows that the institution of slavery has a pernicious effect on the humanity of anyone who participates in it.

Several years later, Douglass is sent back to the plantation, and he is then rented out to a poor farmer named Covey to be "broken". Covey has a reputation for breaking the spirit of unruly and contrary slaves. The conditions are horrendous, and at one point Douglass runs back to his old master's farm to complain of the conditions. The master says things can't be that bad and sends Douglass back to Covey. When Douglass returns, Covey sets out to beat him, but Douglass fights back. They go at it for over two hours. Douglass writes:

I considered him as getting the worst end of the bargain; for he had drawn no blood from me, but I had from him. The whole six months afterwards, that I spent with Mr. Covey, he never laid the weight of his finger upon me in anger...This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave. It rekindled in me the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood

Douglass eventually is sent back to Baltimore to live again with Hugh and Sophia Auld. He becomes a caulker in the shipyards, and earns a decent living, which he must turn over to the Aulds at the end of the week. But he is able to save a little money on the side, which allows him to eventually make his escape, first to New York City, where abolitionists give him some money and send him on to New Bedford, where he lives until the book's end. Interestingly, Douglass does not describe in the book how he made his escape. He says that he doesn't want to compromise the route for other slaves wanting to follow the same path to freedom. This odd quirk I found oddly really brought the point home that this book was written when slavery was still a thriving institution. After the civil war (years after this book was published), Douglass spilled the beans: he got some forged papers and took the train from Baltimore to New York.

Religion was a theme in "Robinson Crusoe" and it returned in this book. Douglass rails against the Southern slaveholders who professed to be devout Christians, but who held, beat, starved, raped, killed, and mistreated slaves. He even added an appendix to the book where he explains that he doesn't mean to sound like an opponent of all religion. He's just opposed to the religion of the land that allows slavery, which he doesn't even recognize as Christianity. In his own words:

I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.

He's not mincing words there, but he has a point. It's been years since I read it, but it reminds me of a scene from "Huckleberry Finn" where (as I recall) two Southern families are feuding and killing one another, but stop to go to church to hear a sermon on brotherly love, while keeping their guns at their sides.

Anyway, this book is very moving, and a great and quick read, and should be required reading for anyone living in America. Slavery was a huge part of the history of the United States, and its after effects, in the form of racism and bigotry, are still being struggled with in the 21st century. If only there were more men as brave and articulate as Frederick Douglass, maybe this country would even be further along today.

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