Frederick Douglass was one of the most influential and effective advocates for abolition in the United States. He suffered the evils of slavery first-hand—yet was able to maintain his courage and independence even in that oppressive environment.
His autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, recounts the slowly-fading innocence of his youth.
"It was a long time before I knew myself to be a slave. I knew many other things before I knew that. Grandmother and grandfather were the greatest people in the world to me; and being with them so snugly in their own little cabin—I supposed it be their own—knowing no higher authority over me or the other children than the authority of grandmamma, for a time there was nothing to disturb me; but, as I grew larger and older, I learned by degrees the sad fact, that the 'little hut,' and the lot on which it stood, belonged not to my dear old grandparents, but to some person who lived a great distance off, and who was called, by grandmother, 'OLD MASTER.' I further learned the sadder fact, that not only the house and lot, but that grandmother herself, (grandfather was free,) and all the little children around her, belonged to this mysterious personage, called by grandmother, with every mark of reverence, 'Old Master.' ... These were distressing revelations indeed; and though I was quite too young to comprehend the full import of the intelligence, and mostly spent my childhood days in gleesome sports with the other children, a shade of disquiet rested upon me."
Carl Sagan's book The Demon Haunted World describes how Douglass learned to read, at first by realizing on his own the phonetic nature of the alphabet, then getting help from his master's wife. Alas, Captain Hugh Auld, his master, found out about this sinful partaking of the tree of knowledge. "By the time Frederick was spelling words of three and four letters, Captain Auld discovered what was going on," writes Sagan. "Furious, he ordered Sophia to stop. In Frederick's presence he explained: 'A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now, if you teach that nigger how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave.' Auld chastised Sophia in this way as if Frederick were not there in the room, or as if he were a block of wood."
"But Auld had revealed to Bailey [Douglass] the great secret: 'I now understood...the white man's power to enslave the black man. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom."
Rather than resign himself to pain and servitude, Douglass dared to strive for a life proper to the man that he was. He had to learn the meaning of freedom the hard way, and to claim it for himself: intellectually, physically, politically.
Slavery is fortunately a distant and intangible concept for us today. If we want to know what it means to be a slave—and gain a new appreciation of what it means to be free—we can do no better than to turn to Douglass's astute first-hand account. The courage and insight of his words helped to educate his contemporaries and to change the course of American history.
— Brett Hoffstadt and Saulius Muliolis
Copyright © 2000, The Daily Objectivist - Reprinted with permission of The Daily Objectivist and Davidmbrown.com.
15 Dec 2008