The history of America is dark at times, and those moments have been omitted or neglected for many years. However, they are crucial to understanding how and why the United States developed into the nation that it is today. As an American, I am constantly seeking to understand my own country and clarify the myths that have propagated with regards to its past. I am learning uncomfortable truths, but they have not diminished the love that I have for America. In the history of this country, the name of Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) remains a reminder of the institution of slavery that degraded human beings, served as the backbone of an economic system, and led America towards a civil war. Douglass was born into the slave system and became a free man as an adult. This is his story of his time in bondage, freedom from oppression and evolution into a public speaker.
The story begins with Douglass’s early years at the home of his grandparents. He had not understood that he was born into slavery and had no concept of it. But that soon changed when he was taken to meet his siblings whom he had never met. They reside on a plantation owned by former Maryland Governor Edward Lloyd (1779-1834). And it was here that Douglass came to know the horrors of the slave system for the first time. His observation about the lack of connection to his siblings reveals a devastating effect of slavery. Douglass points out that:
“The practice of separating children from their mother, and hiring the latter out at distances too great to admit of their meeting, except at long intervals, is a marked feature of the cruelty and barbarity of the slave system. But it is in harmony with the grand aim of slavery, which, always and everywhere, is to reduce man to a level with the brute. It is a successful method of obliterating from the mind and heart of the slave, all just ideas of the sacredness of the family, as an institution.”
The family is the backbone for our journey through life and Douglass understood the tragedy that developed from its destruction. His words are tough to read at times and the cruelty he endures did not always come at the hands of slaveowners or overseers. In fact, the actions of his Aunt Katy are equally deplorable and the two of them never established a close bond. Douglass’ mother does enter the story but briefly and for reasons the reader will find disgust in. However, her life and role are also an example of slavery’s goal in breaking down the will and spirit of those caught in its grip. There is, however, something that Douglass points out which is interesting about slavery itself. During his time in bondage, he observed the lives of blacks and whites, and this statement regarding what he saw is interesting:
“I knew of blacks who were not slaves; I knew of whites who were not slaveholders; and I knew of persons who were nearly white, who were slaves. Color, therefore, was a very unsatisfactory basis for slavery.”
Racism was undeniably a contributing factor for enslavement, but revenue was the driving factor. The system of slavery did not see individuals, but property to be used until it was no longer useful. The effects upon human chattel were disregarded by those in power. But slaves were not content with remaining in bondage, and it was not long before rebellions erupted across slave-owning territories. The names of John Brown (1800-1859), Denmark Vesey (1767-1822) and Nathaniel “Nat” Turner (1800-1831) stand out among the scores of men and women determined to destroy the system of slavery. Their actions were not lost on Douglass who keenly observed that rebellions would increase as the enslaved sought their natural born right to be free. As Douglass ages, he becomes more aware of the changing sentiment in America and the undercurrent of emotions by those in bondage and their allies in the abolitionist movement. As Douglass states himself:
“The insurrection of Nathaniel Turner had been quelled, but the alarm and terror had not subsided. The cholera was on its way, and the thought was present, that God was angry with the white people because of their slaveholding wickedness, and, therefore, his judgments were abroad in the land.”
I warn readers that his experiences on Lloyd’s plantation are not for the faint at heart. The degradation he endures should spark the fire of anger in anyone who reads this book. I found myself becoming emotional as I read his words and I cannot imagine the humiliation inflicted upon him and others who lived on the plantation. And what is interesting is that the plantation was not located in the deep south but in the State of Maryland. And his life became even more difficult when he was given to Capt. Thomas Auld, a former Army Commander during the War of 1812. Auld quickly becomes the darkest figure in the book and his cruelty towards Douglass is abhorrent. He was determined to break Douglass down and nearly succeeded completely as readers will learn in the book. However, the relationship between Douglass and Auld’s wife Lucretia offsets the darker moments. During his time with Auld, Douglass grows into a strapping young man and becomes determined to escape slavery at all costs. He first refuses to be beaten and after learning to read, began to understand how slavery functions at its core and why illiteracy is a necessary component to keep slaves in line. Once he learns the truth, his path to freedom comes into full focus. However, Douglass never fully reveals how he escaped from Maryland, likely to protect those who had assisted him. He does discuss how he became a free man once in the North but is also careful in that regard.
Following his escape from Maryland, he arrives in New York City but for a short amount of time before moving on to New Bedford, Massachusetts. And although slavery had been abolished in Massachusetts in 1781, Douglass soon learns that prejudice is not solely a product of the South. As he explains, he had his fair share of humiliation in the North as well. However, he was now free and despite the treatment by whites, he continued to evolve and mature. And his spirit becomes unbreakable. He also learns that he has the gift of oration and soon explores that talent to its fullest extent. Today he is regarded as one of the most popular voices of his time but regrettably, none of us will ever have the pleasure of hearing him speak in person. The story takes yet another turn when he is invited to visit several countries in Europe. It is this part of the book in which Douglass learns important truths about America while away from its shores. And what he explains to the reader are supported by the statements from jazz musician Miles Davis (1926-1991), whose experiences in France had opened his eyes to the dysfunction in America. Upon his return to the United States, Douglass was seasoned and armed with a better understanding of the world and the changes needed at home. He devoted the rest of his life the abolitionist movement and in 1877, he was confirmed as United States Marshal for the District of Columbia after being selected by President Rutherford B. Hayes (1822-1893). In later years, he attempted a run for president and held several posts in the U.S. Government. On February 20, 1895, Douglass died at the age of seventy-seven at his home in Washington, D.C. His wife Helen Pitts Douglass (1838-1903) lived several more years until her own death at the age of sixty-five.
I cannot overstate the importance of this work and why it is such a critical read. His story was the exception and not the normal course of action for thousands of enslaved people. He also revealed the contrast between the northern and southern parts of America, paying close attention to the prejudice against people of color across the nation. Frankly, life for Black people was short, humiliating and void of hope at times. However, Douglass and others like him, refused to live out their lives in bondage and were determined to gain their freedom even if it meant death. He is and always will be an icon for those who are oppressed and yearning for freedom.
“The soul that is within me no man can degrade.” – Frederick Douglass