Saturday, December 7, 2013

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

Book: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave
Author:Frederick Douglas
Edition:Gutenberg, eBook
Read:December 2013
160 pages
Rated: 4 1/2 out of 5

 The book is autobiographical of Frederick Douglass' time as a slave in Maryland and a few years as a fugitive in the north. It pays particular attention to how slaves were treated in Maryland, and the hardships they endured. Douglass tells of his rising involvement in the empancipation movement.

The first understanding of this work is to see that slavery can never co-exist with any sense of human dignity. The first count on this is the treatment of the slave. Whipping, beating, starving slaves is not congruent with human dignity. This is what Paul was writing about to Philemon in the New Testament. To treat his slave as a brother in Christ. But as religious as the South portrayed themselves to be, Douglass showed that it was just a facade. While preaching love and brotherhood, while sending missionaries to Africa, they were beating their black brothers and raping their negro sisters who lived with them, whom they had authority over. This was the fruit of slavery.

The second count which Douglass showed is that even those slave owners who were "good" ones, even they were reduced to barbaric treatment of their slaves. Douglass showed that this enslavement of another human reduces any goodness a person has to the need to oppress.

Both of these counts are true today. While slavery may not be in America, there is plenty of ownership. There is the ownership which happens as the employer. We get more concerned with getting the job done than to be concerned with the staff as people.

Beauty can be found both in joy and in sorrow; in pleasure and in pain. We must not mistake one for the other. Douglass informs us that the beauty in signing of the blacks was neither from beauty nor joy, but from misery and suffering. The sound which whites heard wass the sounds of release and yearning to be free of the oppression. (38)

Even in slavery, w have a caste system. It is better to be the slave of a rich owner than a poor one. Douglass does not make it clear if it was because of conditions were better or because of pride of being owned by the rich. I suspect it is more pride and association. Sort of funny, it is like a city with a winning baseball team. The men on the team are mercenaries, the owner of the team has loads of money, but the city still enjoys being the home of the winning team, even if they have not attended a game.

In the Appendix, Douglass has some harsh words towards Christianity, especially the Christianity of the South. This is particularly true of the hypocrisy  he saw  of preachers in church talking about following Jesus, the meek and lowly one. Then going back to his slave robbing him of any earnings, selling women into prostitution, separating families and killing men. He saw the religion of America as being the religion of the Pharisees.

It should be noted that an A.C.C. Thompson wrote a letter called  Letter from a Slave Holder. It can be found in the University of North Carolina's collections. Thompson was a neighbor of one of the people who held Douglass-then known as Bailey. Thompson argues that Douglass was not intelligent enough to know how to write, let along something as well-put as this Narrative. Also Thompson knew many of the whites who had dealings with Douglass (Bailey). His relationships with these people were of a different picture than what Douglass paints.

How do you reconcile the two pictures? I think that Douglass points the way here. Douglass notes that these were fine church go'ers. Those who subscribed to the teachings of the church. But that they did not practice these teachings concerning their slaves. This comes from treating humans as property, rather than holders of the image of God. As property, we use, abuse and eventually get rid of our cars and computers. But these do not have God has their father. While humans have a line of heredity back to having God's breath blown into them making them alive. So the question is, are blacks human? We say today they are. I would think that in the South at this time, they chose not to believe they were.

Douglass' ending sentiment was this retelling of his history would be a stone on the path to removing slavery in America. It was not only a stone, but a large amount of the pavement on that road. Even though the United States was 50 years later than Britain, Douglass lead the way by telling his story and the treatment he saw in his eloquent way.

 I am removed some 170 years from this writing and it still has the power to move me. Douglass describes the slave conditions of a more "gentle" slave state, such as Maryland which borders the North. The conditions here was barbaric at best. Douglass writes in a way of intelligence, eloquence  and emotion of a witness and reluctant participant of slavery. Through his eyes, there is not one good thing which can be said of slavery. He demolishes any thought of a "good" slave owner. Instead, he shows how even good men and women are enslaved by slavery, even the slave owners.

Through this book, and other writings, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, the North's eyes were opened to slavery's conditions. The whippings, the legalized murder, the total depravity which slavery was leading the South into.  The advantage of Douglass' writing was that he was there and experienced the effects of slavery. So there was no romance of slavery in this story, only the gore of backs whipped raw.

Even now, I would recommend this book to be on the reading list, so that it can be understood why the Civil War needed to be fought. That slavery needed to be abolished. That real people were involved in this struggle.

New Words:
  • gewgaws -  a small thing that has little value 
  • The Columbian OratorFirst appearing in 1797, The Columbian Orator, a collection of political essays, poems, and dialogues, was widely used in American schoolrooms in the first quarter of the 19th century to teach reading and speaking. Many of the speeches included in the anthology celebrated "republican" virtues and promoted patriotism, and this was typical of many readers of that period. The Columbian Orator is an example of progymnasmata, containing examples for students to copy and imitate. In the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, the former slave and abolitionist writer Douglass describes how he "got hold" of a copy of the Columbian Orator at age 12, an event with far-reaching consequences for his life. The Columbian Orator, became a symbol not only of human rights, but also of the power of eloquence and articulation.    Wikipedia
  • “Lady of the Lake - Poem by Walter Scott, published in 1810. Frederick Douglass was named after  James Douglas in the poem. Wikipedia Poem from Gutenberg
  • Liberator -  abolitionist newspaper founded by William Lloyd Garrison in 1831. Garrison published weekly issues of The Liberator from Boston continuously for 35 years, from January 1, 1831, to the final issue of January 1, 1866. Wikipedia  Collection of Liberator papers
Good Quotes:
  • First Line:   I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot county, Maryland
  • Last Line:     Sincerely and earnestly hoping that this little book may do something toward throwing light on the American slave system, and hastening the glad day of deliverance to the millions of my brethren in bonds—faithfully relying upon the power of truth, love, and justice, for success in my humble efforts—and solemnly pledging my self anew to the sacred cause,—I subscribe myself,  FREDERICK DOUGLASS.
  •  The competitors for this office sought as diligently to please their overseers, as the office-seekers in the political parties seek to please and deceive the people. The same traits of character might be seen in Colonel Lloyd's slaves, as are seen in the slaves of the political parties.   Pg 35
  • I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy.  Pg 38
  • It was considered as being bad enough to be a slave; but to be a poor man's slave was deemed a disgrace indeed!  pg 43
  • To be accused was to be convicted, and to be convicted was to be punished; the one always following the other with immutable immutable certainty. pg 45
  • Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me.  pg 62
  • The moral which I gained from the dialogue was the power of truth over the conscience of even a slaveholder. pg 65
  • As I writhed under it, I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. Pg 66.
  • I assert most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the south is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes,—a justifier of the most appalling barbarity,—a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds,—and a dark shelter under, which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection. pg 103
  • ...if we did not intend to move now, we had as well fold our arms, sit down, and acknowledge ourselves fit only to be slaves. pg 113
  • Every man appeared to understand his work, and went at it with a sober, yet cheerful earnestness, which betokened the deep interest which he felt in what he was doing, as well as a sense of his own dignity as a man.  pg 139
  • They love the heathen on the other side of the globe. They can pray for him, pay money to have the Bible put into his hand, and missionaries to instruct him; while they despise and totally neglect the heathen at their own doors. pg 148.


No comments: