Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, by Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass was born a slave in 1818 and sold many times throughout the U.S. South. While surviving the daily terror and brutality of the slave system, he taught himself, in secret, to read and write, and with these new abilities came new perspective concerning his unbearable situation. His masters were right; this knowledge was a danger to the status quo, and with it he helped to educate his fellow slaves and inspire some of them to attempt a small insurrection. Though the insurrection failed, Douglass did himself succeed in escaping to the north where he became a prominent abolitionist, suffragist, orator, and one of U.S. history’s most revered reformers.
His story is told vividly and with detail. One part that I’m still thinking about, a few days after finishing, is this passage, which highlights the incredible ingenuity in cruelty inspired by the ownership of people (pages 84-85):
The holidays are part and parcel of the gross fraud, wrong, and inhumanity of slavery. They are professedly a custom established by the benevolence of the slaveholders; but i undertake to say, it is the result of selfishness, and one of the grossest frauds committed upon the down-trodden slave. They do not give the slaves this time because they would not like to have their work during its continuance, but because they know it would be unsafe to deprive them of it. This will be seen by the fact, that the slaveholders like to have their slaves spend those days just in such a manner as to make them as glad of their ending as of their beginning. Their object seems to be, to disgust their slaves with freedom, by plunging them into the lowest depths of dissipation. For instance, the slaveholders not only like to see the slave drink of his own accord, but will adopt various plans to make him drunk. One plan is, to make bets on their slaves, as to who can drink the most whiskey without getting drunk; and in this way they succeed in getting whole multitudes to drink to excess. Thus, when the slave asks for virtuous freedom, the cunning slaveholder, knowing his ignorance, cheats him with a dose of vicious dissipation, artfully labeled with the name of liberty. The most of us used to drink it down, and the result was just what might be supposed: many of us were led to think that there was little to choose between liberty and slavery. We felt, and very properly too, that we had almost as well be slaves to man as to rum.
This method of oppressing the slaves’ desire for freedom by using a backwards presentation of freedom as punishment is as haunting to me as the frequent descriptions of beatings and other more directly physical inflictions and, according to Douglass, was a common tactic in maintaining the oppression of slaves, and was used in other circumstances as well (Ex: a slave who’s stolen a jar of molasses may be made to eat it all at once, leading to illness).
Though much is now known and discussed about the evils of slavery in the U.S., it remains an insightful and revelatory experience to read Frederick Douglass’s narrative. I will say, though, that I wish he’d spent more time on the escape itself!