Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Frederick Douglass: from Bondage to Freedom

The following is an excerpt from a work-in-progress called A Brief History of American Literature.

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in 1818 in Maryland.  He never knew his father, though it was rumored that his master was his father, and had raped his mother.  He was separated from his mother as an infant.  As a child, young Frederick witnessed his aunt being brutally beaten and whipped on numerous occasions.  He writes in his Autobiography:

“I have often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an own aunt of mine, whom he (the master) used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back until she was literally covered with blood.  No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose.  The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest.  He would whip her to make her scream, and whip her to make her hush; and not until overcome by fatigue, would he cease to swing the blood-clotted cowskin.  I remember the first time I ever witnessed this horrible exhibition.  I was quite a child, but I well remember it.  I shall never forget whilst I remember any thing.  It was the first of a long series of such outrages which I was doomed to be a witness and a participant.  It struck me with awful force.  It was the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass.”
In 1826, when Fredrick was eight years old, he was sold to a Mr. and Mrs. Auld in Baltimore, and became their house servant.  His new mistress began to teach him to read, but the master quickly forbade this.  His argument was this: “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.”  But young Frederick came to see the immense value of reading and, through various clandestine and creative means, taught himself to read, with the help of some local white children.  Learning to read, and to think critically, made young Frederick even more acutely aware of his horrible situation as a human slave.  He writes:

“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.  It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out….I often found myself regretting my own existence, and wishing myself dead; and but for the hope of being free, I have no doubt but that I should have killed myself.”
In 1832, Frederick was sold to a plantation to work the fields, and his life became almost unbearable.  His new master would literally starve his slaves, and horribly mistreat them.  What was especially distressing to Frederick (a Christian) was the fact that his cruel master was also an extremely devout “Christian”.  His master would often invite local clergy to his house for lavish dinners and, according to Frederick, “While he starved us, he stuffed them.”

As Frederick struggled under the weight of this bondage and mistreatment, he sometimes quarreled with his master.  Because of these disagreements with his master, Frederick was sent to work for a man named Edward Covey, who “had acquired a very high reputation for breaking young slaves.”  Mr. Covey, like the previous master, was “a professor of religion—a pious soul—a member and a class-leader in the Methodist church.  All of this added weight to his reputation as a ‘nigger breaker.’”  Living with Mr. Covey, Frederick was whipped regularly.  “I lived with Mr. Covey one year,” he writes, “During the first six months of that year, scarce a week passed without his whipping me.”
Sometimes, during brief moments of rest between long, grueling work days, Frederick would watch the boats sailing in Chesapeake Bay, and ponder the possibility of freedom:

“You are loosed from your moorings, and are free; I am fast in my chains, and am a slave!  You move merrily before the gentle gale, and I sadly before the bloody whip!  You are freedom’s swift-winged angels, that fly round the world; I am confined in bands of iron!  O that I were free!  Oh, that I were on one of your gallant decks, and under your protecting wing!  Alas!  Betwixt me and you, the turbid waters roll.  Go on, go on.  O that I could also go!  Could I but swim!  If I could fly!  O, why was I born a man, of whom to make a brute!  The glad ship is gone; she hides in the dim distance.  I am left in the hottest hell of unending slavery.  O God, save me!  God, deliver me!  Let me be free!  Is there any God?  Why am I a slave?  I will run away.  I will not stand it.  Get caught, or get clear, I’ll try it.  I had as well die with ague as with the fever.  I have only one life to lose.  I had as well be killed running as die standing.  Only think of it; one hundred miles straight north, and I am free!  Try it?  Yes!  God helping me, I will.  It cannot be that I shall live and die a slave.  I will take to the water.  This very bay shall yet bear me into freedom...There is a better day coming.”

An important turning point in Frederick’s life happened one day when, as his master attempted to beat him, he fought back: “I resolved to fight; and, suiting my action to the resolution, I seized Covey hard by the throat; and as I did so, I rose…We were at it for nearly two hours.”  In the end, Frederick won the fight and, as he writes “This battle with Covey was the turning-point wthin my career as a slave.  It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood…I felt as I never felt before.  It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom.  My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and now I resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact.  I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping me, must also succeed in killing me.”  After this fight, Cover never whipped Douglas again, and never took the matter to the authorities, afraid it would tarnish his reputation as a “slave breaker.”
In 1834, Frederick was sold to a Mr. Freeland, who was somewhat less brutal than Mr. Covey.  While living with Freeland, he started a “Sabbath School” for local slaves, where, using the Bible, he taught them to read.  As this small community of slaves became educated, they began to devise ways to escape to freedom.  After one failed attempt, Douglass succeeded in escaping in 1838, and moved with his young wife Anna to New Bedford, Massachusetts, a more progressive area of the country.

It was in New Bedford that Douglass became acquainted with the noted abolitionist Willian Lloyd Garrison through his newspaper The Liberator.  Garrison soon recognized Douglass’s skills with language and public speaking, and soon he was speaking regularly at abolitionist ralleys, and was working on his autobiography, which was published in 1845, and eventually sold over 30,000 copies.  Frederick Douglass, the former slave, used his experiences of suffering to speak out for freedom and justice, and  became a lifelong champion of human rights. 
 

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