I had to write a book review of Frederick Douglass' autobiography for my American History class, and I have a few pictures from the Czech Republic left over. Since my professor really liked my paper, and I really liked the Czech Republic, enjoy yet another place-saving photojunk mash-up.
The narrative by Frederick Douglass of his life is suffocating and important. All slave literature from this dark period of American history that I have read feels that way to me. My reaction to Uncle Tom’s Cabin was one of great consternation and produced my first epiphany regarding the true evils of our slave-owning past; Harriet Beecher Stowe illuminates quite well the actual consequences of slavery for black Americans, which—other than having a vague sense of the injustice of being owned and abused by another person—is something that I think most people in the modern day have trouble imagining. At least, I know that I certainly did. Django Unchained, the recent film by Quentin Tarrantino, affected me even more viscerally—trite as that may seem—in that after vicariously experiencing the depravity of slavery through the medium of two limited dimensions, I was then complicit in delicious vengeance, cheering for the titular character’s bloody and gratuitous retribution. It made me wish that, if it were possible, I could fully partake in the dark joy of whipping the white slavers into mewling submission.
The important difference between Douglass and these others—besides the
very relevant fact that they are fictions written by white people sympathetic
to the plight of slaves, while Douglass is someone who actually experienced
slavery—is that to hear the voice of Douglass is not simply to hear the voice
of a slave telling the story of his emancipation, or of his horrors, or of a
base desire for vengeance. Rather, it is instead to hear the voice of a man who
was born with freedom in his heart tell the story of how a repugnantly
self-righteous, morally bankrupt and appallingly vicious society tried to
convince him that he was never meant to be free, and thus how they failed.
One of the most striking things in this light is the
significance that Douglass places on books, or to be more precise on the importance of literacy. When
recalling the experience of the first time he was introduced to letters by Mrs.
Auld, Douglass recounts Mr. Auld’s reaction and subsequently his own deep
thoughts on the matter: “if you teach that nigger… how to read, there would be
no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once
become unmanageable, and of no value to his master.” Douglass’ reaction to this
statement was lucid: “I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing
difficulty—to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man.” In my mind,
there has never been a better advocacy for literacy. It is far easier to
enslave a man who has not been taught to read, and therefore lacks the most
important tool with which to learn critical thought. Douglass’ insight—young,
uneducated, and inexperienced as he was at the time—is profound on the level of
genius. In one fell swoop he understood not only the underlying enabler of his
enslavement, but the means by which he might ultimately escape it.
Though I mostly agree with the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison when he said that “Opponents of slavery should not talk about the evil influence of slavery on white society but rather the damage the system did to blacks,” I feel that it is extremely important to note in this case the damage that slavery did to Mrs. Auld. Douglass stresses the importance of it himself, describing how kind she was when he first met her, commencing to treat him “as she supposed one human being ought to treat another.” But in having been forbidden to teach him his letters by her husband, Douglass noted how she began to change.
Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me. When I went there, she was a pious, warm, and tender-hearted woman. There was no sorrow or suffering for which she had not a tear…Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these heavenly qualities… The first step in her downward course was in her ceasing to instruct me. She now commenced to practice her husband’s precepts. She finally became even more violent in her opposition than her husband himself… a little experience soon demonstrated, to her satisfaction, that education and slavery were incompatible with each other.
Douglass thus manages to show us not only how the institution of slavery
destroyed the spirits of the slaves—which seems obvious to the modern student—but
how it less obviously helped to destroy the moral compasses of the masters and changed
them from men and women into monsters who perpetuated the horrors of this
national sin. Despite the strident language of Garrison, and even though his
philosophy was very important to the abolitionist movement, Douglass’
observation is a very humanist position to take and as such is the most potent
antidote to inhumanity.
One of the most important points that Douglass makes about slavery is that, despite apologist claims “which portrayed slavery as an essentially benign institution in which kindly masters looked after submissive and generally contented African Americans,” (Brinkley 276) utter degradation and cruelty towards slaves was not only the norm, but a vital component of the entire system. Slaves must be kept at a subsistence level, in a perpetual mode of survival, or else they might show unrest and have thoughts of escape or rebellion. As Douglass himself puts it (italics are mine):
I have observed this in my experience of slavery,—that whenever my condition was improved, instead of its increasing my contentment, it only increased my desire to be free, and set me to thinking of plans to gain my freedom. I have found that, to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason. He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceases to be a man.
Slavery, in other words, was a system that forced people—master and slave—to become something less than human. What becomes clear from his observation of Mrs. Auld—that slavery was as injurious to her as to him—is that Frederick Douglass regarded the damage done to his psyche a far greater crime than any bodily harm he had to endure. He remarkably ascended through this world of despair and managed to retain his humanity. In doing so, he brought a message of clarity, introspection, and strength to a world in dire need of them, both for the abolitionists of his time and for future generations in need of greater understanding.