Frederick Douglass: My Bondage and My Freedom

I read the short version of Frederick Douglass’s autobiography many years ago and it impressed me so deeply, I had always meant to read the longer version — one of them at least. Too many years separate them for me even to be sure of the differences, apart from the recounting of the scene where Douglass stands up to Covey — much expanded here, but I am not sure more powerful for that. Still. The moment where enough is enough, where resistance is embraced fully, where everything changes. An incredible moment. But this is a book of powerful moments. So much of what is theorised over the next 150 years is here already, though always in a way that pathologises slavery not those bound and tortured by it. If only we had kept to that tradition.

Geneological trees do not flourish among slaves. A person of some consequence here in the north, sometimes designated father, is literally abolished in slave law and slave practice. It is only once in a while that an exception is found to this statement. (34-35)

Of course, Douglass’s father was white. Master or overseer, he is not explicit — does not know, does not wish to know, does not wish to say.

The practice of separating children from their mothers, 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 a brute. It is a successful method of obliterating from the mind and the heart of the slave, all just ideas of the sacredness of the family, as an institution. (37-38)

Frederick Douglass belonged to the Lloyds, a plantation along the Wye river named after the river in Wales whence they came. Knowing the Wye river — it brings these connections home. From rural wales to owning slaves in Maryland.

Frederick Douglass grows up. Always cold. Always hungry. Always questioning.

The old doctrine that submission is the best cure for outrage and wrong, does not hold good on the slave plantation. He is whipped oftenest, who is whipped easiest; and that slave who has the courage to stand up for himself against the overseer, although he may have many hard stripes at the first, becomes, in the end, a freeman, even though he sustain the formal relation of a slave. (95)

There is, of course, a line to be walked here because too much and they will just shoot you — this is clear in the text despite the numerous forceful statements like the one above.

I’ve just finished re-reading Du Bois on The Souls of Black Folk, and found it powerful that Douglass too spends time on the songs sung by slaves and their meaning and importance. It was often demanded of them that they sing, you cannot plot while singing, you cannot run away. But song transformed into something else. Douglass relates that it is not until after escaping slavery and looking back that the real meaning of the songs struck him.

They told a tale which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones, loud, long and deep, breathing the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains. The hearing of these wild notes always depressed my spirits and filled my heart with ineffable sadness… Those songs still follow me, to deepen my hatred of slavery… (99)

But then, still a child, he is sent to Baltimore, and it is strange to think, that without this arbitrary decision the future course of his life might not have been possible. For here he has opportunity to learn to read, to play with poor white children, to ask questions, to obtain knowledge, to see a world beyond the plantation. And, in the beginning, to have a taste of something different.

At first, Mrs Auld evidently regarded me simply as a child, like any other child; she had not come to regard me as property. This latter thought was a thing of conventional growth…it took several years to change the natural sweetness of her temper into fretful bitterness. (144-145)

Douglass illustrates time and time again how the structures of slavery constrain the humanity of both slave and slave-owner. The nature of slavery is such that there can be no good owner, no kind mistress because to own a slave is to deny the humanity of another human being. Mrs Auld begins kindly — begins to teach him to read, and is stopped in her tracks by her husband. It becomes fully brought home to her that reading and slavery are incompatible. In bowing to this, she loses her own self as she must.

As Douglass comes to understand this, the bewildering changes from kindness to bitterness, the reminders of his place in the household, he is also working out the nature of his own morality under slavery. That within a structure that has robbed him of both liberty and all reward of his labour, his right to steal for self preservation cannot be questioned. With no freedom of choice, no slave can be held morally responsible or accountable, rather all responsibility lies with those who created an enforce slavery.

There are insights too, into slavery’s impact on the class distinctions made in the South:

Slaves, too, readily distinguish between the birthright bearing of the original slaveholder and the assumed attitudes of the accidental slaveholder; and while they cannot respect either, they certainly despise the latter more than the former. (192)

Refusing to call him Master only one of many subtle ways of showing this. But it is so clear that status is entirely bound up in ownership of other human beings at this time, even though a certain level of privilege is granted to all those with white skin. Douglass is thinking all of these things, but can do little. At the age of 16 he is sent to work for a man named Covey for year, to be broken. And after 6 months of being broken, he stands up, refuses to be whipped, fights back.

…this battle with Mr Covey–undignified as it was, and as I fear my narration of it is–was the turning point in my “life as a slave.” It rekindled in my breast the smouldering embers of liberty; it brought up my Baltimore dreams, and revived a sense of my own manhood. I was a changed being after that fight. I was nothing before; I was A MAN NOW. It recalled to life my crushed self-respect and my self-confidence, and inspired me with a renewed determination to be A FREEMAN. (246)

He was never whipped again. He does wonder why he wasn’t just killed — the punishment decreed by law for such defiance. The loss of face that Covey would have incurred is most likely the reason, but he himself has seen someone murdered for less. He describes the price of being a man — being willing to die. He also notes the many other things that work to keep human beings enslaved. Ties to family and friends, to place and familiarity. The granting of holidays, and other things that keep ‘minds occupied with thoughts and aspirations short of the liberty of which they are deprived. A certain degree of attainable good must be kept before them’ (253).

One of teh most powerful sentences I think:

The thought of only being a creature of the present and the past, troubled me, and I longed to have a future–a future with hope in it. (273)

I think this is perhaps the terror of poverty as well, though it cannot be compared to slavery. But it appears again in one of the speeches at the end. A future could only lie in freedom. He plans an attempt at escape with a group of dear friends and is betrayed, but without quite the proof needed to convince his owner that the freedom break was actually going to be attempted. So while threatened with sale to the South, he is not in the end taken there. He is sent back to Baltimore, and apprenticed in the shipyards.

He has the shit beaten out of him by white apprentices there,  partially at the instigation of the white carpenters who stand and watch it all. He notes that one of the elements in slavery is this:

the conflict of slavery with the interests of the white mechanics and laborers of the south. … The slaveholders, with a craftiness peculiar to themselves, by encouraging the enmity of the poor, laboring white man against the blacks, succeeds in making the said white man almost as much a slave as the black man himself… The slave is robbed, by his master, of all his earnings, above what is required for his bare physical necessities; and the white man is robbed by the slave system, of the just results of his labor, because he is flung into competition with a class of laborers who work without wages. (309-310)

Douglass writes this will set the white laborers in the vanguard against slavery — it’s curious that he is right and wrong, for in much of the north and in California they surely are against slavery, but equally against Black labour. Still, we see here the intersections of race, economic systems, labour, struggle…

He escapes. Wanders lost in NY afraid for his life and recapture, no money, no friends. He doesn’t wonder that some return South. But he reaches safety with the abolitionists and they recommend he move to New Bedford. Which sounds bad ass. He tells a story in which a newcomer threatens one of the community with informing on him to his old master. A meeting is called of the whole Black community, and at the end of it

…at the close of his prayer, the old man (one of the numerous family of Johnsons) rose from his knees, deliberately surveyed his audience, and then said, in a tone of solemn resolution, “Well, friends, we have got him here, and I would now recommend that you young men should just take him outside the door and kill him. (348)

He escapes, sadly. But Douglass writes

A slave could not be taken from that town seventeen years ago, any more than he could be so taken away now. the reason is, that the colored people in that city are educated up to the point of fighting for their freedom, as well as speaking for it. (348)

That brings a tear.

So Douglass comes to the attention of the abolitionists as a speaker, begins to travel and lecture. He reads more, speaks more, thinks. He is fucking brilliant, far more so than those around him and they don’t like it, tell him to speak more like a slave, to just give his story and let them denounce the wrongs and provide the solutions. Whites in the audiences start murmuring at his eloquence, refuse to believe that he is a slave as he doesn’t speak like one or act like one. Makes you want to throw things.

And so Douglass writes the first version of his autobiography to free himself from these insinuations…which is, of course, a huge risk and means his almost certain recapture. And so he goes to England. where like many others before and after, he is treated as an equal (though all this would change for other generations of Black people coming to England). Money is raised to buy his freedom so he can return to the US without the threat of recapture hanging over him. (He is criticised for allowing this, by those who don’t know what it is like to be owned or to have the fear of being taken back hanging over them.) More money is raised to provide him with a printing press, so he can begin his own paper. And the white abolitionists really fucking hate that, as you can imagine — they argue it’s not needed, that it will interfere with the lecturing they have planned for him, that he is a better speaker than writer, and that it can’t succeed. William Lloyd Garrison has his own paper after all. So Douglass moves to Rochdale to avoid competition with them. They hate it even more when, upon deep thought, Douglass decides that they are wrong in their analysis of the issue and in their tactics of refusals to vote and demands that the slave-states be cut free from the union.

He notes near the end, the many instances of racism in the north. The prejudice that existed even among abolitionists and the awkwardness of their denials underlining how deeply it ran. Like their insistence they were ‘not afraid to walk with him’. He resists the existence of ‘Jim Crow’ cars in trains and trams, refusing to move and fighting any attempts to so remove him. Jim Crow this early, in name and in segregated carriages. I had forgotten. He is such a well-connected figure by this time, his battles are successful.

At the end are a collection of speeches and damn. They are incredible, what a thing to have heard him speak. Above all the speech for the 4th of July, which I have read before. But some excerpts, first from his reception speech at Finsbury Chapel.

I am here to say that I think the term slavery is sometimes abused by identifying it with that which it is not. Slavery in the United States is the granting of that power by which one man exercises and enforces a right of poetry in the body and soul of another. The condition of a slave is simply that of the brute beast. He is a piece of property–a marketable commodity…to be bought or sold at will and caprice of the master who claims him to be his property; he is spoken of, thought of, and treated as property. His own good, his conscience, his intellect, his affections, are all set aside by the master. The will and the wishes of the master are the law of the slave. He is as much a piece of property as a horse. If he is fed, he is fed because he is property. If he is clothed, it is with a view to the increase of his value as property. Whatever of comfort is necessary to him for his body or soul that is inconsistent with his being property, is carefully wrested from him, not only by public opinion, but by the law of the country. He is carefully deprived of everything that tends in the slightest degree to detract from his value as property. He is deprived of education. God has given him an intellect; the slaveholder declares it shall not be cultivated. If his moral perception leads him in a course contrary to his value as property, the slaveholder declares he shall not exercise it. The marriage institution cannot exist among slaves, and one-sixth of the population of democratic America is denied its privileges by the law of the land. What is to be thought of a nation boasting of its liberty, boasting of its humanity, boasting of its Christianity, boasting of its love of justice and purity, and yet having within its own borders three millions of persons denied by law the right of marriage? (408)

And then this rousing finale

The slaveholders want total darkness on the subject. They want the hatchway shut down, that the monster may crawl in his den of darkness, crushing human hopes and happiness, destroying the bondman at will, and having no one to reprove or rebuke him. Slavery shrinks from the light; it hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest its deeds should be reproved. To tear off the mask from this abominable system, to expose it to the light of heaven, aye, to the heat of the sun, that it may burn and wither it out of existence, is my object in coming to this country. I want the slaveholder surrounded, as by a wall of anti-slavery fire, so that he may see the condemnation of himself and his system glaring down in letters of light. (418)

There is the letter to his old master, written on the anniversary of his escape. It is excoriating, and also moving…

The fact is, there are few here who would not return to the South in the event of emancipation. We want to live in the land of our birth, and to lay our bones by the side of our fathers’; and nothing short of an intense love of personal freedom keeps us from the South. For the sake of this, most of us would live on a crust of bread and a cup of cold water.(424)

At this moment, you are probably the guilty holder of at least three of my own dear sisters, and my only brother in bondage. These you regard as your property. They are recorded on your ledger, or perhaps have been sold to human flesh mongers, with a view to filling your own ever-hungry purse. Sir, I desire to know how and where these dear sisters are. Have you sold them? or are they still in your possession? What has become of them? are they living or dead? And my dear old grandmother, whom you turned out like an old horse, to die in the woods—is she still alive? Write and let me know all about them. (426-427)

Speech on The Nature of Slavery:

First of all, I will state, as well as I can, the legal and social relation of master and slave. A master is one—to speak in the vocabulary of the southern states—who claims and exercises a right of property in the person of a fellow-man. This he does with the force of the law and the sanction of southern religion. The law gives the master absolute power over the slave. He may work him, flog him, hire him out, sell him, and, in certain contingencies, kill him, with perfect impunity. The slave is a human being, divested of all rights—reduced to the level of a brute—a mere “chattel” in the eye of the law—placed beyond the circle of human brotherhood—cut off from his kind—his name, which the “recording angel” may have enrolled in heaven, among the blest, is impiously inserted in a master’s ledger, with horses, sheep, and swine. In law, the slave has no wife, no children, no country, and no home. He can own nothing, possess nothing, acquire nothing, but what must belong to another. To eat the fruit of his own toil, to clothe his person with the work of his own hands, is considered stealing. He toils that another may reap the fruit; he is industrious that another may live in idleness; he eats unbolted meal that another may eat the bread of fine flour; he labors in chains at home, under a burning sun and biting lash, that another may ride in ease and splendor abroad; he lives in ignorance that another may be educated; he is abused that another may be exalted; he rests his toil-worn limbs on the cold, damp ground that another may repose on the softest pillow; he is clad in coarse and tattered raiment that another may be arrayed in purple and fine linen; he is sheltered only by the wretched hovel that a master may dwell in a magnificent mansion; and to this condition he is bound down as by an arm of iron.

From this monstrous relation there springs an unceasing stream of most revolting cruelties. The very accompaniments of the slave system stamp it as the offspring of hell itself. To ensure good behavior, the slaveholder relies on the whip; to induce proper humility, he relies on the whip; to rebuke what he is pleased to term insolence, he relies on the whip; to supply the place of wages as an incentive to toil, he relies on the whip; to bind down the spirit of the slave, to imbrute and destroy his manhood, he relies on the whip, the chain, the gag, the thumb-screw, the pillory, the bowie knife the pistol, and the blood-hound. These are the necessary and unvarying accompaniments of the system. Wherever slavery is found, these horrid instruments are also found. (429-430)

It is only when we contemplate the slave as a moral and intellectual being, that we can adequately comprehend the unparalleled enormity of slavery, and the intense criminality of the slaveholder. I have said that the slave was a man. … The first work of slavery is to mar and deface those characteristics of its victims which distinguish men from things, and persons from property. Its first aim is to destroy all sense of high moral and religious responsibility. It reduces man to a mere machine. It cuts him off from his Maker, it hides from him the laws of God, and leaves him to grope his way from time to eternity in the dark, under the arbitrary and despotic control of a frail, depraved, and sinful fellow-man. (431)

What to the slave is the 4th of July? (listen to James Earl Jones read it here)

Fellow citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us? (441)

Those words are still pretty true.

America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the Constitution and the Bible which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery-the great sin and shame of America! (442)

What, am I to argue that it is wrong to make men brutes, to rob them of their liberty, to work them without wages, to keep them ignorant of their relations to their fellow men, to beat them with sticks, to flay their flesh with the lash, to load their limbs with irons, to hunt them with dogs, to sell them at auction, to sunder their families, to knock out their teeth, to burn their flesh, to starve them into obedience and submission to their masters? Must I argue that a system thus marked with blood, and stained with pollution, is wrong? No! I will not. I have better employment for my time and strength than such arguments would imply.

What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? (444)

Words cannot express my admiration or respect. Yet I am still full of questions, about the wife who came from Maryland also, about her life, about the day to day…more to read, always more to read.

Frederick Douglass, Syracuse, New York, July–August 1843; whole-plate daguerreotype by an unknown photographer, from Picturing Frederick Douglass

Douglass, Frederick (1969 [1855]) My Bondage and My Freedom. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

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