“Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave” is one of the best autobiographies ever written. In that book Douglass doesn’t have a list of the things that support slavery, but there are some things that definitely stick out as important. What if you just did the opposite? What if instead of doing the things that were important to keep slaves in slavery, you went the other direction?
To a large extent, that is what Douglass did. He freed himself by doing the opposite of what a slave was supposed to do. (A number of other people were instrumental as well, of course. And Douglass himself acknowledges that Providence played a large part.)
An important note before we dive into what led to his freedom. He didn’t go from being a slave to owning slaves. He might have been able to, he was a very resourceful man. And, others did it. There were black slave owners, traders, and breeders. It’s an odd piece of history that’s largely ignored because people don’t know what to do with it. There were even rich black slave owners that donated money to support the Confederacy during the American Civil War. William Ellison is the most famous example.
But enough of how history is significantly different and much more complex than most people think it is. My point is that the opposite of being a slave is not being a slaveholder. The opposite of being a slave is being free. The opposite of slavery is freedom.
Here are eight of the most important things that I noticed while reading Frederick Douglass’s book. I’ll include some pertinent quotes as well. (He changed his name a couple of times throughout his life, but I’m going to use Frederick Douglass the whole time in this article.)
The slaves didn’t have birthdays. The birthdays weren’t recorded, and the slave owners didn’t want the slaves to know their birthdays. It seems kind of odd to me. It seems unimportant. But I’ve been rethinking that, because if slaveholders considered it important, then it probably is.
I think it might be something like this. To have a birthday is to confirm that you are an individual. To have a birthday is to confirm that you had a unique beginning. Beginnings have special power. The greatest political philosopher of the 20th century focused on this idea. Hannah Arendt called it natality.
I’ve largely ignored my birthday. I haven’t considered it significant. But, I think that was wrong. I think it’s more important than most people realize.
“By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant.”
Mothers were separated from their children. Families were separated from each other in general. The bonds of the family are too strong. When people bond together they become strong. They won’t allow a loved one to just freely be beaten on and abused by someone. They will do something. But, if you don’t have strong bonds, then why should you step in and get punished too? Family groups are the foundation of human society, and if you can destroy the family unit, then the society falls apart too.
“My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant — before I knew her as my mother. It is a common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age.”
Douglass was sent from the plantation to serve part of the owner’s family living in town when he was fairly young. The wife hadn’t grown up owning slaves and taught Douglass the sounds of the letters. (Yes, phonics works.) She was then informed by her husband that it was illegal to teach slaves to read. But, that start was just what Douglass needed. He would trade bread to poor white boys in the streets to help him with reading. Later, he would challenge them to spelling contests.
This is an important point to emphasize. It was illegal to teach slaves to read. It’s hard to keep educated people down. And I’m not talking about school, I’m talking about real education, about learning and knowing and thinking. It’s much easier to keep illiterate people down. So much so that it was a law to keep the slaves illiterate.
Douglass had a gifted intellect and picked up reading fairly quickly. By quickly I mean he worked on it for years. Luckily, when he was about 12 he came across a book titled “The Columbian Orator”. This book was focused on teaching public speaking by drawing from the greatest speeches in history. It included speeches against slavery from ancient Greece. It had a huge impact on his life and he became one of the most famous public speakers in the world.
Also, writing is what allowed Douglass to later write fake papers so he could escape to the North.
“Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words further, he said, “If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. 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. Now,” said he, “if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) 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. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.””
Douglass talks about how slaves walked around with their shoulders slouched down in a servile position. He really noticed that when he went to work in town and the same woman that taught him the alphabet reacted oddly to him being hunched down. So, he stood up straight. Slaves are expected to cower.
“The crouching servility, usually so acceptable a quality in a slave, did not answer when manifested toward her.”
Slaves weren’t allowed to talk back to their masters or the overseers, at all. If you talked back to them you would be beaten. This inability to speak is huge. That’s why freedom of speech is the first amendment in the American Bill of Rights. Because, if you can’t speak, then you don’t have freedom.
“To all these complaints, no matter how unjust, the slave must answer never a word.”
“There must be no answering back to him; no explanation was allowed a slave, showing himself to have been wrongfully accused.”
“To be accused was to be convicted, and to be convicted was to be punished; the one always following the other with immutable certainty. To escape punishment was to escape accusation; and few slaves had the fortune to do either, under the overseership of Mr. Gore.”
Slaves weren’t allowed to fight back, obviously. Douglass includes a couple of stories that illustrate the significance of this perfectly. He talks about a slave that was going to get whipped, but to avoid it he ran into the middle of a river and stood there. The slave overseer told him to come out. He wouldn’t, so the overseer shot the slave in the head where he was standing. These were the stakes.
At one point Frederick Douglass decided that he would never take another whipping without putting up a fight. This should have gotten him killed. And he knew that. But he decided to fight anyway. The next time Douglass was going to get whipped he got into a fistfight with the overseer in the barn. They fought one-on-one for two hours. Apparently Douglass was a pretty good fighter, because he didn’t get whipped. And, for some reason, they didn’t kill him either. Douglass got into a number of other fights throughout his life, but he fought every time and was never whipped again.
Slaves don’t fight back, free people do. That’s why the right to have weapons is the second amendment in the American Bill of Rights. If you don’t have the means to fight back, then you have no choice but to do what you’re told, like a slave.
This touches on the origins of slavery as well. The foundation of slavery is war. Slaves are the war captives. I’ll go into that more in another article.
“Mr. Covey seemed now to think he had me, and could do what he pleased; but at this moment — from whence came the spirit I don’t know — 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.”
“He asked me if I meant to persist in my resistance. I told him I did, come what might; that he had used me like a brute for six months, and that I was determined to be used so no longer.”
“This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free. The gratification afforded by the triumph was a full compensation for whatever else might follow, even death itself. He only can understand the deep satisfaction which I experienced, who has himself repelled by force the bloody arm of slavery. 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 I now 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, must also succeed in killing me.
From this time I was never again what might be called fairly whipped, though I remained a slave four years afterwards. I had several fights, but was never whipped.”
Slaves were not allowed to keep what they earned. They were just given enough to stay alive and continue to work, no matter how much they produced. Douglass broke through this chain as well while he was slowly working his way out of slavery. He was able to develop a skill. His master had him apprenticed as a ship caulker. After Douglass knew what he was doing he convinced his owner that he could manage himself and would pay the owner a set number. It was common to rent out slaves, and Douglass essentially rented himself. Plus, it was less of a hassle for the owner. This way, if Douglass could earn more than that he would be making money. Which he did. Free people are able to keep what they earn.
“I was now getting, as I have said, one dollar and fifty cents per day. I contracted for it; I earned it; it was paid to me; it was rightfully my own; yet, upon each returning Saturday night, I was compelled to deliver every cent of that money to Master Hugh. And why? Not because he earned it, — not because he had any hand in earning it, — not because I owed it to him, — nor because he possessed the slightest shadow of a right to it; but solely because he had the power to compel me to give it up. The right of the grim-visaged pirate upon the high seas is exactly the same.”
Slaves aren’t able to decide what they will do. They are told what they will do. They have no choice. As Douglass started to manage himself, with the deal he had made with his owner, he was able to take back some control. He was able to do what he wanted when he wanted, for the most part, as long as he made his payment.
“He too, at first, seemed disposed to refuse; but, after some reflection, he granted me the privilege, and proposed the following terms: I was to be allowed my time, make all contracts with those for whom I worked, and find my own employment; and, in return for this liberty, I was to pay him three dollars at the end of each week; find myself in calking tools, and in board and clothing.”
These are just a few of the lessons that I’ve been able to glean from Frederick Douglass. Let’s summarize these eight points.
don’t have birthdays,
are separated from their families,
can’t read and write,
slouch their shoulders,
can’t openly speak,
can’t keep what they earn,
and can’t decide what they will do.
If we take the opposite of these I think we end up with a pretty good description of what a free person is. Maybe even a good definition of what freedom is, and what is needed to protect freedom.
have individual birthdays,
have a family bond,
read and write,
stand up straight,
are free to speak,
fight back against abuse,
keep what they earn,
and decide what they will do.
There are a ton of other great insights in Douglass’s autobiography ranging from the corruption of holidays, to the corruption of religion, to the corruption of political parties. I highly recommend reading it.
Slavery destroys the humanity in people, both slave and slaveholder alike. It’s important to know what slavery is so that we can move in the opposite direction. It’s important to know the value of freedom, how to attain it, and how to protect it. And if you want freedom, then be the opposite of a slave.