As indispensable as any work put forth in the literary history of America; a work superior in form and purpose as any progressive piece made public. As stimulating in its intellectual insight and illuminating in its emotional fervor as anything I’ve held. This narrative finally brought into view a perspective on the crippling institution of American slavery from a slave! The previous arguments by the white establishment, citing slavery’s economic and political sanctity, would now sound erroneous; creating an impatient listener while missing the mark of what slavery is – an evil assertion of illusory power over a race of people! The argument shifted from defending the beast as an economic and political institution, as one might defend marriage for its merits as a social institution rather than for love and companionship, to describing it as an abysmal decimation of people!
And this coming from one Frederick Douglass. Upon beginning his narrative, I immediately began pondering the old Americana ideal of picking oneself up by one’s own bootstraps. In defense of this ideal, Douglass offers a steadfast example! Or does he? Of course, Douglass’ efforts to educate himself should be credited to no one but him. Even though Mrs. Hughes flung the igniting spark, it was the dry grass in Douglass’ mind that caught fire and searched insatiably to grow that fire and make it inextinguishable. Yet, in the same breath, the circumstances of Douglass’ particular existence under slavery were often credited, by Douglass himself, to divine control. However, the existence of unquenchable thirst for intellectual development within every man, is undeniable. If every slave experienced the same conditions as Douglass, with the faintest glow of opportunity surrounded by the constriction of living under a master, I undoubtedly believe the outcome would have been similar to that of Douglass, who, whether by his own bootstraps or not, proved that every man is naturally capable of living with dignity, integrity and wisdom.
There were a few very poignant themes I found rotting throughout the narrative. First, which was terribly stirring to me, was the hypocrisy of the Christian slaveholders. Douglass satirically mentions several occurrences of such hypocrisy throughout the narrative, and expounds on the issue in his Appendix. Rather than list all the examples, I will rather, here, describe the essence of the hypocrisy and, from my own view, estimate its social detriment. Firstly, I’d like to note the tone by which Douglass discussed southern Christianity. As I said, it was satirical and damning. As a matter of fact, it was one of the only subjects Douglass allowed himself the slightest indulgence; to seemingly deviate from an otherwise lack of exaggeration in his narrative. Therefore, the Appendix was added to explain further his distinction between the Christianity of Christ and the Christianity of the slaveholder. He wanted to make it very clear that he had no intention of condemning the faith, but rather the practice of the religion in the south. As Douglass described the excessive cruelty of religious masters, one in particular who, upon conversion, seemed to transform into the slave’s vision of Satan himself, I wondered how the Christianity of Christ could be so mutilated and twisted. Garrison mentions, in the narrative’s Preface, that some southern Christians would defend slavery by referencing scripture, particularly that the black man is descended from Ham and, therefore, divinely destined to a cursed life. Of course this was enough to condemn the black man to slavery. All those nice sounding sentiments expressed by Christ were just…nice sounding. An unprovable lineage from Ham was much easier to rely on. This sentiment led to other hypocrisies such as breaking up Sabbath schools where slaves learned to read the Bible, starving slaves, excess in punishment, etc. Of course, many will argue that Christianity was not, in fact, practiced at all by these slaveholders but rather used as a shroud over their own hatred. While this is, in my view, undoubtedly true, I also wonder, particularly in the case of Douglass’ converted master, if Christianity simply exaggerated the slaveholders sense of superiority over the slave; bloating his sense of self-righteousness, value and importance in the world. If this is the case, the difference of self-worth, in the slaveholders mind, between himself and the slave became an impossibly wide, though irrationally developed, chasm of self efficacy. Disgusting.
Considering that this practice of Christianity has plowed its way through American history during reconstruction, Jim Crow and even now in Bible-banging hatred of Islam and homosexuals, I can’t help but wonder if slavery, had it not been legally abolished during the Civil War, would exist NOW under the hands of Christian slaveholders. To my great dismay, I am unable to make an argument that it wouldn’t.
Whether “Christian” or not, psychological murder among slaves was not only prevalent but necessary. This theme loomed ominously throughout Douglass’ narrative. One aspect of this murder was in the prohibition of education amongst slaves, something Douglass narrowly, and by his own will, achieved – even by only mustering the determination once seeing its value – ironically explained to him by one of his masters in Baltimore who said educating a slave would make him unmanageable, shine light on the misery of his plight and plant the seed to overthrow white order. Other aspects of psychological murder were far more primitive. Again, I will limit myself to describing one such example of this monstrosity. As Douglass depicted, slaves were given a few days’ holiday during Christmas. Some slaves showed a level of diligence by using this time to mend there own huts, tools, clothing, etc. But this was strongly discouraged. What was encouraged, was spending the holiday in the throes of one massive party. The more whiskey consumed, the better for the slaveholder. The result of this was “…to disgust the slave with freedom, by allowing him to see only the abuse of it…” There are many such examples of psychological murder throughout the narrative, enough to shake ones belief that the human race is inherently good.
These accounts led me to a particularly ironic conclusion, in as far as my own exposure to such a subject matter is concerned. The white man, or specifically the slaveholder, saw his slave as equal to himself. He must have. If he truly hadn’t, such psychological carnage wouldn’t have been necessary. Early in the book, there was a brief description of a white sailor who found himself captured and enslaved. As a result of his treatment, his mental and behavioral state diminished. He barely remembered his native language or that he was human at all. If this can happen to a white man, the argument for natural black inferiority is preposterous. Nevertheless, in American slavery, animals, as shown in an example of horses, were not treated so poorly as slaves. Cruel punishment and devilish cunning were not necessary to subdue the animals. The slaveholder must have seen the black man as intelligent and, thus, as a threat, capable of the same atrocities he was. One overseer was quoted saying, “…if one slave refused to be corrected, and escaped with his life, the other slaves would soon copy the example; the result of which would be, the freedom of slaves, and the enslavement of the whites.” Aside from being a humorous take on the Golden Rule, it’s an admission that slaves are equal in capacity to whites. No slaveholder could reasonably hide behind the argument that black people were naturally inferior to whites, thus innocently, though ignorantly, defending the institution of slavery.
After pointing out the idiocy of the inferiority argument, one is left with the only possible reasoning for slavery – evil. It is an evil institution. I say that not out of passionate indulgence, but out of the best logic I employ. The institution is so purely evil, that Douglass himself points out the institution’s detriments on the slaveholder as well. He describes it as an agency all together capable of mutilating a benign person, white or black. At first, this seemed like an odd statement as slaveholders were the only ones enforcing slavery. Yet holding men under one’s thumb would inevitably lead a person to justify his actions, if he didn’t want to abhor his own existence, and thereby become a conduit for this evil. Perhaps this is the one reasonable line of defense for the slaveholder.
In conclusion, I’d like to pen a short anecdotal story in order to point out what modern readers may take from this subject. Summertime in Minnesota means a lot of things, including softball. The average Joe takes the field wearing garb inscribed with the name of their favorite bar while the dugouts they pour from are loaded with beer. Their are few things as innocent and good spirited as friendly competition in a game won by ordinary people.
During one of these games, a man goes to the plate, having thus been unsuccessful in lining any balls through the pitcher and up the middle of the field. This plate appearance would be equally unsuccessful but not without its bloody consequences. The pitch came in, slowly, the batter waited patiently, timing his swing perfectly, and the ball was smashed against the pitchers’ head. The pitcher lay on the ground, blood flowing from his head as his teammates rushed to the position, calling out for someone to call 911. The hitter ran the bases and finally stopped at second. My friend eventually called back to him, asking if he was going to come and see if he was okay. The base-runner only said, “He’s got two hands and a glove. He could have put them up.” The slightest tinge of guilt was absent from his face and no hint of remorse could be detected in his voice.
Of course, he was right. The injury was simply an unfortunate, though violent, bi-product of the game. It was not his fault. From one perspective, it could be argued that he didn’t even cause the injury but rather the angle of the pitch and swing and force sent the ball at the pitchers’ face. However, these things are hardly the point. Similarly, modern day white folks can’t, and shouldn’t, take responsibility for their ancestors. But this isn’t the point either. I’m wondering why this argument is used as a crutch, or rather a justification, for the purpose of not showing any sort of understanding or empathy. Since when has compassion only been mandated when something is our fault? Since when has showing love been an admission of wrong-doing? Has selfless expression become such a chore that we only do it when we are obligated to? – when we’ve directly caused the pain and suffering? Slavery was a meager 150 years ago, Jim Crow a scant 50! Only one directly associated with the ill effects of such institutions can truly testify to their detriments handed down from generation to generation – its potency just beginning to thin. It should be the constitution of every man, by divine edict, to take compassion on his fellow man regardless of fault.
There are perhaps two types of reactions to such a work as Douglass’ narrative. Some may be offended because of the feeling of shame associated with having the same look as slaveholders, but more importantly a sense of what they ought to do, not out of debt, but out of compassion. These readers may even feel anger because of the way they think they ought to feel. It isn’t easy to bare such an emotionally moving narrative and not feel love for one’s brethren. Nor is it easy for some to behave accordingly because “they shouldn’t have to”. Then there are those who feel an overwhelming passion in the defense of truth and Right and gratitude for coming away from this work closer to being whole. Both readers embody the human experience, span her spectrum, and only in the fight between them, the boiling of our consciences, can all men become whole.