Old as the everlasting hills; immovable as the throne of God; and certain as the purposes of eternal power, against all hindrances, and against all delays, and despite all the mutation of human instrumentalities, it is the faith of my soul, that this anti-slavery cause will triumph. -- Frederick Douglass, "The Anti-Slavery Movement" (1855)It is impossible to understand the United States in the 19th century, particularly the Civil War era, without Frederick Douglass. He was the most prominent African American of his time, an abolitionist, an advocate for the rights of black Americans, a newspaper publisher and public speaker. I learned something of his life years ago from reading his 1845 autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself. He was born into slavery in rural Maryland, probably in 1818. From a young age he struggled with the reality of slavery, which made him a piece of property, with no rights, held to work for others his whole life. His first attempt at running away was betrayed, probably by a fellow slave, but his second, when he was around twenty, succeeded. His Narrative, published seven years later, is considered a classic of American literature, and is also the best-known of the accounts written by escaped or emancipated slaves. These accounts were a key weapon in the struggle to abolish slavery in the United States, by making the people of the northern states aware of the horrors of life under slavery, to awaken their consciences and rally them to action.
From Henry Mayer's book All on Fire, about William Lloyd Garrison and the abolitionist movement, I learned that Frederick Douglass broke with Garrison and his wing of the movement in the 1850s. They came to disagree over tactics, and over the question of whether the U.S Constitution was a pro-slavery document, which in turn tainted the whole political structure of the country. (Garrisonians held that it did, so they refused to participate in the government, even by voting.) But Douglass also came to feel that he had a larger role to play. The Garrison people just wanted him to tell his story, his narrative. He didn't want to keep repeating himself, or to keep talking about himself at all. He wanted to challenge the whole system of slavery, and racism in American society as well. His decision to start his own paper, which would complete with Garrison's The Liberator, was seen as an overt challenge to the leadership. Some of the group also doubted that Douglass, with no formal education or training, could handle editing a newspaper.
All of this history is new to me, and I'm interested to learn more. I knew that Frederick Douglass had later published two revised editions of his autobiography. When I discovered that this one, published in 1855, covered the controversy with Garrison, I put it on my reading list. The edition I read is a Penguin Classics edition from 2003, with a very informative introduction and a bibliography.
My Bondage and My Freedom is divided into two sections. The first, "Life as a Slave," is by far the longer, 21 of 24 chapters. This part is an expanded version of the original Narrative, with editor's notes to explain the differences. It is an account of Douglass's life, not just the events but the emotional and psychological toll that slavery took on him; of his awakening to the horrors of slavery, and his own experiences of violence and mistreatment. I have read accounts of slavery in the United States, and histories of it, but I don't think I have ever read anything that delved so deeply into the mind and heart of an enslaved person. But this isn't just his story. It is also a searing indictment of the slave system, an unsparing account of its brutal realities. Douglass wrote about his fellow slaves, giving their names, stressing their humanity, recording them for history - just as he did their owners, recording their crimes. I am haunted by the night a young Frederick watched the brutal beating of his aunt, who had dared to choose a husband for herself. The sexual abuse of enslaved women is a constant theme in this section, and a poignant one given that Douglass's own father was a white man, and may have been his owner.
The second section, "Life as a Freeman," briefly recounts his escape. Douglass refused to give any details about how he escaped, because he did not want to implicate those who had helped him. But he also argued that publicizing the means by which slaves escaped made it that much harder for others, by putting slave-owners on alert - a point I hadn't considered before. This section deals only briefly with the abolitionist movement, and Douglass's later conflict with it. The longest chapter covers the 21 months that he spent in Great Britain, working with anti-slavery activists. During this time British friends purchased his freedom, to spare him from the threat of capture and re-enslavement, and also raised funds to allow him to start his newspaper. Douglass noted more than once the warm welcome and the equal treatment that he received among the British, in contrast to the racism that he and other African Americans faced in the northern United States.
Included at the end of My Bondage and My Freedom is a brief selection of Douglass's speeches and other writings, such as the ""Letter To His Old Master," written during his stay in Britain. I'd like to think that someone sent Thomas Auld a copy, though I doubt that Douglass's writings circulated in the southern states. I have since learned that his third autobiography, first published in 1881, covers his support of John Brown's raid, his relationship with Abraham Lincoln, his on-going challenge to racism in America, and his strong support for women's rights, among other topics. (Douglass attended the first women's rights convention, at Seneca Falls in 1848.) Life and Times of Frederick Douglass has already gone on my reading list. I have also learned that Penguin will publish a "Portable Frederick Douglass" of his essential writings later this year (coincidentally, just before my birthday).