I didn’t mean to read this one right now, because Gulliver’s Travels is next on the list, but I picked it up and couldn’t put it down. I like a good first person narrative, and this one really knocked me out. The book follows the life of Frederick Douglass from his birth to the point where he had successfully escaped to the north to begin his life as a free man. The story is heartbreaking and inspirational and truly extraordinary.
Douglass begins by telling us he doesn’t know the day, month, or year of his birth, having been robbed of the identifying information most of us take for granted. He only knew his mother slightly, and believed he was the son of a white master. But all of this is murky for him, not because it occurred when he was young, but because slaves are not afforded the human dignity of family. It is the first of many dignities of which Douglass is robbed.
The book follows him to his various masters. He begins life on a plantation, which sounds as cruel and awful as can be. He spent his young years free from most cares, running and playing around the plantation, but once he was old enough to work his life became one of constant toil and misery, and he experienced exhaustion, hunger, pain, and injustice on a daily basis. The slaves on a plantation are run by the driver, cruel men who manage with a fierce discipline that comes at the end of a whip, where the belief in setting an example leads in many cases to capricious punishment and no sense of order or justice for the slaves except pain.
Following his years on the plantation, Douglass is sent to Baltimore to live with the plantation-owner’s relative and he enters a very different world, with regular meals, proper clothes, and at least a pretense of dignity. It is here that he is given an opportunity by his new master’s wife to learn the rudiments of written language, as she teaches him his alphabet and some 3 and 4 letter words. This instruction ceases abruptly when the master catches wind of this, and scolds his wife for attempting to educate a slave. He says that once you teach a slave how to think, he ceases to be a slave. And for Frederick Douglass, this could not have been more true.
From that point on, he dedicates himself to learning to educating himself, and to finding a means of escape. He learns to read by cajoling local white boys to teach him bit by bit, hiding the odd newspaper away to peruse in the spare moment, and he learns to write using a stick in the dirt. And in this way, he eventually becomes quite proficient in both. Of all the book, this feat struck me as the most amazing, that a man in such a position could take it upon himself to learn to read and write. Many struggle with patient instruction, but here was a man who taught himself, despite it being dangerous for him to do so.
However, this life in Baltimore comes to an abrupt end, when he is sent back to another plantation and made to work in the fields once more. However, his years in the city have made him clumsy at his work, and his education has made him impudent, so his master sends him for a year to live with a farmer who is renowned for breaking slaves, so that Douglass can get a proper slave’s education on how to behave.
This begins the worst six months of his life, under the mastery of a cruel despot of a man, who seemed to take pleasure not merely whipping the slaves bloody, but in keeping them so off-kilter that they never felt secure at any moment day or night. He delighted in sneaking up on the slaves unaware, to catch them at idleness, and he would whip for one infraction one day and its opposite the next. There was no pleasing him, and that was the point. After a year with this man, any slave would return to his master docile and relieved.
For Douglass, however, he finds the resolve here to defy this master. He decides that he will life or die as a man, but will no longer be whipped as an animal. He may take blows but he will return them blow for blow, no matter the outcome. And it doesn’t take long for him to get his chance, and soon enough he and his master are at grips in a struggle that lasts for hours. In the end, the master gives up, and decides to leave well enough alone because he is afraid of ruining his reputation as a slave breaker. So Douglass was able to break the master rather than the other way around.
From there, the narrative focuses on his attempts to escape. He creates a detailed plan to escape with several of his fellow slaves, but the word gets out and he’s stopped before he can even start. And then, luckily, he is then not sent to Georgia, where escape would be all but impossible, but back to Baltimore. He resumes a life of relative ease, but he is unable to accept slavery in any form, and ultimately he makes his escape north, to a life of freedom.
The book is an incredible testament to the determination of a man to be a man, to refuse his fate as chattel and instead to build a life of dignity one way or another. His determination to read and his standing up to his master strike me as two incredible acts of courage, which most men couldn’t dream of doing, and the entire book shows the incredible power of the human will. Douglass was an extraordinary man, and his story here is an eloquent proof of the life of courage he led.