Yesterday I read Frederick Douglass’ autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, An American Slave, and yesterday, Barack Obama was sworn in as our 44th president. Did you know that Douglass was the first black man to receive a vote for President of the United States? (Yes, he was, in 1888 at the Republican National Convention). That vote and the years he spent as a great orator and champion of human and civil rights (work that would pave the way not only for Barack’s achievements but for those of women and other disenfranchised members of American society) were still ahead of him when he wrote his narrative in 1845.
Just twenty-eight years old and still legally a slave, Douglass lived under constant threat of being seized and sent back south, back to “hell” as he described it. He wrote this Narrative to explain slavery to the North and to the World, and his writing exhibits a wisdom and maturity beyond his years. His approaches to issues such as torture and religion, and their use (abuse) in strengthening the institution of slavery, at high cost to all involved, are especially powerful.
Douglass was witness to whippings, floggings, and bloody beatings of other slaves, and he was brought under the whip himself. Douglass describes these incidents succinctly but spares no details of the pain and humiliation of the slave, and of the power sadistically and subjectively exercised by the master or overseer. It was a power used to terrorize and subjugate and most importantly to dehumanize the slave. But Douglass notes that the dehumanizing efforts were felt by both sides, white and black. The white punisher became corrupted — even with a “kind” master, Douglass perceived that the ability to punish and control at will brought out the ugly and the evil in any who held that power — and less than human, and the beaten-upon slave became terrorized and deprived of human dignity. The parallel can be drawn to government-authorized torture: giving one man the power of such humility and pain over another man is corrupting to the one while agonizing to the other, and dehumanizing to both.
Douglass condemns the Christian churches that allowed the ownership of blacks by whites: he hated “the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.” He found that the most outwardly religious masters were also the most cruel and writes that all his masters found “religious sanction for their cruelty”, quoting scripture such as, “He that knoweth his master’s will, and doeth it not shall be beaten with many stripes.” Luke, 12:47). He describes Christians who demonstrate “Pharisaical strictness to the outward form of religion, and at the same time neglect…judgment, mercy, and faith. They are always ready to sacrifice, but seldom to show mercy. They are …represented as professing to love God whom they have not seen, whilst they hate their brother whom they have seen.” Instructive words, particularly, given the religiosity that has been injected into today’s controversial constitutional issues. We no longer allow states to prevent people of different races from marrying each other (as of 1967) but we still give states the power to prohibit marriages between people of the same gender. Do such prohibitions dehumanize? Can scripture be quoted to support such dehumanization? Should scripture set the parameters of Constitutional protections? Yes, yes, and a resounding no!
The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas is harrowing, humbling, and inspiring. Harrowing for the extreme deprivations and tortures, physical and mental that Douglass suffered as a slave, literally from birth. Humbling because of Douglass’ acute intelligence and burning will that allowed him to survive slavery and understand slavery; in the face of the dehumanizing institution, he exalted in his humanity and was determined to exercise it. Inspiring because he followed through on that determination: born a slave with no prospects of bettering his life, when briefly exposed to education (before his master stopped the simple lessons: an educated slave was a dangerous one), he quickly realized that his freedom would come through knowledge, and he taught himself to read and write. He sought to spread his knowledge to other slaves and when he came North, to anyone who would listen, knowing he was sowing the seeds of empowerment and freedom.
Frederick Douglass understood in the year 1845 that freedom and justice and mercy are more than just words to throw around. Just twenty-eight years old, self-taught and heavily scarred mentally and physically from slavery, Douglas knew that freedom and justice and mercy are the backbone of a good and decent society, the bedrock of government by humans for humans, and never a luxury but always a necessity.
Read this book.