Sunday, February 25, 2018

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845)

Another slave narrative that was shorter than I expected—about a hundred printed pages. Frederick Douglass (who is being recognized more and more) escaped from slavery in Maryland when he was about 20, and then lived a long life as an abolitionist leader and statesman. This was written in 1845, when he was in his late 20s. Already his voice is different from the previous narratives in my chronological reading, much more authoritatively intellectual, and also an impatient man of action. Most refreshing for me was his scorn of religion—even specifying all Christianity in North America. His contempt is bracing, and tonic. You feel the rage of a man toward slaveholders, earned through personal experience. And, as seems common with many who survived to write, his experience is mild compared to many. For a long time, as a boy, Douglass was able to escape the brutality of lashings and beatings, but not always. One interesting insight he has is the transformation of a couple who had never owned slaves and then inherited some. As always, it's striking how casually slaves are treated explicitly as property. Some of the dehumanizing treatment, such as the separation of family members, seemed aimed at exactly that—dehumanizing them to make them better workers. Douglass's arguments are interesting, reminiscent of anti-torture arguments people make now, about how the dehumanization occurs on both sides, on the torturer as well as the tortured, on the slaveholder as much as the slave. It's probably true but it's hard to understand because it's counterintuitive. So Douglass describes the couple who inherit slaves as originally kind and decent who gradually become monsters of their household. Spanking children is still defended today, so it's not hard to imagine how people rationalized abusing slaves. It was doubtless for the good of the slaves and all that. I think this narrative has to be particularly taken as coming with an agenda, but I also suspect there's little exaggeration. Again, simple facts such as the inability of slaves to testify as witnesses in legal proceedings—precluded from it by law—give the game away. Why would you have a statute like that? And more importantly, can you imagine the power that would give you over another person? What actually surprises me most in these narratives (after the bald facts of slavery itself) are the numbers of decent white people who actually have the courage to act. The majorities in the 19th century who went along with slavery look more like the sad victims of human psychology we see today believing every word of Fox News. Treating slaves as reasonably valuable property, say the value of a car today, is exactly what made the problem so intractable for white majorities over and over again. Not to mention the racism, of course. This is one of the best ones I've read yet.

In case it's not at the library. (Library of America)

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