Monday, June 19, 2017

Emancipation Day, 2017

My Bondage and My Freedom – Frederick Douglass

Born a slave, Frederick Douglass (1818 - 1895) escaped in 1838 and became a key figure in the Abolitionist movement. My Bondage and My Freedom was his second memoir, written in 1855 as an expanded version of his best-selling autobiography of 1845. I have no reservation recommending this book to readers with an interest in antebellum America, race-based chattel slavery, the Abolitionist movement, social reform in the US, or memoirs of great Americans.

Douglass examines the baleful effects of slavery from many angles and in so doing demolishes pro-slavery arguments. For instance, in 2012, Arkansas state legislator Jon Hubbard, a Republican, argued that blacks received a better quality of life as slaves in the U.S. than they would have had they stayed in Africa.  Douglas reports that in fact slaves are poorly clothed, fed, and sheltered and that their lives are in constant peril of violence, torture, and sexual exploitation. To the argument that slaves are kindly taken care of in their old age, he tells the story of his own grandmother:

[H]er present owners finding she was of but little value, her frame already racked with the pains of old age, and complete helplessness fast stealing over her once active limbs, they took her to the woods, built her a little hut, put up a little mud-chimney, and then made her welcome to the privilege of supporting herself there in perfect loneliness; thus virtually turning her out to die!

Douglass argues that slave-holders sold husbands and wives to different owners and tore babies from their mothers as deliberate policy. Breaking up families “is in harmony with the grand aim of slavery, which, always and everywhere, is to reduce man to a level with the brute. It is a successful method of obliterating from the mind and heart of the slave, all just ideas of the sacredness of the family, as an institution.”

Douglass paints a frightening picture of the total absence of law, of civil society, in slave states: “That plantation is a little nation of its own, having its own language, its own rules, regulations and customs. The laws and institutions of the state, apparently touch it nowhere.” Slavery also had a bad effect on slave owners and their families:

The poor slave, on his hard, pine plank, but scantily covered with his thin blanket, sleeps more soundly than the feverish voluptuary who reclines upon his feather bed and downy pillow. Food, to the indolent lounger, is poison, not sustenance. Lurking beneath all their dishes, are invisible spirits of evil, ready to feed the self-deluded gormandizers which aches, pains, fierce temper, uncontrolled passions, dyspepsia, rheumatism, lumbago and gout; and of these the Lloyds got their full share. To the pampered love of ease, there is no resting place. What is pleasant today, is repulsive tomorrow; what is soft now, is hard at another time; what is sweet in the morning, is bitter in the evening. Neither to the wicked, nor to the idler, is there any solid peace: "Troubled, like the restless sea."

Throughout the book, Douglass takes jabs at the work ethic that was undermined by slavery. Farms are shabby, workmanship shoddy. For all the talk of refinement and genteel manners, people are careless, stupid, ill-informed, angry, short-tempered, lacking in foresight, paranoid, and never seeing anybody outside a narrow world of uncouth stressed relatives and impatient vulgar cronies. Not to mention the whole system has to be propped up with an army of thugs such as overseers, slave breakers,  and hired kidnappers.

Ashley Wilkes, my red Indian ass. 

Race-based chattel slavery lowered and tainted everything it touched. It caused psychological, social, and economic damage. Douglass pulls no punches: “While slavery exists, and the union of these states endures, every American citizen must bear the chagrin of hearing his country branded before the world as a nation of liars and hypocrites; and behold his cherished flag pointed at with the utmost scorn and derision.”

1 comment:

  1. Wow, that is an excellent review! I need to read this and his Narrative of the Life...

    I appreciate the Ashley Wilkes reference too. I read GWTW too young and need to revisit it with a more knowledgeable perspective.