Saturday, October 2, 2010
Narrative of a "Chattel"
I have been greatly moved in reading the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass(1845). It is a masterful adventure, commentary on deplorable social condition and argument on the true Christianity versus the false.
Frederick, born into slavery, did not know his actual date of birth; neither the identity of his father (suspected to be white). His early days were spent on a substantial Maryland farm estate where hierarchy was so significant that Owner seldom knew slave, nor Property his Possessor. As a young child Frederick witnessed the harsh working conditions, the scant diet, the whippings, the dissipation of the permitted "holidays", the humiliation of the men-servants, the constant belittling of their contributions, the base exploitation of the more attractive women, the intensifying evil and deceit of the hired taskmaster and the pervasive fear of being sold away.
By way of separation on the estate his family ties became insignificant. An early assignment to a young and inexperienced mistress proved promising with even basic lessons of reading and writing offered. Regrettably through exposure to the inhumane institution of slavery this mistress was blackened to a condition more wicked and fickle than most of her peers. With relief Frederick was sold off.
A number of farming situations followed, but because of the reading skill something had been deposited in the teenager which yearned for discovery, self-determination and freedom. In this fashion he proved "uppety" and was leased out to a poorer farmer known to be an accomplished "slave-breaker". The one-year tenure almost killed Frederick. Given next to no instruction, he was severely abused for mishaps which occurred on the job. One day a fellow slave took him to the bush and showed him a "root with magical powers". He swore that he always wore a piece on his person and had never been beaten again thanks to this token. Frederick was willing to give it a try, and surprisingly met with some early success. But then came the day of testing when the Master came on again to "get hold of him". His disappointment and shock gave rise to an unexpected response...resistance, and that right forcefully. The cowardly slave-breaker never tried it again. (Although wicked laws were on his side, his reputation could not bear the shame of having been mastered by one of the "brutish darkies". He told no one of his beating.)
A new assignment took Frederick to shipyards in Baltimore where he gained skill as a caulker, but saw next to none of the rewards after pay-day. On sabbaths he would wander the shore of Chesapeake Bay and watch the ships with bulging sail heading for exciting and mysterious destinations at will. No such liberty for this bond-servant!
Friends were made through a Sunday school class as Frederick gave reading instruction to others. Plans were examined for escape. But treachery on the part of a fellow slave resulted in discovery, arrest, inquisition and ultimately the selling off of Frederick, that "difficult Mulatto".
Approaching in the narrative his twentieth year and the time of his escape (September 3, 1838), the author refuses to give details of the help rendered him through the underground railway. Although Godly men and women were worthy of commendation he would not jeopardize the escape of many of his enslaved brethren by giving details. He finds himself in New York, bustling and full of strangeness, threatenings and the risk of being captured by bounty hunters and returned to captivity.
His sponsors conclude that the placement is inappropriate and they arrange for his transport to New Bedford, Massachusetts with new wife Anna at his side. In this sea-faring community he is shocked and strangely wounded by a new discovery. These enterprising northerners, without benefit of that dark institution, are prospering. Masters back home had always described a freezing, struggling, starving Northern economy. Just one more wicked lie added to the heap by those "men-stealers, adulterers, thieves and Gospel hypocrites".
Ship-building work does not come easily to this new arrival and he opts over the next three years to apply his hand to whatever task, no matter how lowly. He now has
initiative. He reaps rewards to be kept. His reputation has become a thing of meaning. His wife and promise of family are rocks of stability and hope.
Soon editions of the Abolitionist press will come into his hands. Soon he will be invited to give his modest but impassioned testimony at gatherings. Soon he will meet William Lloyd Garrison. Soon will arise the Great Conflict (1861-1865) and his little 76 page document will come to the White House and that tall, dark champion from Illinois.
This is a wonderful book, beautifully and dramatically written. It speaks strong, convincing words against any form of oppression or unfair advantage.