The Narrative of the
Life of Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass was a child of rape. Shortly after his birth, he was separated from his mother and the rest of his family, as was customary. He watched his grandmother be sent into exile to die alone, after a life of toil and generations of child-rearing on both sides of the plantation. Douglass could only muster a modicum of feeling upon hearing of the death of his own mother, so much had he been torn from any notion of family. Though Douglass spent most of his time in bondage as a house slave, he bore witness to the horrors of the plantation. When his time came to live in the field, he was beaten regularly and forced to live outside with only a cotton shirt. He describes in vivid detail the conditions of that life, famously telling us that the cracks in his feet were so large that they could hold the very pen with which he now writes. He tells of torture and murder as a constant lurking threat, the terror of which at times overcame the physical punishment itself, that terror serving as the twisted motivation to keep working. For all intents and purposes, the plantation was a death camp akin to those we have witnessed in the twentieth century. Douglass’ narratives persist as heroic testimonies to our shame.
The spark of Douglass’ salvation arrived when one of his mistresses, Mrs. Auld, taught him to read. This too was a traumatic moment for Douglass, as his growing awareness of his condition and the broader conditions of American slavery caused such inner turmoil that he would wish at times that he had never opened a book. But his new vision was so vivid that he realized his destiny, which is the destiny of all people - to be free. In A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, we encounter the dramatic climax, in which Douglass, only sixteen years old, fights back, subduing his overseer Mr. Covey in a two-hour hand-to-hand battle. From there, Douglass carefully finalizes his plan (which, for the safety of his friends, he never fully reveals to the reader), and gains his freedom in the North. Without his initial education, it may not have happened. Do not underestimate the power of a book.
Freedom in the North was still precarious. If you have seen 12 Years a Slave, then you know that at any moment a bounty hunter could arrive and once again deliver you to hell. This reality makes Douglass’ choices all the more heroic. He could have lived anonymously and supported himself and his wife. He would have been safe in his freedom. Instead, Douglass almost immediately set himself to the task of broader freedom, knowing that freedom from physical bondage is only the beginning of the struggle. His subsequent life as an activist for abolition embodies Toni Morrison’s advice to her students: “Your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.” Not content to live free for himself, Douglass devoted his life - and risked everything, including a fate worse than death - to his “real job” of freeing others: the black slave, the white master, and the complacent white Northerner.
How many like Frederick Douglass have we lost to the void because of our systematic brutality? How much genius and love have we sacrificed in the name of “progress”? When a person’s life matters less, when a person becomes invisible to us, we lose an opportunity to grow closer to our own freedom. Consider what Douglass had to do simply to be counted among the ranks of the human. Americans love the rags-to-riches underdog story. But only if it fits neatly into our broader story of who we think we are. Frederick Douglass, and countless of his kin, were not counted as part of the American story. We look around today, and we realize how many of our fellow citizens desire that our black brothers and sisters not be counted as part of the story. And so the struggle continues. In your freedom, how will you free others? In your power, how will you empower others?
Brian Chappell, Mouse Editor