The life of Frederick Douglass

I gave myself a goal of reading a book a month which is pretty weak but still. For February, I chose the Life of Frederick Douglass.

As a history teacher I have plenty of general knowledge about slavery in the south, the history of the west African slave trade, Jim Crow era laws and the civil rights movement, and yet, nothing compares to reading the words of a man who was born and lived as the property of others. It’s horrifying.

I value every word the man wrote in the narrative of his life. They are true and they are powerful in a way that words written by those who did not survive such horrors cannot reach.

I immediately felt the book’s impact in the same way Night moved me emotionally. Each is merely a narrative of a survivor of something evil. Each has a tremendous affect.

For me, among the many aspects of the narrative that were powerful, the descriptions and insights Douglas provides into the very nature of chattel slavery and its impact on both slave and master were particularly impactful.

If I understand Douglas’ insights correctly, slavery in the south destroyed the spirits of both slave and master. Slave for obvious reasons, but master too because it seems one cannot be virtuous, loving, empathetic and kind while also dominating another human.

I was reminded of a line from a short story by George Orwell “Shooting an Elephant” which describes the tension and expectations between the empire and the colony. Orwell wrote, “when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys.”

In being a slave owner, one became evil by the simple fact that one owned another human. And since humans prefer generally to express free will and make their own destiny, one must be a tyrant in order to maintain the dynamic. Pure tragedy. Pure horror.

I highly recommend the work to any who have not read it. It is profound. I dare say that you cannot read it without gaining insight and understanding into the slavery system which perpetuated in the southern states for generations.

I celebrate the bravery, inspiration and tenacity of Frederick Douglas. Few have lived who have as much character as that man.

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