From Bondage to Freedom
So, if you're reading this off your computer screen and can understand what I have to say, you should give yourself a pat on the back and consider that very, very few African American kids in the nineteenth century ever accomplished what you already have! Most of us take for granted the mere act of reading and writing and some may even see school as a grinding, crashing bore. Yet for one young boy in the late 1820s, attending school was something he couldn't even dream about and being able to read was what he yearned for most in the entire world. He probably wanted to read even more than you might want a Playstation 2.
Frederick Douglass grew up as a slave in Maryland not knowing what year he was born in (estimated around 1818), when exactly his birthday was (February sometime) or who his real father was (he suspected his white master). He saw his own mother only a handful of times before she died. At the age of six, he was taken away from his grandparents and sent to live with another master where he witnessed his aunt undergo terrible beatings and other acts of torture. But back then, he had no way to communicate either to himself or to other people just what he was experiencing. Fortunately, a move to Baltimore when he was eight would change that.
After moving, he befriended a pious Christian woman who began teaching Douglass how to read and write. As soon as her husband found out, he went nuts, shrieking, "A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world." Unfortunately, this view was commonplace as many slave owners operated under the illusion that their slaves were happy and content. If slaves had access to books, they might realize just how degrading life was as a slave and how they had been deprived of their basic human rights.
This fear proved a justified one, as Douglass's mind was already set on fire, even though his lessons had stopped. He became increasingly determined to accomplish what his master most feared. As he said, "That he most dreaded, that I most desired."
Now the story becomes the familiar legend of Frederick Douglass, the self-made slave who ran away to the North from his master around the age of 20. Though a fugitive slave, Douglass began speaking out publicly about the awful humiliation of being a slave in America. After being invited by white men who agreed with his cause, Douglass gave his first public speech in Nantucket, Massachusetts in 1841. William Lloyd Garrison declared it one of the most eloquent statements he had ever heard on the issue of slavery.
From there, he toured the world speaking up about human injustices past that of his own life. He spoke about a woman's right to vote, fairer treatment of Chinese Americans and more. Douglass devoted his entire life to the pursuit of one of the most basic of American rights: liberty for all.
There are indeed many, many amazing aspects to Frederick Douglass's life, a life that impacted nineteenth century America and the world like few others did. But the one overriding thing I take away from Douglass is the importance of reading and ideas. Everything he did was possible due to his sheer will for learning how to read.
Therefore, I feel that we can best honor Douglass's legacy by picking up a book and realizing what a precious gift we all have: the ability to know and understand another person's thoughts and visions through the power of the written word. Soak it in.
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Links to Other Dispatches
Daphne - All aboard the Underground Railroad
Kevin - Running from the "slavecatchers"
Kevin - A newspaper editor fights slavery with words