From the Bookshelf: My Bondage and My Freedom, by Fredrick Douglas

My first memory of a peer of African-American descent comes from elementary school. Sammy. That is about it. We grew up in tract-home, suburban, white, middle-class, college educated, California. Sammy was athletic. OJ Simpson and Muhammad Ali were sports heroes. I was small and the last to be picked for any physical education team game. Sammy & I had little to bring us together. When we left the insulated neighborhood school, to progress into middle and high school, with students coming from “those neighborhoods” (aka apartment complexes, where people of color lived), I lost track of Sammy.

This was in the 1960’s. The 1970’s came along, and so did Alex Haley’s, TV mini-series, “Roots” (it was a book too, but I did not know this for some years). It was aired mostly after my bed-time, and this was way before Cable-TV 24 hour rebroadcasts, so I only saw bits and pieces of it. I remember OJ Simpson running around a field with a loincloth in one of the opening scenes. Most of the rest of my exposure and education of the African-American experience came from movies and TV shows (if “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons” could be considered educational). I suspect that most of the images that we in the USA have of our history, including slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and civil rights era come from movies. While this has an emotional appeal, stories, literature, and cinema focus on presenting a perspective on events. These narratives should not be taken as any more factual than a Shakespeare history play (playing to the Tudor patrons, are we?).

So, a few months ago, after we gasped with George Floyd, and our naivety seemed to die with him, I heard from family, friends, and social media images of African-Americans, “It’s not my job to educate you (white folks)… go do your own research.”

Liking to believe that I want to learn history, and being willing to expose myself to perspectives other than my own narrative, over the years I have collected a number of books by African-American authors. These have collected in my reading queue with a constant reminder, “I really want to devote my self to that book… one of these days.”

So, as I watched various national, and local Black Lives Matter marches unfold, and saw the counter sides rally in opposition (I happened to drive through a little town in Virginia 30 minutes after one event to see two self-appointed militia groups in trucks and motor cycles brazenly displaying AR15’s and fist bumping each other without masks after a BLM rally organized by… high school students), I decided to retreat to my comfort zone and start reading.

Fredrick Douglas’s memoir, “My Bondage and My Freedom” was my starting point. I read the 1855 edition. My first response as I waded into Mr. Douglas’ childhood memories of his family and growing up in slavery was, “how did he get away with writing this before the Civil War???”.

Now, I am biased toward 19th century oratory. Mr. Douglas met every expectation for writing eloquently. Much of what he composed into his written account came from lectures that he gave, after he has escaped north, was solicited by abolitionist organizers, and went on the road to describe his experience. Thus, one would do well to read his account out loud, or at least passages. They roll off the tongue with grace.

And, for all the rage that one might have toward the lived experience of bondage, grace is a concept that can take that rage and bring transformation.

As I read Mr. Douglas’ account of how he educated himself and his peers how to read and write (collecting the discard writing boards of their white child charges, and practicing writing Bible passages), using the limited existing laws to develop his skills and work contacts (contracting with is owner to hand over his wages for agreed upon hours per week, then working a second job after hours to save money), and eventual escape from the Chesapeake Bay region to New York City (details withheld to protect other slaves seeking an exit route), I thought that this would be a great teaching manual for anyone defying authority and accepted cultural norms. Reading “My Bondage and My Freedom” could be a BLM play-book.

Mr. Douglas’ intent was to destroy the institution of slavery. I suspect that he contributed to this event in history, though maybe not in the way he would have imagined or preferred. Gaining freedom and acceptance, to develop new ways of living are much more difficult matters. I expect that we, and the BLM folks, will be figuring this out for decades to come.

What’s next to read? Hmmm. I recently saw a cartoon, written by an African-American cartoonist, that mentioned “Red Summer”. Hmmmm. I wonder what that is about. Something to do with 1919. Let’s move from 1855 to 1919, only a hundred years ago.

About hermitsdoor

Up here in the mountains, we have a saying, "You can't get there from here", which really means "We wouldn't go the trouble to do that". Another concept is that "If you don't know, we ain't telling." For the rest, you'll have to read between the lines.
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8 Responses to From the Bookshelf: My Bondage and My Freedom, by Fredrick Douglas

  1. I, too, like nineteenth-century oratory. Also, there are many, many fine contemporary African-American writers. For book group, I just read “The Revisioners” by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton. Highly recommended and sure did encourage lots of discussion about race in America.

  2. Margaret Marshall says:

    I too read Frederick Douglas’s book during the Black Lives Matter demonstrations – a very clear and beautifully written description of why they do matter so much. Required reading for everyone, Thanks for sharing. mm

  3. Hey Cuz – I started a bit later in history than you, with my favorite Jacob Lawrence paintings and interpretations. Now, on to Jackie Robinson’s autobiography when Bruce is done with it. I like Laurie’s suggestion, too. Take care – your Cuz

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