My Bondage and My Freedom is a remarkable book. In appreciating it, one could take any number of approaches. Writing to an 1855 northern audience, Douglass takes the time to explain how slavery works: practically, psychologically, spiritually; and of course how it harms, again practically, psychologically, spiritually. The book is invaluable for that purpose, but I am more interested here in the man.
The turning point in Douglass’s life was his confrontation with Edward Covey, a man to whom he had been hired out to be broken. Douglass suffered under Covey for about six months, before one day confronting him physically:
Well, my dear reader, this battle with Mr. Covey—undignified as it was, and as I fear my narration of it is—was the turning point in my “life as a slave.” It rekindled in my breast the smouldering embers of liberty; it brought up my Baltimore dreams, and revived a sense of my own manhood. I was a changed being after that fight. I was nothing before; I WAS A MAN NOW. It recalled to life my crushed self-respect and my self-confidence, and inspired me with a renewed determination to be A FREEMAN. A man, without force, is without the essential dignity of humanity. Human nature is so constituted, that it cannot honor a helpless man, although it can pity him; and even this it cannot do long, if the signs of power do not arise. (emphases original)
This was, for Douglass, the point at which he stopped being a slave and became a man. He recorded a desire to be free from an early age, but this was the point at which he considered himself to have achieved it, in principle if not in fact.
I could wish for thirty million such experiences in the country where I live and work. People in this country are in the throes of the tribal-to-peasant transformation. The patron-client relationship is fundamental. Whether in the city or the village, they are looking for someone to take care of them.
And why would you work hard? If you fail, you fail. Why would you risk starting a business? The bribes, the cartels… If you succeed, everyone will hate you for succeeding, and your family will still take all your money. After all, if you get money, it’s because you’re taking it from someone else. The only honest advancement is through an NGO, which is the equivalent of winning the lottery.
When will people stand up and proclaim their freedom?
Of course, they wouldn’t call themselves slaves. And neither would we Westerners, though there are things which enslave us.
Back to Douglass. His transformation is all the more remarkable if we consider Douglass’s mental state. He describes quite clearly elsewhere in the book how, when well fed and well treated, his mind was constantly on escape. By contrast, when he was hungry and beaten, he could think only of his physical well being. He doesn’t actually draw attention to this point, but his moment of freedom occurs when he was physically weakest. All of his attention should have been on survival, and in spite of that he overcame himself, and overcame Covey.
So then. I am left filled with admiration for Frederick Douglass, but without a plan or a hope for this country. Douglass was influenced by two books in his time of bondage. One was the Bible. The other was The Columbian Orator, a collection of significant Enlightenment political speeches. Neither of those translates easily here.
Book review bits
As Wikipedia explains, MBMF is largely an expansion of Douglass’s earlier work, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. There’s a lot of repeated material in MBMF; today MBMF would probably count as a “revised and expanded” second edition, rather than a standalone work.
But the stories are just as good the second time. I read the Narrative about a year ago, and if anything it was like listening to my grandfather retell the same old, good stories. The new material has largely to do with his experiences in the United Kingdom, during two years of “semi-exile”; it was interesting, but not compelling.
One point of interest is Douglass’s religion. At the end of the Narrative there is a paragraph tacked on clarifying that he only meant to criticize hypocritical Christianity, not the true religion. I was left with an ambiguous feeling, because the explanation seemed… well, tacked-on. In MBMF, however, there was much greater focus on faith. He describes his conversion, and subsequent events in his faith life, in classic evangelical (Methodist) terms. There were plenty of biblical allusions that I just barely caught.
One wishes that English style had not changed so drastically in the last 150 years. I’ve read a good deal of 1800s prose, but the language was still a challenge for me. Here are the gems.
As one genuine bankbill is worth more than a thousand counterfeits, so is one man, with right on his side, worth more than a thousand in the wrong.
I, too, would invoke the spirit of patriotism; not in a narrow and restricted sense, but, I trust, with a broad and manly signification; not to cover up our national sins, but to inspire us with sincere repentance; not to hide our shame from the the(sic) world’s gaze, but utterly to abolish the cause of that shame; not to explain away our gross inconsistencies as a nation, but to remove the hateful, jarring, and incongruous elements from the land; not to sustain an egregious wrong, but to unite all our energies in the grand effort to remedy that wrong.
The man who has thoroughly embraced the principles of justice, love, and liberty, like the true preacher of Christianity, is less anxious to reproach the world of its sins, than to win it to repentance. His great work on earth is to exemplify, and to illustrate, and to ingraft those principles upon the living and practical understandings of all men within the reach of his influence. This is his work; long or short his years, many or few his adherents, powerful or weak his instrumentalities, through good report, or through bad report, this is his work.
To enslave men, successfully and safely, it is necessary to have their minds occupied with thoughts and aspirations short of the liberty of which they are deprived. A certain degree of attainable good must be kept before them.