Book: “My Bondage and My Freedom”
Author: Frederick Douglas (Edited by William L. Andrews)
Published: 1987 (originally printed 1855)
Why I Read this Book: After reading “The American Slave Coast”, I really wanted to read some more books that delve deeper into the realities and impacts of slavery in America. One of the people referenced in that book several times is Frederick Douglas, who is known as one of the most prolific writers on the topic of slavery. He was born into slavery in Maryland, lived on a plantation, later lived as a personal slave in Baltimore to a wife and husband, eventually escaped to the North where he lived as a “free” man, travelled to London, and finally was able to purchase his freedom and finish his life in the United States, working tirelessly for the emancipation and elevation of the African American peoples. With such a compelling story, I decided to pick up one of his books, titled “My Bondage and My Freedom”, which is an autobiography of his life detailing his many soul-stirring experiences. Excellent read!
Frederick Douglas was an amazingly inspiring human being and is such an important historical figure in American history! In a time when the common belief was that black slaves were inferior and sub-human to whites, Douglas was a shining example that this way of thinking was utterly erroneous.
In the book’s introduction, James McCune Smith states of Frederick Douglas:
“When a man raises himself from the lowest condition in society to the highest, mankind pays him the tribute of their admiration; when he accomplishes this elevation by native energy, guided by prudence and wisdom, their admiration is increased; but when his course, onward and upward, excellent in itself, furthermore proves a possible, what had hitherto been regarded as an impossible, reform, then he becomes a burning and a shining light on which the aged may look with gladness, the young with hope, and the down-trodden, as a representative of what they may themselves become. To such a man, dear reader, it is my privilege to introduce you.”
And here are some of the concepts that most struck me while reading Douglas’s autobiography…
#10InterestingInsights from “My Bondage and My Freedom.
1) Douglas recalls how the reality of being a “slave” didn’t hit him until he was about 8 years old.
“The first seven or eight years of the slave-boy’s life are about as full of sweet content as those of the most favored and petted white children of the slaveholder. The slave-boy escapes many troubles which befall and vex his white brother. He seldom has to listen to lectures on propriety of behavior, or anything else. He is never chided for handling his little knife and fork improperly or awkwardly, for he uses none. He is never reprimanded for soiling or tearing his clothes, for he has almost none to soil or tear. He is never expected to act like a nice little gentleman for he is only a rude little slave. Thus, freed from all restraint, the slave-boy can be in his life and conduct, a genuine boy, doing whatever his boyish nature suggests… He literally runs wild.”
2) Slavery systematically obscured each slave’s understanding of history in order to manipulate their context of who they were and why they were a slave.
“Genealogical trees do not flourish among slaves… I never met a slave who could tell me how old he was… masters generally allowed no questions to be put to him by which a slave might learn his age.”
“I was a slave – born a slave – and though the fact was incomprehensible to me, it conveyed to my mind a sense of my entire dependence on the will of somebody I had never seen… Born for another’s benefit…”
“There is not, beneath the sky, an enemy to filial affection so destructive as slavery. It had made my brothers and sisters strangers to me; it converted the mother that bore me, into a myth; it shrouded my father in mystery, and left me without an intelligible beginning in the world.”
3) Slavery systematically destroyed the institution of the family.
“The practice of separating children from their mothers, and hiring the latter out at distances too great to admit of their meeting, except at long intervals, is a marked feature of the cruelty and barbarity of the slave system. But it is in harmony with the grand aim, which, always and everywhere, is to reduce man to a level with the brute. It is a successful method of obliterating from the mind and heart of the slave, all just ideas of the sacredness of the family, as an institution.”
“Brothers and sisters were my blood; but slavery had made us strangers… My poor mother, like many other slave-women, had many children, but no family!”
“I cannot say that I was very deeply attached to my mother; certainly not so deeply as I should have been had our relations in childhood been different. We were separated, according to the common custom, when I was but an infant, and, of course, before I knew my mother from any one else.”
“I say nothing of father, for he is shrouded in a mystery I have never been able to penetrate. Slavery does away with fathers, as it does away with families.”
“The slave-mother can be spared long enough from the field to endure all the bitterness of a mother’s anguish, when it adds another name to a master’s ledger, but not long enough to receive the joyous reward afforded by the intelligent smiles her child.”
“I tell but the simple truth… I received the tidings of [my mother’s] death with no strong emotions of sorrow for her, and with very little regret for myself on account of her loss. I had to learn the value of my mother long after her death, and by witnessing the devotion of other mothers to their children.”
4) Douglas argues that both the slave AND slaveholder were victims of slavery.
“[Douglas’s old master, Captain Anthony] was not by nature, worse than other men. Had he been brought up in a free state, surrounded by the just restraints of free society – restraints which are necessary to the freedom of all its members, alike and equally – Capt. Anthony might have been as humane a man, and every way as respectable, as many who oppose the slave system… The slaveholder, as well as the slave, is the victim of the slave system… Reason is imprisoned here, and passions run wild.”
“There is more truth in the saying, that slavery is a greater evil to the master than to the slave, than many, who utter it, suppose.”
5) Religion was one of the most oppressive tools used to justify and perpetuate slavery.
“…I learned that ‘God up in the sky,’ made every body; and that he made white people to be masters and mistresses, and black people to be slaves… that God was good and that He knew what was best for me, and best for everybody.”
“I have met many religious colored people, at the south, who are under the delusion that God requires them to submit to slavery, and to wear their chains with meekness and humility.”
“I assert most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the south – as I have observed it and proved it – is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes; the justifier of the most appalling barbarity; a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds; and secure shelter, under which the darkest, foulest, grosses, and most infernal abominations fester and flourish… Religious slaveholders, like religious persecutors, are ever extreme in their malice and violence.”
“Let the reader reflect upon the fact, that, in this christian country, men and women [who were slaves in the south] are hiding from professors of religion, in barns, in the woods and fields, in order to learn to read the holy bible.”
6) Despite the indoctrination of slavery, from a young age, Douglas was always critically examining slavery, seems to have always known/felt that slavery was wrong, and always aspired to be free.
“Why am I slave? Why are some people slaves, and others masters? Was there ever a time when this was not so? How did the relation commence? These were the perplexing questions which began now to claim my thoughts, and to exercise the weak powers of my mind, for I was still but a child, and knew less than children of the same age in the free states.”
“I could have been more than seven or eight years old, when I began to make this subject [slavery] my study…I distinctly remember being, even then, most strongly impressed with being a freeman some day.”
7) Douglas had a deep love for learning, and education/literacy was one of the main factors that helped Douglas on his journey to liberation. The majority of slaves were systematically denied access to education in order to keep them ignorant and inhibit any aspirations for freedom.
“I learned, after my mother’s death, that she could read, and that she was the only one of all the slaves and colored people in Tuckahoe who enjoyed that advantage… I am quite willing, and even happy, to attribute any love of letters I possess…to the native genius of my sable, unprotected, and uncultivated mother – a woman, who belonged to a race whose mental endowments it is, at present, fashionable to hold in disparagement and contempt.”
“The frequent hearing of my mistress [Miss Sophia, the wife of Douglas’s master while he was a house slave in Baltimore as a teenager] reading the bible…soon awakened my curiosity in respect to this mystery of reading, and roused in me the desire to learn… I frankly asked her to teach me to read; and, without hesitation, the dear woman began the task, and very soon, by her assistance, I was master of the alphabet, and could spell words of three, or four letters.”
“Mr Auld (Miss Sophia’s husband, and Douglas’s master) promptly forbade the continuance of her instruction… he said ‘if you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell;’ ‘he should know nothing but the will of his master, and learn to obey it.’ ‘Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world;’ ‘if you teach that nigger [referring to Douglas] how to read the bible, there will be no keeping him.’ ‘it would forever unfit him for the duties of a slave,’ and ‘as to himself, learning would do him no good, but probably, a great deal of harm – making him disconsolate and unhappy.’ ‘If you learn him now to read, he’ll want to know how to write; and, this accomplished, he’ll be running away with himself.’”
“From that moment [referring to the previous quote] I understood the direct pathway from slavery to freedom.”
“Seized with a determination to learn to read, at any cost, I hit upon many expedients to accomplish the desired end. The plea which I mainly adopted, and the one by which I was most successful, was that of using my young white playmates, with whom I met in the street, as teachers.”
“I…wanted a Sabbath school, in which to exercise my gifts, and to impart the little knowledge of letter which I possessed, to my brother slaves.”
8) Douglas offers some examples that indicate the amazing spiritual capacity and keen sense of justice of young people in the stage of early adolescence (a population I presently work closely with, that I refer to as “junior youth”).
“I do not remember ever to have met a boy, while I was in slavery, who defended the slave system; but I have often had boys to console me, with the hope that something would yet occur by which I might be made free. Over and over again, they have told me that ‘they believed I had as good a right to be free as they had,’ and that ‘they did not believe God ever made any one to be a slave.’
“I was not more than thirteen years old, when I felt the need of God, as a father and protector.”
9) Douglas referenced his anticipation of the return of the Promised One which is spoken of in the Bible, which Baha’is, like myself, believe was the appearance of the Divine Messengers of The Bab and Baha’u’llah (which happened during the lifetime of Douglas).
“1833… was the year, also, of that strange phenomenon, when the heavens seemed about to part with its starry train. I witnessed this gorgeous spectacle, and was awe-struck. The air seemed filled with bright, descending messengers from the sky. It was about daybreak when I saw this sublime scene. I was not without the suggestion, at the moment, that it might be the harbinger of the coming of the Son of Man; and, in my then state of mind, I was prepared to hail Him as my friend and deliverer. I had read, that the ‘stars shall fall from heaven,’ and they were now falling. I was suffering much in my mind. It did seem that every time the young tendrils of my attention become attached, they were rudely broken by some unnatural outside power; and I was beginning to look away to heaven for the rest denied me on earth.”
10) Douglas felt that one of the best ways to end slavery in the South was to elevate the character/status of the free colored people of the North.
“Believing that one of the best means of emancipating the slaves of the south is to improve and elevate the character of the free colored people of the north I shall labor in the future, as I have labored in the past, to promote the moral, social, religious, and intellectual elevation of the free colored people; never forgetting my own humble origin, nor refusing, while Heaven lends me ability, to use my voice, my pen, or my vote, to advocate the great and primary work of the universal and unconditional emancipation of my entire race.”
Closing Thoughts: This is such a great book to get insight into one of the great minds and souls of the 1800’s, as well as a feel for the life of a person of color in the South, and North, during that time period. Frederick Douglas does such an excellent job of weaving in his personal experience and reflections, historical facts, compelling anecdotes, and analysis of systems and society, that keep you engaged throughout the entire book. His keen sense of justice and honesty are also very captivating. I’d definitely recommend giving this book a read!
If you have any thoughts, please leave a comment!
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