In 1845, Frederick Douglass published his powerful story of personal experience as an enslaved Black man. When it was published, white American society had a hard time accepting that something so transcendent could have been written by a Black man.
Douglass experienced the absolute baseness of humanity firsthand, saw the pleasure taken by slave masters from owning people, and further witnessed the pride taken in the barbarity of abusing their ‘property’. The extent to which Black men, women and children were treated as such showed Douglass (and shows us all) the fact that slavery was an above-the-law institution, its sole purpose the continued dehumanization and control of Black people.
There is a pivotal moment in Douglass’ life when he moves from the plantation of his youth to serve in the house of a white couple in Baltimore. The mistress teaches him rudimentary English basics, the master becomes furious upon discovering this illicit education, vocalizing his fear of what a young Black man (Douglass) could become if educated.
The fervor with which this white master speaks of a Black person being literate as having ‘evil consequences’ illuminates to Douglass the truth that the master believes he is speaking. Douglass is pained by this, but takes an invaluable lesson from his master’s ignorance.
“I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty–to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the Black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly”
From that moment, Douglass pursued literacy as a means of emancipation, going on to become an integral force in the abolitionist movement.
Frederick Douglass’ memoir is an essential documentation of American history, and should be taught in classrooms around the world.
Review by Joel
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