By Chet Yarbrough
Narrated by Walter Covell
The “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” is a story about standing up. It is a first-hand history; i.e. words written by a slave ahead of his time that acted on new-found knowledge and lived to write about it.
Douglass (aka Bailey) was a slave in the early 19th century, 30 years before the civil war. He became a self-taught reader/writer and scholar, reporting on himself as “a slave become free”. One may question the veracity of Douglass’s words but the truth of slave experience is corroborated by reports of others of his time.
Slavery and racial prejudice are truths of American history. American resistance to slavery and prejudice is made real in Douglass’s autobiography.
Standing up for black resistance remain in today’s memories of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the black fist Olympics, and the Black Panther movement. Frederick Douglass is a canary in a coal mine that presaged the future of slavery and American’ resistance to unequal treatment in the United States. His experience in 1820’s Maryland is the experience of black militancy in the 1960s.
Douglass recognizes advances in racial equality could only be realized through education. His prescient observation became law of the land in Brown v. Board in 1954. However, Douglass infers that violence is inherent in the drive for equality. He recounts his first physical resistance to abuse by an overseer when he nears 16 years of age. The quality of resistance seems like that of a younger brother that becomes too big to be abused by an older brother that has been able to control his sibling’s behavior.
Resistance is more complex in Douglass’s explanation because the overseer may also be trying to maintain his reputation as a reformer of recalcitrant slaves and any rumor or hint of a slave’s physical resistance would be a strike against the overseer’s reputation. Douglass is not condoning violence in his biography but his story is a reality check on the consequence of unfair or unequal treatment.
Without physical resistance, social change has no impetus, no accelerator. Douglass did not write about murdering an oppressor. He wrote about human equality and one’s need to be confident in oneself; not to be property of another but to be equally human. The logical extension of that belief is an assertion of one’s self; i.e. a bully can only be a bully if the weaker fails to fight back.
Douglass fought back and gained self-respect. Short of murder, “fighting back” contextualizes the Black Panther movement and reinforces the credibility of Martin Luther King’s effort to raise Black self-respect through education and non-violent resistance to unequal treatment.
Douglass goes on to explain that physical abuse is only one of many ways that slavery is reinforced by a white majority; e.g. slave owners refuse to educate slaves, slave owners withhold food and clothing, slave owners sexually exploit slave women; slaves are treated as property to be disbursed to heirs when their owner’s die; etc., etc.
An irony that is sometimes missed in the fight for abolition of slavery (and parenthetically, women’s rights) is the negative role that religion plays in the unequal treatment of human beings. Douglass notes in his auto biography that his greatest ill-treatment stemmed from people who professed strong belief in a particular religion. Douglass writes that be believes in God and feels blessed by God’s existence but white men and women, in Douglass’s experience, distort God’s truth through their religion to justify abhorrent behavior toward slaves. This continues to ring true today when speaking of religion’s intrusion into the political process of America and other nations of the world.
“Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” is worth listening to because it gives all Americans some sense of how bad we are, how good we can be, how far we have come, and how far we have to go to eliminate discrimination. The road to equality begins by standing up to individual and institutional ignorance and practice of discrimination.