By Chet Yarbrough
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
By Frederick Douglass
Narrated by Walter Covell
“Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” is an original source of history; i.e. words written by a man ahead of his time who acted on new-found knowledge and lived to write about it.
One may question the veracity of Douglass’s words but the truth of his experience is corroborated by reports of others of his time and by America’s history of Black revolution.
Douglass 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”.
Slavery and racial prejudice are truths of American history. Resistance is made real in Douglass’s auto biography. Racial prejudice remains evident in today’s memory of the Watt’s riots and Black Panther movement of the 1960s.
Frederick Douglass was a canary in a coal mine that presaged the future of slavery and resistance to unequal treatment in the United States. His experience in 1820’s Maryland is the experience of Black militancy in the 1960s.
Advances in racial equality could only be started through education. However, Douglass infers that some level of violence is inherent in the drive for equality. He recounts his physical resistance to the abuse of an overseer when he is near 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.
It is more complex in Douglass’s explanation because the overseer may also have been trying to maintain his reputation as a reformer of recalcitrant slaves. Any hint of physical resistance would be a strike against the overseer’s reputation.
ca. 1860s, Near Savannah, Georgia, USA — Slave Family In Cotton Field near Savannah — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS
Douglass goes on to explain that physical abuse is only one of many ways that unequal treatment was reinforced by a white majority; e.g. slave owners refusal to educate slaves, slave owners withholding of food and clothing, slave owners sexual exploitation of slave women; more ways than can be counted, seen, or understood.
Douglass, like Colin Kaepernick, is not condoning violence but his story is a reality check on the consequence of resistance to 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 the need to become 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 put-upon fail to fight back. Douglass fought back and gained self-respect. Short of murder, that contextualizes the Black Panther movement and reinforces the credibility of Martin Luther King’s, and today’s football player’s efforts to raise Black self-respect through education and non-violent resistance to unequal treatment.
An irony that is sometimes missed in the fight for equal rights is the negative role that religion played in the unequal treatment of Blacks.
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.
“A 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 racial inequality.