Saturday, June 18, 2016

Frederick Douglass -- Anger and Despair
 
There was a lot of life, rough and immediate, in Fells Point.  All too often, the two constables were called to log in another body fished up from under one of the wharves, and the night watchman had to be eluded as he patrolled the docks.  Boys trailed along after seamen just come ashore, trying to catch some of their swaggering worldliness.  As Frederick grew, he began to do more than just watch.  Sixty years later, he wrote to Benjamin Auld, Tommy’s younger brother, reminiscing about Sundays spent with the “Point boys” fighting at the old drawbridge with the “Town boys” who had come over to try for their share of the excitement on the docks.  He was, he admitted, “sorry to say” that he “was often … as bad as the worst.”
 
            If there was any democracy in Maryland in the 1830s, it existed down the Fells Point alleys and behind the wall of Durgin and Bailey’s shipyard.  There a ragtag band of little boys were about the deadly serious business of playing.  No one had yet succeeded in teaching them that color or status had anything to do with who should be hunkering down with whom on curbstones of cellar doors or behind the shipyard.  The boys talked about everything and anything, including what they would be when they grew up.  Frederick reminded some that while they would be free at twenty-one, when they reached their majority, he would not.  They could not see that this made sense, and said so.  “I do not remember ever to have met with a boy, while I was in slavery, who defended the slave system” (McFeely 33-34).
 
One day, before the end of the school term, several of Frederick’s friends began to talk about sections of speeches they had had to memorize from a book of oratory.  No doubt Frederick was amused by his friends’ comic renderings, but he insisted upon learning the title of the anthology.  With fifty cents, money he had managed to save, he bought from a neighborhood bookstore his own copy of The Columbian Orator.
 
            Alone, behind the shipyard wall, Frederick Bailey read aloud.  Laboriously, studiously, at first, then fluently, melodically, he recited great speeches.  With The Columbian Orator in his hand, with the words of the great speakers of the past coming from his mouth, he was rehearsing.  He was reading the sound—and meanings—of words of his own that he would one day speak.  He had the whole world before him.  He was Cato before the Roman senate, Pitt before Parliament defending American liberty, Sheridan arguing for Catholic emancipation, Washington bidding his officers farewell.  These were men whose words surely were actions, and the virtues they extolled had a reach so broad that a Baltimore slave boy could include himself with their range.  The Columbian Orator was a book of liberties, of men exhorting mankind to a sense of higher callings … (McFeely 34-35).
 
            Among much of other interesting matter, I found in it a dialogue between a master and his slave.  The slave was represented as having run away from his master three times.  The dialogue between them occurred when the slave was retaken the third time.  In this dialogue, the whole argument in behalf of slavery was brought forward by the master, all of which was disposed of by the slave.  The slave was made to say some very smart as well as impressive things in replay to his master—things which had the desired though unexpected effect, … the voluntary emancipation of the slave on the part of the master.
 
            … The readings of these documents enabled me to utter my thoughts, and to meet the arguments brought forward to sustain slavery; but while they relieved me of one difficulty, they brought on another even more painful than the one of which I was relieved.  The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers.  I could regard them in no other light than a band of successful robbers, who had left their homes, and gone to Africa, and stolen us from our homes, and in a strange land reduced us to slavery.  I loathed them as being the meanest as well as the most wicked of men.  As I read and contemplated the subject, behold! That very discontentment which Master Hugh had predicted would follow my learning to read had already come to torment and sting my soul to unutterable anguish.  … It had given me a view of my wretched condition, with the remedy.  It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out.  In moments of agony, I envied my fellow-slaves for their stupidity.
 
            I often found myself regretting my own existence and wishing myself dead; and but for the hope of being free, I have no doubt but that I should have killed myself, or done something for which I should have been killed (Douglass 54, 55, 56).
 
In Baltimore, as he had earlier on the Lloyd plantation, Frederick witnessed first hand the wretched condition of his people.  Frequently from the docks he had seen groups of despondent slaves, shackled together, herded like animals onto sailing ships, their destination the Southern markets and a harsh, brief existence on the large plantations in Georgia, Alabama, and Louisiana.  For Frederick, escape from slavery seemed possible; for them it would never be.
 
In comparison to them, and to his brothers and sisters, he had been fortunate.  He was much better fed and clothed; he had freedom of movement in the streets of the city which afforded him unending learning experiences.  “There is a vestige of decency, a sense of shame, that does much to curb and check those outbreaks of atrocious cruelty so commonly enacted upon the plantation,” he wrote years later.  The city slave owner, Frederick concluded, did not want the reputation of being a cruel master, above all else, a master who deprived his chattel food.  But there were exceptions.  Mr. and Mrs. Hamilton, who lived directly across the street from the Aulds, were an example.
 
            He owned two slaves.  Their names were Henrietta and Mary.  Henrietta was about twenty-two years of age.  Mary was about fourteen; and of all the mangled and emaciated creatures I ever looked upon, these two were the most so.  His heart must be harder than stone, that could look upon these unmoved.  The head, neck, and shoulders of Mary were literally cut to pieces.  I have frequently felt her head, and found it nearly covered with festering sores, caused by the lash of her cruel mistress.  … I used to be in Mr. Hamilton’s house nearly every day.  Mrs. Hamilton used to sit in a large chair in the middle of the room, with a heavy cowskin always by her side, and scarce an hour passed during the day but was marked by the blood of one of the slaves.  The girls seldom passed her without her saying, “Move faster, you black gip!” at the same time giving them a blow with the cowskin over the head or shoulders, often drawing the blood.  … Added to the cruel lashings to which these slaves were subjected, they were kept nearly half-starved.  They seldom knew what it was to eat a full meal.  I have seen Mary contending with the pigs for the offal thrown into the street (Douglass 50-51).
 
The fact that his life was better now than most every slave he had ever met did not ease his growing anger and despair.  The thought of escape from bondage was the antidote.  Such thoughts, however, gave him little comfort.
 
In 1831 he read from a discarded newspaper about the unsuccessful slave insurrection of Nat Turner in Virginia and of the slave owner hysteria that it caused.  From other newspapers and from conversations with other blacks -- some slaves, others free -- he learned about abolitionists, men who lived in the northern states and who demanded the end of slavery.  Their existence may have comforted him somewhat, but he knew that unless he acted upon his condition himself he would remain a slave, with or without them.  If he ever were to become a free man, he would have to leave Baltimore a fugitive; but without a specific plan and without a specific destination, he knew that he would eventually be caught.  Indeed Master Hugh’s words had been prophetic.  He was discontented; he was unhappy.  Despite the existence of abolitionists, despite his own unformed notions of escape, in his deepest despair he believed he would be a slave for life.
 
 
Works Cited:
 
Douglass, Frederick.  Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.  New York, Penguin Books USA inc., 1968.  Print.
 
McFeely, William S.  Frederick Douglass.  New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 1991.  Print.