By Jeanne Donovan
If Frederick Douglass walked today's ghettos, he would witness a new-age style of slavery, plantations without the lash and chains. He would soon be outraged that government overseers are perpetuating generations of dependency through policies designed to capture the votes of the ignorant. Of the people he would ask, "What have you done with your freedom? Where is your dignity and self-respect?"
Frederick Douglass was born about 1818 on a Maryland plantation. Following common practice, he was taken from his mother to be raised with a brood of other children until he was old enough to work. He did not know his father. At the age of eight or nine, his master sent him to work for the Auld family in the city of Baltimore. Hugh Auld was a shipbuilder.
Douglass served as a houseboy to mistress Sofia and as a caretaker of their little son Tommy. Sophia had had no experience with slaves. She was a kindhearted and pious young woman, who treated Douglass with the same gentleness that she showed her own son. Her kindness shocked Douglass: "I had been treated as a pig on the plantation; I was treated as a child now." (Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom: Part I -- Life as a Slave, Pg. 115)
While master Auld was working, Sophia read aloud to the boys from the Bible. The sound of her reading sparked Douglass' curiosity as to the "mystery of reading" (Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom: Part I -- Life as a Slave, Pg. 117) that he said "roused in me the desire to learn." When he asked if she would teach him to read, she introduced him to Noah Webster's textbook, The American Spelling Book, a popular "blue-back speller" that sold an amazing 122 million copies in its lifetime (E. Jennifer Monaghan, A Common Heritage: Noah Webster's Blue-Back Speller, Pg. 11) only the Bible and McGuffey's Readers sold more copies. Douglass quickly mastered the alphabet, and was spelling three- and four-letter words when his education came to an abrupt halt.
When master Auld discovered that Sophia had been teaching Douglass to read, he rebuked her because educating slaves was unlawful and unsafe. Douglass heard Auld say, "he should know nothing but the will of his master, and learn to obey it." . . . "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." (Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom: Part I -- Life as a Slave, pg. 117)
Those words pierced Douglass' soul: "Very well," thought I; "knowledge unfits a child to be a slave." . . . and from that moment I understood the direct pathway from slavery to freedom." Douglass became ". . . more resolute in seeking intelligence." (Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom: Part I -- Life as a Slave, pg. 118) He would teach himself to read and write, and then he would have the tools to escape bondage.
During his remaining seven years with the Aulds, Douglass surreptitiously accessed Tommy's discarded speller and copybooks. Where space permitted in the copybooks, Douglass mirrored Tommy's writing. On other occasions, Douglass used the top of a flour barrel on which to copy text from the Bible and a book of hymns that he had smuggled away.
Douglass also relied upon the help of sympathetic white boys:
By the age of 13, Douglass was able to read well enough that he could follow current events in the newspaper, which is how he learned about the abolition movement and the Free States.I used to carry, almost constantly, a copy of Webster's spelling book in my pocket; and, when sent on errands, or when playtime was allowed me, I would step, with my young friends, aside, and take a lesson in spelling. I generally paid my tuition fee to the boys, with bread, which I also carried in my pocket. For a single biscuit, any of my hungry little comrades would give me a lesson more valuable to me than bread. (Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom: Part I -- Life as a Slave, pg. 124)
On one occasion, Douglass overheard some boys talking about The Columbian Orator, an anthology of famous speeches. Somehow he managed to save 50 cents, and bought the book for his secret library. The Columbian Orator increased Douglass' vocabulary and, most importantly, taught him how to express his thoughts.
Aged 20, Frederick Douglass ran away to the free state of Massachusetts. There were many hardships to overcome in the years ahead, but he made the most of his freedom. Initially he joined the abolitionist movement. In time Douglass broke with them because they merely wanted to change hearts, whereas Douglass wanted to alter slavery laws. He gave heartrending speeches in the free states, as well as in England and Ireland. He founded The North Star, an antislavery newspaper. Douglass wrote three autobiographies, each book reanalyzing the chapters of his life and recording his evolving views of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. At first he saw no place for the black man in the founding documents, but in time he reversed his arguments.The reading of these speeches added much to my limited stock of language, and enabled me to give tongue to many interesting thoughts... I had now penetrated the secret of all slavery and oppression, and had ascertained their true foundation to be in the pride, the power and the avarice of man... With a book of this kind in my hand... I was equal to a contest with the religious advocates of slavery, whether among the whites or among the colored people, for blindness, in this matter, is not confined to the former. I have met many religious colored people... who are under the delusion that God requires them to submit to slavery, and to wear their chains with meekness and humility. I could entertain no such nonsense as this; and I almost lost my patience when I found any colored man weak enough to believe such stuff......I saw through the attempt to keep me in ignorance; I saw that slaveholders would have gladly made me believe that they were merely acting under the authority of God, in making a slave of me... The feeding and clothing of me, could not atone for taking my liberty from me. (Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom: Part I -- Life as a Slave, pp. 126-128)
Douglass became so renowned in the campaign to emancipate slaves that Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, invited him to the White House as an adviser. They developed a close friendship, and eventually Douglas embraced Lincoln's republicanism: "I am a Republican, a black, dyed in the wool Republican, and I never intend to belong to any other party than the party of freedom and progress." When Lincoln was assassinated, Douglass mourned saying, "No people or class of people in this country, have better reason for lamenting the death of Abraham Lincoln, than have the colored people." (James Oakes, The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics, pg. 256) When asked what was Lincoln to the colored people, Douglass described all of Lincoln's predecessors as "facile and servile instruments of the slave power,[sic] Abraham Lincoln, while unsurpassed in his devotion, to the welfare of the white race, was also in a sense hitherto without example, emphatically, the black man's President: the first to show any respect for their rights as men." (James Oakes, The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics, pg. 256)
Imagine this man, Frederick Douglass, walking the slums of Chicago or Detroit, and witnessing the desolation of its peoples. In My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass laments that "Slavery does away with fathers, as it does with families." (pg. 51) To beget more wealth, women were raped by their masters who, without remorse, sold their kin. Destruction of the family continues today, and has been expanded to the whole people, regardless of their origins. State overseers reward single women with welfare benefits for every child they bear, so long as no father is in the home. Douglass warned, "Make a man a slave, and you rob him of moral responsibility. Freedom of choice is the essence of all accountability." (Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom: Part I -- Life as a Slave, pg. 149)
In the old days, slave babies were separated from their mothers shortly after birth and placed in the care of others until they were old enough to be sold or rented out. Asking questions about parentage was evidence of impudent curiosity that resulted in lashings. Today, children face a different hazard. Women with unwanted pregnancies can abort their babies, and overseers pay the clinic. Planned Parenthood sucks the babies from their mother's wombs, and dumps their bodies into the trash. Those babies will never show impudent curiosity.
In the nineteenth century slaves slept on the floor without blankets in unheated hovels. Rising at dawn, they worked until dark. They were expected to survive on meager rations, and nurse their own wounds. Today's slaves live in cookie-cutter government housing. They receive food stamps, health benefits, and free cell phones. Even if jobs were available, they are not required to work. Obesity is a growing problem. Bored youths kill each other for trivial reasons.
In Douglass' era, slaves did not know the days of the month or the months of the year, only seasonal events like planting and harvesting times. Ignorance was enforced when Democrats passed laws that forbade educating slaves. Education is a right for everyone now, but educators have thrown away the effective alphabet and phonics method used in the blue-back speller and replaced it with whole language instruction, a technique that impedes learning. Over time, the result has been a population of poorly educated people, easily fooled into believing that the government is a benevolent caretaker (so long as it is run by Democrat overseers.)
If, by magic, Douglass could meet the inhabitants of the ghettos, what might he say to them? He would remind them that Knowledge is Power, and much more importantly, Knowledge is Freedom. He would encourage them to take practical steps -- to master reading and writing by every means possible; to ask for help from educated people; to listen to educated speakers. And he will suggest that something old should be new again; reprint Webster's blue-back speller and The Columbian Orator.