Frederick Douglass is recognized as the first black man to receive a federal appointment requiring Senate approval, serving as a U.S. Marshall of Washington D.C. It is this and many other notable accomplishments that makes Douglass an important figure in not just African American history, but American history.
While browsing the shelves of a local bookstore nearby, I was ready to call it quits when I came across The Portable Frederick Douglass, edited by John Stauffer and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. I was ecstatic.
Introduced to Douglass by his “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass; An American Slave” I was no stranger to his work. But I never got around to his other written works such as “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” or “To My Old Master”.
I immediately jumped right in. It didn’t take long for the first passage to leap off the page. He makes note of his kind mistress before slavery has its wicked way with her.
Douglass describes his first encounter with his mistress once arriving to Baltimore, “The meanest slave was put at ease in her presence, and none left without feeling better for having seen her. Her face was made of heavenly smiles, and her voice of tranquil music. But alas! This kind heart had but a short time to remain such.
He goes on to say, “The fatal poison of irresponsible power was already in her hands and soon commenced its infernal work. That cheerful eye under the influence of slavery, soon became red with rage; that voice made all of sweet accord, changed to one of harsh and horrid discord; and that angelic face gave place to that of a demon.”
It is when he arrives in Baltimore his new mistress teaches him to read. The lessons are soon interrupted once Mr. Auld learns that his wife is teaching Douglass to read, at this time he informs her of why this is unacceptable.
“If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master-to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now, if you teach that nigger how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.”
After overhearing the conversation between Mr. and Mrs. Auld Douglass has this moment of clarity. Even at a young age he realizes he has been given the key to unlocking his freedom.
“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, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.”
His moment of clarity experienced in the late 1800’s, continues to ignite a fire in me. It is because of Douglass so many things are possible. After all, he’s shown us the key. The key is knowledge.