“It” can speak!: Frederick Douglass and the “brand new fact” of the articulate slave

Frederick Douglass at Age 29
Frederick Douglass, perhaps at age 29.
Image Source: By Unidentified [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) is well-known as a 19th century runaway slave, abolitionist, author, publisher, orator, and civil servant. After escaping from bondage in Maryland at the age of 20, he gained early fame in the 1840s as a speaker for the abolition movement, working with abolitionist luminaries such as William Lloyd Garrison, editor of The Liberator, and John Collins of the Massachusetts anti-slavery society.

Writing in his book My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) – one of his three autobiographies – Douglass recalled his early experiences as a speaker for the abolitionist movement in the northern states. It’s useful to note that large portions of the North had few if any African American residents, much less enslaved African Americans; but white northerners were aware of all kinds of (stereotypical) representations of slaves and negroes in the media of the day.

In that environment, Douglass felt himself something of an oddity in front of white audiences. In the book Pictures and Progress: Early Photography and the Making of African American Identity, Maurice Wallace suggests that Douglass was seen as “circus curiosity” by white audiences.

Douglass observes that many whites simply refused to believe that an articulate person like himself could be of “very low origin”; perhaps to them, enslavement meant that the man or woman was culturally irredeemable. Eventually, Douglass felt the need to establish his bona fides as a former slave; in doing so, his status as a runaway slave was exposed, and he left the country to avoid re-enslavement. But Douglass was driven to prove that the slave could yet be a man; or perhaps, his honor demanded that he put to rest any rumors about the facts of his life. (While in exile in Britain, enough money was raised so that Douglass could buy his legal freedom, and return to the Unites States.)

This is Frederick Douglass, from My Bondage and My Freedom, from the website Documenting the American South (DocSouth):

Among the first duties assigned me, on entering the ranks (of the abolitionists), was to travel, in company with Mr. George Foster, to secure subscribers to the “Anti-slavery Standard” and the “Liberator.” With him I traveled and lectured through the eastern counties of Massachusetts.

Much interest was awakened–large meetings assembled. Many came, no doubt, from curiosity to hear what a negro could say in his own cause. I was generally introduced as a “chattel”–a “thing”–a piece of southern “property”–the chairman assuring the audience that it could speak. Continue reading

Advertisements