“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

Henry Highland Garnet’s Call to Rebellion: “…rather die freemen, than live to be slaves… let your motto be resistance!”

The African American abolitionist and activist Henry Highland Garnet (1815-1882) was a religious man. And on this day, he was raising Hell.

Garnet was all of 27 years old when, in August of 1843, he addressed the National Negro Convention in Buffalo, New York. The meeting was part of the decades long National Negro Convention Movement, in which northern free blacks met to discuss strategies for achieving racial equality and civil rights for freemen in the North, and emancipation and liberty for enslaved blacks in the South. These discussions often centered on the benefits of using “moral suasion versus political action” – that is, whether or not blacks and whites should use moral persuasion to convince American society to end racial prejudice, or, engage in direct political action to gain liberty and equality for people of African descent. (The influential white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was among those who eschewed political activism.)

Garnet had a much more radical approach to the problems of those in bondage. The son of a fugitive slave (one source indicates his grandfather was a Mandingo warrior prince), the youthful Garnet and his family were always fearful of being taken by slave catchers; his father once made a narrow escape from slave hunters, and his sister was taken into slavery for a time. His life experiences may have made him more open to solutions that went beyond suasion and politics, because in August of 1843, Garnet was openly calling for a slave rebellion.

Garnet’s speech was not just some angry rant. He grew up in New York City, with acquaintances such as Alexander Crummell, Samuel Ringgold Ward, James McCune Smith, Ira Aldridge, and Charles Reason, men who are among a who’s who of early 19th century northern black leaders. He attended a free school in New York, and sailed on ships to Cuba as a cabin boy. He had theological training and served as a Presbyterian pastor. Garnet was educated and worldly, and his speech reflected that, with references to pride in African heritage, slavery policy in the colonial and Revolutionary War eras, and the global context of abolitionism. This was in addition to his speech’s major themes that slavery was anti-Christian, and resistance to slavery pro-Christian; and that manhood and honor dictated that (male) slaves use “every means” necessary to liberate themselves.

It’s probably too much to say that in tone, Garnet sounded to his contemporaries like Malcolm X did to his. But Garnet’s righteous and religious anger, and his open call for manhood-based armed resistance, was surely uncomfortable to the more pacifist natures of current day black and white abolitionists. Fellow convention attendee Frederick Douglass, who was associated with William Lloyd Garrison, made a rebuttal to Garnet’s speech; unfortunately, Douglass’ speech did not survive for us to read it today.

An abridged version of Garnet’s speech is below. More about Garnet can be found here, here, and here. More about Garnet’s speech is here, here, and here (full text).

(Notes: The phrase “Rather Die Freemen, Than Live to be Slaves” is used on the flag of the 3rd Regiment, United States Colored Infantry. The phrase “let your motto be resistance” is the title of a book and an exhibit of African American portraits.)

This is an abridged version of Garnet’s speech to the 1843 National Negro Convention, which is often referred to as his “Address to the Slaves”:

BRETHREN AND FELLOW CITIZENS: Your Brethren of the North, East, and West have been accustomed to meet together in National Conventions, to sympathize with each Other, and to weep over your unhappy condition. In these meetings we have addressed all classes of the free, but we have never until this time, sent a word of consolation and advice to you. We have been contented in sitting still and mourning over your sorrows, earnestly hoping that before this day your sacred liberty would have been restored. But, we have hoped in vain. Years have rolled on, and tens of thousands have been borne on streams of blood and tears, to the shores of eternity. While you have been oppressed, we have also been partakers with you; nor can we be free while you are enslaved. We, therefore, write to you as being bound with you. Continue reading