Saturday, January 01, 2011

My Bondage and My Freedom: A Review


In this time of session balls and rose-colored remembrances of the Citizen's Councils (a kinder, gentler KKK), I feel a sense of urgency to counteract what I recently referred to as "hysterical color blindness and history".

One way to do this is to make sure that one seeks out accurate information about what really happened rather than the "lies" we've been told and which are being repeated at this very moment.

Another way is to celebrate the people from our nation's past who actually deserve it, to speak their names often, to tell their stories. I was recently blessed to read an autobiography of a just such a soul, an autobiography that should be part of the arsenal of historical truth-tellers and truth-teachers everywhere: My Bondage and My Freedom.

Published by Frederick Douglass in 1855, My Bondage and My Freedom is at once a nightmare provoking horror story, a deeply affecting love story, and an edge-of-your-seat adventure story.

The horror story involves Douglass' matter-of-fact telling of the everyday, soul-crushing brutalities of slavery. One of these stories involves the punishment of an enslaved, African woman named Esther. Her crime? Visiting the love of her life against her master's wishes:

"I was probably awakened by the shrieks and piteous cries of poor Esther. My sleeping place was on the floor of a little, rough closet, which opened into the kitchen; and through the cracks of it unplaned board, I could distinctly see and hear what was going on, without being seen by old master. Esther's wrists were firmly tied, and the twisted rope was fastened to a strong staple in a heavy wooden joist above, near the fireplace. Here she stood, on a bench, her arms tightly drawn over her breast. Her back and shoulders were bare to the waist. Behind her stood old master, with cowskin in hand, preparing his barbarous work with all manner of harsh, coarse, and tantalizing epithets. The screams of his victim were most piercing. He was cruelly deliberate, and protracted the torture, as one who was delighted with the scene. Again and again he drew the hateful whip through his hand, adjusting it with a view of dealing the most pain-giving blow. Poor Esther had never yet been severely whipped, and her shoulders were plump and tender. Each blow, vigorously laid on, brought screams as well as blood. "Have mercy; Oh! have mercy" she cried; "I won't do so no more," but her piercing cries seemed only to increase his fury...After laying on some thirty or forty stripes, old master untied his victim, and let her go down. She could scarcely stand when untied."

The love story involves Douglass' love of knowledge, love of freedom, and love for his people. I read of Douglass' struggle to learn to read under the constant threat of the whip or worse. I read of a boy becoming conscious of being a slave and a slave becoming committed to being a freeman whatever the cost. I read of a youth feeling called by God to minister to and educate his fellow enslaved Africans and a fugitive bending all his energies to their liberation from bondage.

The adventure story involves Douglass' efforts to assert his humanity in the face of slavery's many processes of dehumanization, his eventual escape, his early days as an abolitionist, his sojourn in England, and his intellectual emancipation from the Garrisonians. It is a story full of page-turning suspense, trials and triumphs, and colorful characters. Douglass' gripping description of his two-hour-long fight with a notorious "negro breaker" made me want to stand up and shout.

My Bondage and My Freedom is a well-told tale of horror, love and adventure, of striving to be human under inhuman circumstances, of the triumph of the soul over sin institutionalized on a massive scale. As Baha'u'llah has written:

"One righteous act is endowed with a potency that can so elevate the dust as to cause it to pass beyond the heaven of heavens. It can tear every bond asunder, and hath the power to restore the force that hath spent itself and vanished.... (Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 286)

2 comments:

  1. Phenomenal post, Phillipe. Thanks for pointing us toward a valuable historical and literary work.

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  2. Thanks Lev, hope you get a chance to read it.

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