Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, August 2, 2016

I have found that, to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason. He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceases to be a man.

Not only does slavery make life worse for slaves, it doesn’t make life better for slave-owners. And the ultimate freedom is freedom to learn.

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AuthorFrederick Douglass
Year1846
Length158 pages
PDF Rating8
Frederick Douglass

In the beginning of Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave, he writes about growing up as a slave and not really having a family:

I do not recollect of ever seeing my mother by the light of day. She was with me in the night. She would lie down with me, and get me to sleep, but long before I waked she was gone.

Douglass didn’t know his own birthday: slavers deliberately tore out of their slaves any sense of history or future by splitting up families.

And also by encouraging living in the moment rather than planning for the future. One of his masters said so explicitly:

He told me, if I would be happy, I must lay out no plans for the future, and taught me to depend solely upon him for happiness.

On holidays, they were expected to spend their time in celebration—mainly, getting drunk. While some of them spent their holiday time building up their living quarters or putting away meat in hunting,

By far the larger part engaged in such sports and merriments as playing ball, wrestling, running foot-races, fiddling, dancing, and drinking whisky; and this latter mode of spending the time was by far the most agreeable to the feelings of our masters. A slave who would work during the holidays was considered by our masters as scarcely deserving them. He was regarded as one who rejected the favor of his master. It was deemed a disgrace not to get drunk at Christmas…

Slaves, when questioned, reported themselves happy—in just the way that Natan Sharansky reported in The Case for Democracy about people under dictatorships:

It is partly in consequence of such facts, that slaves, when inquired of as to their condition and the character of their masters, almost universally say they are contented, and that their masters are kind. The slave-holders have been known to send in spies among their slaves, to ascertain their views and feelings in regard to their condition. The frequency of this has had the effect to establish among the slaves the maxim, that a still tongue makes a wise head. They suppress the truth rather than take the consequences of telling it, and in so doing prove themselves a part of the human family. If they have any thing to say of their masters, it is generally in their masters’ favor, especially when speaking to an untried man.

The comparisons they make in their lives tends to be between what they know; there is little concept of what could be under freedom.

I always measured the kindness of my master by the standard of kindness set up among slaveholders around us. Moreover, slaves are like other people, and imbibe prejudices quite common to others. They think their own better than that of others. Many, under the influence of this prejudice, think their own masters are better than the masters of other slaves; and this, too, in some cases, when the very reverse is true… They seemed to think that the greatness of their masters was transferable to themselves. It was considered as bad enough to be a slave; but to be a poor man’s slave was deemed a disgrace indeed!

Slaves competed to be trusted by slave-owners, because they wanted the perks of being treated well. One of the best jobs on the plantation that Douglass worked at was bringing deliveries among the various locations that made up the holdings of the slave-owner. It meant traveling instead of working in the fields. In an odd turn of phrase, Douglass compared slaves to politicians seeking to “please and deceive” voters:

The competitors for this office sought as diligently to please their overseers, as the office-seekers in the political parties seek to please and deceive the people. The same traits of character might be seen in Colonel Lloyd’s slaves, as are seen in the slaves of the political parties.

Slavery, of course, attracted people who preferred slavery, on both sides. About one of the overseers, the aptly-named Mr. Gore, “proud, ambitious, and persevering” and “artful, cruel, and obdurate”:

He was just the man for such a place, and it was just the place for such a man.

Once an overseer made an accusation, punishment must always follow, regardless of truthfulness, never using words where the whip would answer as well. Gore once shot a slave for running into the water during a whipping.

Douglass emphasizes how pointless all this was. When he escaped to freedom, he was both surprised and disappointed to find that slavery does not even enhance the lives of slave-owners:

I had very strangely supposed, while in slavery, that few of the comforts, and scarcely any of the luxuries, of life were enjoyed in the north, compared with what were enjoyed by the slaveholders of the south… I had somehow imbibed the opinion that, in the absence of slaves, there could be no wealth, and very little refinement. And upon coming to the north, I expected to meet with a rough, hard-handed, and uncultivated population, living in the most Spartan-like simplicity, knowing nothing of the ease, luxury, pomp, and grandeur of southern slave-holders…

…But the most astonishing as well as the most interesting thing to me was the condition of the colored people, a great many of whom, like myself, had escaped thither as a refuge from the hunters of men. I found many, who had not been seven years out of their chains, living in finer houses, and evidently enjoying more of the comforts of life, than the average of slaveholders in Maryland…

…I visited the wharves, to take a view of the shipping. Here I found myself surrounded with the strongest proofs of wealth… I saw no whipping of men; but all seemed to go smoothly on.

Emphasis mine. Even under the worst conditions, humans have a tendency to fear escaping the control of overbearing government programs, and believe that however preferable freedom may be, it remains an inferior state when compared to servility.

The most horrible thing was that all of that violence served upon slaves was nothing to freedom. Echoing Henry Grady Weaver, Douglass writes that even progress itself was forbidden in the south if it came from workers who were slaves. The punishment for progress was whipping:

Does he [the slave] ever venture to suggest a different mode of doing things from that pointed out by his master? He is indeed presumptuous, and getting above himself; and nothing less than a flogging will do for him.

What ultimately freed Douglass, my friends on Goodreads will be happy to know, was the desire to read. At one point, he is on loan to a couple in Baltimore; the woman begins to teach him to read, but the man berates her, as reading can lead to only one thing: a desire for freedom.

It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things… 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… I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read.

What would Douglass think today about schools and politicians prioritizing social promotion over learning, especially among minorities?

I have found that, to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason. He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceases to be a man.

In fact, it was the slave-owners who were “nice” who instilled in him the desire to be free. At one point, he is on loan to a relatively nice couple in Baltimore (he often had more to eat than white children in the area, and used that to trade for favors); the woman begins to teach him to read, but the man berated her, telling her, in front of Douglass, that reading could lead to only one thing: a desire for freedom.

These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought.

From then on, he noticed that whenever his condition improved, “instead of its increasing my contentment, it only increased my desire to be free”.

Contented slaves require a level of moral and intellectual impoverishment that must be enforced by slave-masters.

“I will give Mr. Freeland the credit of being the best master I ever had, till I became my own master.”

Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave

Frederick Douglass

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